Cookie-Cutter No More: Reimagining Old Designs for a New Millennium

Recently, published the below article where Ridley is interviewed on how to best update houses from the era of the “suburban surge” – 1980-2000.  Thanks to the author Stacey Wiedower whose words we reprint here.

Tray ceilings, wainscoting and carpet, carpet, carpet. In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, home construction saw a massive surge as American suburbs expanded. Square footage soared, but design didn’t advance at quite the same pace.

It was the era of the McMansion, when houses went up as quickly as builders could turn them around. And inside, homes of this era have a lot in common.

“I think Nashville was behind the times, style-wise, and many houses even built into the 2000s are really ’90s or late ’80s houses,” says Ridley Wills, founder of Nashville design-build firm The Wills Company. “Every house had these brown, thick finishes, lots of roofline, lots of architectural features going on.”

BEFORE: This carpeted stairway bound by wooden bannisters is classic ’80s design.

AFTER: By getting rid of the sharp angles and wooden handrail, and swapping out wood for iron for the bannister, this reimagined staircase has a more refined, updated feel.

Today, a different sort of revolution is taking place in the residential landscape, with a focus on smart design. Instead of maximizing space, it’s about taking the space you have and using it to its max potential. Instead of mirroring your neighbor, it’s about infusing your space with your own unique personality.

In other words, cookie-cutter is out.

That’s why, for The Wills Company, these ’80s, ’90s and early-2000s houses represent not a page from the design past, but an opportunity for the future. More and more clients are coming to the firm asking for a revamp of their homes’ tired ’90s-era style.

“We’re doing one right now with big, huge rooms and a big, huge, circular staircase,” Ridley says. “It’s a young couple in there, and they said, ‘What do we do with this?’ They’ve got four boys, and they needed more room.”

The goal for The Wills Company is to help the family open up the space while also minimizing adornment and lightening the finishes — essentially, taking that 1990s space and making it read 2018. “They have one of everything in there — a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s a hodge-podge of styles,” Ridley says. “The more we can simplify, the better off it’s going to be stylistically.”

Certain features of ’90s-era homes, like built-in TV niches, are over and not coming back. Others, like tray ceilings and built-in bookcases, will cycle in and out of style. But for a house that reads right now, overloading on architectural detail is out, Ridley says.

“We did another house off Granny White,” he says. “It had more vaulted ceilings than you can imagine, and that’s very typical of that period. We kept the high ceilings but got rid of all the fancy detailing, and that helped.”

BEFORE: Note the multiple levels in this tray ceiling.

AFTER: The same bathroom has scaled back crown molding while the ceiling height remains unchanged.

Something else that helps is to focus drama into one room or one feature so it makes the intended impact. For example, in a 2018 space you might see a charcoal fireplace wall in a house otherwise painted all white. In the ’80s and ’90s, though, drama exploded from every surface.

“Every room does not have to be vaulted and uber-special,” Ridley says. “Focus on where you want that drama to be, and let the other spaces be less. It gives the space that has drama all the more drama. When you do every room with a vaulted or tray ceiling, it gives no specialness to the rooms that do have it.”

We all know openness is the hallmark of modern-day design. On every HGTV show, in every shelter mag and on every home design blog, open and airy spaces abound. And typically, the first thing a homeowner charged with updating an ’80s or ’90s space wants to do is open it up.

That’s important, Ridley says. But the renovation also needs to fit the size, shape and style of the house. “You can be more communicative between the rooms, but you need to let it be the house that it is,” he says. “Don’t try to turn it into a New York loft because it’s not going to be a New York loft no matter what you do. Edit it down. Get rid of some of the fussiness of it.” That alone, he says, will help the space feel more open.

Another way to open up a space is to focus on its entry point. In many ’90s-era homes, for example, rooms with 10-foot ceilings are accessed by 6-foot, 8-inch doors. “Sometimes just raising the doors helps in these rooms to open up the space,” Ridley says. The same goes for bathroom countertops, which trend several inches taller than in the ’80s and ’90s.

BEFORE: French doors and a relatively short archway (in comparison to the tall ceilings) make the space feel cluttered and claustrophobic.

AFTER: Getting rid of the French doors shown in the “before” shot and heightening the archway are both impactful ways to make the space feel more open.

BEFORE: Note the recessed lighting and the height of the bathroom countertops.

AFTER: The recessed lighting was swapped out for tasteful sconces, and the countertop is slightly higher, a simple swap that makes a big impact.

BEFORE: This is a textbook ’80s his and hers bathroom — a luxury of the era.

AFTER: The same space has an updated feel thanks to a new, taller countertop, modern fixtures and new flooring — a tasteful blend of both hardwood and marble.

Flooring is another fix that can help turn a tired ’90s design into a modern-day space. In the ’90s many rooms were carpeted, including living rooms, dining rooms and sometimes even bathrooms. Now, hardwood rules the day. Adding hardwood flooring, painting wood-tone trim and changing out light fixtures and hardware are easy updates that go a long way, even without a full-scale renovation.

Another easy update, of course, is paint. The jewel tones of the ’90s and Tuscan hues of the 2000s are out, replaced by cool neutrals like white, cream and gray. “Paint can make a huge difference,” Ridley says. “Edit down, get it cleaner, get the lines and details consistent throughout the house.”

The 1980s, he adds, were the era of “Dynasty” and “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest.” He credits (perhaps blames) these nighttime television dramas for giving rise to an era of “more is more.”

“It’s all of that era – sequins, beads,” he says. “Everybody was trying to create that in their own house. That’s fun from a nostalgia standpoint, but everything doesn’t have to be the fanciest thing.”

Even if your home screams ’90s on the outside, inside it can be a clean-lined, relaxing retreat that speaks to the modern era. “Your house is not going to be this uber-modern home on the outside, but the interior decorating can be,” he says. “Interior design can go a long way in a house like that, and it’s worth investing in the decorating.”

For example, he and his team recently worked on a house with a giant living room with vaulted ceilings and an ornate center staircase that divided the space — in other words, drama from floor to ceiling. The homeowners struggled with where to place the furniture.

“There was no wall good for seating, and no one wanted to sit in there because it was so cavernous,” he explains. “So we made it into a grand, wonderful dining room. You can consider repurposing rooms — they don’t have to be what you thought they were. And the dining room is an example of a room that can move — it’s just a table. Most new houses don’t even have dining rooms.”

Along these lines, Ridley’s number one tip is to take the cues your home is already giving you, apply your taste and style, and think about ways your house can embrace the way you live. Pare it down to the essentials — that’s what modern living is really all about.

“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” Ridley says. “It’s also about simplifying. What do you like about the house? Let’s work with that.”

To learn more about The Wills Company, visit

Kitchen Dreaming

Ah, January. Month of plans and dreams. Even if your 2017 Resolutions Manifesto has already lost its charm – don’t worry, those “Learn Italian at Home” tapes will be there when you’re ready – it’s always a good time to enrich your life in the kitchen. And aside from a great new cookbook (like the handful we gave and received over the holidays), nothing inspires the happy cooking life like a tweaked and improved kitchen.

Considering a kitchen renovation this year? Here are three ideas to get you going. We’re big believers in a “dream-first; dream-big” foundation for any home project: you can’t know what you really want unless you’ve considered many ideas – especially the unfamiliar and extraordinary.

Already a happy home cook? Let these gorgeous kitchens spark your cooking imagination. Just think what you’d be inspired to create in spaces like these.

1. Try Color. We love the clean and classic look of an all-white farm kitchen. But color – a lot, or a little – can add an important emotional depth to this central family space.

  • Design by Ben Pentreath. Not a kitchen, but fuschia and persimmon? That's confident style!

2.  Step away from the built-in cupboards. Especially ones that match. We appreciate the tidy, clutter-wrangling appeal of uniform closed cupboards on kitchen walls and work islands. But there’s something fresh and inviting about kitchens that mix in open shelving and old-fashioned tables, breakfronts, and presses to create a more life-collected feel. It takes a commitment to keep all your dishes and gear pared down, neat, and dusted, but if you’re ready for that, it can work beautifully. Here are a few that get it right.

Let us know where your kitchen dreams take you. And when it’s time to make those dreams happen, the Wills Company can help. Ridley Wills and our design-build team will be ready when you are.

Nashville Knows Giving

There’s nothing like an expert to clear the clouds of indecision (and maybe even panic?) from your holiday gift planning. We asked some of our favorite hometown businesses for shopping thoughts and advice: White’s Mercantile, Taigan, Harpeth Gallery, G&G Interiors, AshBlue, Epergne, and Hillsboro Hardware. Here’s how they answered our most pressing questions.

White’s Mercantile, 12 South.

This deliciously curated modern general store has become a 12 South destination, and it’s really one of our favorites. Owned by singer-songwriter Holly Williams, of Hank Williams Senior and Junior royalty (and whose two other irresistible shops are White’s Mercantile on Franklin’s Main Street, and H. Audrey, in the Nashville Hill Center), White’s Mercantile 12 South occupies an old gas station next door to Sevier Park. Inside, you’ll find an inspiring selection of clothing (including Filson and Frank & Eileen), jewelry, books, cookbooks, writing paper, homewares, local pantry items, and treats and gear for beloved dogs.

1. What is the most popular gift you’re seeing this holiday season?

That’s SO hard to pinpoint one gift as we have a ton of options. For women, it is definitely our Barefoot Dreams robes (come in various colors/sizes).

For men, we are selling a lot of Filson watches, as they are truly amazing.

We also see a lot of shoppers buying stocking stuffers, holiday candles and local food items.

2. What is the biggest mistake people make when planning holiday gifts?

Waiting until the last minute to start shopping!!

3.  What has been your own favorite holiday gift to give or receive? What’s been the most surprising?

Our personal favorite/the absolute best gift to receive and/or give is a pair of Golden Goose boots. They are great for any personality and women LOVE them. Very well made boots that last forever.

Most surprising gift…a dog!

4.  What’s the most challenging category on your own gift list? What are you considering?

In-laws! Consider putting together a basket at White’s to include: local food/goodies from Nashville along with a cheese tray or cutting board from the Wooden Palate and a few Turkish-T tea towels!

5.  “When you’re out of ideas, give _____________________.”

A White’s Mercantile gift card!

To read more about White’s Mercantile and Holly Williams, click here.


Based in Nashville, this exquisite online marketplace collects unique and hard-to-find items from designers, artisans, and vendors in town and across the globe. At, you can shop a wide range of categories, from women’s clothing and jewelry to luxury home goods, wine and specialty foods – and even exceptional travel opportunities, like a Bordeaux wine and chateaux tour we’ve added to our own dream-wish list. Founder Mary Catherine McClellan and CEO Elizabeth Nichols offer this excellent holiday gift advice:

1. What is the most popular gift you’re seeing this holiday season?

Karen Adams 2017 Desk Calendars, which were so popular that we have sold out of them. She still has refills left (and you can add your own easel), and other lovely paper products.

Our shoppers also love Notti Toffee and Colts Chocolates. For the upscale “ski bum”, a jacket from Skea.

2. What is the biggest mistake people make when planning holiday gifts?

Not “pulling” the trigger once they place “it” in their basket.  You know the saying, “here today…gone tomorrow”!!!!

3.  What has been your own favorite holiday gift to give or receive? What’s been the most surprising?

It is certainly a surprise to send/receive a chocolate salami from Cacao. And we love to give friends personalized gift tags from Carter Lipscomb, or fun watercolor place cards for the Christmas table from Franklin, Tennessee artist Lexie Armstrong.

4.  What’s the most challenging category on your own gift list? (Teachers? Babysitters?) What are you considering?

Most challenging are “people who have everything,” which includes many of our friends and family. Because teachers and babysitters are always so appreciative of gifts, it is a pleasure to “hunt” for that special something for them.

5.  “When you’re out of ideas, give _____________________.”

