Reviving The Roxy

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By Cat Acree

If you love this city, then you’ve likely had your heart broken by the razing of a beautiful old building. But it hasn’t been all loss. There have been survivors, such as the industrial relics of Edgehill Village. A local group of investors that has quietly targeted and preserved neighborhoods and historic properties throughout Nashville has been working for the last three years in Cleveland Park and McFerrin Park to return the neighborhood to its heyday—with the Roxy Theater back in its rightful place as a cultural node and icon.

Closed since 1959, the Roxy was listed on Historic Nashville’s 2013 list of the nine most endangered historic places. It has been owned for the last two years by a group, including active partners Elliot Kyle, Jamie Pfeffer, Rob Lowe, and McClain Towery, “preservationists at heart” who are now seeing their vision for the neighborhood play out. Other notable changes to the area: The former Ray of Hope church has been sold as a co-working space called Bond Collective; new restaurant Folk continues to gather buzz; Teresa Mason (of Mas Tacos) has breathed new life in the Wilburn Street Tavern; Sterling Sound recording studio has moved in down the street; AMAX Talent and Creative Management is in the old pharmacy; and Nikki Lane has purchased the post office. The main street is waking back up—and will be the site of Nashville Design Week’s closing block party.

So what are the ingredients for hospitable design, especially in a neighborhood like this one? The members of the investment group are classic behind-the-scenes guys, with only four members showing up for the photoshoot, and then only three of them actually agreeing to be on camera (while one stands behind the photographer, whispering modeling directions at Elliot, Jamie and Rob). For the interview, only Elliot and Jamie come forward to share their vision for community uplift, building preservation and neighborhood love.


Tell me a bit about the team. What do you each bring to the table that enables you to do this work and do it well?

Elliot: I’m sort of the vision guy in terms of, once we have these buildings, how can they be repurposed and reused in interesting ways? Jamie’s got the architecture background. McClain Towery’s got an engineer background, so he works with Jamie to solve really complicated building issues. Rob Lowe, he’s a very good ringleader with all the other pieces that are nonbuilding-related: the financial aspects, the partnership, driving the ship on a macro level. So essentially you’ve got someone who knows how to put the deal together—that’d be Rob. Somebody who knows what the building should be going forward—that’d be myself. Jamie is the one that knows how to design it and beautify it, and McClain knows how to actually get the building up and running. It’s fun to have a little band of people that have those skill sets.

Jamie: Everyone has different specialties they’ve been able to bring to the table, but at the same time, everyone goes above and beyond. Everyone has the same kind of mind, so our discussions are about how we can make something better, take it further. It’s evolved to where, in this partnership, generally where you have economic risk and economic contribution, it becomes very democratic and equal. There’s no one who stands to gain or lose more than anyone else. Interests are aligned. Risks and rewards are aligned. We’re able to look at these [projects] as labors of love because we can take the typical risk or reward off the table, spread it out, and say, let’s go do something really cool.

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How did you get started on the Roxy? What’s the origin story here?

Jamie: It’s in a great period neighborhood. McFerrin Park, Cleveland Park—it’s centered around these two parks and has a tight community-neighborhood feel, with proximity to Downtown Nashville and other East Nashville neighborhoods. It also has a great neighborhood association, a strong neighborhood identity. Even though it doesn’t technically have a historic neighborhood [status], it has been preserved and protected without that. So, we have this great residential community with great characteristics, great geographic proximities, all these great elements. But we really needed this mini main street, a commercial core to make the neighborhood what it once was. I talked with Elliott and Rob and others about the neighborhood. We’d been active and involved in the Roxy in the past, and we saw the opportunity. I’ve been able to acquire several commercial properties on the street, but my friends and partners are the experts in how you make a really interesting commercial dynamic, and how you curate that commercial tenant mix to bring something back to a local identity and a strong grassroots kind of presence.

Elliot: You look at the collective ecosystem of commercial buildings, and you have your dream lineup, and then generally, reality is somewhere between the lowest common denominator—where you’re signing leases because you’re up against a wall—and your dream. Somewhere between there is where the mix shakes out. [But] we’re pretty close to achieving the absolute dream mix of businesses and operators and uses that we had envisioned over there. Between a co-op working space, cool, chef-driven restaurants—but not even stuffy chef-driven, but super-relatable, accessible chef-driven stuff. Great little dive bar in the Wilburn Street Tavern. Live music hopefully back in the Roxy. For a relatively small aggregation of commercial property, it’s going to pack a huge punch.


How do you do it right? How do not just preserve a building but a whole neighborhood’s spirit?

Elliot: If I lived a block from here, what would I want to utilize every day? What would be added to the experience of being a resident of this neighborhood? There’s not a science to it. We’ve all been at it long enough to know that everyone likes tacos. We’re not rocket scientists—we all live and breathe these neighborhoods.
 

We’re not also what they call “merchant developers,” where as quickly as they become a stabilized asset, they exit out of it and sell it. We’re making these decisions as if our grandkids will own these buildings. There’s a longer view than just making a return.
— Elliot Kyle
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Sure, but you’re in a city where neighborhoods can be endangered, and you guys have a certain mentality that maybe some developers are missing. What sets you guys apart?

