Lofty Goals

Dear friends with eyes for design pitch in to turn Nancy Nolan’s historic downtown Little Rock apartment into a homey haven

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Nine years ago, Park Hill Collection founders Todd Smith and Charlie Groppetti were breathing life into their still nascent business. Working out of their Park Hill (naturally) bungalow, they ran credit cards at the kitchen table, crated orders—topiary trees, wooden footstools, sculptural bird nests—in the dining room. After spending a dozen years splitting their time between California and China, the two floral designers had moved back home to Arkansas to start their own wholesale company focused on rustic, farmhouse-style home accents. “We were a company that flew off,” Todd says. “We did everything; we didn’t have any help.”

Well, no help except for photographer Nancy Nolan, whom they’d brought on to shoot their first catalog. And then the next one. (And the seven after that.)

Fast forward to, well, now. That initial 30-page catalog? It’s 529 pages. That two-person company? It’s grown to more than a hundred times that. Where once they sourced from a single factory, Charlie and Todd now work with more than 100. And the roster of businesses buying their products now includes the likes of Pottery Barn, Dillard’s, Hallmark, Martha Stewart and Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines. A lot has changed, to say the least. But one thing’s stayed the same, they say: Nancy.

NancyNolanLoftThe three friends are breakfasting at the Root Cafe, just down the street from Nancy’s loft in SOMA’s restored Little Rock High School building, flipping through that most recent catalog—which, really, is the size of a phone book—and chatting about their longtime collaboration over runny farm eggs and jam-slathered toast.

“We don’t use any lighting—all natural light—which is so becoming of the product,” Charlie says. “And every image is shot by Nancy.”

Every image in every catalog has been shot by Nancy,” Todd chimes in. Which, it turns out, is no small feat. Todd, Charlie and Nancy spend two-ish months together—day in, day out—each fall producing the next year’s lookbook. They shoot sets on Charlie and Todd’s Vilonia farm, at their downtown Little Rock warehouse, at Nancy’s studio and in her home. Needless to say, the threesome get one another. They push one another. They “feed off one another,” as Nancy says. And as the friends realized when they teamed up on a new kind of project—the design of Nancy’s loft—that kind of familiarity comes in handy on more than just photo shoots.

“[So we’re shooting], and Nancy sees this thing she likes, and she sees us put a set together, and she says, I really want you to do my space,” Charlie says, taking a sip from his earthenware mug.

“No, no, that’s not how it happened at all!” Nancy says from across the table, gearing up to tell her side of the story about how her SOMA loft came together with Todd and Charlie’s help. “I was in one of my famous artist moody points and I said, You’ve got to come and help me. Y’all looked around, and you were saying positive things, but I could tell your eyes were rolling up in the back of your head and you were like, ohmygod. You left. You asked me if I could get two guys at 4 at my apartment, and then you pulled up with a Penske truck. You told me to sit on the steps and watch the truck, and you unloaded everything, you remember?”

They chuckle, agreeing that, yes, that’s indeed how it happened. And then they talk over one another as only the best of friends can do, recalling the “before”—the 15-foot ceilings, soaring windows, wide-open floor plan and a handful of furnishings, photos and mementos Nancy had held onto after downsizing—and how quickly the “after” came to be.

“We just took a look, went back to the warehouse, loaded up some things—some things we knew would work, some things were optional,” Charlie says. “And that’s typically how we do it. And then just go in and Woooshew!”

“I mean, tables and chests, lamps, lights!” Nancy says, interrupting. “I literally had a round table; that one brown chest was mine, those little chairs by the bar. And it was like being on one of those shows. I came upstairs, and I just cried, because I always do. It was a big reveal.”

And it’s no wonder. The end result looks not at all like something delivered en masse from the belly of a Penske truck: It looks like a place Nancy’s been dwelling for years, artfully arranging meaningful things just so as time wore on. Which has a little to do with Todd and Charlie’s design sense—they try to make everything they produce look like a found object—and a lot to do with the fact that the three are the kind of friends that finish one another’s sentences.

“With Nancy, it was like, Oooh, we get to be a bit more artistic, we get to push our boundaries a little bit,” Charlie says, “and show people that our items go beyond their preconceived notions. The idea was to make it look established but not to be tied down. So the idea of canvases on the wall—they can be rolled up; they’re mobile. It’s almost like, this is a show, a tent show for awhile, and the gypsy wagon’s gonna move.”

“It looks like me,” Nancy says. “They throw things like this together perfectly. They’ve just got an eye. I don’t really understand it. They’re my greatest friends. And they take care of me. I try to take care of them, too.”

“Oh, you do, Nancy,” they say, almost in unison.

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