Callies Biscuits, Schermer Pecans or “The Twelve Days of Christmas” ice cream sandwiches from Nyes.

All on, of course!

Harpeth Gallery.

One of Nashville’s Grande Dames, this boutique has served us for over 70 years. Shop here for fine art, antique furniture and silver, lighting, baby gifts, jewelry, and homewares, not to mention a legendary bridal registry. Owner Walton Estes offers this advice as the holidays draw close:

1. What is the most popular gift you’re seeing this holiday season?

One of a kind, unique gifts, i.e., antique boxes, whimsical “found” objects for the home.

2. What is the biggest mistake people make when planning holiday gifts?

Don’t plan – be spontaneous! You never know when the perfect gift will jump out at you!

3.  What has been your own favorite holiday gift to give or receive? What’s been the most surprising?

A new serving piece by Montes Dogged, beautifully handmade in Peru. Or a bottle of Walton’s Vodka, small-batch distilled from red winter wheat, right here in Nashville.

4.  What’s the most challenging category on your own gift list? What are you considering?

Girlfriends that have everything! But everyone loves Merry Cheese Crisps or a bottle of wine – or olive oil!

5.  “When you’re out of ideas, give _____________________.”

A gift certificate from Harpeth Gallery!

Estes Walton favorite

Read more about Harpeth Gallery here, and visit in person at 73 White Bridge Road, in Paddock Place (across the lot from J. Alexanders).

G&G Interiors Nashville.

Jane Anne Pilkinton opened this luscious new gift and interior design center this Fall in the Westgate Shopping Center, on Highway 100 just past the Highway 70 split. Look here to find luxury brands in furniture, lighting, rugs, homewares, and linens. Or just come to explore the beautiful and inspiring showroom, crowned by these Saint-Louis crystal light fixtures:

What do Jane Anne and her elves advise for the giving season? Here are their thoughts:

1. What is the most popular gift you’re seeing this holiday season?

Our signature white G&G plush robes have been incredibly popular. Add a white monogram for a sophisticated, monochromatic touch!

2. What is the biggest mistake people make when planning holiday gifts?

Purchasing the same gift for everyone on your list. A personalized, thoughtful gift is always a favorite under the tree!

3.  What has been your own favorite holiday gift to give or receive? What’s been the most surprising?

We love choosing a child to support each Christmas season. Knowing that a local boy or girl will have a smile on their face Christmas morning completes the season for us!

4.  What’s the most challenging category on your own gift list? What are you considering?

It’s always hard to surprise the men in our lives. We are loving the handmade items from our Brazilian line, Airedelsur. These masculine items are worked from Alpaca Silver, a variety of rich woods, cow, goat, and deer horns; natural cow and horsehide leathers, and semi-precious onyx.

5.  “When you’re out of ideas, give _____________________.”

A Saint-Louis chandelier from G&G Nashville, of course! These special pieces are jewelry for the home.

Join the creative staff at G&G Interiors for holiday shopping Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 5 PM. And bring your little ones for milk and cookies with Santa on Saturday, December 17th. You can round out your own list while Santa is hearing theirs!


These hometown experts should at least get you started. And while you’re at it, take a look at the intriguing collection of holiday gift ideas at these Nashville favorites:

At Epergne, owners Laura Chadwick and Susan Dyke have gathered the world’s most beautiful homewares into one luxury boutique, located on Highway 100.

Shop here for fine china, ceramics, linens, baby gifts, and other beauties from names like Vivo, Beauville, Artel, and Juliska. Special holiday hours now through December 24 include Sundays from Noon to 5 PM, and Thursdays till 7 PM. Visit for inspiring holiday ideas, like these.

AshBlue, Susannah Scott-Barnes’ chic emporium on Bandywood Drive, offers a distinctive collection of homewares, jewelry, bags, books, frames, and other treasures. Shop here for jewelry by Temple St. Clair and Kara Ross, and for linens by Nashville’s Turkish-T. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a treat for yourself, while you’re looking after everyone else on your list.

