Maker City: Nashville's Design Renaissance

The creative renaissance quietly transforming Nashville into a collaborative design haven

It started five years ago.

Designers, painters, sculptors and makers fatigued by the one-step-forward, two-steps-back way of big-city life began relocating to Nashville in increasing numbers.

What could possibly draw creative minds away from massive hubs to a small Southern city without a well-established community of buyers?

“New York is very inhospitable to creative people,” says Josh Elrod, a Nashville native who lived in New York City and Brooklyn for close to 20 years before moving back to his hometown. “The cost of living is so great that, unless you have deep pockets or come from money or have a trust fund, you have to work just to survive. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for [much else].”

Nashville has always been rooted in old Southern traditions, including two of the South’s most beloved cultural linchpins: food and music. Through the years, musicians found an oasis in Nashville that embraced them in only the way a Southern town can—by giving them space, resources and a supportive community that helped them thrive.

Ocean Way Studios, Nashville, TN

Not much has changed, except now Music City is expanding its creative reach beyond chords and licks to stitches and brush strokes. As the city is discovered by burned-out, priced-out and bummed-out artisans, its creative community grows and welcomes diverse, new perspectives.

“There is something going on—something in the water—that has produced so many brands like ours that is not typical of a city our size, especially in the South,” says native Nashvillian Emil Congdon, who owns luxury leather-goods brand Emil Erwin with his wife, Leslie.

According to Congdon, the 2009 opening of Imogene + Willie—selling handmade, custom-fit selvage jeans in an old gas station—was the spark that ignited the maker movement in Music City. Husband-and-wife owners Matt and Carrie Eddmenson proved there was demand for high-end Americana beyond the realm of bedazzled jeans and ten-gallon hats.

“Imogene + Willie brought a lot of attention to the town,” says Congdon, who’s spent most of his life in Nashville. “Everybody thought it was a cool thing outside of the typical expectations of Nashville. It’s still denim but without the rhinestones. It had more of a mass appeal.”

American-made goods and the Americana aesthetic were gaining national popularity at the time, creating opportunity for Southern-grown brands like Imogene + Willie and Emil Erwin.

Emil Erwin, Nashville, TN

“I started making bags for girlfriends in college,” says Congdon of his beginnings as a leather craftsman. After college, Congdon’s winding road included hand-stitching shifting knobs and steering wheels for luxury cars, upholstering custom tour buses, and eventually making bags for craft shows.

In 2010, friends encouraged the Congdons to apply for Garden & Gun’s first Made in the South awards. Their Emil Erwin won in the style category, which catapulted the brand into the national spotlight overnight.

Kelly Bonadies, equal parts developer and Nashville community activist, has been a driving force in creating affordable workspaces for artists in a way that respects surrounding residents. In 2014, she purchased a former mill and transformed it into the 100 Taylor Arts Collective. She later began purchasing parcels along Buchanan Street, a historic area falling into disrepair that was yet untouched by retail. Among her properties in this new Buchanan Street Arts District, Bonadies owns the rehabbed complex of shops and studio spaces inhabited by Annie Williams and Nisolo Shoes. In March 2015, Emil Erwin moved into a minimalistic space in this same complex.

Almost a year earlier, in May 2014, Josh and Ivy Elrod traded in their quintessentially metropolitan lives in Brooklyn, New York, for slow-and-sweet Nashville, where strangers are one “hello” away from becoming a friend.

In this small city, every like-minded artist, designer and developer seems to be connected by a tangled web of invisible threads.

Wilder, Nashville, TN

In fact, when Josh and Ivy Elrod moved to Nashville from New York City in May 2014, they unknowingly purchased the house across the street from the Congdons. Little did the Congdons know, the Elrods owned Wilder, a contemporary home-décor shop located about a mile from Emil Erwin.

“Nashville’s always attracted dreamers,” says Josh, an authority on dreamers if ever there were such a thing.

Josh is a painter who was raised in Nashville. He moved to New York City nearly two decades ago to become a Blue Man (of the famed Blue Man Group), a spectacular career he held for 10 years. Ivy is a renaissance woman who trained with the globally acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company, was a rockette for years, and ultimately embraced a career as an actor and playwright.

