Studio Visit: Libby Callaway

Story By: Cat Acree
Photography: Daniel Meigs
Nashville Design Week 2018

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.

How do you define design?

I think design touches every part of your life. 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 to say we’re not a PR company because it’s kind of a concept that’s being phased out. We do public relations for creative companies, but mainly it’s figuring out ways for them to communicate their message to not just the press but to the public, and to engage people, whether they want them to buy something or talk about an idea or attend an event. It’s figuring out ways to help creative companies tell their stories.

I come from a journalism background, so for a long time, I always thought that there were two sides to the coin—kind of like Woody Allen, you’re either a New Yorker or you’re an LA person. [But] actually I realized about 10 years ago that I like LA, too! You can be both. You can hold these two opposing ideas at one time. I realized that the work that I had been doing post-working at a newspaper was really the same work I was doing as a writer. It’s sort of like business-to-business but it’s business-to-consumer. B2C instead of B2B. It’s figuring out how to tell stories in a different way, and that’s what I think we do.

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 the Noelle owners in that they have really put their money where their mouth is in terms of engaging the creative community here. I’m really always very surprised that they continue to listen to our sometimes weird ideas or programming. … Our line is—it’s not a line, it’s the truth—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.

I think there are people who come in—and of course, I’m very attuned to it—I see even other hoteliers come in and been like, “We’re investing in the creative community, paying homage to Nashville, so we’re getting this designer to make a chair.” They’re not going as far as to hire tenured ceramicists to make all the ceramics for the restaurant, or getting Jessica Cheatham at Salt Ceramics to put a vase in every room.

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 different small companies, getting them involved.

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.

I think 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 has some of that, but I think fashion has just gotten over-commercialized. I don’t know who owns who anymore, and that seems to be all anyone wants to talk about. The choices being made in terms of all the designers going from house to house with really increasing frequency—I don’t feel like aesthetics are being developed in ways that they should, from the top down. And then of course the problem of fast fashion, which I’m just as guilty as anyone for investing in it sometimes. But I don’t know, I just don’t think that people are being very thoughtful. You have to be more thoughtful when you’re working with interiors because there’s a little more permanence in it.