Hillsboro Hardware, on 21st Avenue just south of Blair Boulevard, makes even the least DIY-happy among us feel competent and powerful. Wondering what to give the gardener on your holiday list? Or the tinkerer/carpenter? Or the child who can make anything out of colorful duck tape? This delightfully old-school hardware store – presided over by Hazel, the managing pup – offers charming ideas for the practical loved ones on your list.

Feel inspired? Ready for action? Enjoy your hometown holiday shopping!

Five Nashville Spots for a Fresh Holiday Photo

First the hard news: the holiday season is here. Not the festive part – seeing friends, celebrating family. The parties! The presents! Not all that, not yet. But the holiday work starts now.

Like that annual holiday photo card. We’ll admit, there have been years when this tradition felt like a waste of time. Who – other than grandparents – really needs a snapshot of our children, or our dogs, cats, ponies, or other adorable dependents? Who really even looks at all the cards (and e-cards) that stack up in December? Who, above all, really cares?

We wonder. Then we take out the camera anyway. For the fact is, we need snapshots of our friends’ children (and their dogs). We look at every card in that December stack (though it might take till mid-January). We, above all, really care. We tuck those cards away in the attic with other boxes from other years. That long chain of photos; that river of images, sweeping us all through time together.

Traditional, yes. Predictable? Not necessarily. To make this early holiday job perhaps a bit more interesting – not that your sofa and front porch haven’t worked great for years! – here are five fresh Nashville locations for your family photograph.

1. Edgehill Polar Bears.

These beloved plaster bears first appeared in the early 1930s outside West End Avenue’s “Polar Bear” frozen custard shop.

(Photo courtesy of blogger Debie Cox, Nashville History )

From the 1940s on, they stood on the lawn of Rev. Zema Hill, a longtime Edgehill fixture, who placed two more of the bears (also throwing snowballs) outside his funeral home. They now occupy a place of honor on Polar Bear Plaza, at the corner of 12th Avenue South and Edgehill. And they’re patient and amiable during photo shoots, as befits real Nashville celebrities.

2. Flowerbed Mural at the Green Pea Salon.

Nothing requires a holiday card to be red and green, or silver and gold. And it’s hard to imagine anything more “Joy To The World” than this exuberant mural in the 12 South neighborhood.

3. Downtown Skyline from the Wedgewood-Houston Bridge.

Share Nashville’s urban energy.

(You could also shoot here at rush hour to prove you haven’t been kidding about the traffic.)

4. Angel Wings in the Gulch.

Artist Kelsey Montague launched her “What Lifts You” campaign to explore how individuals interact with public art that invites them in then seeks a social media response. She’s installed her murals in Australia, New Zealand, and New York, among others. And in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood, on 11th Avenue South. Read more about Kelsey’s work here.

This spot also works if your groove is more “Archangel.”

5. Berry Hill Legends.

In 2012, artist Scott Guion, a Katrina-era New Orleans transplant, began to paint music icons on the fences around the House of Blues Studios on East Iris Drive. Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, George Jones, the Beatles, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Flatt & Scruggs; all the greats. Choose a legend who shared your passion.

Or choose by aspiration.

We can’t wait to see your photos in our holiday stack. Happy snapping!

Read more about Nashville’s vibrant and fast-growing mural community here, and explore the Nashville Walls Project here.

House Of Horrors

Just when you think it’s safe to head back into Winter, house problems can lurk where you least expect them. Don’t be ambushed. Take these four key steps now to shield your home from things that go bump in the night. (Warning! Images may disturb some homeowners!)

Let’s be honest: rainwater is no friend to houses. Clogged gutters prevent water from running off and away from roofs, foundations, woodwork, and siding. And that causes warping and rot.

If your gutters are already full of debris – maybe you’re sprouting seedlings, or a moss garden like this! – falling Autumn leaves will only make things worse. Schedule a thorough cleaning now, and inspect your gutters and downspouts for the cracks and rust that make rain a weapon of house destruction.

Nothing beats a cozy winter fire in the hearth. But fire should stay where it belongs. Dirty, clogged, and crumbling chimneys, or chimneys that need re-lining, create serious hazards. Is it time to have yours inspected and repaired?

