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Downtown Birmingham Design: Custom Tile Inspiration

downtown birmingham design at h2

downtown birmingham design at h2

Downtown Birmingham design is full of historical details, and entryway tile is one of our favorites. It’s a design vernacular that offers a neighborhood boost, historical charm, and plenty of inspiration for our own homes.

Downtown Birmingham design has plenty of moments with a wide viewing radius–the Thomas Jefferson Tower, for instance, or the John Hand Buildng. But according to Main Street America, it’s the sidewalk-scale design that really matters for a thriving downtown scene. Fortunately, downtown’s loft district has plenty of that as well.

In fact, it’s those design elements that help define the Downtown Birmingham Historic District, according to its application to the National Register for Historic Places. “Throughout the district the buildings relate to the pedestrian, opening storefronts or public lobbies to the street at regular intervals and providing architectural detail for the pedestrian eye,” the application noted.

“A storefront’s entrance alcove acts as a transitional space from the sidewalk to the commercial entrance,” according to Riverhead, New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission Guidelines for Historic Buildings. “It provides shelter from the weather, and is often designed to increase the display area of the storefront to entice potential customers.” Tile was often part of this outdoor marketing package, it explains.

“Historically, the configuration of tile or terrazzo was only limited by the creativity of the installer, and often included decorative boarders [sic] and patterns of various colors,” note the Riverhead guidelines.

With our modern emphasis on open plans and seamless transitions, we’re often trying to make flooring consistent throughout a space. But the beauty of this tile is that it stands out. It articulates the transitional space between a bustling sidewalk and a business interior. Like the front porch in more residential districts, it defines a threshold as something unique.

That’s well and good as a design history lesson, but why stop there? We think there’s plenty of renovation inspiration to be gleaned as well. Those Greek key borders or geometric florals or even tile-crafted fonts offer high-impact ideas for bathroom tile design.

Looking to blend timeless materials with a bit of personality? Consider downtown your design inspiration.

Blended Style at Avondale’s Saigon Noodle House

saigon noodle house avondale

It’s easy to see the blended influences of corporate polish, personal history, and existing space described in AL.com’s feature on Avondale’s Saigon Noodle House. The resulting look feels fun and easy and altogether do-able, in a way that only Avondale can.

The neighborhood’s prevailing look is the stylish casual space, usually with industrial lighting and rich wood. Saigon Noodle House shares those elements, but with applications that set it apart. Its color palette adds a fresh and modern feel with plenty of vintage charm.

Have an Avondale bungalow kitchen, or even a mid-century ranch that could use some modern flavor? Here’s how Saigon Noodle House can inspire your own styling.


Clustered Lighting:

Saigon Noodle House’s shaded pendants are installed in clusters rather than symmetrical rows. That makes them orderly enough to feel intentional but not entirely predictable. If your Avondale house has an eat-in breakfast nook, consider pinching the cluster of red pendant lights in the restaurant’s smaller eating section (left of the entryway).


Livable Color:

Teal and red show up pretty frequently in the mid-century palette, and we love the way they’re used at Saigon Noodle House. There are cheery red bar stools and posts with a full backsplash of bright teal subway tile. But instead of a high-contrast color story, the boldest elements are toned down by accent colors in the same families. Pink shows up alongside red in the Asian-influenced Birmingham mural. Moodier blues and grays play a big role in both the mural and bar spaces. The result is colorful but not shockingly bright.


Balanced Wood:

From rustic chalkboard frames to bentwood chairs to deep-stained countertops, wood also helps prevent a color explosion. What works well here is the combination of different wood types and finishes. That’s good news for those of us — most of us — trying to combine shiny new pieces with inherited or reclaimed treasures. It also illustrates just how well rough-hewn touches can play with more refined historic tones. While there’s definitely some matching in this style equation, mixing is what makes it balance.

Embracing the Tudor Revival in Birmingham Design

bham design tudor revival

birmingham design tudor revival

If you’re the type who read tales of medieval England, or perhaps just embraced the romantic ideals of Anne of Green Gables, one of Birmingham’s Tudor Revival homes might be just your thing. You’ll find these homes–in varying degrees of grandeur–in many of Birmingham’s eastern neighborhoods, including Forest Park, Highland Park, and Crestwood. From the full-on manse to the tidy cottage varieties, Birmingham design has plenty of Tudor inspiration. 


