Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge

Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge

Kayne Rourke
Oct 19, 2011

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What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge
Attendance: 300 - Full Up!
When: Thursday, October 6, 2011, 6:30pm
Where: ABC Carpet & Home | 888 Broadway NYC

Kick-Off Presentations

( l to r: Bao, Lucia, Maxwell)

Our 52nd New York Design Evening started out with two warm-up presenters.

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Lucia Delbracio, an Industrial Designer from Uruguay, presented her textile design project. Lucia told us that her laser-cut felt design was inspired in two ways - first, Uruguay is the 2nd main producer of wool in the world, yet they export 90% of their material. There are only 2-3 textile factories left - Lucia aims to encourage felt production to keep the finished product in her country.

Second, she likes to engage with products, and loves the interactive quality of

You can do whatever you want with this product; it's decorative, or functional (a hot beverage fits nicely on the product), and is also a great sound barrier. You can play with the various shapes and colors and assemble and disassemble to the product as you see fit.

Learn more about Lucia on her website or you can find her at: / 646.406.9622.

Our second presenter, Bao Khang Luu, is the Founder of Relevé Design, and thanked Apartment Therapy for its support of his work over the past 1½ years.

In Bao's words, "nunchuks and dance made Relevé possible." He grew up in a poor family, and when he was young his dad upcycled materials to make him nunchuks (which he felt were important for him to have). He learned the importance and creativity of the reuse of materials. While in college, he studied dance, fine arts, and design, and found himself putting a lot of time into designing products.

Relevé is a ballet term meaning "raise up": Relevé Design upcycles ("raises up") materials in making its designs.

Bo featured two lighting methods - one, the "string method," features 6-pack rings woven onto a metal frame, while the other, the "overlay method," features 6-pack rings laid on top of metal. There are no extraneous connectors, and the lighting flat-packs for shipping.

His first collection using these methods is called 6 shapes, each of which uses 100-400 6-pack rings. The product photos make it appear as if the light reflects off the plastic in an ethereal way - a beautiful use of a previously environment-destroying product.

Learn more about Relevé Design at:

Main Presentation

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan:
Thank you, everyone, for coming tonight, and thank you to ABC Carpet for allowing us to reach overcapacity tonight.

Tonight we're speaking with Grace Bonney, Founder of the very popular blog, Design*Sponge.

Grace was raised in Virginia Beach, VA. After college, she decided to follow her love of music to New York City. In 2005, while looking for a new opportunity and a way to get into her "other love" of design, she landed a job with House & Garden as part of their online division. She worked with House & Garden for several years, while maintaining her blog, Design*Sponge, which she founded in 2004. Her goal with the blog was to show that great design doesn't require a high price tag or a professional degree. Seven years and millions of page-views later, Design*Sponge is the most influential design blog in the world.

Tonight, Grace is going to talk a bit about how Design*Sponge is coming to a different kind of page with her first book, DESIGN*SPONGE AT HOME. Grace now has a staff of 20 writers. We're lucky to be catching Grace in the midst of her book tour.

So our RSVPs for this event were pretty amazing. We sold out in the 1st week, which is a first. This is no doubt due to your loyal following of readers, so we're thrilled to have you here.

I remember meeting Grace back in 2004 - we started our blogs at about the same time, along with a bunch of other folks (Gothamist, Gawker, Curbed). You were working for a P.R. firm at the time, right?

Yes I was, but like many people, I wasn't just interested in one field.

I was a bit of a hippie in college - I was in a band (à la Phish) and loved both design and music. Music seemed to be an easier path, so I found a job with a record label in Brooklyn. It was a pretty tough job and I don't recommend it to anyone! I didn't like it at all.

I found my first job in design in a P.R. firm. It was a terrible job, but a good way into the field. It was a small firm that represented some good brands (Vitra, Knoll). I got to meet a lot of great Designers, like the Bouroullec brothers before they became big. I was what you call a Market Editor.

What is that exactly?

