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Dynamite Designers

Keep an eye on these up-and-coming creators — craftsmen, architects, interior decorators and more — whose explosive talent, ingenuity and skills have resulted in some amazing local spaces.

  

The Stylist | Catherine Arensberg

Catherine Arensberg likes to tell people that her business was born during naptime. After graduating from LSU with a degree in landscape architecture and working locally for a few years, she decided in 2008 to stay home with her first child, Addie. Around 2013, once her children were a bit older, Arensberg realized the potential of her design expertise and began searching for clients again. Her exterior design business has been steadily growing ever since. 

“When it comes to home improvement, it’s one thing to physically know how to do a project — how to saw the wood or build the deck — but there’s always that question of, ‘How do you put it all together as a cohesive space?’” Arensberg explains. “That’s what an exterior designer is for.” 

We’re sitting outside her backyard studio, a quaint cottage with a pale pink front door, with mugs of coffee and morning sunshine that’s not yet warm. With a rustic teepee-style firewood hut and a cozy loveseat with navy and pink accents surrounding us, left, this is precisely Arensberg’s specialty: styling homey, chic outdoor living spaces that are simple yet comfortable and affordable. “I believe that exterior and interior spaces are most beautiful when they’re simple,” she says, cupping her mug with both hands. “Everything in the space has a purpose. That’s where my aesthetic comes from.”

Exterior design often evokes images of trowels and flower pots, gardening gloves and watering cans. But Arensberg rarely gardens! “Plants are the very last thing I worry about,” she explains. “Once you decide where the patio and play areas will go, then you look and say, ‘Where is there room for plants?’” 

When she’s not consulting with clients or out gathering materials for projects, she can be found hopping all around the Azalea City filming tutorials of her projects for Simple.Honest.Design, her web series that she began in 2015. “The show is largely so that I can reach out and help people who couldn’t afford to hire me. Having a designer is important, but through the web series, people are able to learn what to look for themselves.” 

On an episode a few months ago, she transformed an Oakleigh front porch from a cluttered, unfocused space to a relaxing and colorful bohemian retreat that encapsulated the homeowner’s favorite travel experiences. This challenging refurb is one of her favorite projects to date. “Bohemian isn’t necessarily my style, and I had a few doubts in my mind as to whether I could do it, but it actually came together so well!” she says with a laugh. “It was almost as if I was on a design challenge TV show, where you get a box with mystery items and have to make it all work. I felt like I won the challenge!” 

DESIGN TIP: “Start thinking about your outside spaces as interior spaces – just choose more durable materials. Pretend it’s an extension of your inside space, and the design process
will become a whole lot easier.”

  

The Artist | Bonnie Fuchs

When it comes to displaying Bonnie Fuchs’ art, you have two options: Hang it on a wall, or, well, hang it on a wall. Her elegantly minimalistic canvas paintings, now available through the retailer Ballard Designs, are prominently displayed in dining rooms and living spaces around the country. If collectors simply can’t get enough of her work, they may now browse through her collection of one-of-a-kind wallpaper patterns based on those paintings. The designs are sure to add a wow factor to any room. 

Despite the colorful elegance of her artwork, a career in painting wasn’t Plan A for Fuchs. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, and raised in Dallas, she went to college at the University of South Alabama and obtained her degree in education. She has always had an appreciation for art and an eye for good design, but she didn’t set up her easel until she was well into adulthood. “I started painting because I couldn’t find what I really liked for my own home,” Fuchs shares, sitting on a pristine white sofa in her friend’s home, where Fuchs’ wallpaper adorns an accent wall in the kitchen. She sits comfortably with a kind smile always waiting to make an appearance. “I’ve actually never taken a real art course, other than classes at McGill!” she adds with a congenial chuckle. 

Fuchs’ minimalistic, sophisticated paintings have become quite trendy. Her popular aesthetic comes from her mantra, “Simple, refined, unexpected.” She elaborates, “I try not to overthink a piece, and I always want the finished product to look elegant. It also has to be a little different, not look like everyone else’s work.” 

Fuchs’ paintings often incorporate various media into a single piece. She counts down on her fingers each medium she uses, from watercolor and acrylic to oils and ink. “I’ll really work with anything under the sun!” Whichever media she chooses, her favorite color to incorporate may be a shocker. “This sounds so boring, but I’ve always incorporated white!” That preference makes perfect sense, though, considering how the varying shades of ivory give power to the rest of the colors on the canvas. 

In what Fuchs calls a serendipitous experience, her artwork and business expanded to include wallpaper design. Friends had often commented that her paintings would translate well into upscale wall coverings. Finally, a designer approached Fuchs to create a line of wallpaper, transferring her hand-made artwork into digital design that could be reproduced on a grand scale. Now, 10 patterns of her bold, modern designs are available through her website, as well as custom patterns. Prices start at $135 per roll. (Contact Bonnie for ordering information.)

Even though quality art often comes with a hefty price tag, Fuchs believes that feeling an emotion with a painting or wallpaper means more than anything. “Pay once, cry once,” she says bluntly. “If you spend a little more on a piece that you really love, you’ll be happier with it a whole lot longer.”

