These days it seems like everybody and their mother has a blog, but few people have one like Grace Bonney. She founded Design*Sponge in 2004 as a way to show that good design can be affordable and accessible. Seven years later, she has enough daily readers to fill Madison Square Garden, a staff of 20 writers, and a new book called Design*Sponge at Home that design aficionados have embraced as their new bible.
But Bonney never set out to be a messiah for the design world, or, as the New York Times has suggested, the Millennial generation’s Martha Stewart. She started out as an art student at the College of William and Mary with a weakness for the TLC show Trading Spaces.
“That show, and particularly the work of Genevieve Gorder, who was an interior designer on the first season, was really what made me fall in love with interior design as a category,” Bonney says. “Getting to see Genevieve do something so creative and DIY-heavy really opened up my mind to that as a career path.”
Although she decorated friends’ dorm rooms and started building furniture, she quickly realized that she was more interested in the curating, editorial aspect of design, and over the next few years she worked for magazines like House & Garden, Domino, and Craft while simultaneously building a readership on her own blog. She eventually broke away from magazines altogether and led the charge to a new, wildly popular online niche.
Bonney says of magazines, “I think that that format’s sort of done. I don’t like to approach any publishing project, whether it’s online or in print, unless I feel like there’s a gap in the market. And I feel like, as much as design magazines aren’t doing well right now, it’s because the format’s kind of flawed.” She cites expense as a major factor, which is why when Design*Sponge decided to do a print product this summer, they turned to newspapers.
“We thought it would be so fun to do this, because we’re sort of trapped in a format online,” she says. “We get the vertical column, and all the images have to be the same size, and we just thought, wouldn’t it be great to be able to play around with huge images in print form.” Within a matter of months, they’d created their first free newspaper and a street team had distributed them to stylish shops across the country, including Charleston’s own Sugar Bakeshop and Hope and Union.
But the newspaper was just an appetizer for the thick, coral-colored tome that hit bookstores last month. It’s filled with the most popular features from the site, including home tours, DIY projects, flower workshops, and dramatic before-and-afters. The Sneak Peeks offer a look into the homes of style-makers like Molly Sims, Gorder, and Bonney herself. Along with photos of the spaces, Bonney offers readers straightforward tips on how to translate the look into their own homes.
“I think what draws me to a house is a space that reflects a very particular personality,” Bonney says. “It’s not necessarily about color or pattern or following some rule so much as feeling like that house belongs to a very specific person. I think that’s why the styles vary so much … It really depends on feeling like I can identify that person in their home. If I walk in and it feels like it could be in any magazine, I tend to not be as interested.”
She adds, “When homeowners sort of step out of their comfort zones and take a risk, I think that’s when our readers are most inspired.”
As for her own style, she says it’s currently in transition. The Virginia Beach native formerly leaned toward Southern design elements, but that’s changed recently. “For some reason when I turned 30, I felt like it all didn’t fit any more. Now I’m leaning a lot more toward minimalism. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the pattern in my house and I’m trying to embrace some custom work. I’m trying to have custom pieces of furniture, whether it’s a desk or bench or a table built by a local craftsman, rather than buying things in the store because I really want to have some nicer pieces in my house that will last for a long time … Right now my house is fairly empty because I’m trying to save up for those pieces to be built.”
The prevalence of old-school crafting techniques is one of Bonney’s favorite design trends, but she has plenty of pet peeves as well.
“I so don’t want anyone to put a bird on anything ever again,” she laughs, referring to an episode of IFC series Portlandia where people are encouraged to “put a bird on” anything to make it more stylish. “I think it’s funny how that saying in Portlandia has sort of revived the bird trend. I think it was finally at its last gasp, and then when that came back, I think people started using that as an excuse to slap birds on anything again under the guise of being ironic, but I think people just kicked the trend back into gear … I think irony in design is a little overused right now. I think it’s sort of a disguise for laziness in the design work.”
And if there’s one thing Bonney isn’t, it’s lazy. She’s in the midst of pitching a Design*Sponge TV show, and she also wants to continue branching out into small-scale publishing; she’s got her eye on printing a limited-edition arts publication with McSweeney’s. And then there’s her book tour, which brings her to Charleston and Savannah next week. Though based in Brooklyn now, she’s got a serious soft spot for Southern cities, and she says she can definitely see herself moving here in a few years.
“Coming down to the South just was a no-brainer for the book tour because it’s a place where I feel at home, and I think there’s an amazing art and design scene in the South that really has yet to be fully appreciated and celebrated in the way I think it should be,” Bonney says. “If I have any platform to give those artists more attention I try to always do that.
“I think a lot of people think of the South as sort of sleepy, but I don’t think of it that way at all,” she adds. “I think it’s a really vibrant community, and it’s just not as heavily covered as other large cities.”
Dwelling hosts a book signing with Grace Bonney on Wed. Oct. 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m. RSVP preferred: eventbrite.com/event/2260900414. 474 King St.