Maxwell's Behind the Scenes Tour & Relaunch Preview

Maxwell's Behind the Scenes Tour & Relaunch Preview

Maxwell Ryan
Jun 24, 2011

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What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founder of Apartment Therapy
Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Meetup
Attendance: 298

Apartment Therapy Meetup
Wednesday, June 8, 2011

This month we had the unique opportunity of learning about the past, present and future of Apartment Therapy direct from Maxwell himself! Next month, please join us for an exciting discussion, "Knock-Offs: Flattery or Theft?" with the President and CEO of Design Within Reach, John Edelman. We'll be taking the month of August off.

We started our evening with the "warm-up" series, and once again we featured two recent graduates from Pratt Institute:

Sara, Kimberly and Maxwell


Kimberly Lewis / //

I am a recent graduate of Pratt's Bachelors in Industrial Design program. I launched my wallpaper line at this year's ICFF show. In this first slide, you see some of the local artisans that I work with in New Jersey. We believe very strongly in working with the local community to develop the product, and we also use water-based paints for the wallpapers.

In this next slide you see some of my inspiration images for the prints. My Merigny print was inspired by the architecture of New Orleans - my sister is volunteering there with Americorps and I was able to visit and be inspired by that amazing city.

I will be in stores and showrooms very soon. Right now, you can visit my website and purchase directly from there - I am also available to discuss custom colors and prints for any project you may be working on. Thank you!

Sara Dierck

I am a recent graduate of Pratt's Masters in Industrial Design program. My thesis project focused on how end users can be more incorporated in the design project. The "Vessel Project", as it is called, involved me finding four strangers to design with. We were in search of a vessel - somewhere between a cup and a bowl. I brought sketching materials and paper to each session for us to explore together.

You can see in the second slide that the outcomes are all quite different - one is more decorative, one is more functional, and then with one person we came up with a kitchen tray. Not a vessel, exactly! But it was born out of the needs of that particular user, and thus, it was exactly as it needed to be.

It was a very exciting process, and I learned a lot - in particular, how to be a better listener. Also, the process of making exactly what someone needs was amazing. Ideally, we would use this type of process more directly in the development of items and objects.


Thanks for coming tonight, everyone. In the past year, I've been thinking a lot about how Apartment Therapy started out as a very personal project, and how much it's grown over the years. I've also been feeling that it's even more important to look back now and review where we've been as we continue to grow and move forward.

So, I'm going to do two things tonight: first, I'm going to share my presentation on "10 Things You Need To Know About Apartment Therapy." We've started sharing this presentation over the past few weeks on Apartment Therapy, but I'm going to get even more in-depth with it here with you tonight. And then, I'm going to talk about the site's redesign - it's been about six months that we've been working on it, and it will be ready to launch in September. But I'll be sharing some of the initial mock-ups and design ideas with you this evening.


1. I *Heart* Terence Conran

Having a warm home that looks good and works well,
and that you and your family and friends enjoy
must be one of the most worthwhile things in life;
and to help you achieve it is the object of this book.

~ Terence Conran

The above quote is from Sir Terence Conran's book, The House Book, published in 1974. In looking for inspiration, he kept coming up, and he continues to be a source of inspiration for me.

In terms of shelter and design, both are now focused very heavily on the decorative - you won't see people in shelter magazine photos. But in Conran's career, he seems to have moved effortlessly between furniture design, retail, being a restaurateur, and publishing dozens of books. When you entertain, you eat - design and food make sense together, so it's sensible that Terence Conran is a part of both of those worlds. Design is a lifestyle; it's not just about loving objects. It's how you use them, and how you design your life.

I love this photo - it's not a sterile shelter magazine photo, it's funky in its 70's way. I believe there should be more people in design photos, particularly in shelter magazines. Seeing how people live in a space is what makes it what it is.

You can't really tell if the white lines are actually painted on the building, but it truly captures the spirit of this home. This is exactly the type of spirit we strive to capture at Apartment Therapy.

2. Your Home Is A Path, Not A Place

When I interviewed Terence Conran in 2009, he talked about how he started to design furniture, and when he opened his first restaurant, and how both developed over the years. He's had a very fluid career, which made me think of an experience I had with an early client. When I was leaving her home, she told me that she was going to tape the floor so nothing would move out of place until I came back. I told her not to do that! Design is fluid, it changes and moves as you change, which is how it should be. Nothing's ever finished - there's no permanence in life, so how can there be permanence in design?