The Market Editors are the ones who tell you what's in, what's hot, what's new. It's short-form writing that I wasn't used to, and hadn't been taught in college. Little did I know that this would be great training for the blogging world! I loved it, and started to find my niche in this position.

So you're there for a while, and then what happened?

From there I got the job at Home & Garden. I loved it - it was the best job ever.

They needed someone young on staff - they were the first to have a website, it was a whole new world, and they hired me to work on it. This was in 2006 - I worked at home full-time and then I went into Condé Nast one day a week. It was a perfect scenario, and again, a great path into working as an at-home blogger in the design world.

And this was really when magazines first started an online presence. And House & Garden took a new approach by hiring someone outside of the magazine world to work on it. Were you nervous that you'd lose momentum on Design*Sponge since you'd already started it at that point?

I absolutely did not want to lose momentum, and felt like this was the perfect scenario for me to continue to grow it.

One thing about print publications is that most of them see you as cheap labor. It really pisses me off - it did then, and it does to this day. I was determined to make sure I was paid well, and I still feel strongly about this. I lasted there for two years, until they closed the magazine.

And by the way, if anyone's sad about Domino closing, here's the reason!

Hah, yes, Design*Sponge is to blame! I have to say that I'm very thankful for the two years of experience with House & Garden. I took it seriously and treated the position as a true editorial job. Nowadays, a lot of bloggers expect free stuff : I've heard bloggers tell me they won't write about a product unless it's sent to them. I just think that's wrong. I'm glad I had an "old school" start and didn't blur the lines between editorial and advertising. I was genuinely talking about products I loved, regardless of whether or not I got them for free (and most of the time I wasn't).

Two years ago, you started to disclose if something was provided to you for free.

I feel strongly that this process should be transparent, and if you're reviewing something that's been given to you for that very purpose, you should make it be known.

You're right in that it's a whole different genre of blogging now. I recently met a woman who hosts a weekly online session where she speaks about products exclusively that she's paid to talk about.

Yeah, I just don't like it. It's a question of ethics. I feel like those of us who have been at this a long time need to tow the line. I believe it's part of why bloggers aren't taken as seriously as they should be.

What I like about Design*Sponge is that many people talk about us in the same breath - I'm not sure you experience that, but I often hear "Apartment Therapy / Design*Sponge" spoken about together.

When you think about it, the first blogs were basically about gossip, news, and sex. Shelter just wasn't a popular. I felt, and I still do, that we're all friendly in the space because we're all doing something a little bit different. In your opinion, what are the differences between Design*Sponge and Apartment Therapy?

Well I can say from my side of things, it definitely changes. At first, the site was really edgy and trendy. I got really into product (and loved using exclamation points!!!) and then I didn't feel the need to do that anymore. I moved to original content, and then business-based content. I guess I just got tired of feeling like I had to rush all the time, to be ahead of the curve. It's exhausting. Now, I look to more careful postings that aren't so product-focused and trendy.

How has living in Brooklyn influenced you?

Brooklyn's had a huge influence on me - and let me say that this may be one of the first gatherings where I haven't heard shout-outs when I say I live in Brooklyn!

I'm very inspired by people who have small budgets and are doing their own things. Brooklyn has many designers and creative people who work in this manner. They wouldn't be picked up by a traditional shelter magazine, but I feel their work is worth focusing on. I like the cutting-edge designers who are doing something innovative with small budgets. In 2004, no one was talking about these folks.

I remember a design store in Tribeca at the time that were featuring emerging designers, so places like that?

No, places more like Scrapile and The Future Perfect. No one was talking about these folks at the time, and I was just fascinated by what they were doing. Now, everyone's talking about indie designers & handmade products.

So what's next? What's currently interesting you?

To be honest, I'm trying to figure it out. Right now, I am very interested in the cross-pollinization of various creative disciplines (design & food, design & music). Woodworking is also really grabbing my attention now - I'm not sure how I'm going to write about it, but I'm curious about it at the moment.

What do you like to read and look at for inspiration?

To be honest, I don't read a lot of other design blogs. I'm very into food right now, and I just love Lucky Peach, it's such a beautiful magazine, developed by (Momofuku Founder) David Chang.

You did a newspaper, right? What's up with paper?

It's a totally different medium, and I feel they both serve different purposes. I'll probably do another newspaper, I really loved the process.

So what do you think of online magazines like Lonny and others?

I just wrote 3,000 words on it! I think they are filling a definite void. It's just technically cumbersome to produce online magazines. I feel like a lot of them could be fantastic websites.

You touched on it briefly a bit earlier, but tell us a bit more about the Biz Ladies?

This is another thing that I started, where I asked, is it necessary? I felt I needed to do it. It started out initially as an in-person Meetup series for women designers. Six of us got together, and I talked about it on the blog, where others asked us about it and how they could join, or start their own groups in their local areas. I got a lawyer, a licenser, and other experts and did 15 minute segments on different business topics. I then funded my own nine-city tour to travel and met-up with some of the women who had started local chapters. It's now turned into a weekly column.

It sounds like you put a lot of energy into it?

I did, and I felt, as I still do, that both mediums are important. People will say things in-person that they won't share online, and vice versa. There are still local groups around the country that are meeting in person because of what we did a few years ago.


Some hippies - I'm not in this picture, but I could have been!

Design*Sponge At Home

The book was a two-year process. It was definitely the most draining and the most rewarding experience I've ever had. We wanted to write it in an educational way - it's not purely a coffee book, and not purely an instructional book, but somewhere in between.

Why a book? I loved the Domino book, and wanted to create something pretty yet practical.

The book contains several sections: House Tours, DIY Projects (arranged by difficulty & price); Before & After Photos (all reader submitted); DIY Basics (everything from how to hang wallpaper to upholstering basics); and a Flower Workshop, which I really had to fight for. My editor wanted to take it out, and then there was a piece in the media about how younger people are getting into flower arranging, and she said, "put it back in!" so we did.

Early book covers. We went through 35 different covers in this process.

These were just a bit too girly and happy, as well as just feeling too busy. Plus, we decided we didn't want to put a photo on the cover, it felt too Shelter-like.

Shadow Box covers! As you can see, we really tried a lot of different options.

Martha-esque cover. I didn't feel totally comfortable with me on the cover. Plus, I'm already a crazy cat lady, I didn't think we had to feature me as such!

The final cover.

We finally landed on this cover, which is an illustration of a room. It's a made up room, and if you look closely, it's an unfinished room on the back cover, and a finished room on the front. Julia was really an integral part of this process.

It reminds me a bit of the Domino cover. I love it.

This is an image of one of the chapter openers. Again, a chance to bring in a girly touch and use ribbons! It wasn't originally supposed to be pink. Other chapter openers include sewing, for DIY Basics, and Keys for the Home Tours.

Here's one of the homes we feature. I believe this is Kim's home.

On the left is Adam Silverman's home of Heath Ceramics. On the right is a home of a Nashville clothing designer.

DIY Projects. On the left is one of Amy's projects, on the right is a succulent wall, submitted by one of our readers.

Here's two of our Before & After projects. On the left is a home makeover, on the right is an image of a carved suitcase : the reader actually carved and painted the design onto the suitcase, it's quite beautiful.

Flower arrangements.

What I learned. Well, I learned a lot.

First, that two-year projects are way too much. With blogging, you can quickly turn around a piece, but this was quite an intense labor of love, so I'm looking forward to going back to full-time blogging when the book tour is over.

Second, I learned the importance of collaboration. The book was a collaboration on all fronts, and it made me realize that I really want to get out and see people in-person more, and hope to do that with my writers around the country.

We can skip through this - basically, I learned that I can work longer & harder than I ever thought. After this, we actually went through and edited every single article on Design*Sponge, which was laborious, but a wonderful process. It made it very clear what the voices of the various contributors are and how to really make them shine.

