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Emily Henderson

Style Play Every day
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by Emily Henderson
My 23 year old style journal

They say you can’t learn style – that you either have it or you don’t. To me ‘they’ sound like people who think ‘they’ have VERY good style. The problem with that theory is that it doesn’t factor in exposure (or lack thereof), and passion – a genuine love/obsession for style. I think there is something to be said for some people having more of a knack for it and I certainly know of some people with decades of experience in the business with just terrible taste and style, and it can be baffling. But I’ve found that most people can have good really good style if they have the exposure, experience and some good old fashion passion. Let’s use me as an example …

I was raised in a small town on the coast of Oregon in the 90’s, FINE in the 80’s, before the internet, before the ‘maker generation’, before original style content bombarded the web on a daily basis. We had magazines and coffee table books and that maybe one ‘Jennifer Convertibles’ style store in town. And if you think I was 8-years-old and buying Elle Decor, you are wrong. I was sewing clothes, decorating my forts in the woods, canning tuna and on an extra exciting day recovering a lampshade. We lived out in the country, with six kids, and were very industrious. My exposure to design and style was NIL. I have no idea if there were any professional decorators in our town then (doubtful) but I certainly didn’t know that this was a thing one could actually do for a living. Both of my parents are teachers. I knew that Doctors and Lawyers existed so that was clearly an option, but I kinda thought anything in the arts was meant as a hobby. I moved to a suburb of Portland when I was 15 and then went to U of O for college where I got my degree in History. I think I thought I was going to be a writer or a teacher but I honestly had NO IDEA. I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a prop stylist, spokesperson and let alone a blogger.

Brian and I moved to New York after school (YES, we’ve been together now for 15 years) and he went to grad school while I tried to ‘find myself, ‘ for lack of better term. A few things became clear: I liked to be around pretty things, I still loved to craft, and by god I LOVED to shop. I remember going to the first gift show (trade show for pretty things) and was in total awe. I met Jonathan Adler there (when he had a tiny shop in Soho) and I LOVED his vibe and style and soon thereafter got a job as a shop girl in his store (while bartending at night – retail doesn’t exactly pay your rent in New York). It was while working there that I met stylists who came in to shop for shoots. I asked them what they did and they said ‘mainly just shop and make things’ and I thought, ‘Yes, I would also like to do that’. I courted all of them by writing a pretty compelling cover letter and landed a consistent gig with Cindy.

At that point I was 23 and I was LOVING it and learning so much. It was a freelance gig and the cons of freelance are lack of consistency and stability as many of you might know. So an assistant job opened up at Martha Stewart, which is basically the graduate school of styling, and I wanted to go for it. Cindy had just stopped working there to go freelance so she had lots of connections and got me an interview. There is pretty much no other way that I would have gotten my foot in the door. I had very little experience or even exposure to design and style. I had to pay for college so most of my job experience was waiting tables, teaching piano or walking dogs – I wasn’t exactly doing summer internships with Milo Baughman. I had no portfolio at all. I had made a few things – a few really ugly things (that post is still coming), things that I could claim I ‘designed’ but it was 2002, it was literally before most people had personal computers (I didn’t) and when most stores/designers didn’t even have websites. I think I checked my email ones a week. I’m very old.

But I didn’t want to come to the interview with nothing, so I bought an old black and white coffee table book about New York and began collaging the inside of it with anything that spoke to me – fabric, paper, tear sheets from magazines and catalogues, miniature spoons, you know anything. It was intensely amateur and totally terrifying, and yet now looking at it, it’s just wonderful.

But why just talk about it when you can see it for yourself:


Woah. I know. Most people would have thrown that thing in the garbage, but not this hoarder. Oh no. I’ve kept every single thing I’ve ever ‘made’.

So many of the pages I look at with sheer confusion,  what was I thinking???? But then there are some that totally make “sense” to me. For instance in this spread below I taped in a set of miniature Victorian flatware. I think I loved that it was a. miniature and b. ornate/antique. Or maybe I was hungry that day and craving a cutie (tiny orange) and wanted to eat it like a grapefruit with a spoon. I don’t know. But I’m still kinda attracted to this page.


