Apartment Therapy Interviews: Monica Pedersen

I sat down with the very lovely and endlessly funny Monica Pedersen to chat about her ideas on updating outdoor spaces for the summer, including her favorites sources and tips. After yesterday's bio post, I also got the scoop on her personal road to success with HGTV and Designed to Sell.Monica: Alright Annie, well you have a great website.

Annie: Thank you. Do you read it?
Yes. We stopped filming Designed To Sell a couple of months ago but we were always on Apartment Therapy all the time for it.

Why did you stop filming?
We had done almost a hundred episodes in Chicago. I think we did 96 or something. I had a little design team that I worked with behind the scenes and so I would always be like, “Make sure we’re online so that we’re not only researching magazines, books, television shows…" Blogs are really important. We were always on Apartment Therapy, it was great.

Right. You get the most current information from blogs. Apartment Therapy has an eye toward budget-friendly items, and I've seen you work magic with 2,000 bucks.
Everyone’s on a budget, no matter if it’s a big budget or a small budget, but a lot more people are on a smaller budget, so it makes a lot of sense. It’s very good.

June is Garden and Outdoor Month on Apartment Therapy. How do you like to update outdoor spaces, especially little urban terraces?
For the smaller space I suggest flower boxes. I think they’re fantastic on a little balcony. But I would choose one color of a flower and I would do it en masse. Your plantings will look fuller and have a lot more impact. In a small space, you can’t get everything you want out there, so pick a color and go with it. If you're into yellow, you could use marigolds or geraniums. Pick it, do a mass planting, and it's gonna have a lot more impact for you. Another cheap thing people are investing in is outdoor furniture that you can bring indoors. I mean everyone's kind of doing the indoor-outdoor thing. And it's so easy to just spruce stuff up with spray paint. The plastic spray paints from Rustoleum are awesome and they have all those fashionable different colors as well. That's good. And I talk about this product a lot because I get pretty excited about it. It's concrete stain. I've done it a lot on my show. It goes on like water, so if you have just a small patio, like an old cracked concrete or something, you just clean it up. You can power wash it, you can use soap and water and scrub it and let it dry, and then go over it with concrete stain. The colors are like new concrete. So it’s a cool way to treat the actual floor in your outdoor space without fixing the concrete or re-paving anything. It just freshens it up.

Do they do interesting colors also? Like if you wanted to carry that marigold yellow through to the floor.
In concrete stains I don't believe they do. I'm picturing the color chart in my head. I don't think they have a lot of bright colors, I think it's a little more muted. But you can always use latex paint on concrete. Eventually it will chip but it'll last you through the summer, and it's just so easy to put on. It will last a while.

So is that your favorite easy, fun, DIY suggestion for outdoors?
Another thing too would be an overscale, oversized urn. People spend a lot of money on annuals. Little annuals that are spread out and don’t have as much impact. I would rather see people invest and spend that money on a great container and then use that container year after year for fewer plantings. You only need to do one, instead of two, if you're on a little balcony or a deck. But if I pull up to someone’s home and I see two great-sized urns, big ones, at least three feet tall, at least, with great plantings, that’s very welcoming. And then you can have fun with the flowers that go in them, and that’s a real statement, rather than pulling up and seeing little petunias floating around in their flowerbeds that don't really catch your eye.

And then when it's winter and the plantings die, you still have that sculptural form.
Dead flowerbeds are ugly! Really invest in some good-looking urns, and they have so many options out there. You can go to Home Depot, you can go to Target, and they're all that lightweight plastic. They're fabulous. They look like stone. Oh and there's spray paint you can get that looks like stone! If you have a big, cheesy, terracotta plastic pot, you can go and get it. They have metallics that can make it look like copper. There’s so much out there. But the stone ones are the coolest because they have a lot of texture.