DESIGN TIP: “You don’t have to buy art with a certain spot in mind. It all comes back to having a connection with it.”

  

The Craftsman | Luke Phillips

The expansive property of Charles Phillips Antiques and Luke Phillips Furniture is a photographer’s dream. Weathered shutters or rusted ironwork, salvaged barn doors and sawdust-covered pieces in progress await around every corner. MB’s photographer was so taken with the bounty that he stopped every three feet or so to capture an image. Likewise, Luke Phillips sees the beauty in the worn materials. As he sees it, his job is not making it look new, but making it look beautiful. “We’re not engineering a product to look like something else,” he says. “We’re using wood and iron to look like wood and iron.”

As we tour the property and the various workshops, I cannot imagine a toddler scooting around the place. Yet that’s precisely how Phillips got his beginnings in the family business. “I started moving stuff around for my dad when I was 2, and I’ve helped him my whole life,” he reveals. “My first work assignment was loading books into the back of the pickup truck.” When I express my disbelief, he adds, “Well, I was an older 2.” 

Phillips worked for his father’s business for years but branched off in 2010 when a particular trend took hold. While assisting in his father’s business for an hourly wage, he got an assignment to build a hanging swing bed from old shutter doors. When he finished, the unique piece sat in the shop until the owner could come and pick it up; that may have been the best advertising he could have hoped for. “Before we could get it to the customer, we got four or five more orders, and it just snowballed. Every time I’d have one in the shop, we’d sell three or four more. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just make it my own business?’” Phillips says with a shrug. 

While his shop regularly takes on other custom orders, his biggest seller continues to be the swing beds. From rustic wooden swings built from old doors or shutters to classic white painted swings, no two projects look alike, and that’s the whole idea. “We’re not confined in our look, but my defining style features are clean lines and an affinity for the materials themselves.”

Phillips visits sawmills across Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, sourcing as much reclaimed wood as he can. And all of his wrought iron comes from his father’s business. Phillips and his three team members usually produce about 250 pieces each year (about 120 swings and another 100 or so custom projects). The workload still gives them plenty of time to focus on each and every piece. They recently completed a project for Woody’s Roadside Grill in Biloxi, providing 57 tables and the hostess station. This spring, his shop will be full of reclaimed beams and flooring from north Alabama; he plans to use some of them in his own works, but some will be sold for others to use in their own building projects. 

“I do what I do because it’s enjoyable. It’s good to work with your hands and support a family with it,” Phillips shares. With a laugh, he concludes, “I never set out to make hanging swings for a living, but that’s the way it happened!”

DESIGN TIP: “Wooden furniture in covered areas needs almost no maintenance, but for furniture in direct weather, you can use oils, paints or sealers. Sealer is the best option and must be sanded and resealed every two to 15 years, depending on the product.”

  

The Decorator | Rae McConville

If your home feels a bit stale, perhaps it simply needs a “zhush.” (Yes, it is a real word.) As Rae McConville explains it, “Just moving furniture and art around a room can give you as much of a new look with what you already have as buying all new furniture.” The interior decorator loves zhushing and rejuvenating clients’ homes — and not just because it’s fun to say. “It gives a good refresh without a whole lot of money.”

McConville’s bold, upbeat personality shines through, apparent in her vibrant orange blouse and vivacious curls, before we ever say “hello.” The Spring Hill College grad has an impressive resume that includes stints working at New York-based magazines Harper’s Bazaar and InStyle. But it was when she joined the team behind HGTV Magazine that she fell into her love for decorating. She says the experience really gave her an “editor’s eye” for design. “People look at magazines for inspiration, and that was my job — to come up with those ideas,” she says. 

“A friend of mine asked me to help out with her apartment. Then her friend saw the apartment, and it just kind of sprang from there,” McConville shares. Her home decorating business, Rae McConville Interiors, turns three this year. 

McConville designed two rooms in the Bayfront home where we meet today: the formal sitting room and the casual family room. The first, opposite, features a large fireplace surrounded by built-in bookshelves styled with frames, vases and other elements for a classy look. Behind the shelves, McConville added seagrass for subtle pattern and color, two components that happen to be her design calling card. She says, “I have two clients who are twin sisters, and their houses couldn’t look any more different. From a removed perspective, though, you can tell I did both of them because of how I play with patterns and fabric. I always start with fabric — it’s my favorite part! I design houses for real people with real lives,” she explains. “I am the queen of performance fabrics!” 

Bold colors and cleverly combined patterns are McConville’s bread and butter. She’s never afraid to grab a patterned pillow (or three) for the couch or an eye-catching rug that perfectly accentuates the textured mirror on the wall. “I’m always going to mix tone-on-tone patterns,” she explains. “I pay attention to scale, too. You don’t want a lot of smaller patterns together, but when you put them next to something that’s oversized, they almost become like best friends that play really well together.” 

Of course she would liken her design aesthetic and friendship, considering she sees “all my clients as good friends.” After all, life is a lot more colorful with fun and friends, and McConville wouldn’t have it any other way.

DESIGN TIP: “If you don’t like a lot of color in home design, aqua with enough gray can be a neutral. Especially being on the coast, that’s a great way to get some color in. Plus, mixing in a lot of whites makes everything, even brown, look like a color.”

  

The Architect | Abby Davis

For most people, planning a dream home involves browsing Pinterest and saving photos of luxe houses and chic design to various boards. But for Abby Davis, architect at Walcott Adams Verneuille Architects, dream homes are her dream job. Her career is to see the “big picture” of a residence or building coming together and advise her client on how all the pieces unify. Hundreds or even thousands of tiny details combine into one beautiful, functional space. And for Davis, it’s a thrill. 

“It’s a challenging job,” she shares. “You start with big ideas. Then, you start whittling them down and hone in on what the client is really looking for, the essence of each project.”

Afternoon sunlight streams into the Interiors Room at the architect firm, where Davis surrounds herself with hundreds of materials samples, from backsplash tiles and countertops, to flooring and lighting to paint colors and fabric swatches. The room is like a real-life Pinterest board. “All the magic and fun happens in here,” Davis says, looking at the binders of materials reaching up toward the ceiling, “because these are the finishing touches.”

Amid the textures and colors of the Interiors Room, Davis shares her story. The licensed architect and interior designer graduated from Auburn in 2004. Since then, she’s filled her portfolio with beautiful, high-end residential projects around the Gulf Coast. Since joining the esteemed team of Walcott Adams  Verneuille last year, she’s been able to expand her expertise to include commercial designs. Davis is lending her interior design skills to M&M Bank to revitalize their decor, and she is also currently working on designs for a dental clinic in Mobile, as well as a few projects that are still in the works. 

Building homes usually means building relationships. A residential renovation in Fairhope stands out as one of Davis’ favorites for several reasons, including the fact that, as she says, “Residential is my first love.” While working on the second of a two-phase renovation, Davis collaborated closely with the homeowner on the addition and interior changes. “It helps her life run smoothly,” Davis explains earnestly. “Those projects that mean so much to the clients are always special. I now consider her a good friend.”

Whether she’s working on a home or consulting on a commercial job, Davis says that it’s essential that an architect not only has good design ideas, but also knows how to parlay them into a high-quality product that will function well. She takes that responsibility seriously: “You are also the person who is quality control for everything.” 

Indeed, architects play many roles, and Davis easily embodies each of them with grace: coordinator, advisor, designer and friend. Now that’s something you simply won’t find on a Pinterest board.

DESIGN TIP: “If you’re starting any project, get a good team going. Find a licensed architect at a top-quality firm. They can help assemble a great team for your project.”

  

The Landscaper | Andrew Robinson

When choosing his career, Andrew Robinson knew he wanted to work outdoors so he could enjoy Mother Nature’s beauty. That’s why he became Father Nature (well, why he opened a landscape design company of that name). “I’m drawn to very natural, wild styles of landscaping presented in a manicured way,” Robinson explains, laughing at the contradiction. “I like to keep things loose, but not scraggly.” In short, he puts a lot of himself into his landscaping. 

When we arrive, Robinson mentions that he hasn’t yet clued the homeowners in to today’s task. He knocks on the door, and owner Steve Ewell emerges, greeting Robinson like an old friend before giving us free reign to traipse around his yard. So later, when Robinson says, “My favorite part of the job, out of everything, is getting to be friends with the people we work with,” I totally believe him. 

Despite our visit coming at the tail end of January, the Ewells’ lawn is shockingly green, as though the calendar read April instead. Flower beds look surprisingly neat, and smaller shrubs and trees give the tame yet natural vibe that Robinson describes. Grand oak limbs stretch over the entire property (though a grin stretches across Robinson’s face as he admits that he can’t take credit for those). 

Growing up in New Zealand, Robinson watched his parents tend to their various gardens with love and patience, vowing to make his living in the great outdoors. He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in horticulture and landscape design. Now, he ventures out to people’s properties and designs their greenery and outdoor spaces to be inviting, peaceful sanctuaries that beckon families and guests to appreciate nature. “We’ll meet at their place, and I’ll just listen to them for a while,” Robinson shares as we stroll around the yard. “I get a better feel for who they are, what they want, how they live their life. Based on that, I come up with a plan.”

By request, Robinson can also help plan and set up a vegetable garden to make the yard utilitarian as well as beautiful. “One passion of mine is edible gardens,” he explains. “We try to bring people outside as much as possible and have them interact with their property, and this is a great way of doing that.”

The sun sets quickly over the yard as we finish our conversation. “The number one request we get is low maintenance. People like going out into the yard, but they don’t want to be slaves to it.” Looking around at the seemingly effortless vibrancy of the yard, I’d say mission accomplished.

DESIGN TIP: “Really look at the foundation — the soil. That’s the most important part. Using compost can help loosen up the soil and provide nutrients, help enliven soil.”

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