Small Town, Big Vision


Small Town, Big Vision

Get the lowdown on a highly modern practice redesign in a tiny town in Tennessee

laFollette, an idyllic rural town in eastern Tennessee, is framed by the majestic Cumberland Mountains. It’s a tight-knit little community of about 7,500 residents and lots of farmland.

LaFollette is the type of place that plays host to events like ATV festivals and local church fairs. And yet, it is also the site of an ultra-modern eyecare practice, the LaFollette Eye Clinic & Eyewear Gallery, owned by optometrists Andy and Elizabeth Howard. The couple moved to the area in 1996 and took over the 30-year-old practice in 2002. They wanted to create a place that both served and supported the community.

“We didn’t want to see our friends and family leaving town for all manner of services, eyecare or otherwise,” says Dr. Andy Howard. “For us, it was about supporting the community that supported us.”

The practice recently underwent a three-year renovation, and the new 10,000-square-foot facility opened in 2014. The clinic is filled with vibrant colors and lots of light, as well as the latest eyecare technology and a large, diverse collection of eyewear.

We check in with Dr. Andy Howard to learn more.

What did you want to accomplish with the redesign?

We understood as optometrists we could be missing the boat if we didn’t recognize that we are all about vision and not just exams. The business has a theme: the celebration of vision. We went to our designer with this theme.

We also had a lot of minor goals, but Liz’s main goal was that it be a happy place. And we truly accomplished that—the multicolored hopscotch squares, the bright green walls.

One of the elements we are really excited that we came up with is the playhouse. It mirrors the shape of the building. It’s fully carpeted with lots of toys inside. It’s fun to watch the excitement on the kids’ faces when they see it for the first time. It’s right near the front door.

The modern exterior of LaFollette Eye Clinic & Eyewear Gallery

Even the staff break room is full of color and light

The contemporary reception area

LaFollette’s unique eyewear “Fitting Bar”

The Eyewear Gallery is the focal point in the building

Can you describe some of the key elements of the practice?

When you walk out into the main level it’s all patient care. There are no administrative offices.

We have 16 exam rooms and seven diagnostic rooms. We have a contact lens education center and optometric station. We have a doctors’ station so the doctors can share cases and look at test results together.

The real centerpiece is the eyewear gallery. It’s like the Grand Canyon; until you step inside you won’t be sufficiently awed. I love watching patients walk in and look up with their mouths open. In the gallery, what patients enjoy most is the fitting bar. It elevates the eyewear delivery experience.

Did you work with a design firm?

We worked with a fabulous group of professionals: Barbara Wright Design out of Nashville, architect Dave Fazio of Austin, and builder Jon Ymker. We ask our patients to come to us as professionals, so we felt we needed to turn to professionals for the renovation. We turned to experts, and they then turned to our community. They used a lot of local artisans and craftspeople.

It’s fun to hear patients come in and say, “Hey, my son did your drywall.” It adds a sense of pride. Not only do they have this beautiful new location, but they also helped us create it.

Were there any challenges you faced with the renovation?

Finding the right location took time. You’d think in a rural location there is room to be had, but in reality, if you aren’t on the main road you don’t exist.

It’s been a long process. We had an a-ha moment when we were figuring things out. Our competition is not here in town and not even in the eyewear industry. Customers are comparing us to lifestyle retailers like the Apple Store and Disney. So you can’t just take some frames and slap them on a plastic tray. It needed to be special.

How did your art shows come about?

The clinic is so visually stimulating in its design, we wanted to support the community through art shows and community festivals. There was a photography exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville that we sponsored, and because of that our local coalition offered us the first chance to display it. It all happened organically, as we were wondering how we would cover these walls.

We designed the lighting specifically to hang art. Sometimes a doctor just explaining about vision can fall a little flat. However, when a patient walks down the halls and looks at photos, it’s easier to have that conversation. I love that connection.

—Jackie Micucci