Building and decorating a home in the South is a process that can take several years — decades, even — to complete. To do it right, you have to marry your hand-me-downs with hand-picked pieces; you have to create a space that is as conducive to comfort as it is to entertaining; and you have to consider the outdoors to be an extension of the home itself.
What is distinct about the way we make our homes in Nashville? To answer that question, we talked to some of the local people who produce the pieces that help us express our personalities in our own homes.
Adam Gatchel of Southern Lights Electric Co. makes modern light-fixtures in a vintage style. Originally from Chicago, he moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University and made his living as a professional drummer for five years before pursuing light-making full time last fall.
Gatchel’s work can defy an easy description. Is it retro? Is it modern? Yes to both.
“At first I was making lights out of reclaimed materials,” said Gatchel, “but I quickly transitioned into bringing life back to the styles of turn-of-the-century lighting. This winter I will be rolling out a new collection of large wall lights and chandeliers inspired by the French Industrial Revolution.”
Modern Arks’ Jamie Bennett also draws inspiration from the past, repurposing vintage items — like antique shipping crates or wood from old barns — to fashion modern furniture. His credenzas, for example, are a collision of rural, weathered planks and midcentury style. A Nashville native, Bennett credits his five-year apprenticeship at a Cleveland, Ohio, design and architecture firm with fostering his interest in woodworking.
“When the economy tanked, it was only a matter of time before the architecture thing dried up,” said Bennett. “While I was looking for nonexistent work in architecture down here, I kept my creative juices flowing through woodwork, [and] this is my career now. I put it out there, and people were interested. So far it’s been good to us.”
The City Paper caught up with Gatchel and Bennett to find out why they chose Nashville as the place to start their homes and businesses and what keeps them here as they continue to grow both.
How did you get started doing what you do?
Gatchel: Since I was young I always loved building things with my hands and taking things apart to see how they work. I started remodeling houses when I was in college and learned how to wire light fixtures. After college I played music full time, and during one of our longer breaks I started building lamps, basically out of boredom. [I was] repurposing cigar boxes, old steel pipe, or discarded wood scraps and building one or two lamps a day, so I had a lot of these things lying around when a friend said I should start selling them. They started selling pretty fast, and my hobby turned into a part-time job [that is] now a full-time job.
Bennett: My wife and I like going to flea markets and vintage stores. In Cleveland we use to look for those old wooden shipping crates. We stacked them on top of each other next to our sofa and used them as side tables. When we moved back here, I knew I wanted to create unique furniture and incorporate an environmentally friendly agenda. Those crates were the perfect starting point. I decided that instead of stacking them, you could actually make a leg structure that supported them. [I figured out how to do that] without harming them, and [I realized] that they would make really cool-looking side tables.
Do you have a shop or do you work out of your home?
Gatchel: I work out of my house right now, but the plan is to build a workshop [on] the back of our property in the next year. I think it’s important to have separate work and living environments. When I walk into my shop, I know it’s time to focus and get stuff done. At the same time it’s great to wake up and walk a few yards to work. I’m excited to have more space for wood and metalworking. The projects keep getting larger, and I could always use some more elbow room.
Bennett: My shop is in Whites Creek, out in the country. I share a space with my cousin’s graphic design firm, Dual Identity Design. Their office is on one side and my wood shop is on the other, so it’s sort a of neat little artistic collective thing we have going [on] out here. The scenery is nice, and we can bounce ideas off of one another. They let me in on their process and vice versa. And when it’s slow we can go outside and throw the Frisbee.
Why is Nashville a good place for a business like yours?
Bennett: I’d say it’s the artistic community. Whether it’s music or design or woodworking and the handmade community here, it all seems intertwined and very supportive. [Plus] this is the perfect place to get wood, with all of the old falling-down barns around here.
What is your biggest source of inspiration?
Bennett: Honestly, just other design. It’s really hard to do anything original anymore, so I just try to do it right and focus on the process. Even music and printed design can be an inspiration. Great art can spark great art.
What do you think is quintessentially “Nashville” about the way we use our homes?
Gatchel: I love going to friends’ houses for parties or dinner. So many of my favorite Nashville memories are sitting on front porches or congregating in the kitchen, talking with friends and meeting new ones. Nashvillians are pros when it comes to networking, so a lot of that happens, too. Sharing a meal and spending time with your friends and neighbors is one of life’s greatest treasures.
Bennett: I think it’s the emphasis on outdoor spaces. The weather is generally nice here for a large part of the year, particularly in contrast to a place like Cleveland, where we got a lot of snow and it was bitterly cold for months. Outdoor spaces are crucial.
What is the most important thing about a home for you?
Gatchel: Making it feel, well, like home. I have been in Nashville for 10 years and have probably moved 10 times. This time we really want to make the house our own and create a very comfortable and personalized environment.
[Aside from] the obvious new coat of paint, I’m in the process of custom-making all new lighting. We are building a fire pit in the backyard for entertaining in the fall, decorating with posters and artwork that is meaningful to us, and the rod iron pergola that we were married under is going into our garden. I want to capture some of that warm feeling [you get] when you walk into your childhood home.
Bennett: Openness. I like tall ceilings and open floor plans. I like big windows for natural light and open spaces. Maybe I’m claustrophobic.
What’s the most interesting feature you’ve seen recently in a Nashville home?
Gatchel: Old homes usually have some quirks that make them really unique. I was in one home on the East Side that had a small hole in one of the upstairs rooms about the size of a quarter. It had been covered up for years because no one knew what it was, but it turned out to be a pipe that traveled down to the front door and functioned as sort of an intercom system between the homeowner and visitors.
What is your favorite thing about the actual houses here in Nashville?
Gatchel: Nashville architecture has a lot of great style. I love walking into a Craftsman [style] home and seeing the different-colored tile fireplaces or huge pocket doors. I think the most interesting thing is the way people translate these old beautiful houses into present day. I love seeing detailed wallpaper prints, Gothic and industrial lighting mixed with reclaimed materials and little touches of the South all working together.