They say that the bodies' cells change every seven years - that you experience powerful changes along that cycle. Life continues to move and shift, and design should make those moves with it.

In this image from the Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces, you see the beautiful, ever-changing world of someone's home through this bookcase. It tells the story of its inhabitant - it's not just decorated, it shows the life being lived in the space.

This is Karl Lagerfeld's library. You can see that he is on a major path! I'm not sure I get it, but it's exciting, and I'd love to visit.

3. We are all looking for our own path.

This first image says it all. We're all looking for our own path - it's one of humankind's deepest longings. And home is the place where you evolve the most and can fully express yourself. Your path develops from your deepest desires, which are often discovered and expressed in your own home.

4. My path has been twisty & turny.

Most of the guests we've had here for our meetings have talked about their twisty paths, and mine has been much the same.

When I was growing up I attended an all boys' school in New York City. It was not a great place for me. I was a very average student, and remained so until, near the end of my nine years there, I discovered creative writing. I was quite good at writing and became known for that near the end of my time there.

I went to boarding school for my high school years, and, while I found the new atmosphere refreshing, I was still a solidly average student in my regular studies. I bonded with classmates who were also solidly in the middle.

In high school I discovered painting, and very slowly, I started to discover a language that worked for me. Others didn't get it - so for the first time, I was finally on the other side of the equation.

I went to college in Ohio - I played it safe and became an English major. After college I found work in a design studio on 7th Avenue - it was a busy, bustling place and I was excited to be there. About three months later, though, I started to feel like all of their designs had no purpose - there was no greater goal than making pretty things, which didn't sit well with me.

I remember the day my boss sent me to buy plastic fruit - it was Christmas time, and when I brought it back to the office, we rolled all of the fruit in glue and glitter. My boss loved it - he decided to send it to China to be manufactured. That was my turning point - I realized this wasn't the place for me.

At this point I went back to school - I became an elementary school teacher for seven years. And while it may seem like a departure, but it actually made a lot of sense for me and what I wanted to do - again, a twisty path, but I learned a great deal during this time.

5. All good paths have a mission.

Graduation at my high school (many years earlier!)

When you follow your passion, you'll learn to make a living out of it. At this point in my path, I remember thinking back to my own high school graduation - it was the greatest. They didn't get a visiting speaker - the head of the board spoke. And I remember him saying that we had all received a wonderful education. We were very fortunate, and it was time to give it back. He was almost giving us a homework assignment - and so I went to teach.

With teaching I felt like I was doing something valuable every day. At the Waldorf Schools they have an intense teacher-training program, including training in how each grade's classroom is set up. They recommend different paint colors for each grade's room, and the position of the chairs to the sun is very important. They pay close attention to how the environment affects one's learning, which really resonated with me.

During my teaching years I also got to visit a lot of the children's homes, and I saw a definite link between the home environment and the child's success. It wasn't a rich / poor divide, but a difference in environments which affected development. For example, having both parents home for dinner (I was often there at dinnertime) definitely created a good home environment.

When I was teaching I was living in a rental apartment in the city, and during those years I renovated twice (with landlord approval!). I realized the importance of having a good space to succeed. And after seven years, I definitely felt a sense of job security being a male elementary school teacher. It was at this point that I used my learnings to start the next phase of my journey.

6. Apartment Therapy's mission is to be of service.

I started Apartment Therapy at the beginning of September, 2001. A few days later, the Twin Towers fell. I remember standing on Broadway with my girlfriend Sara Kate (now wife) and watching what was happening - we were there most of the day, and for those of us on the street, not watching the news, we learned the severity of it a bit later than others.

So, most people would have said to abandon the project, that it was a terrible time to be starting a new business. But the mission was to be of service, and to make people's homes better. And at a time of crisis, this is often the most important space in people's lives.

7. Design in the new food.

With the twin towers gone, everyone did indeed start thinking about their homes. It was a "take care of the nest" type of reaction. I started my business by going around town on a scooter with my tools, like a "Geek Squad" on wheels; I was known as the "Apartment Therapist," and I provided hourly design services within the home.

