Photographs by Jane Bruce
Since starting Design*Sponge over ten years ago, Grace Bonney has seen her fair share of interior design trends come and go: deer antlers, “Keep Calm” posters, blackboard paint, etc. But through all this Pinterest-fueled madness, Design*Sponge has remained a reliably sane space for people from all over the world to visit (the site gets tens of thousands of readers a day) and check out everything from DIY projects to home visits to amazing before-and-afters. We spoke with Bonney in the Greenpoint home she and her wife, chef Julia Turshen, share with their dog, Hope, and cat, Turk, about how she avoids design fatigue, what trends she’s completely over, and why she hates the word “decorating.”
What was the initial inspiration behind Design*Sponge?
I have been running the site for ten years now, and I started it primarily because I wasn’t seeing any of the things that I wanted to see or that I liked or that were happening in Brooklyn anywhere in print—they weren’t in magazines, they weren’t in newspapers, they weren’t anywhere. I was living off Franklin Avenue, and I would take my little digital camera and go down to Williamsburg every weekend and see what was happening with garage shows and studio shows. It was like the epicenter of all things exciting in design, and it was just not being talked about. And I thought, well, I have a place to talk about it, and I’m going to talk about it.
Did you think this would become your full-time job? Was this ever the path you envisioned for yourself?
I never thought the site would be any-thing. I considered Design*Sponge an online portfolio. I thought, if I write about this and maybe establish an aesthetic, then perhaps this will be useful in getting me a job at a magazine one day. So the goal was always just to get comfortable talking that way and maybe one day apply for a job at a magazine. That was more my dream, but I didn’t go to school for journalism—I ended up majoring in fine arts, so I was like, no one is going to hire me. But this ended up being the most stable thing I could do. I ended up getting a job at a magazine [Bonney has worked at House & Garden and Domino], but kept Design*Sponge at the same time. Then all the home magazines kind of tanked, so it still surprises me to this day that the blogs—at least for now—are the steadiest thing to be in.
Are there things you find easier about covering design from this type of platform versus a print magazine?
We’re a very small team, so it allows us to be nimble and to adjust. And we don’t have any venture capital money or anything like that, so we don’t have anybody to answer to except ourselves.
That must be very liberating, but it also sounds kind of scary?
It’s definitely equal parts terrifying and nice!
One of the things I find most impressive about Design*Sponge’s home visits is that you showcase a really interesting variety of design aesthetics. Browsing through Pinterest or Instagram would have me believe that everyone lives amidst color-blocked bookshelves and Eames rockers and Noguchi lamps, and while those things are represented on Design*Sponge, there’s also so much more. How do you make that happen?
We email, on a slow week, about a hundred people about houses, and on a busy week between three to four hundred, and all of this is for twelve of these stories a month. And it’s funny, because we will go through these internal waves of feeling: “Oh wait, there is a zeitgeist happening and it’s all white. Everyone has an all white gallery wall and that’s just it.” There are these big waxes and wanes, when I’m like, “Oh, I’m not seeing very much that’s different.” And then it becomes our job to say, “Well, why aren’t we seeing that? Are we not looking in the right way or the right places?” This is usually the answer, and so we have to go to different countries to find some-thing else.
But weirdly, there’s this huge correlation with what’s happening with design in the US and what’s happening in Australia and what’s happening in the UK and especially in Japan. And the preferences are so similar, like the obsession with salvaged wood, and recycled different pieces, and all still with a kind of minimalism. So that look is in a lot of places right now, and it’s really hard to find houses that feel different. I think sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t.
What’s the reason for this flattening of aesthetic? Is it as simple as blaming social media? Is Pinterest ruining everything?
For a content producer or for someone who’s designing for other people, I think Pinterest and social media culture have become a difficult thing to handle, because clients request exact replicas of what they see and no creative person ever wants to just duplicate someone else’s work, which is what I hear from florists and interior designers all day long. And then I think, for us, it’s very difficult when you’re all pulling from the same well of images to come up with something to say that’s not informed by what everybody else is looking at, whether that’s a pattern or a culture or a trend. And so we spend a lot of time trying to get out of the computer and go to the library or go to a flea market—just go somewhere that’s tangible.