Elliot: There’s a collective spirit of wanting to be proud of what we deliver, more so than what is purely economically the best scenario. Putting in an independent restaurateur and taking the associated risks is infinitely better for us than putting in a chain fast-food place. If Taco Bell wanted the building that Butcher and Bee took for $20 more per foot, we would still do the Butcher and Bee deal. For a lot of guys, economics drive the ship. We’re more about, what can we be most proud to participate in at the end of the day?

Jamie: The group is from Nashville or of Nashville, so we’re going to be here a long time.

Elliot: We’re not also what they call “merchant developers,” where as quickly as they become a stabilized asset, they exit out of it and sell it. We’re making these decisions as if our grandkids will own these buildings. There’s a longer view than just making a return.

Jamie: We’re not looking at it as a land play or a spreadsheet. So, Meridian Café we thought was a really cool mid-century building. Let’s see if we can talk to someone who will also appreciate what that building is, and not bring a whole new building but take that shell and make the most of it. That shell’s been in that neighborhood for quite a while. How can we do something with it that starts from that basis and goes from there? We need to put tenants in places who will steward the neighborhood further.

How do you define good design, and how can good developers support that concept?

Jamie: It’s about finding things that are done well and [with intention]. It starts with a unique place, a unique concept—there’s a thought or vision, and a continuing expression of a time, a place, a moment, a group of people, a singular set of circumstances. It’s not about applying some other theory or approach to a project, and applying it to every site; it’s about what is unique about this moment and this opportunity, and how do we use design as an agent for transformative change? If we can use design in that capacity, the buildings are better, neighborhoods are better, we ultimately create better places to be. Let design do that, and those are the places that still resonate… places we still go back to, even if it’s not new and fresh but have that underlying character and truth.


How would you like to see Nashville grow and change, and what do you see as your role within that?

Elliot: If I could write my own script, it’d be to take on another McFerrin and Cleveland Park-type opportunity and do them again. You know, we did Edgehill Village. I’d love to do something like that again—small projects in vibrant areas.

Jamie: Cleveland Park and McFerrin Park have an identity, as does Inglewood, as does 12 South and the Nations and Sylvan Park and so on. You identify with those spots, and then you can go and explore. Probably my favorite book of all time is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The idea is Marco Polo telling stories about his exploits, and at the end . . . did [he] ever leave Venice? The idea is, all these crazy stories and fanciful things were happening, but maybe he never even had to leave to do those things. That’s what I think Nashville could become, the idea that you can do all these great things and have these great experiences, but you never left.

That’s what I think Nashville could become, the idea that you can do all these great things and have these great experiences, but you never left.
— Jamie Pfeffer
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Norf Art Collective

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By Cat Acree

Throughout these conversations for Nashville Design Week, we’ve been focusing on questions of collaboration—in particular, asking designers to comment on Nashville as a whole, both as a nexus of design and as a growing city, and to look beyond their studios to the community around them. Community engagement is at the heart of the Norf Art Collective, a group of artists that formed following 2015’s Norf Wall Fest. Organized by Jay Jenkins (aka WOKE3) and funded by a Metro Arts THRIVE grant, the event transformed a courtyard in North Nashville into a canvas and brought together the artists that would eventually form the core of the Norf Art Collective: WOKE3, doughjoe, Keep3 and ArJae (aka Sensei).

In the intervening years, the collective’s murals have memorialized civil rights leaders and sparked conversations of affordable housing and gentrification. They’ve honored the North Nashville neighborhood’s history and unearthed some of its roots. Norf’s voices—which extend far beyond its founders—speak clearly to and about their city, and above all, they’re making a statement of what their neighborhood’s future will be. This is design with people in mind.

Unlike the other NDW interviews, this one had to take place over the phone, in which WOKE3 was painting (and making a pizza) and Sensei was doing some graphic work (and making a sandwich).

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How did Norf begin?

WOKE3: I knew ArJae from probably the year before [the Wall Fest]. We did a poetry and arts fest together, and after, I started planning for the Wall Fest because it was my senior project. He was one of the first people I thought about [for the project] because I’d already seen his work, and one of his friends introduced us, and so that’s how that whole connection was made. Doughjoe I met probably during the planning process, and then again, the same thing: A friend of ours introduced us, but we kind of ran into each other just out biking every day. And Keep3 I’ve known since high school. Along with other artists like [Brandon] Donahue and [Sam] Dunson, we all were in this project, and we created those murals and everything like that, and that’s how Norf came out of the Wall Fest.

Why did you form the collective?

WOKE3: If you had seen this space before [Wall Fest]—there was stuff on it, and stuff around it, but you had empty walls. After the Wall Fest, people loved to see it. They were talking about it, saying that they loved to come out and be able to see that. The reaction: Look how powerful we are when we come together. That’s really what it is, people coming together. Man, look how powerful you can become. That sparked like, we should come together and do something like this more often.

Speaking about “you’ve seen the space before,” what makes a good wall? How do you pick a wall, and how do you approach it?

Sensei: It depends on the space. That can open up a lot of opportunities of what you can actually put on there, especially if there are pipes running outside, or it’s a weirdly shaped wall. Maybe it’s a little long in some areas and short in other areas. That can give you a little room to play with concepts and how you would go about doing it. Sometimes the wall picks you, and sometimes you pick the wall.
 