Tudor Revival Style, Defined:

Early periods in American architecture sought to blend multiple European inspirations, but the Revival period–which stretched from the late 1800s to the early 1900s–focused more on embodying a single influence, according to the Pennsylvania Architectural Field Guide. Its Tudor Revival section defines the style as “an eclectic mixture of early and Medieval English building traditions to create a picturesque, traditional appearance.”

During the style’s early revival days, it was driven primarily by the work of individual architects, with elaborate results inspired by building during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, the guide explains. Tudor style would spread widely as mass-produced designs offered scaled-down reproductions, according to the guide, which placed its peak from the 1920s to the 1930s.

Stucco and masonry are standard Tudor exterior materials, according to the guide. Other tell-tale details include “steeply pitched roofs, often with a front facing gables or multiple gables, and half timbered wall surfaces,” it notes.


Tips for Tudor homeowners:

Trying to blend the old-world ethos of Tudor styling with modern accents may not be the most obvious fit, but Homewood homeowners Katy and Brandon Bishop worked with designer Jan Ware for just such a feel. Their design process, profiled in a 2012 Birmingham Home & Garden piece, blended more European-feeling pieces — nailhead detailing, wall sconces, even a tapestry — with modern touches like lucite accent furniture and shellacked dining chairs.

They also decided to forgo a formal living room layout in favor of a relaxed “reading room,” according to the article. The result was a modern take on the home’s original design period, but one without structural implications. Even if you can’t achieve a full open plan, Birmingham design shows Tudor homes don’t have to stay stuck in time.

There’s also good news on the exterior front: With all the architectural details many Tudors sport, less may be more for yard accents. In a round-up of style tips culled from right here in Birmingham, HGTV Magazine suggested Tudor-style homeowners stick with “simple, evergreen landscaping.”

“You could do flowers,” it said, “but you sure don’t have to!”

Rotary Trail’s Model for Modern Design

rotary trail

rotary trail

We’ve talked before about the Rotary Trail’s value from a real estate perspective, and about its importance to both our civic infrastructure and public memory. So you might well wonder what else we could possibly have to say. But with time to finally explore the trail on foot and soak in its design, we found ourselves continually inspired. What we see now is how the trail carefully balances high design in an existing neighborhood.

Walking Rotary Trail echoes the experience of a rail line — passing through tunnels then emerging topside. The vision, Rotarian Cheryl Morgan told AL.com, was of “a gesture to our history” shifting toward an “opportunity to look at future development.”

We wonder if that isn’t the way to approach any project in an established neighborhood. It’s not that the design should be limited to what’s come before, but that it makes sense to honor a neighborhood’s history.

AL.com reviewed the Rotary Trail’s many visual references: its own prior form, Birmingham’s 20th century emblem, and the city’s most notable design idea today. More impressively, those references all lie in a single, contiguous space along four city blocks. If that’s not multitasking design achievement, we’re not sure what is.

One of our favorite features, the flowing rock formations beneath the viaducts, are both practical and highly conceptual. Architecture firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood’s portfolio explains that “the design’s rail-bed-to-river association” highlights “Birmingham’s development around locomotives, as opposed to steamships.” The rocks also function as a stormwater filtration system, according to the firm.

And then there’s the sign. The sign that’s shown up on every Birmingham Instagram feed and seems destined to be part of our city’s revival branding. It calls to mind Birmingham’s former Terminal Station and the underpass below it, without allowing the station’s more ornate style to muddy a modernist sensibility. Plus, its bare framing works with the area’s surviving industrial buildings.

Of course, Rotary Trail’s not alone in the neighborhood for blending modern architecture into an existing landscape. The nearby Pullman Flats are one of our very favorite modern/historical mashups. The Appleseed Workshop-designed Walding Law renovation carved out modern interiors in a historic facade. The Williams Blackstock Architects office streamlined longstanding brick with a flowing marquee awning.