When I say that design in the new food, I think of food as being a fully-blown part of our culture now, a "gourmandization" of the culture, if you will. We thrive on it, and design is slowly getting to the same point. Asking "Who designed your chair?" is now part of people's conversations, in a way that the "farm to table" movement has encouraged people to pay attention to where their food comes from. It's affecting all parts of our lives.

8. Blogs change everything.

Blogs are the least expensive way to get your voice out there. They are also unedited - readers are the judges.

This slide shows our traffic stats up to 2008. You can see the climb over the years, and now, in 2011, we are up to 7,000,000 monthly readers (the whole room started applauding at this point!). When we started we had 300 people reading, and it was exciting - you talk, and they talk back. It's an open dialogue, with the host at the center of the conversation.

About 40% of Apartment Therapy's content is reader-contributed. We have 16 full-time employees and 170 freelancers. In fact, I was at dinner Monday night in St. Louis with three of our freelancers whom I've never met - one is the host of the St. Louis meetups, which are going great. She has guest speakers scheduled through December. The other two are house tour contributors - they have a knack for meeting people with interesting homes and asking to come in, look around, and take photographs. Most of the houses that are photographed are of folks that enjoy design as a hobby.

Our latest book, Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces, contains spaces that were all contributed by readers (except for one which I approached directly).

This is a photo of my living room - we live in a rental here in New York but, as I did with my first apartment, we've done a lot to make it feel like our home.

In this children's room, the owner hung curtains from the ceiling to make it look like a princess' room.

This is an innovative use of space - what was a closet is now an office.

In this apartment, this unit was built so that everything fits into the cube. There is a blackout curtain that can be pulled over for sleeping. Around the other side there's an office. And of course, since this is a rental they can take this with them. The idea was inspired by Shigeru Ban's work.

This is the home of Future Perfect's owner, which is a design shop in Brooklyn. He lives in a warehouse, which is actually still very much a warehouse - it's probably not a space I could live in, but his space is intriguing.

10. The clubhouse is getting a new look this fall.

So as I said at the beginning of the evening, Apartment Therapy is getting a new look - we'll be launching in September, but tonight I wanted to give you a sneak peek of the new site, as well as walk you through the process we've going through to get there.

First, one of the big changes we're making is to our font, which is changing from Gill Sans to Effra. Our designer, who was the Artistic Director of I.D. magazine - felt that the logo also has lots of colors, so we changed it to black and white and then played with ways of introducing color again.

The logo treatment has gone through a few iterations - first, he worked the black and white words within colored boxes, putting our squiggle logo in a box.

Then, he tried the squiggle out of the box. It looks good on a white or black background, which is important.

Next, he tried handwritten text - it wasn't my favorite, but a great idea of his to show me this extreme to help me confirm what I didn't want.

Our final version is what I call loosy-goosy - basically, the squiggle outside of the box. We also turned the placement of the logo a bit in the new design. Often times when going through a redesign people look at all different versions, find the idea that's the ultimate of where they want to get to, but go halfway to save the final for a 2.0 version. Here, we're going all the way.

So, we've got the updated font, and the updated logo. Many people ask me about this logo and what it means. It's something that I did by hand originally, a continuous, twisty loop that is closed and repeats itself, much like a continuous journey. It also feels a bit like the Mississippi painting I did all those years ago that you saw on the earlier slides.

In terms of the site structure, we have also been looking at our various sites and how we want to treat them going forward. People find the naming confusing, so we're bringing everything under the Apartment Therapy umbrella, with separate channels within for each area of the site.

In our new site we've taken away the clutter - we took a queue from fashion sites in terms of layout, particularly with the thin navigation bar on the top. We've exposed all of the categories so they jump out. We're actually in the process of remapping all of the categories this week. Also, we're reducing the number of fonts used on the site, from five to three.

In terms of Apartment Therapy sites by city - we are in six cities, but many people post from other places and have to file in one of the six cities (St. Louis is filed in Chicago, for example). Our new drop-down is going to feature 12-15 cities.

Finally, in terms of the Apartment Therapy channels, we are changing the names to Food / Family / Tech / Green. Simple and straightforward.

We hope the new site inspires you even more to design your space. And when it does, please send us the pictures!