It’s finding out what your social responsibility is as a creative. For me, it can’t be just focused on the self, especially if it’s public [art]...Imagery is very powerful...you can have something very self-serving or very detrimental, or you can put something up there that sparks a conversation.
— Sensei, Norf Art Collective
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When has the wall picked you?

Sensei: The “Workers’ Dignity” wall… It had some overgrown parts, and during certain times of year, it’s going to look full and flush. It was cool to think like, what kinds of colors could go there? We knew the time [constraint because it was commissioned], but now you get to play with the little elements that were already pre-existing, and you can either work around it or work with it. We definitely worked with it on that one. It kind of informed us, design-wise.

There’s a certain air of mystery around you guys—with the artist names, which seem to suggest a separate and mysterious persona, as well as what appears to be intentional vagueness on your website when it comes to who you are, with a greater emphasis on the projects themselves. And I know that during the photoshoot, one of y’all didn’t want to show his face. What’s that mystery?

Sensei: I don’t think it’s intentional as far as gimmicky. If anything, the idea is to bring light to these projects and these spaces and not so much focuses on the faces behind them.

WOKE3: It’s focusing on the work.

Sensei: It’s about the community that we’re serving.

When you put this work up on a wall, it’s almost like it immediately becomes endangered, especially in a boomtown like this. The art could be knocked down as quickly as some great old building. With that in mind, what do you consider to be your role within Nashville?

WOKE3: As artists—and this is me personally, someone else might look at things differently—as artists, we’re scribes. We tell what’s going on. We put it out there. If it’s me, I put it out there visually. Everything comes to me, and it becomes this story that I have to tell. As artists, we can speak to somebody subconsciously. If you look at a piece—and that’s why I love public art and why I think public art is very important. If you’re just driving down the street, you might not be looking out for things that are going on. You’re just going through your day-to-day routine. But as you see a mural on a wall that’s just huge, that has little girls sitting in a broken house or something like that, that’s talking about home. You’re going to stop. You’re going to think or feel something… As artists, we don’t have to do anything for people. We can just stay in our studios and paint. But you know, I started off doing graffiti, so I always wanted to push a message out.

Sensei: It’s finding out what your social responsibility is as a creative. For me, it can’t be just focused on the self, especially if it’s public [art]. The ideas are for everyone else. Keeping that in mind, what is your social obligation, and are we being responsible? Imagery is very powerful. How Woke had mentioned the opportunity to penetrate the subconscious and to really spark something in someone who might be casually going back and forth in their commute or going to school, you can have something very self-serving or very detrimental, or you can put something up there that sparks a conversation.

So your work is speaking very intentionally to a community. What has that community taught you turn? I’m asking because I heard that a man pulled over while you were painting the mural of Jimi Hendrix and told you that he was dressed differently than what you had, that he wouldn’t have worn that ’60s psychedelic look that we know him for.

WOKE3: No, no, no, no! What are you doing?! [laughing] STOP. STOP. STOP. Oh man, that was funny.

Sensei: Moments like that. They’re always teaching us. Part of that is being aware that art creates communication. It’s a form of communication that sparks communication. When the dude came over, he put us on game. Do you think that would’ve happened if we were tucked away in a studio?

Woke3: I’ve been meeting a lot of people, a lot of elders. They’ve always got some knowledge for you. They see where your work is headed, and once you talk about the subject, they want to put what they know in. They tell you stories about the neighborhood from maybe 50 years ago.

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What else have you learned about the neighborhood?

WOKE3: I learned about Club Baron from back in the day. I didn’t know about all those people coming in and playing, like Little Richie. There’s another club I’m thinking about—the Shack. My dad told me about it. He said when he was young, he snuck up there and tried to get in. They wouldn’t let him in, but he said that place used to be jumping so much that the building would be moving, literally moving. They had that on Jefferson Street, and then you think about all that before the interstate coming through and destroying everything. We had a community inside—we didn’t have to go out, we had it here.

Sensei: If we had that now, man. I know Ella Jean’s had its spot, was something that was going on. But it is kind of cool how some of those traditions are still there despite all the changes—the interstate, gentrification and stuff like that that we’re facing now. There’s still those pockets of folks that do gather and do really dope community-engagement things.

What do you see as the future for Nashville’s design community? Or maybe, what do you hope it will be?

Sensei: I don’t know if I see a specific future, but a hope would be: being cognizant of what’s here and not trying to reinvent something. Notice the infrastructure that’s already here, the people that are already here, the culture that’s already here. It’s a big, beautiful city. In the four years I’ve been here, it’s become grafted onto my skin. There’s that phrase: We’re not place-making, we’re place-keeping. Whatever happens in the future, I just hope that that’s the general consciousness.

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Ashley Balding

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By Cat Acree

Perhaps long ago, on some dark night, Nashville native Ashley Balding reached through a crack of time, some portal of futurism, and pulled back the furiously innovative designs of Ona Rex, her line of luxury women’s wear. From malleable dresses with slippery ruffles and paracord spines, to elbow-sweeping capes that belong in Lando Calrissian’s closet, to her iconic, freshly peeled gallery pendants, Balding’s designs demand a world to be built around them. I’d say that Balding is an alien that’s fallen to Earth, but as she shares in our conversation, that would be a terrible thing to say.

