Real Woman: the Interior Designer Who Made the Leap to Restaurateur

Words by Jody Hume | 3.21.18
In our Real Woman series, we highlight women forging their creative paths and defining their own unique style along the way.
If you had a cushy work situation but also a crazy idea for a new business, would you have the guts to go for it? Tara Oxley did. She left her successful career at a hospitality design firm to enter the not-for-the-faint-of-heart restaurant industry. Opening Brooklyn’s Eugene & Co. restaurant in 2014 and later Chicky’s General Store in 2016, Oxley dove in head-first with the goal of creating places that could become woven into the everyday fabric of her Bed-Stuy community. Of course she designed the spaces too, and continues to take on design consulting jobs, so in a way she gets to have her cake and eat it too — who doesn’t want that? We caught up with her after a shoot at her Brooklyn eatery and talked about the challenges and rewards of running your own business, how to know when to switch it up to stay inspired and having off-the-wall style.
What was it that initially drew you to interior design?
I was studying law and thought that I wanted to create things instead of deconstruct things, so I went to interiors. I wanted to be more creative as opposed to political about my path, and I kind of understood that after college, as opposed to in college when you’re supposed to figure that out! I was fortunate enough to have parents who said ‘Make yourself happy in this life’ and so after college I went back to school for interior design.  

What were your intentions for design and how have your goals and perspectives changed?
It’s always been a pretty consistent goal for me with my interiors to create a narrative for people, and to listen to their stories. I think too often a lot of designers in the industry only have their story and their vision, and that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing. Unless you’re one of the Frank Gehrys of the world where you’re hired for your aesthetic, or unless you’re your own client, you have to listen to somebody else’s narrative and create that for them. I was lucky enough to get into hospitality with hotels and restaurants. That allows you to create more fine-tuned narratives because a guest comes in for a brief amount of time whether it’s two nights or two hours for a dining experience, so creating that story allows for someone to be a bit more creative. I never did residential because that seems such an intimate sort of environment to build for someone that they have to live in forever. That always seemed like a daunting task.
When did you decide you wanted to open a restaurant? Was it a moment or a slow realization?
It was more of a sudden moment. With crazy ideas, well, they’re crazy ideas! My ex-boyfriend was a musician and I watched him have control over his own life and his own destiny every morning, and I would go to work and work for somebody else’s dream. To watch someone on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis pursue their own passions and their own dream, that sort of rubs off on you. I started to question why I was making someone else’s dreams come true and not my own, so I threw caution to the wind and opened up a restaurant. I quit my job. It was fun, and it’s great.  

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome to make this dream happen?
I constantly tell myself, ‘You chose this.’ I left a pretty cushy lifestyle to struggle and toil every day and that’s a constant thing. Of course there are ups and downs at any job, but I think the worry is greater with your own business. Having to tell yourself in those moments that this is something you chose, you decided to do this, is really an important thing to constantly remind yourself of, because it’s hard. It’s not easy when the buck stops with you.
What’s the greatest reward?
The family that I created is my biggest reward. All the people that I work with, everyone that is a part of the family that we have at these businesses — they’re my joy. To watch them grow and the camaraderie between them, the things they’re aspiring to do, how I can help them and how we can all help each other is what I love most about it, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s really a pleasure to see everyone be there for each other in a different capacity than in a corporate environment.

Especially coming from a design background, how do you keep a fresh creative perspective?
I take consulting jobs. I’m always designing. That’s something I realized after about a year of the restaurant being open. I wasn’t designing and my focus was solely on running the restaurant and building this family, and I became a little bit irritable. Something was amiss, and at that moment I realized that I need that outlet of creativity. I need to be creating in my medium. Some people paint in oils, I use interior design as my platform to create. Without exercising that skill, I became not a very nice person. So as soon as I started taking on jobs that I thought were interesting and fun, I was able to have that outlet again, which worked. So I try to take on one to three jobs every year. I travel a lot too. That’s a constant inspiration.
Are there places you’ve traveled that have inspired you creatively?
Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, they’re all so free and so ancient in their architecture and beliefs and colors and smells. It’s all beautiful. Barcelona, anywhere in Italy it’s the same sort of thing. The world is a pretty place and I want to see more of it.

What are your influences in interior design?
I’m most inspired by the details of things, and they’re often the things that people overlook in life. If you don’t stop and take a moment to smell the roses, you don’t home in on how things actually look up close. People just sort of look at the landscape without going in and that’s where I get most inspiration from. I don’t think it would be from an era or time or place, it’s just having a keen eye for things.
Which interior designers or companies do you follow?
I really like Yabu Pushelberg. Glenn and George are great men and they built a really good company. They have a great aesthetic. They stand behind what they do, and make great relationships. I feel the same way about David Rockwell — he’s built something really fantastic.
How do you curate your home? Are you always changing things, or do you like to keep it consistent?
I always change things at home. I’m an acquirer of things. I go someplace or travel somewhere and I’ll buy a new rug, or someone will be getting rid of something and I’ll think, “Oh, I can use that somewhere.” I get one new piece and the whole house changes because that doesn’t work there, but it works there, I can move that there — that’s how it happens, then I swindle some of my guy friends over for a glass of wine and I’m like, “Can you help me move the sofa?”

When it comes to your style, does working in your industry allow you to have more freedom or take risks?
I’m always a little bit off-the-wall when it comes to style, and I have been since I was a little girl. I just like textures and patterns and I always overdid it. [The industry] certainly hasn’t inhibited me. I don’t think it would have if I were a lawyer. I probably would have found my outlet for creativity in that as well.
Are there any fashion designers that you particularly like?
I love Stella McCartney. I like what she stands for.
Do find any correlation between your personal aesthetic and your interior design?
There’s always a classic element to things, and with the way I dress it’s the same. I definitely throw weird art into things, so maybe that’s another off-the-wall undertone. That’s more Freudian, I’d have to dissect that.

Since you collect things, do you get precious about them and want to keep them? How willing are you to get rid of things to make room for the new?
I’m extremely willing to get rid of things. It’s important, and it breathes life into your life essentially. There are things that you hold onto for memories and sentimental reasons, and those things have their place. But for things that don’t, somebody else can enjoy it and it doesn’t mean it’s leaving your world.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to start their own businesses?
Just leap. Go for it. Don’t be afraid to fail because that’s how you learn the best.
Shop picks inspired by Tara’s style here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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