Or maybe you’re ready to swap your romantic (but smoky and sooty!) wood-burning fire for the clean and pretty convenience of a gas fireplace insert. Just in time for the holidays.

No matter what, take this advice: the American Red Cross recommends we use the time change, on Sunday, November 6th, as a reminder to replace batteries on all smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Take an extra moment to hit the “test” buttons to make sure alarms are working. Then enjoy that extra hour of fire-safe sleep, as Daylight Savings Time ends.

We all dread the feeling. Icy fingers caressing our necks. Chilly gusts through closed windows. Disgruntled undead souls?

Or just drafty cracks in windowpanes and caulking? Replace broken glass and old caulking now, and add new insulation to attics and crawl spaces, to keep out the winter cold – and keep in that expensive furnace heat. While you’re at it, ask yourself: when did you last have your HVAC checked and serviced? Do your filters look like werewolves, they’re that woolly with dust and debris? Autumn’s the time to button up against unfriendly Winter.

Peril stalks your doorstep, without good outside lights for porches and walkways. Days grow shorter; evenings darker. Just coming home from work and school can be a hard stumble through the gloom. And then there’s Halloween.

Now’s the time to install brighter bulbs in outside fixtures, and wash glass shades and hurricane chimneys so lights can shine out. And if you’re really ready to stop cursing the darkness, revamp your exterior lighting plan altogether, with fresh new fixtures and photo-cell motion sensors to turn on lights when you need them most.

Lights make a home so welcoming. Don’t you think?

Scared? Take heart. The Wills Company Handyman is professionally staffed and equipped to handle every fearsome house challenge you face as Winter approaches. Make your own list, then call us to help.

Do Try This At Home

The New York Times reports that Americans spent $97 billion (billion!) last year on “athleisure” – play clothes you wear all day, for every event: spandex hoodies in to work; yoga pants out to dinner; sweat suits for supper at home.

America, we can do better.

Don’t get us wrong. We love leisure. But we love being grown-ups too. Can’t we do both at once?

Firth & Moore make a party of two in Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” (2009).

Of course we can. And like every good habit, grown-up leisure begins at home. With a party.

Tracy & Hepburn host a weeknight dinner at home in “Adam’s Rib” (1949).


If you need reminding where to start, we have ideas. First, reclaim a space where you live to be grown-up ground-zero. Maybe that’s an actual home bar, like these the Wills Company designed and built in Nashville.

Or maybe it’s a living room table you finally clear of newspapers, mail, and lost homework.

The Stokesay Court drawing room stars in “Atonement” (2007).

A classic bar cart can also do the trick.

Crosby, Kelly & Sinatra take it outside in “High Society” (1956).

And with the right spirit, furniture’s entirely optional.

Connery, party of one, in “Diamonds are Forever” (1971).
Hepburn & Cat, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961).

Second, once you’ve claimed your spot, collect the basic party tools. With great respect, we offer this advice to everyone, novice and veteran host alike. Whether you’re starting a home new from scratch, or have been settled in for years, a fresh party set-up can inspire fresh parties. Our own essential short-list includes beautiful glasses (luxurious crystal or colorful vintage), charming cloth napkins, a handsome cocktail shaker, and sensuous trays to keep it all neat and inviting.                                                  Epergne, Nashville                               
AshBlue, Nashville                              Mason Shaker, Brooklyn, NY                    


                   West Elm                                                                     

Third, add a festive drink. Let these two modern classics jog your imagination.

And alcohol’s never required. A tee-totaling punch rounds out any good repertoire. Click here for three chic mocktail recipes from Sean McClure, the mixologist behind Cocktail Chemistry.

Fourth, and best, invite your favorite friends to dress up and join you.

Powell & Loy at home in “The Thin Man” (1934).

Consider it a public service: give everyone a reason to ditch the yoga pants. You never know – you might spark a trend.

Chiwetel Ejiofor & Frances Aaternir dressed to watch tennis, Wimbledon (2016).

Grown-up leisure? Yes, we do that.