Force of Nature

Remembering High Point design icon Pat Plaxico

By Cynthia Adams

met Patricia Lynn “Pat” Plaxico at the height of her professional fame in the late 1980s at a log cabin in Colfax, one owned by her friend Patricia Stafford. Overlooking a creek, it was restful, and Plaxico enjoyed going there. It was also quite different from the very romantic Victorian style that Plaxico favored at home.

Watching as she brushed her strawberry blonde curls back and talked animatedly, I was struck: If Julia Child were a designer, she would be just like Pat Plaxico.

That is, if Julia Child had been a tad more flamboyant in style and owned two Rolls-Royces. Plaxico (pronounced PLAX-ico) was no shrinking violet, to the delight of acquaintances. She favored the color purple, expressive hats, Victoriana and luxury cars. She was a bon vivant, collecting people and experiences.

It was not an easy thing to stay with Plaxico’s lively mind, which darted between varied interests

Her laughter bubbled up from her diaphragm and echoed off the log walls. Plaxico talked history, gardens, architecture, art and design — and she used her Parsons School of Design experiences in Paris and New York to great effect.

Plaxico died in January of this year at age 78. Close friends — and they were legion — remained close throughout her life. The Forsyth County-born designer defied easy categorization. She counted captains of industry, historians and colleagues among her friends, who spoke to her dimensionality.

Friends also describe her energy and determination to preserve historic properties here and beyond the Triad. She once worked on a major historic streetscaping project for the town of Stratford, Kentucky.

The nexus and apex of Plaxico’s career — allowing her to champion her many interests — was designing the conversion of Market Square, formerly the Tomlinson furniture factory. Market Square became North Carolina’s first multipurpose restoration project, retrofitted for temporary showroom facilities and to house the historic String & Splinter Club. Another legacy achievement in High Point was the restoration of Grayson House on Main Street, which houses the Bienenstock Furniture Library. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Though so closely associated with High Point, Plaxico grew up in Winston-Salem and after graduating from Glenn High School went on to UNCG, before finishing undergraduate and graduate degrees in design at Iowa State University. A world citizen at heart, the curious designer would, at different points, study fashion design at New York’s Parsons School of Design, marketing at New York University, and French furnishings and architecture in Paris. Her career took flight in the 1970s, when, as a designer for Alderman Studios (now the Alderman Company), Plaxico was designing and styling furniture sets as well as creating room designs for Sherwin Paints. She worked there until 1981. She excelled at what became Alderman’s signature approach, staging furnishings in realistic and beautiful settings, as they would appear in rooms, and gaining an international reputation as a designer of note. Although design was her vocation, history, art, music, genealogy, travel and preservation were Plaxico’s avocations.

A video about her richly textured life was posted on Bienenstock’s Furniture Library’s Facebook page. The library owed much to her, according to Peter Freeman, architect (and contributor to Seasons), who was responsible for designing the library’s addition. Plaxico personally furnished the library’s carriage house and hired an artist to translate a floral O.Henry magazine cover she fancied onto the carriage house doorway. She served on the library’s board until her death — and maintained a lifelong relationship with its namesakes, benefactors and owners of Furniture World Magazine, Sandy and Bernice Bienenstock. She had met them during the preservation-oriented redesign of a High Point building and showroom.

As her friends point out, Plaxico was a strong, persuasive woman who commanded the respect of powerful business and civic leaders. High Point businessman Dave Phillips was a partner in Market Square. He is also the former North Carolina secretary of commerce and ambassador to Estonia. Phillips recalls first meeting Plaxico in the 1980s when his investor group, including George Lyles and Jake Froelich, hired her. She was to repurpose their High Point factory building, much like a San Francisco factory conversion Phillips had visited during a 1970s business trip.

He credits Plaxico with having vision and restoration-minded sensibilities, and getting his pet project, Market Square, to fruition and, subsequently, listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places.

“That,” Phillips says, “was inspired. Pat had the vision for the whole thing, for a factory conversion.” He discusses Plaxico from the 10th floor of Market Square Tower. The handsomely paneled office suite is her design.

Market Square and the adjacent Market Square Tower that followed was certainly Plaxico’s most ambitious and challenging effort.

