When outsiders think of Nashville, Tennessee, they likely envision a pair of neon cowboy boots glowing above the entrance to a rough-and-tumble bar, the tunes of a country crooner spilling from the doorway. While undeniably all-American, the city isn’t generally perceived as the height of style and sophistication. Interior designer and native Nashvillian Hannah Crowell would beg to differ. And she’d be right. “I returned to Nashville after living in California for 12 years and I love it dearly,” she says. “It has changed so much and become such a diverse and creative city. It’s no longer the small, country-music town I grew up in.” (Her grandfather is the legendary Johnny Cash.)
Of course, along with its expanding cultural horizons—Nashville is now considered a foodie capital and a hotbed of heritage goods—the city, in many ways, became more mass, the outside attention wiping clean some endearing quirks. Crowell notes one indication of the shift: a sprawl of cookie-cutter, new-construction houses that, while grand in scale, are often lacking in style and personality. Such was the case for the home of her recent clients, a Finnish professional athlete and his musician fiancé. “In our neighborhood the 'McMansion' is all the rage,” she says. (The designer and her husband live within a mile of the couple.) While, the house is now far from impersonal or ostentatious, she confides, “it was definitely built as such.”
“I am always a little reticent to come in and tell a client we need to paint every inch, and retile, and basically spend a ton of money on something that was literally just built,” Crowell explains. “But I did, and they got it.” All beige everything simply didn’t jive with the down-to-earth couple’s serene, Scandinavian aesthetic, or Crowell’s preference for updated American classics. The new game plan? A singular, curated space that showed off their love of art, music, and culture, without an ounce of showiness or pretension.
Crowell essentially scraped off a layer of tasteless builder-grade finishes and built the home back up with cozy, understated furnishings in a soothing palette of neutrals, and with an emphasis on standout art. As a former gallery director, the designer was especially giddy to help the creative couple select new prints and canvases, as well as incorporate some collected works they brought back from Finland. “We used a lot of music photography, which is very dear to me having grown up in the business,” she says. “I bought two of Ethan Russell’s iconic portraits of Keith Richards from when he was on tour with the Rolling Stones, as well as a Neil Young print. My client is a die hard Neil Young fan, which I have endless respect for.” Crowell’s prize find, however, touches on another art form. “My favorite is a black-and-white of Frida Kahlo and a baby deer. It takes all of my willpower not to hide it in my coat every time I visit their home.”
Custom pieces, some of which were made by Crowell’s artist/furniture designer husband, James Wilson, complement a mix of high-end finds and accents from more accessible spots like CB2, Anthropologie, and West Elm. “Nashville is a tough spot for finding unique pieces,” says Crowell. “I can source great flea market finds and staples, but I go to Atlanta a lot on buying trips.” The living room’s streamlined sofa and the formal dining area’s statement-making wing chairs are all from South of Market in Buckhead. The breakfast area’s vintage farm table was snapped up at the city’s renowned Scott Antique Market. While the big pieces play it safe in solid shades of black, white, and gray, Crowell also indulged a love of graphic textiles. A peek in the music room betrays her admiration for Designer’s Guild, the wide-ranging collection of fabric maven Tricia Guild. “Being able to really explore and use some of the fabrics I have always loved was fantastic,” Crowell says. “And I love walking through their home and knowing that they have really lovely and well-made textiles.”
The project ended up being much greater than the sum of its fabric choices, however. The designer, her husband, and her clients became close friends, with the homeowners attending Crowell and Wilson’s tiny wedding last year, and the American couple visiting their European counterparts for a two-week tour in Scandinavia. And of course, Crowell can now visit her pride and joy whenever she likes. “My husband and I have long since coveted their furniture,” she admits with a laugh. “We joke that if my client gets traded—God forbid!—we will convince him it’s too much of a pain to move it all, and we will buy it off him for pennies on the dollar.” Call it friends with benefits.