Home & Design

Super Women: Catharine Roberts and Her ‘Shack’


IF YOU DON’T have the time or money to get yourself to Paris this spring, you could drop by the Georgetown antiques shop in which Catharine Roberts is a partner. Even better: You could try for an invitation to her home!

“But it’s just a little shack,” Roberts says, wondering out loud why anyone would want to visit, much less take pictures of the place she shares with her yellow Lab, Stella. Um, yeah, a “shack” packed with pieces she brought back to the States after living in Paris, which was after she had lived in Switzerland, which was before she lived in London and New York.

As important as the individual treasures that cover almost every surface of her home, though, is the Shabby Chic style with which Roberts arranges and displays everything.

Sofas and loveseats are covered with creamy white, “so I can take the covers off and wash them,”Roberts says. That’s because 10-year-old Stella has her pick of where she wants to nestle. Practical concerns aside, all that creaminess is the perfect backdrop to the pictures and maps and lamps and hanging cabinets that evoke an earlier time and a far more romantic place.

One of the romantic places that influenced Roberts’s style–perhaps more so than her years spent in Europe–was the plantation house owned by her mother’s sister in Mississippi. “It was a simple house,” she explains, “one story. But I always thought it had an elegance about it.” The walls were covered with horizontal planks of dark wood–“probably from an old house somewhere”–and all the furniture was covered in white. “There were black coal stoves keeping things warm and always magnolias in vases–I thought it was just so sophisticated,” Roberts says.

Born and raised in Memphis, Roberts was sent off for a year abroad in Switzerland when she was 19. After university and a degree in French, that year abroad turned into summers abroad, in London or Paris. But the worlds of Paris and of design really opened up to her when she met, and spent five years with, French designer and architect Marc Berthier (his rubber-clad Tykho radio was once featured on the cover of Time magazine).

Back in the States, like many antiques dealers, Roberts starting selling because she loved to buy . . . too much stuff. (As we’re chatting, she has people clearing years of acquisitions from her basement.) She and friends began selling in an antiques center in upstate New York. But then, priced out of the Manhattan apartment market, she moved to Washington, where she had family and friends. Then, 14 years ago, she joined colleagues in the Georgetown shop Oliver Dunn Catharine Roberts Moss & Co., where the three owners share responsibilities on the sales floor.

“These days I would say we specialize in home accessories,” says Roberts, who sits surrounded by same. “We have furniture, but the biggest part of our business is lamps, linens, that sort of thing.” Interior designers are among the shop’s steadiest customers–they go there for paintings and other unique things they can’t find in trade showrooms–but Roberts notes that Georgetown University students often arrive with their parents, who might buy something for their student’s apartment or dorm room. “I think people are just more aware of design,” she says. “With a show like ‘Mad Men,’ for instance, ” she adds, “a big part of it was the whole design.”

Roberts still travels to Paris for fresh finds. “You know, I didn’t always have a basement,” she says. “But as soon as I had one, it filled up.”

–Nancy McKeon
Photography by Kevin Allen

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