As Phillips explains, it was Plaxico’s insistence to preserve the building’s industrial past. She wanted to retain the former Tomlinson furniture factory’s wooden flooring, soaring ceilings and industrial-style windows. At the time, some had difficulty embracing Plaxico’s vision, but her preservation-savvy ideas won out. All 500,000 square feet of both phases of a two-phase project were fully renovated within a few years and opened in 1985 — fully leased. That was a triumph, says Phillips, who insists that Plaxico’s end result handily proved all detractors wrong.

His wife, Kay Phillips, adds, “We all were involved with Market Square. It was a family deal. We all had a blast. And Pat was an integral part of it.”

She stresses that Plaxico understood the benefits of preserving aspects of the original building — an idea that people then found strange and peculiar. “It had charm. She utilized what was there to make it warm and comfortable.”

She and Plaxico remained friends for 35 years.

“She was a thousand cuts above,” Kay Phillips reflects. “Losing Pat Plaxico was one of the most difficult blows. There is no one I would rather sit beside and listen to and hear lecture on history. She was most unusual.”

Along the way to design success, Plaxico, equal parts designer and ardent history buff, melded the two interests.

Also, noteworthy: Plaxico’s penchant for flamboyance.

First, there were her two Rolls-Royces — one, a buttery yellow, and the second, maroon. Plaxico tootled around the Triad in style, using a Chrysler van only for more plebian chores.

Former Alderman colleague and friend Bill Phillips (no relation to Dave or Kay) says the Rollses were a marketing tool.

“When you’re a great interior designer, you want to look like a great interior designer so they remember who you are,” he says. “The Rolls made a statement.”

Dave Phillips, chuckling, agrees. Plaxico even squired him around town on occasion. “Yes, I rode with her in the yellow Rolls.”

He grins widely at the suggestion that he and Market Square investors helped Plaxico buy the luxury auto. “I hope so,” he says warmly. “God, I hope so!”

Plaxico was among the most valued and intelligent people he knew. “Pat was one of my favorite colleagues on a lot of different ventures,” he says.

Friend Bill Phillips similarly described Plaxico as “a well of creativity” and “talented.” It didn’t hurt that her name was alliterative. She enjoyed opera, lending her seemingly boundless energies as a volunteer to Piedmont Opera, so the melodious name was fitting. He recalls how she led guided tours to favorite places, and loved road trips and describes her as a Renaissance woman, one with a taste for luxury and design in all its forms.

They met when Bill Phillips was a college student working part time at Alderman Studios. “Everybody praises Pat. All her years of work, and she had a thousand ideas a day!”

Plaxico, he recalls, was in high demand by all the furniture manufacturers to design their photography sets. “We were friends since those days. I thought the world of her and everybody else did too. And she certainly was a great interior designer.”

Bill Phillips returned to High Point after retiring from state government and currently serves as president of the High Point Historical Society. “When I came back from Raleigh, one of the first people I saw was Pat,” he remembers. “I called on her for ideas. She loved history, and we were on the Historical Society board together.

“I was with her the night she passed away,” he says, adding that Plaxico’s “great creative mind set her apart. She had a well there that was really deep.”

The well of creativity that Plaxico drew upon seemed to deepen, rather than diminish.

In spring two years ago, I met with her at the Bienenstock Furniture Library, along with Seasons and O.Henry photographer Amy Freeman, wife of Peter Freeman.

“She would always wear these fabulous hats to the Pink Ribbon luncheon,” recalls Amy Freeman, who photographed the High Point charity event annually and usually captured the effusive Plaxico.

“One was a pink straw hat, embellished with flowers,” she continues. “I felt Pat had great style. She always wore colorful clothes.”

Colorful was her modus operandi; she naturally loved flowers, gardens and landscapes. The Bienenstock gardens and grounds, designed by Greensboro’s Sally Pagliai, now bear Plaxico’s name. As she aged, Plaxico’s interest in landscape architecture deepened. A climbing rose garden at High Point University was named in her honor following several design projects she completed at HPU.

On that spring morning in 2016, Plaxico wheeled the yellow Rolls into a parking spot near the Bienenstock gardens. She understood entrances, and swept out of the Rolls, grandly tossing a pastel scarf over her shoulder.

Mentally I revised my initial Julia Child impression; perhaps she was a real-life Auntie Mame!

Plaxico had high purpose and big plans, announcing an event called “Celebrate the Old North State.” She launched herself into publicizing it after persuading 35 sponsors to bankroll the celebration.