For years, the Elrods tinkered with the idea of owning a contemporary housewares shop that would allow them to channel their love for modern art. In September 2013, Ivy attended a 16-week business incubator where she created a comprehensive business plan that transformed their longtime dream into an actionable reality—including the harsh reality of starting such a business in hyper-competitive, oversaturated and overpriced New York City.

They needed a Plan B. “Ivy came home one night and very simply said, ‘We’ve been looking at this all wrong. We should do this in Nashville,’” recalls Josh. “We were both like, ‘Yes! That’s it!’”

Wilder’s doors opened in Germantown in November 2014.

Wilder, Nashville, TN

The shop is an embodiment of its owners. Sprinkled throughout are pieces that came into existence after the Elrods connected two artists who then collaborated to create something spectacular. In almost every breath, Josh mentions a connection he’d like to make between designers and makers. He and Ivy are thoughtful about their introductions, which is why they so often catalyze stunning collaborations, including a chair by Mary Mooney x Bear It No More, a pyramidal mirror by Keren Bernard x Whitson Brothers, and furniture by Alex Drew & No One x Electra Eggleston.

This kumbaya approach is a rarity, especially in the art world.

“There aren’t that many cities where there is a booming art market, and those cities are usually more expensive and a lot more competitive,” says Alex Lockwood, a sculpture artist whose work can be found for sale at Wilder. Not only is Nashville not competitive, it’s quite the opposite. Peers in nearly every creative industry bolster each other up with pure intentions—“I think it’s quintessentially Southern,” says Congdon. “We just hope that, as Nashville grows, its charm doesn’t get washed away.”

Alex Lockwood, Nashville, TN

Congdon’s sentiment is echoed by most Nashvillians who hope to retain the neighborly essence of their beloved hometown. Cities like Austin, which many say boomed too quickly for its own good, serve as a cautionary tale for Nashvillians who hope to protect not only the city’s spirit, but also the long-time residents of its historic neighborhoods. Like any city gaining national attention, gentrification is an ongoing concern.

Fortunately, Nashville is attracting newcomers who want to preserve the very charm that attracted them to the city. A New York City transplant taking it upon himself to improve the community, Lockwood personifies Nashville’s new creative class.

Lockwood first rented studio space at Bonadies’ 100 Taylor in 2011. It was Bonadies who told Lockwood about the building on Buchanan Street that he would go on to buy. “I [had] the desire to control my space, but also to have creative people around me in different disciplines,” he says.

Acorn + Archer, Nashville, TN

Just a few blocks from Emil Erwin, Lockwood’s green-and-white building greets passersby with a street-facing flower shop and artist studios within. Lockwood has big visions for his recent purchase, including a finished basement with extra studio and office spaces, a rooftop garden and a new cinder-block building out back with the capacity to accommodate much larger studios. 

“There’s a potential for this neighborhood to develop in a really interesting way that’s both paying attention to the people who live here right now and the value that the history of the community has,” says Lockwood. “[We want] to keep it affordable for artists to stay here.”

Today, Lockwood’s tenants run the creative gamut, including The Farmer’s Florist, Jessica Cheatham Ceramics, Acorn and Archer Jewelry, pastry chef Lisa Donovan, and visual artists Robert Scobey, John Tallman and Duncan McDaniel.

“Nashville has a certain charm to it … because the people that live here create it,” says Congdon. He himself is the embodiment of the Nashville born-and-raised artisan. “No one [in Nashville] was ever taught that they were supposed to be cutthroat. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be nice and helpful.”

Alex Lockwood, Nashville, TN

Maybe that was the trick all along. Maybe instead of the cutthroat, eyes down, mums-the-word approach, massive artistic hubs could have been thriving in a parallel universe where community, collaboration and, dare we say it, kindness are the guiding tenets of good business.

Either way, Nashville’s doing it right. And, as it turns out, there isn’t anything in the water. Instead, what’s causing creative people to flock to the South are the smiling Nashvillians who refuse to give up their “love thy neighbor” ways.

Simple as that.