It turns out the trail is a reflection of its corridor, where some of the city’s major architecture firms have set the stage for a restrained modernism. The lesson for other places in the city? To honor the existing landscape, both natural and built. Not recreate it, per se, but keep time with its visual rhythms and repeat motifs that transcend their age.

Modern Glam at Downtown’s Redmont Hotel

redmont hotel modern glam

redmont hotel modern glam

Loft District interiors lean industrial modern, but they may not for long. There are grand renovations underway at the Pizitz Building and Thomas Jefferson Towers, plus the upcoming Marriott in the Empire Building. If the newly reopened Redmont Hotel is any indication, downtown Birmingham design will be getting a serious dose of glam.

Its redesigned spaces “embrace the glamour of the 1920’s,” according to the hotel website, layering a “boutique hotel” aesthetic over the building’s dramatic period features. We call the result modern glam. 

What does that mean in practical terms? We’ve scrolled through the Redmont interiors to produce the following style cues:


Subway tile need not be white.

We’re used to seeing white subway tile as the new classic. After all, it works everywhere — from open commercial kitchens to renovated historic homes. But the Redmont proves subway tile is more than a one-tone wonder. As if heavily veined marble flooring weren’t glam enough, they’ve accented the grand lobby with a wall of mirrored subway tile.


Formal dining can still look comfortable.

Truly glam dining requires some formalities, but it can still have some casual flair. At the Redmont’s Harvest restaurant, the secret is in the upholstery. Tufted wingback loveseats add a buttoned-up look befitting fine dining. But couch vibe of a loveseat and the light neutral color suggest an inviting coziness.


Dramatic lighting always wins.

With its grand original chandelier intact, the Redmont Hotel lobby was always going to be a showstopper. But what mixes well with history’s most glamorous details? Spare but dramatic fixtures. The Redmont’s pair exposed edison bulbs with oil-rubbed bronze and brass accents look effortlessly twinkly–the interior equivalent of the perfect black dress.


Rich materials glam up quieter spaces.

Redmont Hotel rooms are less shiny than the lobby, and for good reason. Public spaces can handle higher drama. Reign the bedroom in to preserve a relaxing feel. To keep the glamor consistent, repeat some lux materials in simpler applications. Blue velvet appears in thick lobby curtains and tailored bedroom headboards with nailhead trim.


Go forth, then, and glam. And show us how you’ve styled it.


Urban Beach Style Lessons From Fancy’s on Fifth

urban beach style at fancy's on fifth

urban beach style at fancy's on fifth

As months get warmer, it’s tempting to reinvent your look toward something that feels beachy, like a permanent vacation. But a truly interesting beach vibe can be hard to pull off when you’re landlocked, and it’s not the most obvious fit for urban living. Eating at Fancy’s on Fifth, though, made us realize how to make it work.

It’s no surprise, really, that an example of Avondale’s rustic minimalism was the perfect inspiration. Where billowy linen curtains and seagrass rugs speak of classic beach looks, a fancy-ful beach style is fundamentally a reclaimed look. Instead of stately Hamptons-inspired interiors or cottage chic, it starts with high ceilings and exposed brick work or other original textures, keeping drywall to a minimum.

From that base, add in washed colors and seafaring accents, with spareness and whimsy as your guiding principles. Be broad in your interpretation of beach: Pirates and cartoon sea images count, too. After all, this look is as just as much Pirates of the Caribbean as it is Coastal Living. Use plenty of clean white, but leave room for a darker sense of humor. Keep deeper palettes sympathetic to the coastal theme by flooding them with natural light.

So you’ve heard our theory of urban beach, but how exactly do you implement it? These are our key action items. The best part is they work in obvious spaces, like downtown’s post-industrial lofts, as well as less expected ones, like a grand old Highland Park home. And, of course, an Avondale cottage.


  • Seashell or starfish accents. They’re adorable but lack an urban edge.
  • Cabana-striped rugs. Eschew things that remind you of beach umbrellas; we’re looking for visions of the deep.
  • Pastel colors. If Jack Sparrow wouldn’t wear it, neither should your space (at least not for this look).


  • Rope lights. Add sea-inspired texture without being too literal by using sleek bulbs dangling from rope-wrapped wiring.
  • Sea creatures. Fancy’s has Octavius the Octopus in both neon light and steel chandelier incarnations. Find a slightly perilous sea creature, then find a way to make it fun.
  • White-painted shiplap or beadboard. It’s beach cottage meets urban salvage.

5 Signs of Quirky Loft District Character

loft district signs

loft district signs

“Shipt adds name to Birmingham skyline” read an AL.com headline in May about, you guessed it, the John Hand Building’s new signage. And while skyline changes make the news, a slew of other downtown signs give the Loft District its quirky modern character. These are five of our favorites:


City Federal

The giant light-up letters atop what was once the region’s highest building have a longtime place in the Birmingham skyline. Once a bank, the City Federal brand now represents a downtown residential mainstay. How’s that for neatly combining past and present? The sign’s vintage neon also tracks perfectly with current lettering trends, an added design bonus.


Lewis Communications

Already one of Birmingham’s most high-profile corporate renovation projects in 2015, recently installed signage plays with simple geometric styling for a look befitting the mid-century modern building. We love how it makes use of the building’s architecture — its Richard Arrington Jr Boulevard side and the corner of a patio wall addition — for a look that’s appealingly minimalist. Its signs refuse to apologize for the building’s standout mid-century front. Instead, they lean into its unique place in the streetscape.


The Collins Bar

Also distinctly mid-century and charmingly minimal, The Collins’s red sign with white lettering and paper airplane logo set the tone for a gleefully mod interior. Like many loft district spaces, The Collins brings a stylized vibe to an older space. Its signage communicates that blend without fighting the historic exterior.


Carrigan’s Public House

A clean white font painted onto the building’s brick exterior works with this gastropub’s modern industrial style and its cobblestone block. Dramatic uplighting at night turns good old paint into a striking installation. We also love how it plays on the downtown tradition, documented by Charles Buchanan and Jonathan Purvis, of using brick walls as a sign canvas.


Kinetic Communications

It’s fitting that an adapted weathervane sign represents a tech-based business in a renovated Morris Avenue building. Despite its softly arched windows and exposed original brick, this Appleseed Workshop-designed space is an exuberantly playful take on modern design. It also sets off what we like to think of as the city’s pedestrian skyline. Virtually unnoticed to automobile traffic, Kinetic’s sign flags this building adjacent to the Rainbow Viaduct. It draws a walker’s eye to the rooftop corporate play space, complete with putting green and giant chess board. Roof decks are a coveted Loft District commodity, and Kinetic’s is one for the books.

5 Ways to Get Urban Standard’s Reclaimed Style

urban standard


It’s easy to think of the downtown Loft District as an exercise in sleek, industrial style, where reclaimed materials abound but with a strictly minimalist feel. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and Urban Standard is an excellent alternative option. Bursting with Urban inspiration, here are our tips for relaxed, reclaimed, and still Pinterest-worthy interiors.

1- Accent walls may not be the rage they once were, but color blocks are a statement worth making, as in the back wall of Urban Standard’s main space. Bonus points for being low-key and achievable using only sample paint containers. One caveat: You’ll want to plan these to accent larger furniture items, the simplest way to make them look intentional. Or use paint to create a flat, large-scale art piece.

2 – Say yes to theater seats. These show up with relative frequency at antique stores or even on Craigslist, but it’s easy to write them off as impractical for folks without abundant space. Urban Standard shows how well they can accent a low window wall, turning what would otherwise be blank space into extra seating options with character. Also consider using them near a front door to create a charming entryway vignette plus practical drop zone for bags and coats.  

3 – Curtain off rooms, not windows. Where privacy is not a major concern — as in the main living space on an upper floor — consider opting out of window treatments. Many of the large industrial windows in the district are just as well served without them. Instead, use curtains to create soft, flexible dividers between rooms in an otherwise open floor plan. They’ll create at least some privacy when hosting overnight guests or keep a cluttered bedroom area closed off when you’re entertaining.

4 – Find room for quirky accents. Found an extra-large bust at What’s on 2nd or really inspired taxidermy at Birmingham Oddities? Put it front and center. We like the way Urban’s busty dude pulls focus from the wall-mount TV above it. If a piece leans particularly airy, consider using it as window dressing the way Urban has with its birdcage.