The North Carolina Museum of History Association, with 10,000 members, were invited to a dizzying program planned to honor the centennial of the Alexander Martin Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. (Plaxico was a longtime member of the DAR chapter.)

She ran through a PowerPoint overview of scheduled parties, fashion shows, concerts, garden tours, street food and lectures. A Sotheby’s auctioneer was to participate. She persuaded Randell Jones, an authority on Daniel Boone, to speak. Drawing on her knowledge of French art and furniture, Plaxico herself presented on the Rothschild family’s collection encompassing both.

Plaxico’s enthusiasms didn’t end with the pending DAR event. She wanted to discuss the papers of Reginald Tillson, a notable landscape architect.

“Reginald was a breakout in landscape architecture,” Plaxico explained, seeking publicity for Tillson, who created private and public gardens in the Triad from the 1920s to the 1970s. She had persuaded N.C. State University to digitize Tilson’s drawings for inclusion in their Special Collections, after Plaxico herself had organized his work.

Landscape architecture was an extension of design, as Plaxico saw it.

After the meeting ended, Amy Freeman and I met at her nearby house on Brookside in downtown High Point. It was a modest Cape Cod (incongruous with the Rolls in the driveway) with a screened side porch. Inside, Plaxico’s home was a veritable museum of decorative arts and Victoriana (including a gypsy fortune teller’s screen). The compact home was filled with faux painting (on walls, ceilings and floors) by artist Alan Mackeraghan and a mix of antiques and collectibles.

Although she loved all things Victorian, she had recently updated Dave and Kay Phillips’s sleek penthouse on the top floor of the Market Square Tower. It is minimalistic with aspects of Art Deco.

Months after I first met Plaxico, as Dave Phillips leads a tour of the condo, he emphasizes its spare and contemporary design, a contrast to her affection for traditional.

As he points to the hipster décor, he stresses Plaxico’s versatile mind. He repeatedly credits Plaxico for making the massive Market Square project a viable and workable reality. In his view, it is also a surprisingly warm one despite the fact that the “combined footage is on par with the Empire State Building.” He adds, “Pat brought it all together.”

What couldn’t Plaxico do?

“She didn’t cook a lick,” Kay Phillips answers, giggling. “She went out to eat for every meal. But she was interested in everyone and everybody. An innovator,” she adds.

Charles Simmons, whom some call the unofficial mayor of High Point, frequently met Plaxico at Penny Path Café for crepes and conversation. He also frequents the String & Splinter Club (another Plaxico design) on the ground floor of Market Square. Simmons believes “Pat put High Point on the map” given her extensive network of friends, business contacts and clients. “She had a heart of gold. If she loved it, she did it. She didn’t care about the money! Pat would talk slow, but her mind was so fast! It’s going to take about four people to replace her talent.”

Designer Patricia Stafford was another longtime friend who knew Plaxico for 50 years. “I met Pat while at Thomasville Furniture Industries when I was responsible for the photography. Later I went to work at Alderman’s, and they paired me with Pat, who was a senior designer.” Stafford, who was younger, was assigned as a junior designer working with Plaxico.

“We were close. My husband and I got married in Pat’s house,” she says. “I kept a scrapbook on Pat with letters she would write on her travels. The scrapbook just goes up to maybe the 1980s. I enjoyed her witticisms. I have a letter from Paris in 1981, and she sent a picture from her room with a Mansard roof. She called herself Miss P.” Miss P. resolved the problem of two fast friends with the same first name. “‘What would Miss P. do without Pat?’ she wrote to me in a letter I’ve kept in my scrapbook.”

Like others, Stafford remembers Plaxico’s self-deprecating humor.

“In many pictures, she looked a lot like Sister Parrish; I think they had a lot of similarities. But Pat herself thought she looked a little like Bess Truman. She likened herself to Harry Truman’s wife.” As Stafford explains, Plaxico thought Bess Truman exerted a lot of influence over the president, and was no figurehead.

Although their interests had diverged over time, they renewed their closeness when Plaxico grew ill last fall during furniture market. Stafford was with her friend to the end.

Apart from her enduring legacy as a designer, Charles Simmons affirms that Plaxico “would most want people to know how much she loved High Point.” He pauses before adding, “But the most important thing was, Pat had very strong friends.” h

Cynthia Adams wows her public with a silver Honda hybrid. She writes for O.Henry and Seasons.


Photograph of Plaxico by amy freeman and Photographs provided by High Point University

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