With intent: A story about PROFILE + PRINCIPLE
- By Ryan Burleson
PROFILE + PRINCIPLE has, technically-speaking, only existed since 2014. But the forces that sparked the firm’s genesis have been at work in founder Bob Butler’s life since childhood.
Butler was raised in the Australian bush, a world removed from Tennessee, and it was there that he first was exposed to design that transcended pure functional concern. Low-pitched roofs, voluminous glass, cantilevered decks and other signposts of mid-century architecture dotted Butler’s view as he ambled among the hills. Neighboring homes embraced light, space, and their relationship to the outdoors. They diminished the barrier between one sphere and the other. They encouraged stillness and reverence, and Butler turned to these memories as he designed the home — Bonway, outside Atlanta — that would forever alter his path as a creative.
Prior to 2012, Butler made his living as a photographer. He primarily shot to film, employing techniques honed by fine art photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Annie Leibovitz. He took elegant, deep-hued portraits of fellow artists and surrealist images for projects like The Tear-Imbued Handkerchief of Vic Champignole, a short story by Butler’s childhood friend Kris Allison. Paste sent him to Newport Folk Festival to shoot Gillian Welch, Brian Wilson, and other iconic figures. Tom Waits used one of Butler’s images, from a performance at Atlanta’s Fox Theater, for the cover of a 7-inch. Clients hired him to document Atlanta’s rising cocktail scene.
Butler loved the process of photography nearly as much as the result, and still does, but he found himself longing for new professional and creative challenges.
During this time, Butler found himself drawn to Julius Shulman’s iconic images of the Case Study Homes built by Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen, and other star modernists in the post-war residential boom. The program, sponsored by Arts & Architecture, was intended to model beautiful homes that could be inexpensively replicated across the U.S., but the streamlined elegance of the residences — buoyed by Shulman’s photography in the dim-lit Hollywood Hills — ensured the Case Study Homes would have historic impact. They reminded Butler of low-to-the-ground desert homes, like E. Stewart Williams’ Sinatra-commissioned estate, that he admired while briefly living in the Coachella Valley.
In 2011, Butler bought an aging ranch home outside Atlanta, where he lived at the time, and he began putting this inspiration and his childhood memories to use. He immersed himself in Francis D.K. Ching’s “Building Construction Illustrated,” learning primary engineering and architectural concepts. He developed a modest budget and, by hand, he drew plans for Bonway.
Butler wasn’t thinking career change, but career change was afoot. Soon after completion, Bonway was featured by the tastemaking symposium Modern Atlanta and Butler was approached by design-for-hire clients locally and farther north, in Nashville. PROFILE + PRINCIPLE was, a few homes later, the inevitable result.
Residential design was a natural transition for Butler, as he found that photography and architecture share relationships to light, shadow, and scene. They inspire people to consider new possibilities. They’re artforms, no matter the end goal, and they run best on gut-level instinct, not calculation. No surprise, then, that Butler’s photos seem to be in conversation with his homes. Both manifest clear-eyed vision, elegance, and confidence. They invite more inspired living.
Tony Baker — furniture designer, photographer, and PROFILE + PRINCIPLE client — says that Butler’s work epitomizes “simple done well.”
“The thing about this concept,” Baker says, “is that you've got nothing to hide behind. But Bob’s homes have both a stature and an intimacy to them. It’s rare to see those qualities working in unison.”
Baker’s family moved into the Delmas house in June 2016, and he says that the East Nashville home has a generative streak — its layout inspired his design of specific pieces of furniture, and it allowed for spontaneous conversation to flow from opposite ends of the 2,000-square-foot space. Baker also admires the way that Delmas takes advantage of light, how it quietly influences his family’s movements throughout the day.
“Bob pays attention to the flow of natural light,” Baker says. “His homes embrace it, and that makes working from home more productive and nourishing.”
PROFILE + PRINCIPLE was founded just as Nashville entered a season of unparalleled growth. And while this evolution ushered in many positive developments — a nationally-renowned food scene, for instance — it also spelled trouble for the city’s architectural landscape. Featureless structures sprouted block-by-block overnight, some paying lip service to modernist design but none of its grace. Designing beautiful, sustainable structures wasn’t the point: Investors relish scale.
PROFILE + PRINCIPLE takes a more engaged stance. Most of the firm’s projects are fundraised in-house, giving Butler total control over land purchases and the design process. Since he’s the developer, contractor, and designer, Butler is able to nimbly dictate costs for a wide range of budgets, and he personally oversees the construction of his homes and commercial spaces, such as the co-working project Sparkworks Union.
The point of all this is to build beautifully, with untarnished motives. Scale isn’t part of the conversation.
This is why, when you come across a PROFILE + PRINCIPLE design, you see not cliche but site-specific beauty. You consider form and how it functions in the surrounding terrain. You see yourself in sun-dappled rooms, sketching dreams of your own. You see not dime-a-dozen, cheaply constructed ‘modernism’ — you see how lumber, concrete, glass, and steel can be deployed in spaces that evoke a more inspired ‘you.’
PROFILE + PRINCIPLE projects aren’t nostalgic in a literal sense — they’re for these times and merely in conversation with mid-century inspirations — but they’re colored by memory. It’s youth, after all, that we turn to when we meditate on who we are and who we’d like to be. We recall years when it was easier to be wide-eyed and hopeful, when we more readily delighted in wonder. Architectural spaces can’t turn back time, but they can bring us closer to our true selves. Butler’s work with PROFILE + PRINCIPLE, with its focus on lightplay and reverie, does just that.