She’s a petite, independent woman who is an artist and eclectic designer by nature, and he’s a burly, manly man who has been dabbling in woodworking since their early dating days. Together they are a dynamic duo taking small-town Mississippi, as well as the national design world, by storm.
LAUREL — Erin and Ben Napier’s love for one another is matched only by their love for the City of Laurel.
“Laurel is an eclectic little town. The way it’s both a highly cultured arts town just as much as it’s a working class boots and lunch-pail town looms large and mingles well,” Erin said. “It’s all the best things about Southern culture — the grit and the glamour of it. There’s a level of mystery, as well as history, art, culture, industry and entrepreneurship — that you’d be hard-pressed to find in other towns this size.”
The entrepreneurial spirit that the town of 19,000 exudes is part of what drew the couple, but more on that later.
Erin, 30, grew up in Jones County about 10 miles outside of the city limits. She met Ben, a minister’s son, at Jones County Junior College.
“He was so funny, the biggest guy in the room with the biggest laugh. He has a magnetic personality that makes you feel important when he speaks to you,” she said. “I would have felt lucky just to call myself his friend, honestly, but we never really spoke until the last day of freshman year.”
Erin was the design editor for the yearbook, so, when the opportunity came along to feature Ben as one of the most interesting people on campus, she jumped at the chance to take the lead on the story.
“He came to the yearbook office that afternoon and hugged me for the first time. Six days later, we said ‘I love you’ and decided we would get married someday. We’ve been 100 percent attached at the hip since then,” she said.
Unbeknown to her, Erin’s sweet nervous butterflies were reciprocated.
“Erin didn’t know it, but I had a crush on her too all along,” Ben said. “She had super short hair like Meg Ryan’s, which was very unusual, so I always noticed her. She was different from every other girl. She wouldn’t let me carry on and flirt. She was so smart. The first day we hung out, I knew I had to be with her.”
The two finished their college years at Ole Miss — she with an art degree, he with one in history — and were married in 2008, with Laurel being the obvious place for the lovebirds to start their life together.
“Growing up, I used to relish our trips into the ‘city’ when I could look at the beautiful historic homes,” Erin said. “When I would come home to visit during college, I would take long walks in the historic district with Ben, and we would choose our dream houses.”
While some of the larger historic homes remained on the daydreaming list, a downtown loft that once served as a toothpaste factory during World War II fit the bill for their first “together” space.
“We couldn’t be normal and just get a good little starter house in a neighborhood. We had to get the historic city living experience even if we were living in little-bitty downtown Laurel,” she said.
It was from inside the loft that Erin started her business, Lucky Luxe Couture Correspondence, a wedding and event stationery boutique. The idea for the business originated from Ben’s proposal when Erin started designing the paper pieces that would concisely reflect their relationship as well as the city in which they would be married, Oxford.
“I knew I wanted to make these same aesthetic connections for other couples, to tell their story, to express their style. I have an old soul. I love the imperfections of weathered and worn books, boots, quilts, labels and art, the quaintly sophisticated South and all our eccentricities — so it’s no surprise my stationery work always reflects that vintage sensibility,” she said.
Lucky Luxe has since been featured in bridal magazines, blogs and features throughout the country, and with the addition of online business offshoots Lucky Luxe Dry Goods and Scotsman Co., the company grew larger than the loft space could support. It was time to house hunt.
One in particular had always had the Napiers’ attention — the yellow craftsman cottage in the historic district, just across from the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.
“I never could have guessed we would own it! We never really meant to, in fact,” said Erin. “The sweet lady who owned the house was on her porch one day while we were taking a walk and invited us in. I told her how I had loved it my whole life and, jokingly, if she ever wanted to sell it, she should call us. Three days later, she called us.”
The yellow cottage — it is known formally as the George F. Haynes House — had been nearly completely renovated after storm damage from Hurricane Katrina. It officially became Erin and Ben’s real-life dream house in September of 2011.
The couple took on the remaining renovations — they included a complete kitchen redo and some painting and some wallpaper removal — to add their style to the space. Their walls are covered with old family photos and framed collectables-turned-art, such as an 1876 centennial flag that was an estate sale find for $3 or vintage maps of Mississippi. Ben has built a good bit of their custom furniture with his own hands.
It was this eclectic design style that Erin featured on her social media accounts that caught the eye of a programming executive with Home and Garden Television (HGTV).
“When she found my Instagram photos, she felt like Laurel was special. Something about our little town gave her a gut feeling that she needed to reach out, that something was here for her and something about our small town life could make people all across the country nostalgic for a place they’ve never even been,” Erin wrote on her blog.
That was in June 2014, and, by the spring of 2015, the Napiers and small-town Laurel, Mississippi, were scheduled to begin filming an HGTV pilot series called Home Town.
“In total honesty, the whole thing has been a God-led event that we never sought out, that we felt in our gut after praying for discernment was the crazy thing He had chosen for us,” said Ben. “The opportunity to do something big to help restore the morale in this little town, to change perceptions about small-town Mississippi was a no-brainer.”
As if a pilot episode of a TV show wasn’t enough to mark off the bucket list, Erin and Ben received news in February that the pilot had been picked up by the network, and filming for the first season is set for May.
According to the HGTV website, the premise of the show is that Erin and Ben will help new people moving to town find a house and renovate it into their dream home complete with Southern charm. Using found materials and old textiles, they’re keeping the character of these classic homes but giving them modern and affordable updates.
And, truly, these two are the perfect hosts for this type of show. Their passion for designing and creating matches their passion for their beloved city, and their love for one another is just downright adorable.
“He’s my protector and friend and loves the people in his life so well,” Erin said. “I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
Ben feels the same about his bride, providing her with a unique anniversary gift each year — a handmade book of love notes.
“Books have kind of been a theme in our relationship. At Ole Miss, I spent a lot of time in the art department because Erin spent a lot of time there,” Ben said. “Bookmaking was always going on, and I would hang around and watch people working away on little matchbooks, or books displaying art, or journals, or whatever students were making.
“When I decided to propose, I knew I wanted to do it on the balcony of Square Books. I wrote and assembled a little book about a couple that met in college, who didn’t seem like a match to their friends, but fell in love fast. Now, fast forward to our first wedding anniversary, for which the traditional gift is paper. Books are a pretty standard gift for this occasion, but I wanted to do something special,” he said.
He compiled a book of the best things that happened each month of their first year of marriage and ended each month’s entry with the words, “I love you.”
With each year’s traditional anniversary theme — cotton, wood, copper, wool — Ben has made a book for Erin with the cover made out of that year’s specific material.
“As the anniversary gift theme changes, I have new challenges. Copper and wool last year were actually pretty easy compared to iron the year before. I think the fifth anniversary book, with the wood-themed cover, has been my favorite one to do. I’m sure you can guess why,” he said.
He uses that same eye for detail on his woodworking, crafting each piece with patience and creative intent, Erin said on her blog.
“He works very slowly and intentionally,” she wrote. “He’s quick to tell people he’s no artist, that he leaves that to me. But, I disagree.”
It’s the combined effort of teamwork and the desire to create unique beauty and give new life to old things that will be the driving force behind Home Town. Erin believes there is no better town for the show than Laurel.
“There’s no place in America where the cost of living is less and the benefits of doing business are higher. Our real estate is beautiful and inexpensive. The chief of police gives everyone his cell phone number with the urging to call him anytime at all. You know everyone’s story — and there are many stories — and they know yours, too. There’s no place we’d rather be,” she said.
For the Napiers, Laurel is the quintessential “home town.”
Photography by Melanie Thortis: