Designer Spotlight

Luke Bryan's designer, Chad James, Is Upping Nashville’s Sleek Quotient

The Alabama native creates layered spaces that always include an element of fun.

Chad James designer
Born and raised in the South, designer Chad James has amassed an impressive client list, including country star Luke Bryan (portrait by Abby Flittner). Top: This Hillsboro, Tennessee, study is paneled in bird’s-eye maple painted “telephone-pole brown” and features a shearling-upholstered chair. The space includes Lee Industries lounges and a Holly Hunt sofa. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck

Chad James grew up in Muscle Shoals, a northern Alabama town on the Tennessee River that, he says, “was dubbed the hit recording city in the 1970s. Lots of people recorded there — Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Wilson Pickett.” That goes a long way toward explaining his taste in music (see Current Playlist below). But neither this nor his upbringing really indicated he would become a successful interior designer, much less one with an esteemed national clientele that includes country music artist Luke Bryan.

“Growing up, I didn’t know what design was,” explains James, 42, who has bright blue eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “Women were taught how to make a home themselves. You didn’t hire someone to do it for you because it seemed pretentious.”

As a child, James obsessively built things with a Lego set. “Early on, my parents saw that I was a creative child and wanted to make sure that they were celebrating me rather than scolding me,” he says. In a craft class at vacation Bible school when he was four, he created a portrait using dried macaroni glued to paper. “When I showed it to my mother, she said it was very nice,” he remembers. Running with that praise, he says, “I got some duct tape and taped it to the best piece of art we had in the house.”

Instead of reprimanding him, his parents — his mom was an administrator for faith-based nonprofits, his dad an engineer with the Tennessee Valley Authority — cleared an area of the garage for a gallery where he could display his artworks less intrusively. “Once, when asked about the moment,” he recalls of his mother, “she said, ‘Things are replaceable, but a child’s spirit is not.’”

white living room with Julian Opie artwork
Woman Dressing by Julian Opie hangs in the living room of the Hillsboro home, which features a sofa and chairs by Holly Hunt upholstered in Holland & Sherry fabric. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck

Still, when he enrolled at Auburn University as an undergraduate, he opted to major in architectural studies. He went on to earn a master’s in interior architecture in 1997 because, in his senior college year, he says,“I realized I cared nothing about drawing foundations and roof lines and had this moment of, ‘Oh wait! Interiors is what I want to work in.’”

Shortly after graduation, he was hired by the late Nashville-based designer Landy Gardner. “A vibrant, amazing man who had this incredible ability to pull the extraordinary out of the ordinary,” says James. “He quickly realized I was a sponge, and within a year, I was a designer at his firm.”

James worked for Gardner for six years in two stints. These were separated by an associate designer job with the Christensen Design Group in New York, where, ironically, he was asked to design interiors for a client building a house in Nashville. “I felt it was crazy to rent in New York and pay taxes when I was never there,” says James. “The South was calling my name again.” He decamped back to Tennessee and to Gardner, who eventually encouraged him to start his own business. The first venture, Chad James & Associates, “caught the eye of McAlpine Booth Ferrier, so I worked with them from 2007 to 2010.”

After taking a sabbatical and then being lured out of it by a former client in New York who asked him to design a sprawling penthouse, a second entity, the current Chad James Group, was born in 2011. That led to major projects, including restaurants in many cities, a Chicago pied-à-terre, more apartments in New York, several commissions for country singer Bryan (homes in Nashville and Florida plus a “party barn”) and a 23,000-square-foot Nashville mansion for a couple who had previously hired James to appoint their Montana homestead.

The love of art manifested in the macaroni portrait of his childhood is alive and well. An Aspire Design and Home article on Bryan’s Nashville mansion noted that James’s first apartment had art before furniture. Today, the designer lives with his greyhound, Josie, in a sleek modernist box in Germantown, one of Nashville’s most distinguished neighborhoods. “There are days that I can’t believe my dreams have become my reality,” he says. “It’s humbling to think of all the hands that have played a part in this journey. I always try to remember that if it’s not fun, we’re not doing it!”

“Growing up, I didn’t know what design was. You didn’t hire someone to do it for you because it seemed pretentious.”

In a 23,000-square-foot historic mansion in Hillsboro, Tennessee, that Chad James updated, the grand entryway features southern black walnut wood flooring and, at the top of the stairs, Hello Kitty, a sculpture by Tom Sachs. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck

A main source of inspiration for the redesign was the client’s extensive collection of fine antiques and contemporary art, like this heart art piece by Donald Judd. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck

The master bedroom features a dramatic canopy bed from the Chad James Collection and a pair of antique Louis XVI–style armchairs. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck

Originally a staff kitchen, this room was entirely redesigned for a modern family’s needs. James added a marble island to provide much-needed seating and prep space. The brass light fixture is from the Chad James Collection. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck

The master bedroom of the Germantown home features a canopy bed and a pair of leather benches. Photo by Daniel Hunley

The study features dark paneled walls and leather armchairs with nailhead trim. Photo by Daniel Hunley

Artwork by Alic Brock hangs in the living room, which includes a live-edge coffee table and an antique book press on the credenza. Photo by Daniel Hunley


Luke Bryan's Florida keeping room
James says he likes hanging art in unusual places — for instance, placing an Andrea Costa Studio piece above a settee in Luke Bryan’s Florida beach house. The space includes a beaded chandelier, an antique ladder and a hide rug. Photo by Alyssa Rosenheck


Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Home Base

Nashville, Tennessee

First Big Break

I was in month three of a sabbatical and got a call from a former New York client. He had just bought an 8,000-square-foot penthouse and wanted me to do it. I told him I wasn’t really working, but he said, “I’m sending you plane fare.”