Coming full circle. When I return from the tour I'll be putting myself fully back into the site - I had to step away for a bit, so I look forward to coming back.

I also want to celebrate individual editors; as mentioned above, they each have a voice that's unique and should be clearly heard and articulated throughout the site.

I am also reminded that I need to run with a project when I'm excited about it, and worry about the bills later. When the excitement and energy is there is when stuff happens, and we need to continue to take advantage of that.


Thank you, this was a great interview. I just wanted to remind you that Brooklyn still needs you, so don't forget us! What do you think is next for Brooklyn?

You know, I just went to Terrain the other day, it's Anthropologie's outdoor store, in Brooklyn. I asked them that very same thing. They mentioned the phenomenon of people working together, collaborating, and using studios for multiple purposes. I spent some time in Portland, OR this summer and it's happening there. It's pretty exciting and has some far-reaching possibilities.

I just shared your book with my six year old, who loved it. My question is about changing careers : what do you suggest in terms of migrating to another job?

For me, I felt like I needed to freelance for a while : I needed that crutch. Nowadays, people are making the leap a lot faster. A lot of it has to do with your own personality and what makes you feel comfortable, but I also suggest talking to people. Talk to as many people as you can and see what ideas stick and resonate with you.

If I could add to that - many of those who are successful don't expect to make money, they just do what they love. We've heard that time and time again in these Meetups, and it's true. With Apartment Therapy, we went along for about four years before we saw any sort of success. We were really just doing what we love, and that passion is what makes for a successful venture, no matter where it goes.

That's very true. Fabulous doesn't happen overnight. And many times, projects take a turn that you didn't expect. For example, I just met the Founder of The Fox Is Black, which is an amazing blog, one of my favorites at the moment. I asked him about his plans to sell advertising, and he said that honestly, he doesn't want to sell ads. Once it becomes a business it will no longer be fun.

I've been a reader for years. I work in online media, and I feel like the 2000's were a great decade for bloggers, but I see things changing, with developments like html5. I love paging through Flipboard and other apps that have totally changed the way we consume these sites. How do you work to keep up with these types of changing technologies?

Honestly, I really don't care. I spend very little time thinking about that side of things. I continue to see Design*Sponge as a fabulous art project that I'm able to make money off of. I remember when mobile apps became a thing, and everyone said, Mobile Apps! Do it! And it just wasn't appealing to me. I have, and will continue to think about content first and foremost.

You know, formats changes so quickly, you can drive yourself crazy worrying about formats. It's best to leave that to those who's job it is to make those updates and changes.

I'm an independent publisher, and I really relate to what you've been saying tonight. How are you finding the voids and the next things to talk about and get inspired by?

I look to both needs and voids as well as what personally interests me. Again, I need to be passionate about something to put energy towards it, so I pick my projects carefully.

Thank you for speaking with us tonight. So you have the blog, and now your book - have you ever thought about television?

You know, I don't know. I love television, I watch a lot of it, but I'm not very excited about design on television right now. I'd want an edgier show, but those types of shows won't resonate with Midwest housewives. I miss folks like Genevieve from Trading Spaces. It's too much right now - shows are trying to appeal to all, and it's tough to do that, or to do it in a way where it continues to be really interesting. Also, you give up tons of control with television.

One last question. How much longer is your book tour?

We're 8 cities in to a 30-city tour. I'll be on the road until December 7th. It's exhausting, but tons of fun.

We wanted to do something interesting for each appearance, so we're doing craft events & parties. We chose beginner projects so everyone could participate. It's been a blast. After the holidays we head to Australia and the U.K.

Thanks so much for joining us this evening.

Congratulations to the two winners of Grace's new book!

Join us next month for our Meetup with Rob Forbes, Founder of Design Within Reach!

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Lisa Hunt and Brittney Davenport!
• Images: Apartment Therapy

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!
The evening's wines were graciously donated by Elios Wines!

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