 

How did you begin your design practice?

My plan was to study fibers in school. I knew that I liked fabric, but design was not on my radar. I ended up leaving school and taking several years off, but I kept coming back to fashion. I went back to school [at O’More College of Design], still not thinking about design, but once I got into classes, I realized my brain was a little bit different from the people around me. I felt kind of stupid about it at first, until I realized it was a good thing.

I had no plans for starting my own line. It was something that I thought I would do later, like when I was middle-aged. But I just got so angry when I was out of school. There was such a small group of people here, doing something really good, but it was so tiny. I knew that I could add to that, only differently.
 

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Did your definition of design change throughout that experience?

There’s a lot of clothing out there—technically, someone’s designing it—but there’s no garment innovation. That’s what I’m excited about. I’m not an expert and I’m still learning how to do that. I think my paracord stuff was the first time I was like, this is where it’s going where I want it to go. That’s not something you see everywhere. It changes shape on your body. If you want it to be a giant, puffed-up shirt, you can scrunch it all the way up, or if you want it to look like a more normal dress, you let it down. That’s the kind of stuff I get excited about—trying to think of how these flat shapes come together on your body and can totally transform how you feel. To me, I think that’s the most important aspect of design, is creating, innovating, reinventing.

What three things most influence your design?

I am obsessed with science fiction. It probably plays into the part of my brain that likes science, and the part that likes weird. I get excited about fantasy worlds and outer space. I think there’s something exciting about futuristic things. Aliens, creatures, monsters—I’m terrified of all those things. It’s the most gut-wrenching fear I have. If an alien walked into the room, I would die. There’s just something about the human form in a completely different, abstract view.

I love structure—it could be a building, it could be sculpture—but there’s something about 3-D forms that are really exciting to me. I like the design process of linear things coming together, and I like to think of garments in linear perspectives.

And color is a huge part of what I do. I can drive down the street and see a color, and it sparks an entire thing in my brain.

How do you characterize your role in the Nashville fashion world?

I just want to fuck everybody up. If I’m going to expend the emotional and mental energy of doing this—because it’s not easy, and a lot of times it’s very disheartening—I’m not going to make white T-shirts. I think it’s true in any creative field that you can feel overlooked sometimes, you can feel misunderstood sometimes. It’s really hard. What’s the point anyway, so I’m just going to do something how I want to do it. I’m learning to be brave about it.

It feels the most complimentary to me when someone says I’m doing something totally different, or that they’d never expect me to be from Nashville. Truly everyone here has been very supportive and are very excited about what I’m doing, but I don’t sell much here. I never have. I’ve always said that, that this isn’t my market.
 

If I’m going to expend the emotional and mental energy of doing this—because it’s not easy, and a lot of times it’s very disheartening—I’m not going to make white T-shirts. I think it’s true in any creative field that you can feel overlooked sometimes, you can feel misunderstood sometimes. It’s really hard. What’s the point anyway, so I’m just going to do something how I want to do it. I’m learning to be brave about it.
— Ashley Balding
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Is that why you made the “Base” line? With the simpler shapes and colors?

Yes, and it sold the best. 

It’s like a painter who makes a smaller, more affordable painting to pay the bills.

I’ve learned that if people have a taste of something they feel safe in, then they’re more likely to be like, if I like how I look in this, and that’s like a little more adventurous . . . I’m trying to put cheese out for people.

What do you think is your role in the larger Nashville world?

I would like to represent a modernized city. I grew up here, and I was very fortunate that my parents were very worldly and were excited to take us to other places. It’s important to me that I not be a representation of what Nashville was twenty years ago. There are good parts to that—I love tradition, I love heritage—but I want to represent a forward thought.

Is this a one-woman operation? Any plans for collaboration?

Brett Warren is my very unofficial business partner. I would never say that it’s just me doing this. He does all my photography. He’s my art director and my greatest support. He sculpts my necklaces, so he’s very involved, and I think we are each other’s muses in that way. In the way that I’m a little different, he experiences that in his field as well. It’s easy for us to be like, we’re doing something different, and it’s uncomfortable, but if we can help each other go along that path, we do. 

Blaque of PORTmanteau jewelry, we will have a collaboration at some point. We’ve been working on one for a while, but it hasn’t become what we want it to be yet, so it just hasn’t happened. I would love to get into many different aspects of fashion, but I love her stuff so much. 

Alex Lockwood, please let me do something with him. He’s at the top of my list. Our stuff would be so cool, mixed.

I’m all for collaboration. I feel like we’re all forging a path, so if we can do that together, it’s all the better. It’s really tough otherwise.

 

Tell me about a designer outside of the fashion world that you really admire.

I think Perky Brothers is on another level. Not something that I’m an expert in, I don’t know anything about that world, but I really enjoy seeing what they do.

What do you think is Nashville’s greatest design strength, and what is its weakness?

I feel cliché saying this, but the community aspect to Nashville is pretty abnormal, in a good way. People have been so supportive of me, and I think that’s a strength here, to be honest with each other and share. And the industry here is still small and developing, so we have the freedom to make it whatever it wants to be. But I think it still struggles with a small-town mentality.

What do you think is the future of Nashville’s design community?

I truly do believe in it. Although in my personal life, I would like to eventually move on, it’s not because I’m angry and want to leave. There’s truly a future for designers here. It can only go up and only go forward.

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Dave Powell

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By Cat Acree

If there’s a single area of Nashville’s design world that draws the most concern, it’s architecture. It’s not just the destruction of old buildings, it’s the erasure of them and the replacing with bullies: monstrous, shoddily built, imposing condos that smash three residences where once there was only one. They’re blocky blunt objects with strange window placing, and the city sighs collectively.

Which is why our conversation with Dave Powell seemed urgent in the months leading up Nashville Design Week. Powell is a principal at Hastings Architecture Associates and has been designing award-winning architecture since 1991. We’re speaking in Hastings’ downtown location, the kind of hip old building that’s been updated but still shakes with the loudest footsteps you’ve ever heard. Powell’s rhomboid office, which allows a full view of the rest of the open-plan workspace, is full of books and papers and photos of his family, as well as a giant rectangle of porous silver material that leans against his desk. It’s like futuristic skin that emits a high-pitched whine when rattled. Powell explains that it’s the aluminum skin for a new boutique hotel planned for 2020. 

Powell possesses the kind of disarming humor that makes you feel like you’re one step behind the punch line, but that’s okay. But what was far more unexpected about our conversation was his infectious optimism.

How do you define design?

You have to start by defining art. For me, the purpose of art is expression. I think design is art with a purpose—meaning, there’s an artistic intent behind problem solving or something that actually has a function. I personally define good design as design that has a positive impact on society. Design can be fun and harmless, but it can also have a lot of meaning and be a change agent—to support social change or, in my world, contribute to the urban fabric. It has the ability, the power, to change. That’s the lens that I judge design with: how effective is it, not just with solving the problem, but solving it with purpose and meaning and an artistic intent behind it.

How did you find your way to your design practice?

I moved to Nashville for music but have always practiced architecture. I have worked at very large firms, very small firms, owned my own firm and am now a principal here at Hastings. I’ve been here over ten years. I was drawn to Hastings in particular because of our dedication to community. I love contributing to where I live and seeing that change, seeing the impact. You learn from your experience. How projects fit within the urban fabric and how the public reacts to that is something that’s very important to me, and you don’t see that when practicing outside of the city. This firm has a strong commitment to community. And it goes beyond our projects; it’s our engagement with nonprofits and other organizations.

Like what?

On a personal note, I’ve been on the board of and the president of the Nashville Civic Design Center and the American Institute of Architects, and on the board of Nashville Repertory Theater, but also involved in something called Restore Ministries. Folks here [at Hastings] are involved at Cheekwood, and we’re working with Family and Children’s Services, and the Family Justice Center and the police headquarters and Thistle Farms, and Casa Azafran. These are projects that are having a huge impact on our city. Those are the most meaningful to me.

How do you characterize your role within Nashville?

As one of the principals and lead designers in the firm, I’m a leader in how our projects are interacting with the city. It’s my responsibility to carry that torch, to make sure that they’re telling the right story in a season when our city is desperately trying to hold onto its identity, and also figure out what our identity is as we move forward. . . . More than ever, we have developers and investors outside of this city doing work in our city, which by default means they don’t care as much as we do. We care about everything we’re doing because we’re interacting with it every day. There’s a wonderful accountability built into that.
 

 

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I personally define good design as design that has a positive impact on society. Design can be fun and harmless, but it can also have a lot of meaning and be a change agent—to support social change or, in my world, contribute to the urban fabric. It has the ability, the power, to change.
— Dave Powell

Can you give me an example of one project you think was particularly successful?

The Bridge Building is one of my favorite stories with regard to multiple people involved. For a century, it was the office for a private company, but the land acquisition made it a public project. There was federal funding involved. It was part of the master plan for riverfront redevelopment. We worked with the state and local historic departments, the Department of Interior (the federal government), Army corps of engineers, MDHA, the mayor’s office, codes, Sports Authority (because it was on Titans property)—just on and on and on. . . . It was a great public initiative with a lot of people involved that ultimately was about trying to make sure this was done right. Contributing back to the city—that’s all it was all about—and by “city” I mean the people that live here, not the government. The citizens, because they are in and around and up and down and all over this building, looking at it and moving through it.


If you weren’t doing this, is there another design profession that you think you would like to do?

I’ve always wanted to be a set designer. I’ve always loved Paul Vasterling, the creative director at the ballet. I don’t know him personally, but I think the work he is doing there is so progressive and so beautiful. [Set design] is so similar to [architecture], but without the restrictions that I’m usually dealing with, like zoning and codes. When that gets removed, what it’s replaced with is fantasy, and this idea that you can be very cartoonish or literal or incredibly abstract or very technology-heavy. From a design and creativity and expression standpoint, it feels like it is wide open.

What do you think Nashville’s greatest design strength is, and what is its weakness?