The Look

What we’re putting into rooms is very mindful. I like interesting juxtapositions: traditional styles mixed with modern pieces in uncluttered environments; designs that walk a unisex line so rooms are comfortable for everyone; or pairing unexpected forms and textures, like shearling upholstery on a gilded Louis bérgère. I’ve done a lot of rooms that have white envelopes with blasts of bright color. At the moment, things are darker and cozier.

Art is an important big element. You want to make sure the client’s art isn’t downplayed but is the belle of the ball. We also have an innate ability to pay attention to detail — the smallest of trim or how nail heads are applied to a piece of furniture. There’s always a level of layering and always something humorous, a tongue-in-cheek reference that taps back into the family, because design should be fun.

Early Influences

Jean-Michel Frank is my heaviest influence. Also Sister Parish. Although she wasn’t Southern, there was something about her work that looked like what you would expect to find in Southern homes. And Billy Baldwin. I love the fact that he took chances and was so outside the norm.

Current Playlist

Easy, soulful music with as much body in the lyrics as in the sound — K.D. Lang, Faith Hill, Gladys Knight, old Motown, Tracy Chapman.

Favorite Artists

Donald Sultan (especially his smoke rings), Julian Opie (for his playful fun) and Sarah Morris (I like that she’s very structural and architectural).


In country star Luke Bryan’s Florida beach house, a pair of built-in bunks feature individual flat-screen TVs and under-bed storage. An industrial enamel pendant light hangs over the space. Photos in this slideshow by Alyssa Rosenheck

Two barn doors separate the bedrooms from this sitting area, which features shiplap walls and an octopus artwork hanging over the sofa.

Reclaimed heart-pine floors pop against the crisp white Shaker cabinetry. A trio of counter stools with linen slipcovers are pulled up to the island, which has a thick marble top.

James continued the home’s nautical palette on the waterfront patio, which includes a hanging daybed.

James repurposed a pair of vintage surfboards for the outdoor showers.

This living room in a Chicago apartment features artwork, including Three String Etching, Giallo, by Caio Fonseca. The space also contains a Jean de Merry Axel coffee table and an Hermès throw blanket.

James framed old architectural plans of Chicago’s Midway airport and blueprints of locomotives and hung them in the study to add a sense of history to the home. The shagreen table once belonged to James, but he thought it would be perfect for the space.


Nashville bedroom antlers on plaques
The master bedroom of this home in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood features a pair of antlers mounted on plaques. Photo by Daniel Hunley

Designers You Most Admire

I’m constantly inspired and intrigued by the designers on my team who work around me. I also think Lauren DeLoach is so talented.

Favorite Drink

Champagne, Prosecco and Cava. Or cabernet.

Favorite Watering Hole

Barcelona Wine Bar in Nashville.

Go-To Place

BrickTops. If you ever want to be seen or find people you haven’t seen for a while, you go there. I’m pescatarian, and the food is consistently good.

On the Nightstand

The bedroom for me is about sleep. There are probably five magazines by my bed that I finally just stuff into my bag and read at work.

Favorite Getaway Spot

A little place in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Tennessee called Blackberry Farm, which was designed by Suzanne Kasler. It’s a great culinary resort with a spa, and one of those places my cell phone doesn’t work!

Chad James’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“This piece looks comfortable, approachable and well crafted. I imagine it next to a fireplace or in a nursery, where you can create special moments with your loved ones.”

“This photographer really captures the essence of Americana style, which is at the root of my design aesthetic. And who wouldn’t want to be on a boat with a group of gorgeous people, all wearing the same striped sweater?”

“I love the juxtaposition between wood and stone in a space. Mixing such a hard element with an ornate hand-carved sconce creates a special moment.”

“I love these because they look unexpected but still have some traditional design elements. There’s a subtle touch of unpredictability that makes a space exciting and catches your eye. Put these chairs in any room, and they will make your guests go, ‘Hmm?’ ”

“Oftentimes, these handmade pieces carry a story behind them. Through their small imperfections, they speak to the time and labor that went into producing this beautiful piece of work. I often choose a frame befitting the tapestry that enhances and adds to the story rather than taking away.”

“This chair is structured, with less detail, moving away from ornate design. It’s the opposite of comfort, demanding your attention with its lacquered gloss versus a natural finish. I’m drawn to the impractical shape.”

“My imagination goes wild as to where this piece has lived and what it has gone through. I would put a pair of huge lamps with accessories on this and use it as a sideboard in a living room.”

“The armchairs are a great look with the warmer color, and the cleaner lines and tufting are a good mix of masculine and feminine. Using these will create a nice balance in any room.”

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