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Inside Steven Alan

A Conversation with Grace Bonney

  • We’ve admired Design*Sponge and its founder, Grace Bonney, for the past several years, and although we’ve worked on some D*S features together, it wasn’t until recently that we finally had a chance to sit down and pick her brain. Grace has managed to turn Design*Sponge into one of the most successful and longest-running blogs out there, and we had a lot to ask.  Some highlights from her conversation with Lena at our Home Shop:

    1

    Design*Sponge is now in its tenth year. What were some of your best moments and some of the most interesting things you’ve learned since you started?
    I think our proudest moments are two-fold: there are professional moments where I’m really happy that we started a scholarship, and that we had a shop for a while, before that was sort of cool to attach to a blog, and that taught me a lot about how I don’t like running shops, but it was very interesting. I’m really happy that we have a Biz Ladies series featuring women who are running creative businesses. It’s been so incredible to watch people start from leaving office jobs to running ceramics companies. That to me has been really fascinating, and over the past ten years to see how many women have come up to us at events and tell us they used to be lawyer and now they run their own pillow company. I don’t know if that’s the most lucrative move to make but it’s really exciting to watch people make those things happen, and I’m happy to have any tiny part in giving people that information. I’m just really happy that we’re still around and that we’re still producing content the way that we want to. It’s never been harder to run a blog than it is right now, in terms of actually supporting it as a business, and I’m really happy that we’re small and nimble, and able to do things without having every aspect of our site sponsored.

    How do you like working in Greenpoint?
    We have an office in the Pencil Factory, which is a big industrial building there, and it’s right around the corner from my apartment. I love Greenpoint. I think it’s really representative of the type of business we run in that I think from the outside, what we do seems interesting and fun and cool but from the inside it’s not as fancy and nice as you think it would be.

    How many people are you working with these days?
    At one point, about three years ago, we had a team of 17 people working, and now we’re back to a very small core of five. That was a really conscious decision on my part because I realize I don’t enjoy managing other people I very much understand why bigger companies have HR departments! I wanted to get to a place where I really trusted the people that I was working with so I wouldn’t have to direct and edit them so much, so we got back down to that core group of five writers that I’ve been working with for at least five years who I just trust implicitly and know they’re going to produce things I won’t have to manage.

    What were you doing before Design*Sponge? Were you writing?
    I wasn’t. Design*Sponge was the first thing I basically did. Out of college I worked for a record label because I thought I was going to work in music, and ended up not liking it, so I immediately switched gears and thought, what’s the first job I can find that’s design-related but also combines writing and I found a job in PR, and did that for a year and a half. I loved making connections in design media but didn’t enjoy being on that end of the equation, so during my lunch breaks in 2004, I just started the blog as a way to talk about the design scene in Greenpoint and Williamsburg and all around me. That was around the birth of Brooklyn design, so I think it was the right place the right time, and the right look because publications like Domino magazine didn’t exist yet. After I started that, I got a job offer in 2005 from House & Garden, so I left the PR job and worked there part time and just ran the site. Then I went to Domino, Blueprint, and a bunch of other places. All of those shut down so it’s weird to watch the arc of design media right now because I really thought the blog would always be this small stepping stone that would hopefully one day get me a job at a magazine and then it did and that was wonderful. Working at House & Garden was probably the best, most fulfilling job I’ve had, but it just wasn’t as reliable. The blog has really become the most solid thing.

    3

    What did you study in school?
    I was a Fine Arts major – Printmaking. Who does anything with that after they graduate? I was also DJ in college and figured I would do one of these two things. It was way easier to get a music internship. I also was a bit of a reformed hippie at that point and was excited to work with bands like Phish. I thought it was going to be amazing but it turned out to be the worst job I’ve ever had. So I learned from that and just moved forward. I’ve always been someone who learned from making mistakes way more than getting great advice and filtering that through. I very much need to do the wrong thing first, to feel why it’s wrong, and so I think that’s what the music job was for me. I’m sure lots of people are very happy in the music industry — it just wasn’t for me. I think that’s what I’ve had to do with my business. To do the wrong thing and then be able to speak from a place of experience.