As far as places you like to shop, where else would you recommend?
I love Home Depot, naturally. We're all there. Target has a really good collection of inexpensive stuff for the summer. Crate & Barrel…just to walk in there makes me happy. Their summer accessories are clean and wonderful. When I'm looking for deals, I go to MasterCard MarketPlace. You can be looking for your home, travel, anything. They have Restoration Hardware on there. Everyday at noon they send a blast by email and you can choose what you want sent to you. I just got my Memorial Day update for sales in Chicago. I’m doing my planting this weekend, and I’m psyched because I know what’s on sale and where to go.

I know you're based in Chicago, but do you ever do flea market or antiques shopping in New York?
I don’t know New York very well. I know everything in Chicago. I wish I did. I drive by things here and I'm like, "Where am I? What street am I on?" But New York, my god, you can walk down the street and find garbage that's amazing. This is the best city in the world for dumpster diving. I saw this fabulous couch the other day.

Yeah, it probably had bedbugs though.
(Laughing.) Well I think people should definitely check out the flea markets then. Especially for outdoor spaces. Have fun with it. Right now everyone's trying to make their outdoor space look like an indoor space. And there are all those new products, like the indoor-outdoor rugs, lamps, the introduction of all these amazing fabrics that are not done in a typical awning stripe. You can also go to flea markets. Go to vintage stores. Get some fun indoor items that are cheap, spray paint them to work with your outdoor decor, and bring them outside.

On HGTV you use a lot of bold fabrics. Do you have any good sources for outdoor Sunbrella fabrics that you like to use?
I'm a big fabric girl. That's sort of my thing. Thank you for noticing! Hancock has some great inexpensive outdoor fabrics. There’s also a company called Loomcraft, you can find them online. I don’t know where they get these endbolts of Sunbrella but they're incredible. You can go online and start searching for indoor-outdoor fabrics and you can find a lot of knockoffs, because Sunbrella can be a little pricey. You can find some cheaper stuff of the same quality. People recover cushions, make beautiful tablecloths, and those fabrics are gorgeous. They're not predictable outdoor fabrics anymore. Say you find a really cute iron chair or something at a flea market or a thrift store, clean it up, spray it, and do a really cute pillow, and you've created a great look. To me, a designer or a do-it-yourselfer, fabric is that one layer of design that says, "This is my style." And so if you're funky, you're doing a funky little pattern. If you're traditional, you may have a paisley outside or a classic stripe. If you’re someone who’s into clean and contemporary, it may just be a solid. It's your chance to really show your personality, and it's simple. It can change everything. I could have a room that's beige with a sisal rug on the floor, keep it very clean, and whatever fabric you're putting on those draperies, if it's bold or if it's an ikat, it says who you are.

And then down the road in five or ten years if you get sick of it, that's the easiest thing to change out.
Easiest thing to change out. So keep your basics more on the neutral side if you're someone who likes to change things up and have fun. Keep your upholstery solid, keep everything neutral, and then introduce those fun punches through your fabric. Then you can match that with a great big drum shade and you can change the look, just with two design things. Your textiles and a light fixture.

Are you doing a lot of residential work right now?
I just finished a big project at The Merchandise Mart in Chicago. They have a dream home and they feature a number of designers, and I did the sitting room. So that was fun. I'm starting a big house in Alabama with one of my best friends, which should be a lot of fun. I just did a show house in Stuart, Florida. I do a lot of show houses! I'll be doing the Welfare Showcase House in Lake Forest, Illinois, which is a pretty big one. We'll start scouting that in the fall. I don't do a lot of private work. I do window treatments a lot. People call me in for window treatments and that's a very easy thing, because it's quick. I use a place called Supreme Novelty Fabrics in Chicago, the guy I work with is Richard Schneider. He does everything from tableskirts for all the events companies, to window treatments, to bridal fabric. No one knows fabric like him. He's someone who buys from the mill, who does stuff directly, who knows how it's going to drape. It's just amazing. I kind of get called in for help. People ask if I have enough time, how about just for window treatments? So then I go in, sketch them out, pick fabrics, and then we're done. That's sort of my love.

So how did you get started with interior design?
I bought an old fixer-upper, fell in love with doing it. At the time I was a catalog model, but I was getting older. Yeah, I was like thirty! Getting older. (Laughing.) So I went to my agent and was like, "Listen. I don't want to travel anymore." I had worked for all the retailers like Macy's, Target, JCPenney, and I traveled. They shoot those little shots of someone in a red t-shirt that’s this big in the newspaper…they’ll fly you to Big Sur for it. That's just how it is. It's ridiculous. So I was traveling a lot and I was having trouble getting my house done, so I said to my agent, "I'm getting older, I love working on my house, and I want to focus on that. So why don’t I try to do some commercials?" He was like, "Good idea. Just don’t make your hair so blonde. Try to go for a young mom look." So I stopped worrying about trying to fit into clothes. They shoot a lot of the young mom stuff in Chicago. I took a few acting classes and it was good. The first commercial I booked was for Sears and Bob Villa was in it. I was in the background, so we're not like together hanging out. But the reason I got that offer was because they asked if I could bring a tool, and if I would be able to work a tool. Well, I was working on a house so I brought my bucket, and you know me, I had my toolbelt. I walked out and was like, "What do you want me to do?" And some casting director called my agent and was like, "This girl is better with the tools than anybody else."

Better than Bob?
Better than any guy in Chicago. (Laughing.) I got that job and then from there I got another tool video and then I got a call from the HGTV casting directors, and they said, "Okay, we know you’re good with tools, and we know you want to be a designer, but have you done anything?" And I said, "Well yeah, I've done my house, I've done some neighbors." I was working for a realtor but I didn't know what I was doing was called "staging." I had never seen Designed To Sell. I had no idea. So I said, "I'm working with a realtor. I do window treatments for everybody." So they let me come out for an audition. All these designers were marching around their portfolios and looking fabulous and I thought I'd never get the job. But the one thing that I could do that maybe they couldn't was not being afraid when the camera rolled. So I got the job. I think I auditioned for it over five months. They were trying to get more episodes of Designed To Sell because it started in Los Angeles, and it’s a tough show to produce. They can only get 26 episodes out of you per year because it's a long show. You're doing makeovers and all that. So they came to Chicago, and it took a while to ramp up adding a city. So I would just go to these auditions and then leave and not even think about it. My aspiration was to work at The Merchandise Mart in Chicago or to work for a designer, so this is just a big happy accident because this is what I love to do. I've made every mistake in the world, so now I get to teach people from the mistakes that I've made. And I know what it's like, do what you're told, buy the best house in the best neighborhood, but when you do that, forget about it, you can never afford to fix it. You can afford to get into the neighborhood, but if the house is in bad shape, you’re not gonna be happy with it. I learned the hard way and I had to get my hands very, very dirty.

That’s something that I appreciate on Designed To Sell. You're very hands-on. You get in there with the tools.
(Laughing.) Yeah. I do all that stuff. When I was working on my house, my sister and I, for 20 bucks, would load my Explorer and head to the garbage dump with a load. It was fun and I learned. How many houses do we own in our lifetimes? Not really that many. So when when you have the chance to learn, take advantage of it and do it. There are things that you have to bring in the pros for, but if there are things that you can do yourself and enjoy, then do it. Home Depot, come on folks, get over there, get your cart, start learning, buy the big orange book, learn how to do things. Target. It’s fashionable. You've got Thomas O’Brien, you have Dwell, there’s great stuff that we all can afford. Kohl's has Vera Wang. Restoration Hardware has an outlet store. Call them! They'll ship anything to you. On Designed To Sell I'd be like, "Alright. Where is there an outlet? Is there an outlet in Ohio? How far is it? Can we go there this week?" We used to roadtrip everywhere. So I know what it's like. I've had to work on a budget myself, and that's how I learned.

What was the production schedule like for a show?
You start on a Monday and go in at 7 in the morning and give the homeowners a tour of what we're going to do. Then I change clothes, and we immediately go into the first day. We start tearing it up and do all the demolition on Monday. Tuesday is off-camera, so we make sure we have everything ready, but we can't install yet, because Wednesday is installing and they want to catch all of that on camera. Thursday is off-camera, and we finish stuff up from the day before. We hope that Friday is staging, flowers, prepping bedding, pressing draperies, but sometimes we're still grouting and hanging tile and we're doing that until midnight. So that happens sometimes. Saturday morning at 8am I show up for the open house and the homeowners usually have toothpicks in their eyes, they’re so exhausted, because they’ve had a camera crew in the house which now smells like primer and paint. They love me on Monday, Wednesday they’re freaking out, and I have to tell them they’ll love me again in three days. I say, "Look, this is my job. We have an open house, and I promise if you hate anything I will change it." And only one time did we have to come back and change some paint color. I still think it was beautiful. (Laughing.) A lot of people don’t realize that when I get there on Monday, the design plan is already done. I've already scouted the house, I've already shopped for it, it's done. I show up on Monday and their house is in the back of my Explorer and in our two trucks. And they’re like, "Wait, I want&hellip" And I have to remind them that all they want to do is sell. This isn't your fantasy room, we're just selling. Some people are control freaks. I am, which is why I have my job. I could not do it.

Which rooms do you tend to update most?
Kitchens and baths, because of the value that they add. Bottom line, if people drop the price enough on their house, it'll sell. But no one ever wants to give up that money, so it's usually about the kitchen and bath. You know what is interesting. I've said this before. My parents were the same way. People will spend a fortune on their kitchens, their baths, their family rooms, kids' rooms, and they never do their master bedrooms. They want to take care of the kids first. And when I say their master bedrooms aren't done, they still have their furniture from college. When they have a family, they think that no one's going to see the bedroom. You know what? Man, you work really hard, you're a married couple, your bedroom should be beautiful and comfortable. I love to do master bedrooms for that reason, to get people excited again. Kitchens and bathrooms add the most value but they're very hard renovations to do from Monday to Friday. We've gone to a house having done four kitchens for the last four houses, and our crew physically could not do another kitchen. So there were times when we were burnt and had to do the bedroom instead. Outdoor spaces were awesome to have in Chicago because we have a short summer, like here in New York, and our whole crew was so happy to get outside. A lot of the houses on Designed To Sell are small, because with $2,000 we can’t make that much of a dent in a 10,000 square foot house, and so we loved small houses. But that means the crew is on top of each other and getting outside was like freedom. It was really fun. And it was real. The majority of people in our country, they're doing it themselves, and they’re doing it on a budget, and that’s how you get it done. Do your research, and come up with prices. I always tell people that going to Home Depot without a plan is like a divorce waiting to happen. It sounds so romantic to go browse around and hold hands, but by the end of the day these are very expensive things to be doing without a plan. Designers don't go in there without a plan.

So what's next in your personal plan?
I'm doing a lot of Bang For Your Buck. I'm the one designer they've carried through each season. We're going to start doing international. I'm going to Buenos Aires in August for them. Number two show on our network, so that's really fun. And I'm probably doing Dream Home again, but I don't know any details.

Do you get to design for Dream Home?
I get to do the outdoor entertaining space. I would love to do an amazing outdoor kitchen, make it a real living space. Beautiful grill, great refrigerator, wine cooler, stone countertops, some amazing outdoor seating that feels like indoor furnishings. There's some great stuff out there.

Thanks for all your ideas. I can't wait to share them with our readers.
Your blog has a nice vibe. It's a good place to get ideas because it's very hip. With Apartment Therapy I get in there and see really practical stuff that I can use on my shows. It's a great resource. There are a lot of blogs out there and that is one that you've definitely got to read.

Thank you very much!

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