Sarah Hovis Olsen and her mother, Sally Evans Hovis outdoors at Sally's Atlanta home.
Words: Katherine Michalak | Photos: Caroline Fontenot
The mother / daughter duo behind S.Carter Designs share a family aesthetic that begins at opposite ends of their well-appointed homes, then meets in the middle on their diamond, feather and bone jewelry.
As I roll slowly down the paved road, I pause several times to check my map and instructions. I’m confused. I’m winding back into the woods somewhere, wondering if maybe I misunderstood the venue and the focus of this interview? Am I meeting Sally Hovis at a vacant lot or building site? Suddenly, just ahead of me, the charming façade of the Hovis house emerges from beneath the heavy arboreal canopy. I’m instantly transported out of metro Atlanta, and into The Cotswolds. Beatrix Potter or some of Jane Austen’s characters should be tiptoeing out this front door any moment.
Trays of S.Carter's diamond-inlaid tusks, bones, feathers and oyster shells are set out daily in their studio.
Instead, Sally’s daughter and business partner, Sarah Hovis Olsen, steps out, greets me with a broad smile and shows me inside. Sarah and her mother, Sally Evans Hovis, established S. Carter, their eco-chic luxury jewelry brand, from the ground up - almost literally - and the bustling studio hums away.
S.Carter Designs' diamond "Buckhead" necklace is inspired by the Atlanta area Sarah grew up.
The S. Carter line repurposes and embellishes natural elements, retooling them into sumptuous pieces of adornment. Organic materials from all across the globe are selected for shape, significance, color, texture and luster — continuing the cultivation of an enduring love affair with jewels of the Earth in every form. Unexpected combinations of precious metals and minerals, leather and feathers, wood, glass, shells, stone and bone, exemplify the design aesthetic of both mother and daughter who share an authentic sense of wonder in nature.
Sally Hovis also celebrates that sense of wonder in every facet of her home design. Stepping into the foyer I’m immediately enveloped by dark wood and deep foliage-like tones of gold, green, red and umber. The forest setting seems to creep indoors. “Oh we’re way back in the woods here… we’re like Hansel and Gretel in their cottage. I grew up in the woods and I want to live in the woods. That’s what feels like home to me. I like to be cozy,” Sally declares.
Raised in Stone Mountain on vast acreage of woods, Sally credits her parents for instilling in her a passion for all things natural, as well as a fervor for design. Sally delights in telling me about her mother’s impeccable taste and strong impact. Her mother regularly sent Sally off to summer programs at Winterthur, the American decorative arts museum, to learn about antiques and “train her eye”.
Sally honors that education and tradition in her own home, a testament to her respect for craftsmanship as an art form. She gravitates towards texture — embroidered fabrics, the intricate knots and weaves in rugs, the subtle carving on a sideboard.
Throughout her home, Sally layers various natural elements such as leather, linen, wool, wood, metal, glass, and stone, much like the S. Carter jewelry designs. The wispy elegance of bird feathers alight from corners, fluttering their airy lace from Native American dreamcatchers to a grandmother’s treasured ballroom fan.
Then there’s Sally’s enormous collection of turtle shells discovered all over the property, on countless hikes or gifted from friends. As she shows them to me, her graceful fingers reverently brush across the surfaces pointing out the intrinsic geometry of each unique carapace. Sally professes that most of the comforting touches around the house are from either a natural find or a bulldog… a Georgia bulldog, of course, including two bulldog puppies waddling merrily about the S. Carter studio downstairs.
Sally’s collection of art and portraiture hangs like an elegant scrapbook chronicling her eclectic influences — landscapes and still lifes, a beloved family pet, the watchful gaze of a stoic ancestor, a few contemporary selections, and a carefree nude in repose that Sally treasures for its daily reminder of the inherent grace shown by the female form.
She enumerates her love of art and antiques as an extension of her devotion to all things natural. She hears the stories whispered from these pieces as they radiate the spirit of the lives to which they’ve held witness. They’ve stood the proverbial test of time because of the skill with which they’ve been made and the quality of materials used.
She notes the long traditions of artisan guilds and apprenticeships training generation after generation in furniture-making, wood-carving, ceramics, gilding, painting, weaving, and upholstery. Even the “newer” items in the home reflect her organic sensibilities. She confesses that the huge leather sofas in the family room were big-ticket purchases, “but we’ve had them for 20 years and faithfully treat them with saddle oil twice a year”. They look and feel better than new.