    Do you collect anything?
    I’m really not a collector of things. I think I’m the only blogger that’s not a collector of something.  The older I get, the fewer and fewer things I actually bring into my house because I feel like being surrounded by visual inspiration on a daily basis. To have so much color and pattern in your life, the last thing I want to see when I come home is a bunch of stuff. I stripped everything out of my house, sold it, donated it, or gave it away and have a very simple apartment now which I really love.

    Design and art have always been something you’ve been passionate about. Is there a particular aspect of design that has always appealed to you?
    I didn’t really get into design, or know design was a thing, until college. I always liked art, and I came from the South and was in a sort of arts-open-minded family but not in the design sense. My mom liked interior design but I didn’t know that was a field. I just thought it was something moms did. My dad was very into architecture but never professionally. He always had Metropolis Magazine lying around so that was my first exposure to design in high school. When I went to college I really lucked out and had a printmaking professor who was like, “You’re terrible at this, but I see why you like it.  You’re never going to be an artist.” It was tough criticism but it was really good to hear, and she told me I had a really great eye and voice, so I thought maybe I would be an art critic. She was like, ” That’s not a thing. don’t do that. You’re going to figure it out.” She would just hand me piles and piles of books about women in design, like Ray Eames. She would show me beautiful potters and ceramicists, and tell me to read about these women to understand what they do. All of that knowledge that was instilled in me at that age was really important for me moving forward, to understand the industry I would eventually be working in.

    I feel like so many people who do things like this, that are not traditional career trajectories, when they look back, all those things make sense together. My background in PR – brief as it was – was incredibly instrumental in helping me to understand and think about the site as a brand – even as just a personal brand – to remember that anything you put out there is available for anyone to read. Having some magazine background definitely built in a strong sense of editorial integrity I feel is important for a site. I just think it all comes into play. Looking back, it all kind of worked itself out, but at that time I just though I had wasted four years of my life.

    It’s great that you had a mentor who was so instrumental in your education.  How important to do you think it is to have a mentor when starting a business?
    Having a good mentor is so important! I have a radio show and last week I did a story about the things that are crucial to keep you in a business for the long term, and I feel like a mentor is the best thing, to constantly have new ones, and amending that group in some way.  Especially the importance of having a mentor you don’t actually know – having people you can put on a pedestal and don’t have to know a lot about. For instance, I can’t imagine not having Ina Garten to look up to, what she’s done as a personal brand. She only does two things a year, and obviously she’s built up to a point where she can do that, but she controls everything from the fonts used in her books to how things are packaged. That’s the sort of thing I aspire to eventually have one day – total creative control over what you do. It’s hard with someone like me – no publisher is going to let me choose the fonts in my book!

    I think in a practical sense, I really admire Dominique Browning who was the old editor of House & Garden before it closed. She really embraced me at that magazine at a time it was not popular to be a web person moving to a magazine. She really understood that this was going to be the wave of things and was willing to invest in a website. Even though the magazine didn’t work out, I maintained contact with her over the years. She’s so open-minded and you’d think that someone who has been so successful over her career financially is probably fine on their own, but the fact that she continues to engage in what 20-somethings are doing is so impressive to me. I think it would have been easy for her to dismiss it, but she’s so interested in it. Not in a sense where she wants to take over or try to be something she’s not, but just is very aware of what’s happening, what’s exciting and innovative.

    I think just strong women have always been important to me. Kathleen Hanna is my all-time favorite. I know she’s not really a part of my community, but I like women who are not afraid to be themselves, or to be loud and play outside of the system. To me, there’s this very odd trend in design and lifestyle right now that sort of celebrates this idea of genteel, quiet women in all these magazines. It makes me want to punch somebody. There’s nothing wrong with women being fully in a room, and fully themselves.  There’s a place for all that genteelness too, but I don’t like it pushed forward as this ideal of what a woman is. I like loudness, and I think there’s not enough of that in the design community right now.