Strength in numbers. I’ve been here long enough to remember when this conversation would not have happened. Design Week would not have happened. All of the boats are rising, and all of these industries are starting to get a critical mass. Fifteen years ago, there were only a couple of decent restaurants here you could go to. Now there are two new ones a week that are great! The culinary scene is killing it. And microbrews and distilleries and graphic design firms and environmental graphics and fashion and photography, the art scene, galleries. All of that has just exploded. The biggest strength right now is just the critical mass that’s forming within all of these industries, which inevitably starts to overlap.

I think what’s equal to that is the type of people that Nashville draws. There is an approachable, casual, personality with people that are drawn to Nashville. . . . The fear is that that changes or that all of a sudden we start to have a stereotype, an overarching brand that puts people in a box too much.

So that fear, that’s the weakness?

I don’t know that there is a weakness. There’s a fear, certainly, about the trajectory and what that could become. But I think we’re in an awesome place. So much of that has to do with momentum. We’ve got the right momentum right now. 

That is such a surprising and great answer. Usually when I ask someone about this town’s weakness, the answer is architecture stuff. Everyone is very scared of what tall skinnies are doing to the city.

[Laughs] I have that fear, too.

But for you to feel like there’s positive momentum, and to be an actual architect saying that, I think that’s incredibly optimistic. It’s nice to hear.

We are battling the people trying to do bad things to the city. It’s not just about doing something great, it’s also about trying to stay ahead of the people doing bad stuff. But we have to be realistic. These are growing pains. If [there were restrictions] that kept a lot of the bad stuff out, then my guess is that a lot of the work I’ve enjoyed doing would also be kept out. The Mask House wouldn’t have happened. It’s in a neighborhood adjacent to a neighborhood with a bunch of tall skinnies, but it’s a windowless concrete façade facing the street. That would never pass if there were any kind of overlay in that neighborhood. So you take the good with the bad.

I’d much rather celebrate what people are doing and encourage people to continue doing that, and to do it more collaboratively. A byproduct of that union, that pulling together as a design community, is that less of that bad work will happen. Everybody’s starting to do better work.

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Libby Callaway

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By Cat Acree

If we could pick anyone as the doyenne of Nashville’s design community, it would be Libby Callaway: former fashion editor and journalist for the New York Post, hunter of vintage and deadstock treasures, and founder of The Callaway, a branding and PR team whose clients include the wallpaper design duo New Hat and the 91-year-old European beauty company Erno Laszlo, as well as Nashville’s groundbreaking boutique hotel Noelle.

Callaway’s home is almost as well-known as she is, and her enviable, cluttered-to-perfection space is likely as recognizable as her long red hair. Paintings fill her living room walls from floor to ceiling; a mistletoe-adorned Christmas ornament hangs from her kitchen fan; necklaces drape over lampshades; and a staple remover with eyes has been placed near her kitchen sink. It feels like the whole layout could pick up and change in an instant—like design has never felt more encouraged to change.

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How do you define design?

Honestly, I’ve thought about that a lot as we’ve grown the Callaway, in that I want every decision we make for a client—every client we choose, every event we do—to have some kind of a relationship to an aesthetic world, and to have a point of view. I think that’s what good design is—it has a point of view. It’s happening a lot more in Nashville than it used to, which is really exciting.

Where are you seeing that?

Bubbling up, it’s the creative economy. It’s the small business economy where you’re seeing it, like the New Hat girls or over at Elephant Gallery, which I am obsessed with.

What is the goal of The Callaway?

We try not to say we’re a PR company because it’s a concept that’s becoming passé. We do public relations for creative companies, but mainly that means figuring out ways for our clients to communicate their message to the public. We help them determine the best ways to engage people, whether they want them to buy something or talk about an idea or attend an event. Simply put, we help creative companies tell their stories.

I come from a writing background, so for a long time, when it comes to journalism versus PR, I always drew distinctions. I thought that it was like Woody Allen’s idea that you’re either a New York person or you’re an LA person, never both. So my take was that you’re either a writer or you do PR. But eventually I realized that I like LA, too! You can have it both ways. You can hold these two opposing ideas at one time.

All that to say, it suddenly made sense to me that the work that I had been doing as a journalist is really similar to what I do as a marketer. It’s sort of like one’s business-to-consumer and the other is business-to-business. B2C instead of B2B. The Callaway’s job as a business is figuring out how to work with other businesses to tell their stories in cool new ways.

Tell me about a project that you think has been especially successful and why.

I’m setting myself to talk about Noelle! Funny how I did that. I’m continually impressed with Rockbridge, the hotel’s owners, in that they have really put their money where their mouth is in terms of engaging Nashville’s creative community. There are over 55 local designers, makers or artists that are represented in that hotel, and that’s kind of a low estimate. There’s just dozens of people who are not megacorporations and do not have a lot of money behind them who have invested a lot of love and time in creating that place.

Of course, I’m very attuned to it, but I have noticed that other developers who come to town—even other hoteliers—will say, like, “Our mission is to use this project to invest in and celebrate Nashville’s creative community.” And then they ask one designer to make one chair. This is a small example, but what I mean is that there aren’t many people who will go so far as to hire Tenure Ceramics to create all the serving pieces for the restaurant, or commission dozens of local artists to create portraits to hang in the guest corridors. Noelle is different, and I think people sense that even if they don’t know the full story.