Such expertise and incredible taste have afforded her careers in home-building and interior design prior to taking this leap into the jewelry business. As Sally leads me outside to her prized garden, I see that horticultural brilliance should be added to her list of talents. “Sally, this is phenomenal! WHO is your landscape architect?” I gush, only to be met with Sally’s humble reply, “Oh, I planned this with the help of my sister. I love plants, love flowers, love anything about being outside… I told you, I grew up in the woods and I want to BE in the woods.”
Now, her eyes twinkle with a completely new zeal as she motions for me to follow her down stone steps, past a pool area thickly surrounded by vibrant wildflowers and along a pathway leading to a parterre punctuated by a dramatic arch. “This is where Sarah married last year! You should have seen it, all hydrangeas blooming everywhere. Just close friends and family back here.”
As I take in the pastoral tranquility of this little woodland chapel she’s constructed, Sally gestures over to the side of the property and laments extensive damage after a tornado years ago. Heartbroken to lose so many established trees, she turned her mind over to reimagining those spaces. That’s her visionary gift in all creative pursuits — to observe the possibilities nature brings to her and remain open to a transformative flow.
As I head out to visit Sarah’s home, Sally claims that I’ll be surprised to see how much her daughter’s style differs from hers, even though nature remains a central theme. Driving away, I consider that statement and question how much of our sense of personal style actually trickles down from our upbringing. I tend to believe my style to be different from my mother’s, but recently noticed that I’ve unintentionally used almost exactly the same paint colors in my own home that my mother chose for hers. Subliminally, I must associate those shades with comfort and a sense of place. I’m curious to see how Sarah Hovis Olsen feathers her own nest.
As Sally mentioned, Sarah Hovis and Reid Olsen married last year, settling into a historic metro neighborhood full of quaint older bungalows. The newlyweds merge their belongings and their design tastes in this charming oasis amidst one of the liveliest parts of the city. Welcoming me at her own front door, Sarah announces that she considers her decor to be ‘in progress’ as she continually rearranges things.
“Half my art is still in the condo [where she lived in her single days] with my sister.” She explains that a lack of wall space in this house poses a challenge for displaying her more expansive pieces. She’s drawn to larger contemporary and abstract works which aren’t all fitting in the layout of their home. While we talk, we play with potential arrangements for a gallery wall up the main staircase. “I still have so much to hang. I want to do something with those too,” she says motioning to some antlers from her in-laws and turtle shells from her mother.
If Sally’s domain feels rooted by forest and earth, then Sarah’s seems to exhale and float into the sky, her home an ethereal cloud of whites, ivory, cream, and misty grays. Where her mother’s palette deepens with rich, heavy tones for a cozy warmth, Sarah achieves a similar energy using effusive light. There’s a translucent quality to the house and a breathy openness that belies the small footprint.
Sarah maximizes her space through an inspired use of line, form and texture. Keeping the colors neutral and minimal allows the exquisite detail of Sarah’s collections to take center stage. A sleek dining room table stretches out long and lean, flanked by architecturally-inspired wing chairs and barely-there ghost side chairs. Mesmerizing abstract paintings juxtapose with sculptural tribal pieces. Pelts and hides drape across seating and floors; a framed, full alligator skin appears to climb the wall. Heavy, pentagonal tables nudge against a pair of delicately hand-beaded armchairs.
“How much do you travel?” I ask intrigued by the arrowheads I’m holding. “Not really that often, actually,” she responds. “Many of these things have come from suppliers we’ve gotten to know through the jewelry business. Those beaded chairs… the headdress… some other things have been given to me.” She tells me how she and her mother work hard to build relationships with reliable contacts that stand behind the quality of the materials they use. Those connections provide invaluable resources and opportunities for learning. She hopes to venture out on more excursions herself one day soon, but the incredible growth of the S. Carter brand demands her presence in the studio for now.
Viewed together, these homes balance each other in such a compelling manner. With nature at the heart of design for both women, they’ve each developed complementary backdrops of positive and negative space showcasing alternate angles of their muse — cyclical, seasonal, symbiotic, spectacular, and singularly S. Carter.
About the Author:
Katherine Michalak is the Managing Editor of The Love List. She fell in love with words at first bedtime story. A former Atlanta lit teacher, she began her career at Variety magazine and has been writing and editing ever since. She lives just north of Atlanta with 4 dogs, 3 sons, 1 husband, and too many books.