Photography by Andrea Morales
It’s said that people feast with the eyes as much as the taste buds. I’d go a step further to say that the spaces where we eat often create the experience as much as the food itself. If you’ve ever enjoyed a nice dinner, drinks, or dessert at one of the establishments where Natalie Lieberman has designed the interiors, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The restaurants she’s worked with are familiar spots that both comfort and charm the senses—places like City & State, The Liquor Store, Bishop, Hog & Hominy, City Silo, and many more.
I sat down with Natalie to hear more about her experience of bringing together food and design in Memphis. She’s a native Memphian with a University of Memphis degree in interior design. But prior to becoming an interior designer, she had 10 years of restaurant experience. She’s worked in Memphis and Atlanta, but has always focused on hospitality interiors—hotels, restaurants, bars, and resorts. She launched her business Collect + Curate Studio in 2014 and has completed over 20 projects in Memphis since then.
Natalie understands Memphis. “Memphis has always had great food and culinary talent but has not necessarily been known for the design of the restaurant spaces,” she says.
“I think I elevate the experience and bridge the connection between the food and the space.”
She uses specific principles when approaching the design of a new project. “The story, the circulation and floor plan, lighting, a sense of discovery, warmth, and the cohesion of design and branding and menu as a whole,” she says. “We approach each project with these tenets, striving to create intentional, distinct spaces regardless of prestige or price point.”
Photography by Andrea Morales
But what exactly makes the experience of visiting one of her restaurants so special?
“A well-designed restaurant interior enhances both the functionality and aesthetics, which overall elevates the guests’ experience,” she says.
“When guests are enjoying a great meal in a great space, they want to linger and return. Well-designed restaurants, bars, and hotels become sought-after destinations for both locals and visitors and make our experiences with food and drink more memorable.”
One of her goals when working in Memphis is an approach she calls “adaptive reuse.” She explains: “Adaptive reuse is repurposing a space or building for a new or modern use other than its original purpose. For example, my first project in Memphis, Propcellar, was originally a glass manufacturing warehouse, and we designed the interior as an event space and prop rental gallery.
Adaptive reuse is important in the larger sense of sustainability and the historic character of a city, which both are very important to me.
Reusing a building not only reduces waste and lowers the carbon footprint of a construction project, but also preserves original architecture and history.”
Natalie particularly enjoys collaborating with other women business owners. Women tend to understand the importance of design as a key component in a business’s experience and success, which is why they are more likely to prioritize it, she says. “I’ve worked with Raw Girls, City & State, The Liquor Store, Propcellar, Sweet LaLa’s, Barware, Sugar Ghost, and Arrow Creative—all female-owned-and-operated businesses,” she says. “All of these concepts were innovative and new to the Memphis market at the time. Women have a different perspective of what is missing in the market and fill that void.”
As Natalie thinks about Memphis, there are a few “dream projects” she would love to design, like Beale Street Landing. “It’s being underutilized,” she says. “It has so much potential to be a destination for the riverfront.”
The Peabody Hotel is another. “Of course, the architecture and ducks are quintessential Memphis, but I think The Peabody could be refreshed and upgraded since it’s really our most classic hotel and a large tourist attraction,” she says.
She added, “I was sad to see Puck Food Hall close. I would love to see a mixed-use development with restaurants and retail in the city center of Midtown or downtown Memphis. A lot of our retail is scattered throughout Memphis, which does not benefit our city’s walkability or connection. A well-done, mixed-use development that is in Memphis, versus the suburbs, is definitely something we could benefit from and a project I would love to be involved with.”
As she’s designed some of Memphis’s most beloved food and drink spaces, she’s tasted their products along the way. “Some of my favorites are all of the Raw Girls juices, City & State’s seasonal drinks, French onion soup from Bishop, the Thunderbird! Forty Twice! pizza from Hog & Hominy, and Sugar Ghost is our new favorite spot for ice cream—it’s made in-house!” she says.
It doesn’t take a designer to appreciate the unique atmospheres that Natalie has crafted around Memphis. Her work serves as a reminder that—from the restaurant industry to the designers to the patrons—our city is teeming with creativity and beauty at every level. All we have to do is go out and experience it.
Enjoy Natalie’s designs at the following locations:
City & State
Falling Into Place
The Liquor Store
Ghost River Brewing Company (South Main Street)
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen
Hog & Hominy
Raw Girls (Peabody Place)
City Silo (Sanderlin Avenue)
Civil Axe Throwing (South Main Street)
Jordan Arellano is a writer, dog mom, and Memphis transplant who has called the 901 home for the last five years. Her background is in nonprofit and social media, and she now works in marketing. When she isn’t reading, writing, or pandemic stress-baking, she travels as often as possible and eats all the vegetarian fare Memphis has to offer. @are.jordan
Andrea Morales is the visuals director at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and a documentary photographer in Memphis. She is Peruvian-born and Miami-bred. Her work moves with the intent of celebrating the in-between moments. @_andrea_morales