    2

    We really enjoy the Biz Ladies features on D*S. Can you tell us a bit more about where the idea came from?
    That was literally inspired by an offhand comment someone made at a very casual wine and cheese get together. There were a bunch of girls in the early days of Etsy and I was talking about a tax mistake I had made the year before, and one of them said, “I don’t understand what you’re paying taxes on. As a small maker I don’t have to worry about that.” I just stopped and though, “WHAT?!” This was a very smart woman who left a different field and I think people thought that if it was just a hobby, it’s not income. I realized there was this whole generation of women that were coming up that just didn’t have the basic information they needed. Statistically, so many of those businesses are going to fail, and I just feel like a lot of them are needlessly failing because they don’t have that information, and not everyone can afford it.

    I didn’t have all the information, but the skill I do have is connecting people. There were a lot of women who just wanted to help other women. I knew the people who did have the information and the girls who didn’t, so I figured I could put them in the same room. We did it in Brooklyn and people started asking for more, in other cities.  At the end of 2006 I had a little bit of money saved up from the two jobs I was working, so I took my income and financed a ten-city tour. I went to different cities and pulled a lawyer, a licensing person, a PR person, production, manufacturing. There would be a group of girls and they would just rotate at different stations with each expert, who would just throw information at you and you were supposed to write it all down. There were no men at these meetings. I don’t hate men – I just thought that a lot of these women felt uncomfortable asking questions in front of them. It’s like the idea of a girls’ school. You want people to be able to ask questions without being afraid that it’s a “stupid” question, so it was a safe place for women to do that. That’s how it started. I thought this wasn’t scalable in this model and it wasn’t helpful for people in small cities who didn’t have access, so I turned it into a column on the site instead, but I think it inspired others to have their own. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I got this email from a girl in West Virginia, who had started her own Biz Ladies meetup for seven girls who would meet up once a week for coffee and help each other. I feel like for more people who run blogs of this type, for all the income and stability you don’t have, to get an email like that is the greatest thing.

    If you had one piece of advice for someone interested in starting a small business, what would it be?
    It’s twofold. You cannot start a business if you’re not okay with not being paid the first year.  Not that you won’t make money, and it’s not unethical to be a financially successful artist. You just need to be okay with doing it as a passion project for a bit.

    The other part is planning. There’s this notion of starting a small, creative business with, “I’m just going to leave my job in finance and just make pottery all day.” That’s great, but it’s really hard to make a living making something by hand. I think going into it with a four-year plan, or planning out your goal for each year, is really helpful.  You really have to plan it out in order for it to be successful.  People think that it’s not romantic or creative to have a business plan, but it’s important.

    Where do you find inspiration and how do you go about finding new and interesting things in the city? Do you have a big team?
    There are three of us in New York. We have one team member in Paris and one in Rome.  We haven’t done it a lot this year just because budget is tight, but we try to spend at least one day a month where we take a work inspiration trip, maybe to a textile museum, or someplace totally random and try to get our heads out of work mode. Amy, the senior editor at our site, is very into this idea that you should do your opposite, so if you’re at a computer and using your head all day you should go out and do something with your hands and physical. I think that getting out and doing things in person is so important, especially right now in my community where everything happens online there’s this value placed on the connections you can make with people all over the world but it’s also really important to get out and go to the library, visit the flea market, or check out a museum. For me one of the biggest things is to get your head out of your niche.  The design community is so small, and in some ways that’s wonderful, but in some ways it’s like we’re all drinking from the same well, so it’s good to break out of that as well. So I read a lot of music blogs and visit other types of sites, seeing how other people do things.

    It’s so easy to get lost in the digital world sometimes.
    Well look at the success of someone like Tavi Gevinson. It’s great that she’s traveling now, but all of that came from her head and came from being exactly where she is. It didn’t come from her being in Paris this weekend and Milan the next. It’s more about something coming from within you and you doing the best with what you have locally.  I think that’s a mind shift that needs to happen.

    Many thanks to Grace! You can check out

    - Photos by Nick Steever

    This entry was posted on Thursday, June 12th, 2014 at 3:26 pm and is filed under Home. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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