Soaking Up Design With Grace Bonney
CH&L sits down with the mother of all design bloggers
Portrait by Christopher Sturman
Grace Bonney has been called the Martha Stewart for millennials—but that would be selling her short. Bonney, who started her blog Design*Sponge in 2004 with a few thousand followers, has created an empire that reaches well beyond any hipster age boundary.
Two million design lovers head to her site daily for visual inspiration, unique ideas, step-by-step DIY projects, travel guides and seasonal recipes from creative home cooks. Bonney’s scope also includes radio—she hosts After the Jump, a weekly show that focuses on contemporary makers, the business of creating and books. Her first tome, Design*Sponge at Home (Artisan, $35), remains a national best-seller, and her second book, In the Company of Women (Artisan, $35), will be released in October. She spoke to us from her home office in rural New York.
Interior images from Design*Sponge at Home include: A chic gray-and-white bedroom from interior designer Genifer Goodman Sohr's Nashville cabin. [Photo: excerpted from Design*Sponge at Home (Artisan Books) Copyright 2011]
What was your first clue that design was going to be an important part of your life?
When I was little, my favorite toy was a typewriter. I sat at the dining room table and wrote pretend magazines and books. In high school, I was obsessed with fashion. I covered my closet doors with pictures cut from magazines. Then my dad introduced me to Metropolis magazine, which covers architecture, design and art. In art school, I studied printmaking but discovered my real love was interior design.
Please describe your style.
My personal style is classic with a twist of farmhouse, and I can never get enough stripes. There just never seem to be enough stripes in my life.
How did Design*Sponge begin?
I started in 2004—pretty much right out of college. I had no intention of this becoming my full-time job, nor did I think that was a possibility; it was really a hobby. I was living in Brooklyn. There were so many incredible artists using recycled materials doing the most incredible DIY. I walked around taking pictures of what was going on in people’s garages and studios and put them on the Internet. I thought that maybe one day I would use them as an online portfolio to get a magazine job. And I did. I got one at House & Garden, and that closed. Then at Domino, and that closed. That’s when I realized that I needed to take my design blog seriously and started treating Design*Sponge like a real job.
Interior images from Design*Sponge at Home include: London designer Abigail Ahern's tub and wire chandelier. [Photo: excerpted from Design*Sponge at Home (Artisan Books) Copyright 2011]
You spent many years in Brooklyn, and now you’re in upstate New York. Tell us how the design of where you live has changed.
My wife [chef and cookbook writer Julia Turshen] and I wanted more space, more quiet and to get away from the constant rush. We now live in a very, very old home. And I’ve embraced the less-is-more idea. I have a job where I’m always looking at really intense colors and patterns. I like my house to be the opposite of that—a calm respite from the stimulation of my day job. I’ve pared everything we own down to the basics—even my clothing. We have monochromatic rooms with the same pet-friendly rugs in every room and the same traditional roll-arm sofas that I order from Lee Furniture in North Carolina.
I have them slipcovered in grayish linen. It is my one extravagance. I love linen, and even though everyone thinks it’s impractical—especially with pets—I find it very forgiving because it can be washed, line dried and put right back on again.
A DIY wine-crate display case (cost: $10) by designers Derek Fagerstrom and Lauren Smith, pictured in Bonney's first book. [Photo: excerpted from Design*Sponge at Home (Artisan Books) Copyright 2011]
What is your favorite thing about your workspace?
My workspace is essentially a huge, wide-plank farm table in our big, open-concept kitchen. We built banquettes, and I covered the cushions with gray-and-white striped fabric. Being surrounded by stripes makes me happy. I have a great view into a wildflower meadow with a huge creek and, pretty much any time of day, dozens of deer. We call it our deer superhighway.
What inspires your creativity?
I am most inspired when there is a challenge, when it is about solving a problem that helps people in my community—creative women running small craft businesses. My strength is
in being a connector of people and ideas.
Why is handmade important in today’s world?
We live in a digital world, and everything we do has something to do with an electronic device. It is important to take a break, to make something by hand and see the results of your work. Or maybe to see something made by hand by an artisan. I think people have forgotten where their things—a rug, a bench, a sweater—come from. Handmade connects the digital generation with objects that are tactile and real.
A clever coupling of doll clothes and tools from Halligan Norris and Adam Smith's Philadelphia hallway, featured in Design*Sponge at Home. [Photo: excerpted from Design*Sponge at Home (Artisan Books) Copyright 2011]
Are you a collector?
I don’t collect much because I’m trying to simplify my life, but I have a weakness for blue-and-white china. We have several beloved pieces of Blue Willow—inherited from both our families—displayed on our kitchen walls. I love to look at the pieces and imagine all the special occasions on which the platters and bowls were used. It is a great way to honor the generations of our families.
