Masters of their craft come together in home design
By Sarah Levitch
Photo by Andrea Hutchinson
The talented owners of Chenault James Interiors, Karzen Langan + James Construction and Four Board Woodworks often work collaboratively to create beautifully designed homes. From the very bones of the structure, to finding unique pieces of wood to repurpose, to the carefully chosen decor, this group of individuals knows how to create a quality home. We contacted these local designers of different trades to learn about how they became involved in the business, what the best home design methods are and why it’s important to design a home with items and elements that you love.
Chenault James of Chenault James Interiors
What is your background in interior design? When was your company founded and how has it evolved?
I didn’t study design in school, I was a fashion merchandising major. When I returned to Louisville, I worked for a local interior designer, Lee Robinson, in the resource library and then moved up to an assistant position. He did everything from construction to decorating, which was a great experience for me to learn the whole process. I then got restless and wanted to move from Louisville to explore, so I moved to Atlanta and worked for several designers there.
When living in Atlanta, I met Ed James, my husband, who was from Columbus, GA. Eventually, I moved to Columbus and began designing my house there. Friends started to notice what I was doing and asked me to help them. Over time, people in Louisville started to notice, and I received a few jobs remotely. When Ed and I moved to Louisville, those jobs were ongoing, so it helped the transition to have work. I now do design jobs mostly here in town.
What makes your interior design style unique and where do you draw inspiration from?
My designs have a soul, a feeling you can’t get out of a box. I pay attention to every little detail and think through every different design aspect. The overall outcome is a feeling that you can’t explain. I pour so much effort into making each part of the design highly customized and I like everything to have meaning.
I didn’t realize it for a long time, but my grandmother was a huge influence on me. I have a great appreciation for the way fabrics feel and she had a lot of velvet, down cushions, mohair and other real materials. I’m also influenced by nature. I made some drapery rods for my mother out of bamboo from my garden.
What are your favorite aspects of home design? What do you get most excited about when decorating?
I get excited when clients trust me and I can use my full creative potential. I like taking risks and creating one-of-a-kind pieces. I also love supporting and working with local craft makers. There are so many dying trades, so I love giving them an opportunity to succeed.
What challenges do you face when designing homes and how do you overcome them?
The challenge is finding the time to truly be creative and think. The initial stages of designing can take so much time. It stays in this period of development for so long that all the time to think is broken up. I get bogged down with running a business and managing the team, so I dream of the day when I can just create. It’s hard to be creative when I’m overstimulated and trying to do too many things.
If you could give three design tips to a beginner in interior design, what would they be?
First, follow your intuition and don’t design for anyone else but yourself. Second, buy what you love. If you buy things as you can afford and find them, they don’t need to have a place. If you love it and it fits into your budget, it will find a home. That’s something I learned through experience. Everything I’ve purchased for my house hasn’t been for any place in particular. It’s all naturally found a home. Designing doesn’t have to be so strategic. Third, when painting, go for high-gloss trim. The reflection is really warm and it gives it a rich, elegant feel.
Ed James, Clayton Langan & Don Langan of Karzen Langan + James Construction
What is your company’s demographic? How do people find you?
Clayton: We work for all kinds of people who like to create, enjoy and appreciate fine homes. We don’t advertise, our projects arise through relationships and doing the right thing. Ed’s work speaks for itself, and one job leads to the next.
We are also transparent. In this industry, sometimes it’s just smoke and mirrors. When we meet a client and the job evolves into the plans and bidding, everything is on the table. At the bottom of the page are our overhead and profit numbers in black and white. The discounts are passed forward. I think that helps build a lot of trust.
Have you ever decided a client wasn’t a good fit? How do you handle that?
Clayton: In the recession of 2008, the phones didn’t ring. There was a point when we called our own phones to make sure they were still on. We went from doing large projects to bathroom renovations and anything we could. That experience burned into our psyche not to say no, and there was a time when we would always say yes, even during the upswing after the recession. Now, we still try to do as much as we can, but when we know a project isn’t right for us, we’ll pass on it.
How does your company stand out from other construction companies?
Clayton: Our theory behind construction is that every project needs to evolve. In every step of the process, something will change. Then it comes to the specialty projects, like what Ed does. This could be wire brushing white oak to remove the soft grain, and all the textures start to layer onto each other. When we’re finished, it’s something the clients have never seen before. It takes a bit longer and there’s more thought behind the design.
