A few blocks from Railroad Park, an oversized, turquoise door opens to a collaboration of creativity--a masterpiece that plays double duty as the studio and home of photographer Liesa Cole.
As I enter at dusk, Cole is rearranging furniture to host a small party of girlfriends in the studio/event space downstairs that she named Studio GoodLight. Her daughter, Gabrielle Bates, who now lives in Seattle, is painting illustrations on the bathroom wall, while Cole documents the process with
Artist Shea Scully of Funktion Art Design Compound just so happens to walk in and takes a few moments to show me how the 3-inch-thick pivot door that acts as the studio's entrance operates. Living up to his nickname "Professor Fastener," he fashioned old parts from cash registers and other machinery into oversized, gravity-driven door mechanics that function as a speakeasy portal with a brass-colored cover.
Just behind the door, Cole tells me the story behind the concrete benches that line the entryway. She and friends all sat in the wet concrete to make impressions in the shape of their behinds, making it more comfortable than flat concrete. Designer Jan Jander describes the seating as an "exploration of rough and smooth concrete." "The concept for the benches is a pair of infinite pools frozen at the moment of sitting," he says. "The seats read as ripples in water, which contrasts the existing concrete floor."
Above the benches, Cole's photography lines the gallery wall at the studio entry. She envisions changing the art out regularly, but the portrait of Miss Anita (a waitress at the oldest barbecue restaurant in town) that won Cole the International Photographer of the Year award might be a mainstay.
Wherever possible, the studio's furnishings are commissioned by a local artist or upcycled--another passion of Cole's. The space exudes the artistry of the one who brought it to life, along with that of Birmingham's creative community.
The building was originally a livery in the early 1900s, when the area surrounding it was the transportation and brothel district--still evidenced by car dealerships nearby. Today, the resulting space, designed by architect Richard Carnaggio, offers Cole both the urban setting and neighborhood feel she said wasn't downtown when she lived in a loft there 20 years ago. Railroad Park is her teenage son's backyard, and she can easily hop on the Rotary Trail and shop at the new Publix on 20th Street South.
Studio GoodLight's main floor is one large open space. Essentially all that remains of the original building are its brick walls and trusses. Even the concrete slab that serves as its base was re-poured. On it, a white
"cyclorama" cove wall offers a background for photography. Like seamless paper that never runs of out of white, Cole likens it to being in a blizzard. She also plans to use it as a projection screen for events.
A skylight in the room's back corner illuminates the main space without
providing too much top light. Solatube lights filter daylight from the rooftop into the window-less studio. For the studio, Cole had the design modified so that the tubes would bend and offer mirrored light. The result, Cole says, was "super crisp light" that created raw images that blew her mind. After dark, the lights switch over to LED lights.
In the studio's kitchen, a collage was made out of old medicine cabinet mirrors taken from the Thomas Jefferson Tower. Cole likes to imagine dignitaries who stayed in the historic hotel looking into their reflections in the same mirrors she owns today. The mirrors were artfully crafted into the shape of the Studio Goodlight logo, which is reminiscent of the infinity sign. The kitchen counter, 2-inch thick reclaimed walnut wrapped in steel, was also made with hardware salvaged from the Thomas Jefferson Tower.
Along the kitchen's bar, salvaged 1960s paisley print chromcraft chairs with added footrests were elevated to bar height. Others, in hues of orange and tan, are pulled up to tables on casters made from old railroad carts that were once in Cole's old studio on Morris Avenue. Retro-inspired chartreuse vinyl chairs, next to a side table made by local artist Tracy Mason, came from Cole's dad's house. Many of the chairs showcased in her living space are part of a collection Cole has been cultivating from antique shops, eBay, and the streets of downtown Birmingham for years.
With all the furniture mobile, it can be arranged one way for a photo shoot during the day, and then rearranged for an event the same night. The intimate event space can host 40 to 70 people. Cole envisions it hosting rehearsal dinners, small weddings, dinner parties, and the like.
Off the main studio space, a playfully-decorated greenroom is filled with vintage finds Cole has collected over the years, along with a futon and a bathroom so it can be used as a guest room. Vintage stools sit beneath round makeup mirrors and orange cubbies that were salvaged from an old Parisian department store. Parisian had been one of Cole's major clients for years, so it seemed fitting that she would have a few pieces harkening to it.
A spiral staircase in the back of the studio leads up to the second-floor living space that Cole shares with her husband and producer, Stan Bedingfield, their son, Cole, and their dog, Max. Like the studio, it juxtaposes modern elements
with historic ones.
Cole's photos are hung throughout the space, with a few from her Secret Keeper portrait series hung in the living room alongside 1950s furniture she has collected. "If you stare at them, they stare back at you," her husband, Stan, says of the portraits. "Their professions lend themselves to keeping your secrets." In fact, one of a priest opens up to a hidden coat closet in the space.
The open living room is contiguous with a second kitchen featuring marigold and white Ikea cabinets. Cork flooring--a renewable resource--is found throughout the top floor. Among the many modern elements are sliding doors that open to bedroom spaces and more.
The master bedroom boasts panoramic windows reminiscent of a beach condo, where Cole and Stan watch the sunrise each morning. There's also a private
terrace off the bedroom that offers views of downtown buildings, as well as
neighboring buildings that house other art and design studios.
The vanity in the master bathroom was made from a chopping block in the slaughterhouse where Cole's former studio was housed. "I don't get creeped out by it," Cole says. "It's just a piece of history." Adjacent to it, a bobsled bath tub is surrounded by art made by Cole's friends and loved ones, along with candles and other objects to create serenity. It's one of her favorite spaces in the building.
The private living space, just like its downstairs counterpart, invites Cole and her family to stop and linger, while inspiring creativity and celebration. And wherever you look, the good light comes in.
To learn more about Cole's work, visit liesacole.com.
Architect: C. Richard Carnaggio, Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds
Contractor: Pearson Construction
Pivot Door and Select Furnishings: Shea Scully and Sara Jackson, Funktion Art Design Compound
Cast Concrete Benches: Jan Jander, Joel Bangloy
Kitchen and Gallery Lighting: Christophe Nicolet
Alabama Cypress Exterior: Garlan Gudger, Southern Accents
This story originally appeared In Birmingham Magazine's March 2017 issue.