 

 

I want every decision we make for a client — every client we choose, every event we do — to have some kind of a relationship to an aesthetic world, and to have a point of view. I think that’s what good design is — it has a point of view.
— Libby Callaway
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How do you characterize your role in Nashville?

I feel like potentially a creative place-maker. Nick Dryden—a friend and someone I really look up to in terms of how he conducts his business—he talks about place-making a whole lot. If The Callaway’s doing our job right and I’m doing my job right, I’m figuring out how to create opportunities for that kind of place-making. It’s almost like an idea—not necessarily a physical space, just creating spaces for people to have creative experiences.

What do you think is Nashville’s greatest design strength and its greatest weakness?

I think weakness is listening to all the deep pockets that come in and wanting to put up monstrosities and terrible-looking apartment complexes. And I know you can’t say no when someone’s writing you a big check for a slab of property, but I feel like there have been aesthetic choices that have been made that were really dubious and that have now scarred our skyline and landscape, ruined neighborhoods. Not to use the word ruin—have challenged the aesthetics of our small neighborhoods. 

In terms of strength, on the flipside of that, I think there are a lot of people who are really interested in engaging young thought-leaders, young design-leaders and unique small companies, getting them involved in larger projects where five or ten years ago, their voices might not be considered.

What three things influence your design the most?

My family. My mother’s family’s business is interior design. My grandparents opened a floor- and wall-covering company in east Tennessee in the forties, and my aunt is with ASID [American Society of Interior Designers]. So I grew up in a 1929 home that was continually evolving. Walls coming up and walls coming down—wallpaper changing constantly. Things were always happening. My mom and my aunt are really big design influences.

Fashion is a big design influence on me—color and pattern and texture. I’ve spent a lot of my career working in that realm.

I guess necessity is the other thing. I’ve got a lot of shit that doesn’t do anything. [Laughs] But the things that do need to do things like lights, why should they be ugly when they can be cool?

If you could collaborate with any designer in Nashville who you haven’t already, who would that be?

This is the really, really cool thing about what we’ve been able to build over the last couple of years: We’ve worked with all the brands we really want to work with. I definitely want to get more involved in the interior design community. That’s something that’s personal, just growing up in the environment that I did. It’s just a lot more interesting to me right now than fashion.

Why is that? What are you seeing that you’re excited about?

I think the whole Memphis design movement, just that whole seventies and eighties European design aesthetic, that I was kind of, ugh, so over because I was a teenager in the eighties. But now it just looks really good and fresh and exciting and vibrant. It’s full of color. It doesn’t look like it’s stuck in this very upper-crust place. That’s really fun and joyful.

I think fashion still has some of that spirit, but overall I think it’s gotten stale and over-commercialized. In terms of the big companies, it’s about who owns who. And designers area moving from house to house with increasing frequency—I don’t feel like heritage companies are allowing them the time to develop meaningful brand evolutions before shipping them off to the next house. And then of course there is the problem of fast fashion, which honestly I’m just as guilty as anyone of investing in. People just aren’t being very thoughtful when it comes to designing clothes. And maybe this is a simplistic way to look at it, but I think you have to be more thoughtful when you’re working with interiors, because there’s more permanence to them.

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New Hat

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By Cat Acree

Kelly Diehl and Elizabeth Williams of New Hat Projects are slowly transforming Nashville’s interiors with some of the freshest, boldest wallpaper design this town has ever seen. From their first collaboration in 2014 with Dozen Bakery to the graphics and event design for last year’s Nashville Fashion Alliance Honors awards ceremony, their work signals a new generation of fearless creativity in Nashville. Portal Project, their hallway installation at Clay Ezell and Vadis Turner’s home that is a combination of hand-printed and screen-printed wallpaper and brass, is so cool it makes me want to cry a little.

They’re also queens of collaboration: Diehl, a Nashville native, brings a fine art focus, while Williams, who has lived in Nashville for nearly 15 years, brings graphic design. In their East Nashville studio, the two women speak lightly and hilariously about their work. The launch of their first product line looms over them (a notepad on their desk has a to-do list; number one on the list is “LAUNCH”), but when it comes to New Hat, playfulness and joyfulness are unavoidable.

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How did you find your way to your design process?

Elizabeth: Just out of necessity. We wanted to start this business and be artists and work for ourselves, and that necessitated us working on commercial projects and connecting with people who needed us to solve visual problems for them.
Kelly: The way we started was a way to make our artwork and large-scale work with no overhead. It’s spread kind of by word of mouth. We’ve gotten to the point where we want to introduce products as another stable revenue stream so that we can devote time to bigger, more impactful projects. 

How do you define design?

Elizabeth: What was the really dumb thing I read yesterday? ‘Design is a way of life and how it makes you feel. In a space. In a room.’ We’re in the middle of having to write statements about things, so we’re having to speak truthfully and say things that we’re passionate about but not in platitudes. It’s hard to answer those questions without seeming disingenuous. 
Kelly: Or vague.
Elizabeth: I remember having a conversation with Kelly, because when you’re in your mid- to late-twenties, you’re asking yourself big questions. One night I was like, ‘What is art? What do I think good art is?’ It was a question that scared me because I had never asked that question in art school. … [Kelly] said the most profound thing to me at the time: ‘Is it true, and is it beautiful?’ That was so simple and perfect for me to hear, because I wanted it to be this analytical, heady thing. … I think I’ve been chasing after that feeling since then. That’s why we make design work, and try to make things better and clearer and more beautiful and surprising and delightful—all the things that you want to better your surroundings or better the world that we live in in a way that makes sense to us.
Kelly: Design is always solving a problem, and doing so to the best of your ability and experience and history. I guess I separate design from art, with the problem-solving aspect. Product design, any kind of design, graphic design, architecture—those are all born of some kind of prompt based on the material world and needs, whereas art comes from a more immaterial, spiritual place.