Q - I'd like to ask about search - it's really hard to find stuff. Is an upgrade part of the new site?

Great question, and yes, we were actually talking about it today. We switched to Google search four years ago, and it was great, but we're now at a stage where we need improvement. So yes, it's being worked on.

Q - What about the galleries? Are those going to be revamped as well?

You're hitting all the points we've been focusing on! We've been looking at this one in particular for a few years, so yes, the plans are in place. The situation is that it's very hard to make bigger photos unless you leave the post - they work out of two different systems (text and images) so it makes solving this a bit harder. If anyone has sites with galleries that they like, please send them to us. Those that open at the top of a page are good, and we're open to any other ideas.

Q - Congratulations on the new site, it looks fantastic. My question is about how people are visiting your site - do you have any data on the devices that folks are using to get there?

It's interesting - six months ago, the ranking for browsers was Firefox, Internet Explorer, and then Chrome. Now, Safari is top (due to iPhones, etc.). Safari is a good browser for the A.T. site so we like that! Another question is mobile - we aren't mobile-ready just yet. Flipboard adopted us early, which is great, but there are no ads there, which is a whole other issue. Right now, the back-end system is being rebuilt, which is a huge project. We can't do much to the front-end until that's done.

Q - How do you choose the content for the site?

In a nutshell, we look for originality of voice, enthusiasm, originality, and of course, good photos! We learned early on that it's better to have readers, not writers, posting on our site. Writers are too well-trained and don't let their own voice (or naivete) fully come through. We also hire a lot of freelancers - we don't pay a lot, but we do pay. If it's a good fit, we continue to work with them. Send us a sample post and if it's a good fit, we'll talk.

Let me stop and ask a question of all of you: how many of you have your own blog? How many are on Facebook and / or Twitter? So, it looks like there are way more in the structured social sphere than in the blog world. It's a different beast, but great if it works for you.

Q - I just want to say that, as a long-time reader, Apartment Therapy is it - it's the gold standard of blogs.

Thank you so much. Of course, as I stated earlier, we've had twists and turns, and we have avoided some major pitfalls, which helps. Being service-oriented has always been our goal, so if we stick to that, everything else falls into place.

Now what else - you can ask me anything!

Q - I'm curious about how you got your media buzz early on?

Ah, great question. Well, at the beginning my service was really quirky, and impractical. I was offering design services to middle-of-the-road folks, on an hourly basis. At the time I thought that would work - my idea was that I'd have a band of folks and we'd travel around the city offering our services, kinda like the "Geek Squad". Well, I quickly learned that there's a truly personal aspect to this business, so I couldn't really send out Assistants to do the work for me.

I had a scooter. And tools. And I was available. And if one thing is true in NYC, if you try a lot of things out, sometimes the quirkier the better, something will eventually work out. If you're unusual (but not too much), at least in the beginning, it can pay off.

In 2002 I was interviewed by Dana Levy, who had just started Daily Candy at the time. She had hired me for a job and then wrote about my business. I did everything for her - cleaned windows, moved furniture, bought flowers. She's a great writer, and she boiled my business down to six clean sentences.

Q - How has your emotional connection to the design business changed?

You just never know where the business is going to go, and your emotions go right along with that. I think back to when I first really started blogging - I was friendly with the folks who started Gawker, Gothamist, and Treehugger. We were all doing our thing, and I remember seeing one of them in particular really focus on advertising - they looked at the biggest categories and built on those. We were writing about furniture, and design. It didn't always appear sexy, but we kept our service-oriented, real-life approach. And our topics are always valid - it's evergreen content, unlike with some of our competitors.

I remember thinking about this recently, when I was cooking a chicken in the oven. I wasn't sure when it would be done, so I searched on "chicken" "done" "temperature". Then I thought, bingo - we need to be focusing on more content like that. Really applicable, useful information. And looking at our page views, a lot of them come from content that has been on the site for a while - again, evergreen content that continues to be valuable to new and existing visitors.

Styles change. But the sense of home does not. We just keep building and building on that rich, evergreen content.

~ Congratulations to the two winners of Maxwell's latest book, Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces ~

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteer, Emily Nichols & Gabriel Sperber!
• Images: Apartment Therapy


Thank you to our sponsors!

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!

Thanks to our new wine sponsor, Abigail Adams Wines!
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