Most of us know Ben Palmer-Ball as the beloved owner of Digs Home and Garden in Chenoweth Square. But did you know that he is a classically trained architect who can do a lot more than just guide your furniture purchase? His eye is exquisite, and we look so forward to seeing all the incantations of seasonal decor that inspire us each season. He designs commercial and residential spaces — both indoor and out — and he was upcycling and restoring before that was even a trend. So much of the staging in his store is something he found or saved from his Shelbyville farm. We caught up with Ben to find out more about his sense of style and what inspires his decisions.
You are an architect by trade, but many think you are an interior designer. What types of structures or spaces do you love to design?
I am a classically trained architect and not worthy of the interior designer title. There are lots of talented interior designers in this town who put into practice much more thought-provoking and coordinated designs than me. I’m afraid to admit that my approach to design might overwhelmingly accentuate the space and its details rather than the contents.
I’ve always been drawn to historic preservation and finding new uses or purposes for historic houses or commercial structures. I studied architecture at University of Virginia, so it’s hard to escape the influence and traditions of historic architecture when it is all around you while you are getting an architectural education. There is a reverence for all things “Jefferson” — not only on campus, but the entire region.
People know you as an “outdoor living” expert but you really do interiors, as well. How are they the same and how are they different?
I do tend to equate the two. Outdoor spaces tend to have boundaries or defining elements much like indoor spaces, though it usually involves a change in scale. And of course, there IS the weather-ability factor to consider. I spent a good deal of my career in Southern California, which may contribute to my perspective of blurring indoor and outdoor boundaries. I love that ability to bring the outdoors inside and vice versa.
What is your design aesthetic and how do you translate that to a client and his or her home?
I believe a client’s personal space should be a reflection of his or her life and style. That usually means you don’t start with a clean slate. Much like historic preservation, you start with some established framework and build upon it. Most clients have something that reflects their personality or preferences. You start with that, take cues from those elements and run with it to fill in the whole picture. All the while, you understand that it will take time for it to reach maturity or fulfillment.
Who have been your industry mentors and/or role models and why?
I think that role models tend to evolve over time. I have always admired Hugh Newell Jacobsen, an architect who takes vernacular forms and materials and creates buildings with very traditional roots but with a modernist sensibility. Also, Robert Stern, another architect who designs a wide range of structures but usually with an historic or traditional vocabulary that addresses all the constraints and opportunities of modern living. As far as a pragmatic and sensible interior designer, I do admire Bunny Williams, who is actually without formal training. Her residential interiors possess a very casual and traditionally Southern approach to living. Other interior designers: Barbara Barry and Michael Smith (he has just put together a couple of outdoor furniture collections for Brown Jordan).
Where do you get your design inspiration?
As I mentioned, my inspiration or direction is usually guided by some parameters that are existing. It might be as simple as the lighting or view, or some treasure or artwork that can form the basis for a design palette. Those who know me know that I am not a “Type A” personality who dictates or presses for my own vision, but rather one who listens to a client or a space and sees what direction or inspiration might come from within.
If you could squeeze your design philosophy into five words, what would they be?
That’s a tough one. “Do no harm” comes to mind but I think that is the physician’s credo. So I’d have to say, “Be a good listener,” even if it is for a personal Ben Palmer-Ball design project.
You seem to be influenced by nature. How does that get translated in design (i.e., colors, textures, designs, etc.)?
Nature influence: I do tend to have a preference for natural materials and the warmth that comes from their essence, and the patina that comes with age. In an increasingly “green”-focused age and culture, we can still include natural or re-purposed materials that are gentler on the environment with respect to production, or sustainably harvested.
What has been your most challenging project to date and why?
I do tend to focus on commercial design projects more, as residential projects always seem to be the most challenging and frustrating. Contractors, friends or family members always seem to have another perspective that gets mixed into the equation after things are finalized or under construction. Having advocated for listening to clients, I would much rather these disparate voices enter the process at the beginning rather than at the end of the process. There is SUCH a difference in professionalism in dealing with commercial contractors, as they are used to working with architects. Most home builders think they know best and often don’t even follow drawings or details, invariably telling clients that they have a more cost-effective way of building or constructing a design. Since money is always a priority, their solutions inch their way into design and the concept often falls short of the mark. They are just not used to having another creative voice guiding a project.
How does Louisville’s design scene differ from that of the rest of the country?
Design preferences here in Louisville are very traditional or transitional, at best. I have to always take that into account in buying for Digs. A lot of times, I am drawn to some contemporary or edgy product, color or style and have to step back and think: While I am attracted to this item, will my customers “get it?” Will it sit on the showroom floor waiting for some enlightened or adventurous client or designer to see and appreciate its worth? As an aside, my home is chock full of product that nobody understood or appreciated. Often, I have a difficult time sending these orphan (visionary?) items to the tent sale, so they find a resting place at my personal “Grey Gardens,” a crumbling ruin in Shelbyville that is my life’s work/mission.
Share one design secret with us regular folk.
Be fearless: Change can be good. I have a good friend in NYC whose career is in hospital management but whose passion is design. He helps me at market and in styling the showroom. He challenges me and forces me to think outside the box. We have a sort of yin and yang relationship when we are together. He’s much more minimalist in design approach while I border on hoarder mentality. That sort of creative tension can be inspiring and motivational.
Is there one design element that you use over and over again, in some type of capacity?
As I said, I listen to clients’ needs and wants. It’s not always words that you need to look for. So, the result is usually specifically tailored to a particular client. Having said that, I love the concept of furniture and furnishings that can serve more than one role. On the exterior design side, I love to work with chat-height tables. They are 24” high and can double as coffee/occasional tables or casual dining — or even a convenient spot to rest your feet. I’m also a fan of welting sofas and other upholstery, as it makes it seem more tailored or customized. One other item I’ve come to appreciate is a good throw pillow. They can get expensive but just the right fabric or texture can complete a room. Of course, they always have to pass the practical test: Is it comfortable for a nap?
Are there any trends you’re loving at the moment and, alternately, any timeless aspects of design that you cling to?
I think there’s definitely a trend toward repurposed materials and products. Just look at our new interior design showroom where we have a wall of reclaimed barn wood from an old tobacco barn in Versailles, Kentucky. There is so much texture and a variety of hues and tints that it is really an art installation. As far as a color trend, I’d have to say it’s blue and its many nuances, as well as grey and the wide range from cool to warm shades.
As for timeless elements, having been raised in the South, I have to pay homage to family heirlooms and antiques. They may not always receive high marks from a design perspective but it’s that history and legacy that should be honored, appreciated and, above all, used and enjoyed. I have a cherry secretary that my grandmother used to tell me came through the Cumberland Gap with my ancestors. It’s one of my most treasured items — not for its simple authentic beauty but for the visible and tangible history, as well as the memory that links me to my roots.
What brings you the most professional joy?
Professional joy comes with solving a problem or organizing a design concept that clicks and I can see the end result in my head. When I started out in architecture, I had a mentor who kept stacks of oversized index cards for each project – noting client needs, client wants, code considerations, opportunities, constraints, etc. All were organized on a big pin-up board. It helped to develop a hierarchy of guiding principles and ideas leading to design solutions. I don’t always perform that ritual now with cards and a blank wall but I think that process of absorbing data and filtering occurs in my brain as a matter of training, and guides me in finding the best overall solution.
Thanks to Ben for sharing his creativity with us. We can’t forget to mention Deb Woolfolk, Ben’s right-hand woman. Thank you for all your assistance.
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