 

‘Is it true, and is it beautiful?’ That was so simple and perfect for me to hear, because I wanted it to be this analytical, heady thing. I think I’ve been chasing after that feeling since then.
— Elizabeth Williams
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What three things influence your design the most?

Elizabeth: I’d say architecture, art history.
Kelly: And decorative arts history.
Elizabeth: Wallpaper and pattern designs specifically.

What is your process for working together?

Elizabeth: It’s definitely a conversation, and then we tend to get each other excited about something, and if we feel that energy spark between each other, we go after it. You can tell when the energy’s not there. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Something happens that I can’t necessarily describe—an energy exchange that’s an unsaid pact that we make. Yes, we will carry on with this idea and see it to fruition.
Kelly: Or even if we don’t know at the moment, it’s something that we can come back to.
Elizabeth: Then Kelly may draw it out, and she’ll give it to me, and then the computer magic happens, and she helps me refine it. And then we go into the land of color, which is so deep and wonderful, and explore how the design changes because of that, and then we talk about scale. … It’s layer upon layer of complexity added to the process, and we’re both part of those decisions.
Kelly: We trust each other’s instincts and ways of talking about things. It’s become this effortless build.
Elizabeth: Which is totally unfair for the rest of the world because everyone else has to work with people that they hate collaborating with and they have to listen to podcasts that tell them how to work with other people’s personalities.
Kelly: [Laughs] And then they try to do it alone, and it’s too much work, and they hate their failures.
Elizabeth: We just think that we’re failing together, and then we can cry and talk ourselves out of it. Collaboration is very difficult, but we’re lucky that we work so well together.
Kelly: We have a shared catalogue of visual references that has really gotten us going—geometric, architectural, minimal, playful.

Design is always solving a problem. [Design] is born of some kind of prompt based on what the material world needs, whereas art comes from a more immaterial, spiritual place.
— Kelly Diehl

And what’s it like to add in a client or third party?

Elizabeth: We’ve been able to do some weird commercial projects [because] people put us in this weird, kooky category. We didn’t have to do something that we weren’t necessarily proud of in the beginning, which is really lucky. Sometimes you just have to do jobs to make money, and then you get known for doing the thing that you don’t really want to do. We’re working with 8th and Roast right now, and they want a large-scale mural in their new location. They gave us a prompt to use some of the ethnic vocabulary and regions where they get their beans from, so we did this weird collage, more avant-garde thing, and everyone’s like, ‘I don’t know what the hell that is but I like it and I’m into it.’ We’re able to do something that’s weird and that they didn’t expect, but it’s not so weird that they can’t get behind it.
Kelly: It’s not confrontational. We work with color and pattern, and those are things that are very familiar to all of us in terms of all these learned histories of textiles and craft.
Elizabeth: What we strive for a lot of the time is something that has a sense of familiarity that also seems foreign, and that duality is very important to us.
Kelly: And right now, feminine crafts and work are more accepted and creeping into all these art and design forms. We’re seeing fibers, embroidery—it seems new, because it’s been this colder, more masculine environment up to now, but it’s like a rainbow explosion of more voices in design. Plus with Instagram, everyone wants STATEMENT SPACES.
Elizabeth: [sings] Where’s my selfie wall??

How do you characterize your role within Nashville?

Elizabeth: For us being younger women who are trying to have a voice in the conversation in Nashville, the fact that we’ve been able to do our business and people are supporting that is a testament that there is some value to design in Nashville that’s bubbling up, even if we are one of the only options [for what we do].
Kelly: We’re trying to look outward more, within the community, to what’s been successful and trendy. We’re bringing that perspective. But just being the first can be a step forward for our microindustry in Nashville.
Elizabeth: We really care about things like [Nashville Design Week], because we see that it will bring more attention [from] outward to inward.
Kelly: There’s an intellectual capability to assess and live in and seek out high design, better design. It’s just a lack of options or precedence.
Elizabeth: And manufacturing stuff, too. That’s not as available in Nashville, too. There are a lot of people who can provide that stuff [in Nashville], but it’s not built in. Similar to the fashion industry, and that’s what Nashville Fashion Alliance is trying to do, with bringing more sewing and fabric and all the stuff you need to put together a collection.

If you could collaborate with another organization in Nashville, who would that be?
Elizabeth:
We would love to do something with Andra Eggleston of Electra Eggleston, who does fabric and textiles, and that would just be fun. Do a wallpaper with her. We’d also love to work with Joseph Hazelwood of Hazelwood Laboratories, to experiment with conductive ink and electrify some of our installations! And maybe to have a heavier hand in the future with any sort of development project, serving in more of a creative director role with one of the many architecture firms we love and adore.