Who or what most influenced your style?
Three very different designers in three different phases of my design life. First, anything Genevieve Gorder did on TLC’s series Trading Spaces. That was my first initiation into the world of design.
Then, everything done by the legendary Dorothy Draper. She and I share a love for oversized stripes. I first saw her work at The Greenbrier [in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia], and the moment I walked into that hotel, with its huge cabana stripes in Kelly green, navy blue and pink, I felt at home.
I’m also inspired by traditional Southern menswear in the style of Atlanta-based designer Sid Mashburn. The leather, brass detailing and simple patterns balance out my love for hot pink and stripes.
Interior images from Design*Sponge at Home include: Juli Daoust and John Baker's Scandinavian-inspired Ontario living room. [Photo: excerpted from Design*Sponge at Home (Artisan Books) Copyright 2011]
Please give us three pieces of advice for creating a beautiful environment.
1. Edit: Pare down to the things that really matter to you. We all seem to have way too much stuff, and that makes design choices much harder.
2. Combine: Whether you live with children, a spouse or roommates, everything you own is a collection. You’re never going to “get” that your spouse loves hot pink or is crazy about car posters, but you absolutely can make these collections work together. People overlap more than they realize. It can be as simple as a shared color palette—maybe baby blue and orange.
3. Frame: Elevate your most cherished pieces. The most meaningful and most enjoyable rooms are the ones based around objects you really love—maybe pennants from school or a beautiful series of beach photographs or Granny’s antique rug. Any room shaped around cherished objects has much more soul. So I always tell people to find a way to elevate the things they love—whether it is putting things in shadowboxes or creating an arrangement on a wall or rewiring an old lamp that belonged to someone you love. Finding those pieces and making them important really makes a room come to life.
In the Company of Women contains over 100 advice-filled interviews with successful female makers, artists, and entrepreneurs, including (above) actor/maker Jasika Nicole. [Photo: excerpted From In the Company of Women (Artisan Books) Sasha Israel, Copyright 2016]
Her go-to design sites and shops
The Design Files is a popular Australian blog that offers peeks into Australian homes, visits to local artists (with links so you can buy) and recipes like broad bean risotto and hummingbird cake.
Remodelista is where I go to imagine I’ve retired and live on a Nancy Meyers movie set. It is that minimal California aesthetic—huge, high-ceilinged, concrete interiors with just a touch of pine and white. Their aesthetic is so clean and fresh, and there are lots of design tips and DIY.
AphroChic introduced me to an incredible range of artists and designers that I’ve never heard of but am so happy to know. This website combines contemporary elements but with a great African vibe.
Online: I love Leif, which has a great mix of gorgeous pillows and throws, jute baskets, botanical bath products, and the best tabletop. I keep buying their linen napkins.
Brick-and-mortar: Ron Sharkey’s Downtown Antiques on Main Street in Accord, New York, is well worth the drive. You’ll find everything from well-curated rugs and mirrors to ironstone china and zinc garden ornaments. 845-706-1070. Open on Sundays or by appointment.
In the Company of Women contains over 100 advice-filled interviews with successful female makers, artists, and entrepreneurs, including (above) chef Carla Hall [Photo: excerpted From In the Company of Women (Artisan Books) Christina Wehbe, Copyright 2016]
SOME THOUGHTS ON GRACE'S NEW BOOK
How did your new book come about?
Like my blog, In the Company of Women was inspired by what I wasn’t seeing in the design media—in this case, women of color, LGBTQ women and differently abled women. So I set out to create an inspirational road map that allows any young person to see herself reflected.
In the Company of Women contains over 100 advice-filled interviews with successful female makers, artists, and entrepreneurs, including (above) artist/author Maira Kalman [Photo: excerpted From In the Company of Women (Artisan Books) Sasha Israel, Copyright 2016]
Of all the women you interviewed, is there a particular quote that made the biggest impression?
Tavi Gevinson comes to mind. She said, “Own everything.” So simple. So spot on. But what’s astonishing is that she was only 19 when I interviewed her. So often women are taught to collaborate, cooperate or compromise in a way that doesn’t give us ownership of what we create. The concept of ownership leads to pride and confidence.
In the Company of Women contains over 100 advice-filled interviews with successful female makers, artists, and entrepreneurs, including (above) artist/musician Kathleen Hanna [Photo: excerpted From In the Company of Women (Artisan Books) Sasha Israel, Copyright 2016]
In the book, you ask everyone about the best advice they received when starting out. What was that for you?
“Whatever works, until it doesn’t.” Things change constantly, especially on the Internet. There is never a point of stasis. Something that is a great solution right now may not work in six months. Knowing there is no magical nirvana—that it is OK to have your business change in order to grow—makes me a lot calmer.