Living room with painted white slat ceiling and walls, white shag rug, white accent chair with tasseled throw, white freestanding fireplace surrounded by rock
Credit: Tessa Neustadt

Design Changemakers 2023: Leanne Ford Wants You to Feel Free in Your Home and Beyond

published Feb 14, 2023
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Credit: Sarah Barlow

Apartment Therapy’s 2023 Design Changemakers are all about evolving their industries, from architecture to carpentry, curation to interior design. They’re doers. They’re disruptors. They’re total risk-takers. And you’ll want to get to know them stat.

Who: Leanne Ford, designer, TV personality, author, and editor-in-chief of FEEL FREE
Where to follow her: Instagram at @leanneford and @feelfree, TikTok at @leannefordinteriors

Maybe you’ve become acquainted with Leanne Ford through her popular HGTV television show, “Restored by the Fords,” her wildly successful line of furniture and furnishings with Crate & Barrel, or her soulful interiors in one of the many shelter magazines and books her work has been published in. No matter how you’ve “met” Ford, you’ve encountered her consistent design philosophy: The celeb designer is all about skirting trends in favor of comfort decorating and rule-breaking. She relies on her intuition in all that she creates, whether it’s a room, a piece of bespoke art, or even a paddle for Recess Pickleball. To really know Ford is to understand that, if anything, she marches to the beat of her own drum and does what feels right — when it comes to her career, her life, and her interiors.

Though the Pittsburgh native’s star has only risen since she burst onto the design scene a few years ago, Ford has always had a strong point of view when it comes to interiors. One of her earliest projects was back in the sixth grade, when she convinced her mother to paint the family kitchen white after falling in love with the shade in designer Rachel Ashwell‘s work. Many Pantone and other paint companies’ colors of the year have come and gone since then, but Ford has remained true to her signature snowy hue, which she has used liberally in everything from her schoolhouse renovation that launched her design career back in 2013 to her current 120-year-old home. “I love white paint or white-on-white rooms,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be stark — it can be so warm.”

Credit: Erin Kelly (styled by Hilary Robertson)

For Ford, sticking primarily to a light, white and off-white palette is about more than just aesthetics. “Keeping something constant necessitates creative solutions,” says Ford, who has used wrapped a bed with ribbon from Amazon to “paint” it a whisper pink, and regularly mixes opposing textures and juxtaposes vintage pieces with new ones. “I give myself some constraints [like color], which expands what you think to do.”

Arguably, Ford’s process is driven far more by feeling than most of her contemporaries. “The first question I always ask is, ‘What do you want to feel in the space?'” says Ford. If it sounds like “a vibe” helps drive her design decisions, that’s true, but it’s one that’s fueled by empathy and emotion — not the latest trend or fad. In a sea of talented designers, that’s what makes Ford different. She’s in touch with the soul of a space, and she doesn’t try to fight what it — or its inhabitant — instinctively wants it to be.

Credit: Amy Neunsinger

While that sensual approach — and her can-do resourcefulness and originality — has caught the attention of big-time collaborators (like Crate & Barrel, for starters), Ford took a leap last year and launched her own new venture: FEEL FREE, a quarterly magazine that’s a total manifestation of her design ethos, chock-full of artist profiles, interior beauty shots, quizzes, how-tos, and behind-the-scenes tips and tricks. Doubling down on print media in 2022 may seem like risky business, but for Ford, it just made sense. She hopes her audience will use the magazine as a tool for unlocking the creativity it takes to truly make a house a home. The second issue will be on newsstands soon.

When she’s not working on her magazine, designing products, putting the finishing decorating touches on her own home, or answering clients’ questions on The Expert (where she consults), Ford can be found spending time with her husband, Erik Allen Ford, their daughter, Ever, and the rest of her extended family. She moved back to her hometown during the pandemic and is on a mission to keep coloring outside of the lines when it comes to design — as long as she can use a healthy dose of white.

We spoke with the design star about how she’s built her career, and her unique take on interior design.

Apartment Therapy: Tell me how, when, and why you got started doing what you’re doing. What inspired you? 

Leanne Ford: I got my start in fashion. I worked as a stylist and creative director but always had created my own spaces — from my dorm room and childhood bedroom and beyond. I bought an old school house in 2010 and fixed it up. I ripped down walls and really made it mine, and was fortunate enough to have it featured in Country Living magazine. I was still working as a freelance fashion stylist, and people started calling me to help with design projects. I was actually full-time freelancing and doing design work on the side, so I had overlapping careers for a while. I eventually picked design.

Credit: Amy Neunsinger

AT: What were your design inspirations growing up? 

LF: I’ve always been drawn to free thinkers. In high school, I loved Betsey Johnson. She just lived out loud and was always doing her own thing. I worked for Heatherette, and they had that same ethos. Aesthetically, I’ve always loved ‘shabby chic’ and Rachel Ashwell. She was doing the whole white thing before anyone else, so I loved all of that stuff.

AT: What is your inspiration now? 

LF: I love Hilary Robertson [the stylist]. I also just did a deep dive into Diana Vreeland, too. She was doing in fashion what I try to do as a designer: rule-breaking. She was like, ‘Why don’t you wear a scarf on your head?’

AT: Who do you look up to?

LF: I look up to Axel Vervoordt. I love anything he does and his style and the soul he brings to spaces. All of my favorite pictures often end up being his work. I’m still smitten by it. Then there’s Diane Keaton. Again, it’s about how she’s been so true to herself in whatever medium she’s creating in. 

AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style? 

LF: Easygoing, casual, and cool — cool even more than pretty. I like so many different styles, eras, and aesthetics. 

AT: What would you say sets you apart from your peers? What do you see as being your special thing?

LF: I think I’m in tune with the soul of a space. My number one to-do when designing is asking, ‘How do you feel in that space?’ I wish people and designers were more aware of the soul or feeling in a space. Come up with three adjectives that you want your home — your kitchen, your bedroom, whatever — to feel like, and let that be your red thread that connects everything.

Credit: Leanne Ford

AT: Is there a specific piece, design, or project of yours, or aspect of your business, that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do? 

LF: FEEL FREE as a concept is such a fun canvas for me right now. I have an opportunity to create this feeling for people outside of spaces — and to just inspire them to play, create, relax, and know it’s not precious. It’s also incredible to be able to support artists in the pages and learn about so many new things. 

FEEL FREE is such a tactile thing — you can rip pages out, pin things up, collage with it. I’m so thankful it’s out in the world, and I can’t wait for volume two.

AT: Do you have any big plans for 2023 or beyond you can share with us? 

LF: I’m finishing up my personal house and working on a creative space within my home. I’m also working on some fun stuff with Crate & Barrel. FEEL FREE volume two is coming out soon, too.

AT: What three words would you use to describe where you see the design world going in 2023? 

LF: Free for all. I think people are understanding we [and our homes] don’t all need to look the same. We don’t have to have the same stuff. 

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space? 

LF: I feel very at home in my space because I created it. Everything is personal, and every decision is personal for the way that my family lives.

Interview has been edited and condensed.