Celebrating the States

Celebrating The States: The South (East of the Mississippi)

by Erin Austen Abbott

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge
*This post was updated to better reflect the diversity of artists and creatives in the region.

When I was nine, my family and I moved from Mississippi to Florida. After attending college in Tampa, I moved to Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Memphis, New York City, and then found myself back in Mississippi. It came down to this… everywhere I moved, I compared it to the small college town of Oxford, MS where I grew up. And while all of those cities that I lived in (and moved around in between) were so wonderful in their own ways, nothing compared to the small town I was from.

I moved back to Mississippi 13 years ago and I’ve only been looking forward since. I’ve seen so many positive changes here in recent years and that feels heartening for a region with a difficult and painful past. And while there is still much to be done to own and heal this region’s difficult past (and present), there is a palpable sense of forward-moving change and momentum in many areas. With a very low cost of living, artists and creatives can thrive here, building the lives they dream of for themselves. The beautiful topography, small towns with lots of charm, large cities with so many trees and forests, and proximity to both the beach or mountains are all added bonuses.

Scroll below to see some of the ways that different creatives in this region view the South, what they love about living here, and how it inspires them to grow as artists. —Erin

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Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

Atlanta, Georgia designer and author Khristian A. Howell shares this about her home state, “Atlanta is a beautiful, green oasis in the South. I literally live in a city in a forest. I live on the 31st floor right in the heart of the city and when I look out, I could be in New England it is so lush and green. It is truly beautiful. There is something very interesting happening in Atlanta right now. It feels like a cultural awakening of sorts. The city is exploding with artists, chefs, creative public spaces, and public art. This is a real change from the Atlanta I knew growing up. Amazing companies are flocking in to tap into the wealth of progressive thinkers and innovators who love calling ATL home. It is an exciting time to be an ATLien. We have a great park, Piedmont Park, which was designed by the same designer as Central Park in NYC. The park is really the heart of the city and hosts many festivals and events large and small. The thing I love most about Atlanta is that it is really growing its wings. For the first time you are truly able to live, work, play, and raise a family right here in the city without having to run to the suburbs.  The walkability is increasing every day and the shopping is catching up, too!”

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

The home of Melissa and Sean Stevenson is a great example of Florida charm.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

In Tennessee, artist Terry R. Lynn pays tribute to his heritage through his vibrant artwork.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

The Georgia home of Morgan Blake hosts a fun coffee bar, full of charm.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

Hey Rooster, in Nashville, Tennessee is changing retail in the South.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

We ended up settling in Atlanta because of the size of the city, the diverse neighborhoods and that you can be in the Blue Ridge Mountains or to the Gulf or the Atlantic Ocean within half a day’s travel. This city is called the City in a Forest and it’s so true. It’s absolutely beautiful and lush. We once took a road trip to the Grand Canyon and while the landscape was awesome throughout, there was something about coming back to the dense trees of Georgia. Atlanta is also considerably cooler than many other surrounding areas in the South as the elevation is fairly high in contrast to other Southern cities. We aren’t an icebox but I’ll take what I can get after having grown up in South Carolina,” shares Sarah Neuburger of The Small Object. 

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

This charming Tennessee home of Elizabeth Ulrich keeps things sweet.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

The Kentucky nursery of Aaron and Emily May is such a fun, modern twist to a classic style.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

“I grew up in Pennsylvania, went to school in Georgia, spent an internship in New York, lived my early married years in Mississippi, and finally wound up placing roots in Tennessee. While each of these locations is completely unique, what they share is a strong identity of place. The identity of Tennessee is deeply rooted in its verdant, mountainous landscape and its growing cultural hubs. The identity is largely untapped and therefore has created a welcoming accessibility. Within the landscape this means you can get outside and be out on a river, or hiking up a mountain easily — the physical space to get outside easily. Within the cultural hubs this means that growth is booming — and there are constantly new and exciting projects, restaurants, and attractions. In Tennessee, there is room for everyone to create, build something, meet people, get inspired, get outside, breathe a little fresh air and enjoy the beauty,” says visual artist, Kate Roebuck.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

This North Carolina nursery is a bright and cheerful room in the home of Stacey Blake.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