I particularly like to go backwards in time and I like to look at very old things. Design goes in this huge circular pattern all the time, and all the things people are tired of will eventually come back ten years later. So I try to look back and figure out what people are going to want next year, and how we should work toward moving forward rather than just pay attention to what’s happening right now. Those changes happen so suddenly, and if you’re a little bit behind you really lose the trust of your readership.
One thing I’ve noticed is how quickly design items that were once incredibly popular (e.g. Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster) quickly become cliché because they’ve been overexposed. How does that affect the way you present people’s homes when they happen to have some of these suddenly out of style items?
I think the problem—and I’m a part of it—is that the visual culture on the Internet today is one where everyone puts their home out there. Like, maybe everybody had Obama posters before but nobody saw them. Or the “Keep Calm” posters. With those posters, we had to stop showing whatever angle or shot had them, because I would say that one out of every five home tours we did for a solid year had that poster. That and the “For Like Ever” poster that everyone had because it was on the cover of Domino. And so everyone had those and at a certain point you couldn’t put it up without a mob of angry people coming out, and I didn’t want that to happen. It takes a lot of guts to put your personal life on the Internet, and I realize people choose to do that, but I think I have a responsibility to share it in the best way, to protect homeowners.
I take it you’re pretty opposed to trend-based purchases in general?
I think that people should only buy things because they mean something to them, not because it’s part of some big trend. And that’s another way I think blogs have a responsibility to people, by trying to help them design or build a home based on the things that matter to them versus just what’s cool or happening right now.
How do you avoid design fatigue?
You can’t avoid it. It’s inevitable. My personal style has gotten simpler and simpler and simpler. The fact that I live with all white walls… it was just a visual assault at some point to look at so much color and so much pattern. And I love it for other people, but when I come home, I need a break, a visual break. For the most part, I just need to come home and turn off my brain for a little while. But it’s hard, with Pinterest and Instagram, it’s just a constant onslaught. So you just have to train yourself to turn it off sometimes.
Do you have any rules for yourself to avoid falling into a social media black hole?
I don’t bring my phone to bed anymore! Now that we have pets, they’re my alarm clock, so I don’t need my phone anymore. But that’s the only hard and fast rule.
Are there things for your own home that you consider must-haves?
Absolutely. When Julia moved in with me right after I got this apartment—which was just about a week after I’d been here—we got to make all the decorating and design decisions together. And we both decided that we wanted to have things in the house that meant something to us. And that meant that if we didn’t have the perfect whatever on some wall a while, we would just have to live with it empty.
It’s been very liberating, because instead of thinking, “Oh, that wall needs four pieces of art, we must buy them,” we just wait awhile. Besides just being a waste of money, you’re not buying something because it means anything to you. You’re just making a decorating decision. And I sometimes get a bad taste in my mouth about the word “decorating” because to me it feels a bit more superficial than “building a home.” For us, almost every single thing that we have in the house that’s not a shelf or a fixture is either a family piece or something that has a story behind it or is something we bought together, and so that way, when I look around, it doesn’t really matter if things aren’t perfect or I haven’t found the perfect home for them yet—I can’t help but look around and feel happy.
Are there design items that you can’t stand, where you see them and can’t help but cringe?
Well, in terms of steering people away from things, I try to steer them away from those that aren’t made well. Because even if someone thinks, “I’m just going to go to that big box store around the corner and just buy this cruddy MDMF storage system,” they wind up living with those things much longer than they think they will, and then five years later it’s chipping and that plastic table is releasing off-gases. So I always try to talk people out of cheaply made, questionable goods and toward flea markets, where they can get an old wooden or metal piece and restore it. In terms of me, I’m sure I’ll love it again, but I just don’t want to see any more chevron. I don’t want to see any more blackboard paint. But I think that’s just because people are using them in the same way over and over again. Also, antlers.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen