Interview with Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge

Where we dwell
Interview with Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge

How people transform a house to a home is endlessly appealing. Where you dwell and how you cocoon yourself is something that you shape and in turn, it shapes you. Homes and people are clever, they can work together in a union that’s so unique, it can be felt in an instant. Grace Bonney’s Design*Sponge website is a walk through the streets and lanes of the world – more than that, pop in for a drink and a long chat, bounce on the sofa, roast by the fire. From Germany to Kentucky, Design*Sponge delves into real homes, where time is captured for a moment by a frame. That home singing together with its occupants, is the story. Inspiration permeates Grace’s site, from her After the Jump radio series, documenting creatives and discussing where we are and where we’re going, to the crafts, city guides and long reads. Through Design*Sponge, you get the impression that she’s wise, considerate and a fascinating. As we spoke, she surpassed this however, and left me with a better understanding of certain aspects of the home, work, life – relationships. Understanding through connection is what spins the world. Home is a relationship, time is a gift. This has been taken from Lionheart issue six. 

I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a resort town about an hour north of the North Carolina border. When I was growing up, Virginia Beach was still a little rough around the edges but it's since become a Disneyland of sorts and it's really clean. I'm still bummed that they got rid of my favourite diners and piercing places. 

My parents are both artistic, although neither pursued those passions full-time. My Dad worked in advertising for a long time and then opened his own market research firm. My Mom was a teacher while I was growing up, then worked in a good friend's antique shop. She has such a great eye for design, my Dad does too. Together, they definitely taught me to appreciate and pay attention to your home and how it makes you – and others – feel when they're there.

I thought I'd be a writer growing up, so I went to NYU (basically in an attempt to become Felicity or Carrie Bradshaw), but ended up really unhappy with my classes and the overall experience. I managed to fall in love with New York however, so I transferred to William & Mary in Virginia and finished with a fine art degree. While I was there, I discovered college radio, hosted a show and got a job after graduation at a record label. I moved back to NYC the day after our graduation ceremony and started work at the label. I ended up not enjoying that job, so I took a job in design PR, where I got to write and be around design, which felt like a huge win-win. During my lunch breaks at that job, I started Design*Sponge. It's slowly and organically grown to be my dream job I never knew existed. 

Design has a lot of power in many different ways. When I first started the site I was primarily interested in the way design and well-designed objects can affect the way you feel at home. I was most interested in how they create a space that reflects personal style. But after a while, that started to feel much less important to me than the way design can be a tool to educate, empower and improve. I'm most interested now in the way people can use art (like graphic design or illustration) to educate and inform, as well as the way design and technology can work together to empower people everywhere to tell their story, or follow their dreams. I've basically moved from being interested in things to being interested in the people who use them and make them. 

There are small lines connecting everyone's spaces in terms of style and function, but overall I find that people – and cultures – approach the idea of home in very different ways. I see this the most clearly when we post all-white homes. Something that seems to be in vogue these days. Some people find them incredibly calming; others find them ‘devoid of soul’ (a comment we get a lot). So to me, it reminds me on a regular basis that home means so many different things and even a single aspect of design – like paint colour – can mean something so different to people. For me, grey paint is deep and warm and cosy, but for others it's sad and institutional-looking. 

The only common ground I tend to really see after publishing thousands of home tours, is that everyone everywhere wants to have somewhere to rest their feet at the end of the day – and how they do it often says a lot about their hopes, dreams and priorities. 

My influences change from year to year. Student design had a lot to do with the early years of Design*Sponge, then trade shows and ‘big’ design played a large role. This developed to focusing on the handmade community, which became a big part of my motivation. Now it's really become about talking less and listening more. Trying to figure out what creative people want and need, then how we can best use our platform to help them share their stories and achieve their dreams. I find that just listening and learning to other people is the best inspiration you could ever ask for.

I am constantly on social media. I turn to Twitter for social and cultural news, Instagram for design inspiration and Facebook to catch up with friends and remember how important it is to have friends who don't work in the same field as I do. I've been reading more lately, printed books, not online, which feels great. But mostly, I enjoy getting outside with our dogs as much as possible. Being out in the fresh air (we recently moved outside the Catskills in upstate NY) is the best treatment for any burnt out work feelings.

Always know why you're doing something and keep that at the top of your mind. To me, that’s the secret to running your own business. That and being flexible, because every business market is constantly changing. But if you know who you are and what you want to do with your business, you can more easily react to and adapt with change around you.

I think the idea of balance might be something that the next generation phases out in a way that my generation isn't quite willing, or ready to do. I like the idea of finding balance, but I find I'm often stressed out by not having that balance yet and then a thought process that's supposed to lead to calm and happiness often creates it's own type of stress. So I feel like the more realistic question to ask is, do you feel fulfilled and happy? If you feel like your life is full of enough love, purpose, happiness and connection, I don't think it matters how long you're online. If the people you love feel respected and appreciated by you, there shouldn't need to be a set amount of hours you're online and off. I think the next generation is used to constantly being attached to a device, so it won't be this big work/life divide we're all so used to grappling with.

I want to make things better. I'm most motivated by self-improvement and professional and community improvement. I'm always thinking about whether or not what I'm doing– from the way I write emails, to the content I post on the site – is helping someone or something become better. If it's not, I let it go. Right now I feel like the lifestyle community has a great responsibility to do a better job of reflecting the entire creative community and being more inclusive, so that thought and mission keeps me motivated to work harder and try to make everything I do more reflective of that goal. 

I've been reading a lot about visibility, and the way that people seeing themselves in the media they consume can affect so much. As an out gay woman, I know how much it affected my confidence and self-worth to see people that I could identify with in the media I consumed – whether it was TV, magazines or blogs – and I think a lot about the ways in which blogs, through posts, social media and podcasts, can do better to make sure everyone reading feels included and welcomed. So many lifestyle publications are about aspiration and luxury and as I've got older, I want to actively find ways to use ours to do the opposite; to find inspiration, but to make it feel relatable and real and inclusive. 

Take a deep breath and live with a new home before you do anything to it. Online culture and makeover shows make us feel like we have to finish everything in a week. Or that the idea of ‘finished' even exists. Homes evolve over time, and if you're like most of us, budget is a real factor. So I think living with white walls or un-finished rooms is OK, take your time. Your friends will understand and you can think more about making fewer decisions/purchases and making the ones that you do choose to follow through be exactly what you need and want them to be. Also, don't be afraid to repaint. Paint is one the most affordable and flexible design tools we have. Colour is powerful (so is the absence of colour) and using it simply, in terms of painting a room, is a great way to get started.

I love the people and things that live inside my home. Whenever I'm home alone, I'm reminded that a house is just a building when there's no love or meaning inside of it. I've lived in tiny apartments and now a big old farm house and my happiest moments are when any space I share with my family is warm, safe and welcoming. 

Time is a gift, plain and simple. Being able to have the time to work on something I love is a gift. Giving time and sharing time with others is a gift and receiving their time and attention – whether it's in the form of someone reading our blog or sending us an email – is a gift, too.