Restaurant Kindred, in North Carolina, is a stunning example of culinary design.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

Artist and homeschooler to two of her four daughters, Adrienne Brown David, of Water Valley, Mississippi grew up in St. Louis, and moved to the South nine years ago.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

The home of Amanda Louise Campbell is filled with color and pattern in South Carolina.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

This Mississippi dream kitchen belongs to restauranteur, Emily Blount.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

Raleigh, North Carolina chef, Cheetie Kumar, has been shaking things up in the culinary scene giving her Indian dishes a southern twist at her restaurant Garland.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

A light-filled and airy dining room in the home of Mississippi-based photographer, Ashleigh Coleman. She’s originally from South Carolina.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

The Florida home of Jimmie and Gany Bernal is rich in rustic decor.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

Memphis, Tennessee visual artist Brittney Boyd Bullock shared this about her love of her city, “I’ve only known the South as home. It’s been my place of solace and beauty, and I’m often reminded of the intrinsic energy and cultural vibrancy of Memphis. As an artist, I get to share space and time with visual storytellers. Folks who dedicate their whole being to creating. There’s a community of artists in Memphis who have a story to tell, they call Memphis home and are continually creating visual reminders of who they are in this place and as beings of this place. These reminders are murals, temporary art happenings, memorials, and themed exhibitions that tell our story. When you engage with the land here, it responds to you through stories and traditions. These stories influence our future and remind us why we’re here. I’m thankful to be a part of a community that is gracious, rich, and spiritually fulfilling.”

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

This Alabama living room, belonging to Holly Carlisle, highlights pops of color and incredible works of art.

Celebrating The States on Design*Sponge

“What I love about Georgia (and the South, for that matter) is that it is my home — not just because I was born here and am now raising my family here, but because I made it my home. When I graduated from college, I pressured myself into moving to New York because in my mind if I was going to be a “real creative” I couldn’t do that in small-town Georgia. What I learned quickly was that I wasn’t going to be more creative simply because of a new geographical location. I would be more creative wherever my heart was, and my heart was in Georgia. One of the best decisions I have ever made was to move back to Georgia and own it as my own home by choice and not circumstance. I rolled up my sleeves and have worked hard to build myself, my business, and a supportive creative community. Oh, and I absolutely love that when I’m driving on a back road, the passing car and I always wave to each other. It is a cliché about the South but one that has rung true in my experience. Kindness to strangers, through a simple acknowledgement like a wave or a head nod, makes us all feel more human — and if that ain’t the truth I don’t know what is!” — Megan of Brown Parcel Press

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  • As a big fan of Design Sponge who grew up in Alabama, I was excited to see this article, and loved learning about various creatives in the I still consider “home.”

    However, given that Design Sponge has made a lot of efforts lately to celebrate and encourage inclusion within the design community, I was sad to see the (lovely and talended) people featured were (to the best of my quick googling and math) 13/14ths white and all in heterosexual relationships. Finding a truly inclusive group of southerners to feature might not be quite so easy, but I promise they are there!

    There is amazing, exciting work being done in the south–but it is such an uphill battle, and we can’t just offer this idea that a few artists moving in will make everything better. Just look at the Republican candidates for governor of Georgia… or and the 3rd-world conditions in many areas of the “Black Belt” of Alabama. Low property costs are great for artists and young couples, but they are also directly linked to underfunded schools!

    Saying “The South has a very difficult past but it’s getting so much better” to me felt like minimizing of what it still is like for many marginalized people, and how hard we are all going to have to work to make sure the future gets even a little brighter. As a queer person, I still feel safer living in a big northern city–it’s got its own share of problems including racism and homophobia, but at least there are fewer politicians and preachers actively fighting against my rights.

    p.s. I wouldn’t have taken the time to write this if I didn’t think that Design Sponge really cared and wanted to live up to its potential!

    • Sarah

      I hear you. And I agree. I think we fell short in this post and I will make sure we push ourselves harder next time to do a better job of celebrating the vast array of talent in the south (and everywhere else).


    • Just a quick note: Sarah’s comment was made before we updated this post to better reflect the communities living in these states.


  • Sarah’s comment was on point and I really appreciated this repost. Thanks for taking constructive criticism to heart. Here’s to making our communities better!