Last summer, after nearly 10 years in Columbus, GA, where she launched Chenault James Interiors and saw her interior design business take off when Traditional Home named her a “New Trad” designer in 2015, Chenault James and her family — husband Ed, daughter Neal and son Bo — moved back to Louisville. This year will bring even more excitement: she’ll continue to work on projects in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia and Michigan (the latter two will be featured in Southern Living and Coastal Living, respectively, and we were thrilled to feature her work on StyleBlueprint already here!) and Chenault James Interiors will open in a bigger, more collaborative space in NuLu. With her two sisters (triplet great-granddaughters of Pappy Van Winkle), Chenault owns the lifestyle brand Pappy and Co., purveyors of bourbon-influenced items including barware, t-shirts, hot sauce, ties and even an expanding line of home furnishings. Pappy and Co. will share street-side space with Chenault James Interiors in the heart of NuLu at 843 Market St., where Chenault’s interior design clients will have plenty of room to dream, plan and design their next project.
Chenault’s experience in Atlanta and Columbus, GA, and her recent return to her Louisville roots have certainly influenced her work; her impeccably designed rooms seem at once cosmopolitan and exotic while also comfortable and familiar. She brings a touch of modern sophistication to the most classic spaces and never loses sight of real life — of course there are will be crayons on the kitchen table! — or the fun, eclectic moments even in a formal room. Her designs, like her personality, are Girl Next Door meets It Girl, and Louisville is lucky to have her back home in Kentucky carving out a niche in the interior design world.
We caught up with Chenault at her NuLu studio and talked about her guiding design principles and how she hopes to leave her mark on Louisville. Read on, and you’ll see why she’s this month’s Interior Designer Crush!
What is your earliest design memory?
I didn’t know my earliest memories were design-related at the time, but my mom talks about how as a child I would design the perfect shoe or piece of clothing in my head, and yet it didn’t exist. It probably made back-to-school shopping pretty painful for my mom! Now I think about that a lot because on a daily basis I am creating things in my head that don’t exist, or I’m altering things from their original state.
How did you know you were onto something? When did you realize that your taste, style and organizational abilities would allow you to turn this passion into a career?
I was living in Columbus, working for a designer and managing the books for my husband’s carpentry company. Friends and acquaintances started to see that I brought a new style to our town that felt fresh and different, so I started to get hired on my own. When I was working late into the night and on weekends I knew I had to cut out my other jobs and work only for myself. I had my nose to the grindstone and I don’t think I ever processed that I was onto something or whether I could make this a career. One day I looked up and realized that I had made a nice business for myself, and Chenault James Interiors was born.
How would you describe your personal design aesthetic?
Classic and timeless while still current and fresh — and with a strong sense of individuality.
What is the overall design goal for your projects?
My goal is for the spaces I design to be timeless, polished, layered and reflective of the individual client. I aim to preserve memories of the past and create a space that tells a story.
In 2015, Traditional Home named you a “New Trad” designer, an honor bestowed on young designers who infuse traditional style with their own fresh spin. Former recipients include Nick Olsen, Christina Murphy, Palmer Weiss and Grant K. Gibson. What does the description “New Trad” mean to you, and do you challenge or embrace the terminology?
I definitely embrace it! When I got word that I had been chosen as one of the “New Trads” and that my work would be published by a national publication, I had an intense feeling of gratification, and probably for the first time, I really felt like I was onto something.
Do you have a favorite personal room or space, either in a previous city or in your current home in Louisville?
Yes! Our former house in Columbus was around 100 years old. It was elegant and formal in style but it was small and cozy for our family, which I loved. I had that little house outfitted to function so well for our family, and I finally had it looking like I wanted and then we had to go and move home to Louisville! [Laughs] It is actually going to be featured in Southern Living this spring so that will be a nice trip down Memory Lane.
Do you like to incorporate local artists or artisans in your work? Who are some of your go-to names in Louisville?
One group I particularly like to work with is Four Boards Woodworks, a custom woodworking business my husband Ed started with Don and Clayton Langan. We both have that urge to do something different and not run of the mill, so we work well together. My sisters and I are currently working on creating our own hand blocked fabric for some Pappy and Co. products. I look forward to collaborating with a local artist on that project as well. And I’m psyched to work with the local Pure Paint Company, the sole U.S. distributor of the Dutch-based, handcrafted Pure & Original paint line known for its use of 100% raw minerals and materials. Their colors are truly beautiful.
Besides being near family — we’re going to assume that’s a given — what is your favorite part of living and working back in your hometown?
It has been really great to reconnect with old friends because of work. My job is more fulfilling when it also means building stronger friendships and making the experience with my clients really personal. It is also energizing to be able to put my hard work into my hometown. Hopefully someday and somehow, I’ll make a positive mark on this city in ways that are more than just aesthetic.
Who are some of your role models in design?
Since I’m so focused on Louisville right now, I automatically think of Todd Klein, whose work I really admire, as well as the late Scott Tichenor. I share Scott’s views on designing spaces that reflect who you are — be yourself and do what you love. My Aunt Sally was a longtime client of his, and as I grew up around her house I absorbed more about this embedded design psychology than I even realized. For instance, he would recover family heirlooms in a wild fabric and bring new life to something traditional. I can tell there were no rules in his book, and not coincidentally, I find myself saying “there are no rules” all the time.
What is your favorite kind of room to design?
I don’t have one! Anything goes. #Therearenorules
Two-part question: thus far, what has been your favorite project? And looking ahead, what project do you most anticipate?
This is so, so hard! One of my tops is a turn-of-the-century cottage on Lake Michigan that is going to be in an upcoming issue of Coastal Living. The community makes you feel like you are stepping back in time, so it was appropriate to go retro and preppy, and it was an absolute blast to do something totally different.
I have also been working on a barn project in LaGrange, KY, for about two years now, and construction is finally underway. It will be an event space, so the commercial aspect has been a good challenge for me as far as bringing the residential elements in that are so important to making it feel one of a kind and special.
What is one design element or secret that you cannot live without?
It has to be incorporating something old, something with a significant story, into a newly designed space.
Thank you to Chenault James for sharing her design inspirations and filling us in on all her new ventures. Follow along on Instagram.
Revisit some of our previous Interior Designer Crushes and beautiful Southern homes. Click here and prepare to be inspired!