Design Changemakers 2023: Emily Shaw Makes Interior Design Accessible, Approachable, and Affordable
Who: Emily Shaw, interior designer and content creator
Where to follow her: TikTok at @emilyrayna
For content creator Emily Shaw, design fame quite literally happened overnight.
Flashback to early 2020: The then-senior interior architecture student at Endicott College in Massachusetts was looking forward to graduation and a full-time role with a top architecture firm. Then, Covid-19 hit and “ended everything, basically,” Shaw says. Suddenly out of both in-person classes and a job, she pivoted to a new creative outlet: renovating her parents’ home, where she’d started living during the pandemic. The only caveat? “We didn’t have any money at the time, so I wanted to try do it for free,” or as close to zero dollars as possible, Shaw says. She also decided to document the full transformation process on TikTok, merely to “keep myself accountable with it,” she adds.
Within a day of posting one home improvement video back in May 2020, Shaw says her follower count totaled 100,000. By the end of the monthlong project, that number had jumped to 3.3 million. Seizing this newfound online momentum, Shaw took a sudden career leap to full-time content creation, with the ability to exercise her undergrad design expertise on a more accessible level. “I was left with this platform, and I decided it was the perfect opportunity for me to use the principles that I learned in school in this new space of helping people who want decor on a budget,” she says. “I’ve been dedicating my life now to educational design content in all the different forms.”
The New Hampshire-based creative has become somewhat of a TikTok trailblazer, carving out an internet niche of useful, approachable — yet still really freaking cool — design content for her followers, which, at the time of publication, totals 5.8 million. Where other online experts are often quick to vocalize their interior “icks,” Shaw instead inspires and enables everyday renters and homeowners alike to decorate in creative ways they love, judgment-free, regardless of money constraints or trends. “I’ve really prided myself on sharing new ideas and giving people different things to look at that could end up sparking an idea for them, instead of putting down something anyone else might have,” she says. “I think that’s rare on the Internet right now.”
While Shaw is known among FYPs for vibrant, boundary-pushing DIY project ideas and genius home improvement tips, her greatest fulfillment comes from designing or renovating for online and IRL peers (including mocking up fellow content creator Hank Green’s office redo). In fact, she occasionally picks random direct messages for a TikTok series coined “DM DIY,” offering in-depth design solutions or even digital renderings for that specific follower. And she has no plans to slow down that do-good decorating drive. “Even if social media were to just magically turn off one day, I think I’d still try to find a way to do the types of designs that I’m doing now,” Shaw says.
We spoke with the TikTok phenom — and recent first-time homeowner! — about interior inspirations, noteworthy projects, and new video content to watch out for this year.
Apartment Therapy: What were your design inspirations growing up?
Emily Shaw: When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. I knew that I wanted a creative career, but I also really loved math and problem-solving. I had to do a lot of research before I went to college and ended up landing on architecture. But I’ve always been really inspired by dance, actually. I grew up as a dancer, so that was my creative outlet until I realized that interiors are really what’s best for me.
AT: What is your inspiration now?
ES: Basically, problem-solving. I try not to get direct inspiration from anyone else on the Internet. I’ll think of different problems — that other people have in their day-to-day life, or anything that’s in their home that could use an upgrade — and unique solutions for those. And I try to do it in the most colorful way possible!
AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?
ES: My style is very personal. Eclectic. I like to pull in elements of different things and not necessarily always follow one style, but instead work with the space that I have. And I would like to say colorful, even though not all the spaces that I do are colorful, but I try to incorporate color in any way that I can because I think it does a lot for your mental health.
AT: Is there a specific piece, design, or project of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?
ES: The wood wall that I worked on recently in my house. I took a bunch of very inexpensive plywood sheets and cut them into these really unique blob shapes. I laid them on a wall so I can put lighting on it and see all the different textures. I think it’s really indicative of me as a creator because it’s this inexpensive material that I turned into something beautiful and unique — it’s nothing that I’ve personally seen before.
It’s also customizable, because I initially shared the project as just a one-off art piece for your wall, and then I decided to expand upon it — which is also kind of symbolistic of my life, because I have this one-off project that I shared on social media and all of a sudden I decided to expand upon it and turn it into a career. So I just love that wood wall. It’s like my whole heart, and I don’t ever want to touch it, basically.
AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2022, and why?
ES: Probably the renovation that I did for my college dance teacher a couple months ago. She was battling cancer and going through IVF, trying to start a family. She reached out to me initially because she just wanted ideas for her space. I ended up saying, ‘You know what, to heck with this, I’m just going to come do it for you.’ So that was a really loving moment between the two of us, when I actually got to go in and renovate her space and see her reaction. And how close we are now after it. That space was also kind of out of my comfort zone because there was no color allowed! It was challenging, but also very rewarding.
AT: Where do you see the design world going in 2023?
ES: I see the design world becoming more and more personalized, because I think there’s been a really hard push against the streamlined turning-your-house-into-what-sells or painting everything white or making it look clean. I think people are sick of that, so we’re seeing that start to go in the other direction now with eclectic design and extreme color. Although, I think people are going to tone down the color a little bit and start looking into really good, structured design — instead of just throwing color at a space, they’re going to start planning it more. I think that the days of white, modern homes are fleeting.
AT: Do you have any big plans for 2023 or beyond you can share with us?
ES: The main one I’ll be sharing on social media is just starting to renovate my house more. I haven’t had much time in this past year to really dedicate to my own personal house because I’ve been renovating for other people or dealing with different life problems, so I am really excited to start actually tearing this place down, rebuilding it, and making all those cool changes architecturally.
AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?
ES: I love when a space feels really warm. I love to use any sort of warm tones. I try to stay away from grays and lean more into beiges, oranges, greens, and yellows because it makes me feel like I’m in a warm environment. And cozy.
AT: What do you think you’re doing to impact the field you’re in? What change do you hope to create?
ES: An impact I’ve been making is a new acceptance with design in general. I’ve created kind of a heartfelt design platform, if that makes sense, where people feel comfortable to talk to me about their personal problems while also working on design. I think that’s the best thing that could possibly happen for trends and design in general because people don’t always think about themselves when they’re designing their spaces. They think about what sells, or what looks good, or what will be the most eye-catching when they have visitors over. But I’m trying to create a zone on the Internet where people can feel safe to explore their personal passions and fill their homes with that.
And as for the change I hope to create: I want to take away the barrier of money with design, and [the idea that] having good design [is] only accessible for those who can afford the most expensive, beautiful products. I want it to be based off of creativity, and I want people to feel empowered to change their spaces even if they don’t have a lot of money.
AT: How do you define success in your field? What makes you feel successful?
ES: I define success personally as the interactions that I have with other people on social media. You can look at numbers or engagement or anything like that [as success], but that all ebbs and flows. So, for me, I feel most successful when I have someone comment or message me something about how I’ve impacted them, or [when someone is] willing to ask me a question, especially the people who are DMing me their stories, or telling me about their spaces very vulnerably. It takes a lot of courage to be able to send that to anyone, so the fact that they feel comfortable sending that to me makes me feel like I’ve done a good job at what I’m trying to do.
Interview has been edited and condensed.