5 – Stop designing your gallery wall. Remember when we hung stuff on walls without a carefully-balanced-but-asymmetrical plan? Urban proves you still can. Their rows of framed prints are only semi-aligned but still do their job in filling expansive wall space. One caveat: this strategy works best for relatively simple, monochromatic prints.

Bham Design: Modern Charm at Woodlawn Cycle Cafe


There’s a lot to love about Woodlawn Cycle Cafe — its coffee, for instance — but one of our favorites is its design. The cafe manages to be sleek and modern but full of crafted details that suggest historic charm. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, necessarily, so we’ve spent some time thinking about how they did it, why it works, and what would translate well into our clients’ living spaces.

The biggest statement is the high-contrast color palette, which combines the bright whites and moody charcoals that have held strong for the last few years. The combo works especially well here to juxtapose a dark, intimate bar space against a wider, brighter dining area. It’s reminiscent of distinct rooms without throwing out a modern open plan. It’s also a play on the way shadows and light would normally fill the space, as though you’d run its natural look through a punchy Instagram filter.

Beyond the color difference, there’s also a subtle styling variation between the bar and the cafe spaces. The area where the coffee magic happens is lined entirely in beadboard, with symmetrical — but not entirely identical — built-in shelves and a mounted library ladder. The result is an old school space, in keeping with the handcrafted coffee drinks produced there.

The bright white cafe blends classic materials like shiplap wall cladding and white hex floor tiles with large orb lights and squared-off built-ins for a cool spin on transitional style. Like this newfangled Victorian example in Houzz, the cycle cafe doesn’t try to bridge the modern/traditional divide in each piece. Instead, both spaces blend elements from each camp for an overall transitional balance. Or, as Houzz puts it, “a cohesive union.”

To achieve a similar tone, here’s what we recommend:

  • Opt for one wall color throughout a space. Houzz recommends monochromatic walls as a way to modernize period architecture and emphasize its depth.
  • Blend bar stools into the woodwork for an easy flow between dining and prep areas.
  • Dress up simple built-in shelving with a library ladder. It’s a fancy way to make vertical storage more accessible.
  • Don’t limit your idea of character elements to reclaimed wood. Home improvement stores offer traditionalist materials like beadboard, hex tile, and even shiplap that can soften a modern space.

Bham Design: Sky Castle Lessons for Loft-Style Spaces

We love the food at Sky Castle Gastro Lounge, but we’re equally obsessed with its style. It specializes in making midcentury ideas feel contemporary and in making a wide open space house clear “rooms.” All of which got us thinking about how to make the most of loft-style spaces and entertain in them like a pro. Read on for our lessons learned.



sky castle gastro lounge


Match your utilities to your ceiling:

Sky Castle’s exposed plumbing pipes and electrical conduits boast the same matte black as its ceiling, giving the texture of an industrial look without the same high contrast. It makes the raw function of the space another feature, not THE feature. And it doesn’t have to be a dark ceiling. There’s no reason a clean white wouldn’t work just as well. Proof: this Houzz portfolio photo from Minneapolis.


Keep laptop tables handy:

You know guests need places for their drinks and snacks. A traditional setup of coffee table and side tables is one way to get the job done, but it’s not necessarily the best way, especially when there’s food involved. The solution? Sky Castle uses sleek laptop tables (like this one from World Market). The added height keeps hearty nibbles at hand and off your couch.


Use couches in multiples:

An easy way to create an intimate conversation area (or a cozy place for screening sports and films) is to use multiple couches. It’s a statement that’s both cosier and stronger than a couch and chairs. Just remember to keep the furniture profile relatively low if you’re following this advice. It creates the lounge you’re looking for without sacrificing the sight lines of open space.


Think built-in:

Entertainment and lighting get a smooth new look when they’re flush with your walls and ceiling, as in Sky Castle’s striking tiger wood veneer installation. The full pro version is not for the faint of heart — or budget — since you’ll either need a very fancy TV cabinet or custom veneer. For the adventurous DIY-er, we found adaptable instructions here. For a more achievable look, try this idea (via this blog), which uses artful shelving in place of standard media storage.