Don: We’re not using stock plans. We often use an architect, Dan Grimm with Grimm Architecture and Design. Also, Chenault and Ed frequently travel South looking for reclaimed doors and architectural elements that can become something new, like an armoire or doors to a secret room.
Ed: What’s amazing is to watch these guys come out of the ground with a 12,000 square foot house. It’s hard to envision it on paper, then when we meet on-site, the ball starts rolling. This is the beginning of the organic process and the design layers that take us through finishes and ultimately complete the project. Each project is unique and requires full attention, heart and soul.
Ed James of Four Board Woodworks
What is your background with woodworking and the evolution of your company?
Ed: I received a degree in Geology from Columbus State University in Georgia and worked as a trim carpenter for seven years while earning my degree. I was working for a master carpenter named Lupe Robledo. He was and still is one of the most talented carpenters I’ve ever known. He looked at me one day and said, “You’re a smart kid, if you pay attention, I’ll teach you.” So I started paying attention, and before long, I could build stairs and handrails, do complicated layouts and cut and install all types of trim molding. I eventually started and ran Hammerhead Carpentry for 17 years before moving to Louisville.
I was blessed to have two older friends, custom home builders, that were a major positive influence on my life, my faith and my work ethic. Hal Averett and Tommy Hinton taught me so much about custom home building, and most of all, quality work. We created a lot of beautiful work together. We also went on several mission trips together with our church, including to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and provided hurricane relief in Louisiana and Mississippi. These trips were a great opportunity to use my carpentry skills to help others and it was so rewarding. Hal passed away just over a year ago. He was so creative and I miss him terribly. I like to think I put a little bit of Hal in all of my projects and I know he would be proud. I still stay in touch with Tommy Hinton and always will.
Clayton: To find someone who was so talented to join the construction team and could take us into the future and diversify our company was priceless and has proven to be. One of the greatest things I observed when I was down in Georgia visiting Ed, we were going through these back roads, and he would say, “I gotta show you this property!” He would call someone and they would say, “Of course, come over!” We would pull up in the driveway and I’d be so in awe of the homes. It was how Ed handled his clients and the relationships he built that I knew he was taking care of business. How I see it is, we’re business partners in all things. My father, Don, Ed and I are equal partners in both Karzen, Langan, + James and Four Board Woodworking. Ed and I create a lot together. I supply a lot of job opportunities. Ed runs Four Board, no question, he is the man behind it.
What types of woodworking do you specialize in? What makes your woodworking different from others?
Ed: Passion. I tell people that if we have to do the same thing all the time, none of these craftsmen would be here, especially me. We’re some of the luckiest people around because we do something different every time. I tell potential clients we can build anything made out of wood. It’s not too far from the truth. We build all types of custom cabinetry, interior and exterior doors and historic windows. We cut our own shaper and molder knives to create our own moldings or match existing ones. We design and build furniture, such as dining tables and beds. We love a challenge and will try just about anything a client can dream of.
Also, wood finishes are one of my favorite parts, because that’s where I can really set something apart. Anyone can build a bar out of white oak. But it’s different if you can wire brush it, put a reactive on it and then a final finish on top of that. The possibilities are truly endless. Custom finishes are a nice break from my main responsibility which is solving woodworking problems all day long.
What do you take pride in when working on projects?
Ed: We have a tremendous amount of trust, that’s what it’s really based upon; honesty, integrity and trust. We wouldn’t be able to innovate if people didn’t trust us. I am the first to tell you that we have an amazing team at Four Board. Our guys take a lot of pride in performing high-quality work and doing things right the first time. Each one has a different skill set. It’s my responsibility to recognize those talents and insert those pieces into the building process. I am grateful for each team member and their talent. I feel like each man is giving me his best and we are working to our potential. I am never short of amazed at what these guys can do when we work together as a team.
How do you take the vision of your client and add your own creative edge?
Ed: Between us and the client, it’s a partnership for sure. We take pride in guiding our clients through the creative process.
Most people want us to bring some ideas to them first. They may say, I want some glass, a finish I’ve never seen before and specialty hardware. We’ll take all of those things and put them together. Pinterest is a wonderful tool. What I tell people is, don’t put a hundred pictures in your kitchen portfolio, that’s too overwhelming. Pick ten, and tell me you want this door, finish and hardware, so at least I can get a vision of what the client wants. This enables us to develop a vision together with the end result being something truly unique. This also gives me an opportunity to create a relationship which is one of my favorite parts of the business. Getting to know people and helping them recognize they are probably more creative than they give themselves credit for is rewarding for me and the client. Life’s too short not to have fun doing your work!