I’m sure this one was about the colors and the ‘whimsy’ of that credenza – so 2002.


While nothing in the below screams out my taste now, I can see why I chose everything – it’s bold and striking with some whimsy, some straight lines and a little bit feminine/victorian.

This royal blue velvet swatch is still something that I LOVE. I think I found a huge scrap of it at a thrift store and I’m pretty sure I just rubbed it against my face for years, like how a fat rich banker might with his piles of 100 dollar bills. Laughing quietly to himself. It’s my favorite and it’s good to know that some things haven’t changed in 12 years.


Then there were some pages where now I’m like I just don’t understand … What connection did I have to the cover of that book? Or was it just that it was old and that I loved reading? That burgundy and gold paper on the opposite page is I guess not terribly shocking since I still love gold, but it still doesn’t seem to warrant effort. Maybe I got desperate, who knows?


Baby pink lace (below) shouldn’t be all that shocking, but it’s not my proudest moment.


And this white floral paper is certainly still up my alley, although it’s not terribly special.


Clearly I’ve ALWAYS loved flowers. So much so that I named my first blog ‘The Brass Petal’. I am rebranding now and flowers are a big motif in it. I was asked by Brady if I thought that I would get sick of it because flowers are so trendy right now and then I slapped him on the ear and lectured,  “flowers will ALWAYS be in because they are the most beautiful natural thing on the planet”. So no, I won’t get sick of a beautiful flower ever in my life.


I actually really love how this collage, below, turned out with the colorful mixed-up napkins on top of the black and white, across from that simple graphic door. Of all pages to frame, this one might be it.


I did include some of the pieces of furniture that I had ‘made’ like this one below. I had taken some furniture design classes at Pratt and this was one of my originals – a TV stand, because back in the day we had these really deep TV’s if y’all can believe that. Like 18″ deep. So clearly this was my solution for that. I don’t like it, but I’ve certainly done uglier things.


I remember sitting there as Fritz Kartch’s desk (one of the main editors) as he looked at this book. I’m pretty sure he was totally speechless – unsure how to react to this chick and her totally weird, non-sensical book. I had no skills, no experience, but I had this weird book of clippings and a chair full of personality.

I didn’t get the job. I wasn’t shocked nor was I sad. I went on to assist Cindy for 4 years (which made more money and I got a huge variety of experience, not just the MSL world). And the rest, well, is history.

I guess the point is that no matter what creative field you are in, you can succeed with some good old-fashioned passion and a lot of exposure. You don’t have to be born into it, you don’t have to have been surrounded by it your entire childhood, or even educated in it. You just need those two things. Passion without exposure equals what you see above – a random book of pictures that might lead somewhere but isn’t going to get you the job, and just exposure without real passion can make for a pretty lazy and therefore kinda lifeless creative existence.

I think there are a lot of us out there – the ones that aren’t born and raised in the industry and yet found ourselves here and successful. And when I was in my 20’s still figuring it all out, it was those stories that I clung to – the hope that my lack of exposure wasn’t going to be my demise. It wasn’t.

So what do you guys think? Can style be learned? Or do you think it’s innate? Or both? testtest

  1. Wow – I really really appreciate this peak into your history. It’s crazy to recognize how much has changed by way of the internet and computers from just 10 – 12 years ago. Looking at this I am actually reminded of a terribly juvenile book I made for a friend circa 2004 that was trying to get a teaching job at an elementary school – I literally stayed up all night gluing CONSTRUCTION PAPER CONFETTI STRIPS to the cover of her resume/cover letter/lesson plan book. It seemed totally appropriate and also so meta at the time, and I’m still a little proud of it, but also horribly embarrassed that she walked into that interview with that thing (if I remember, she did not get the job. We will never know exactly why not). I think style can be learned, and exposure has so much to do with it. For the longest time I claimed I couldn’t put my finger on my own style – until I finally saw something that really spoke to me (true story, I stumbled on your blog) and my introduction to MCM became this wild and crazy love story where I could barely remember life before I met “it”. Now I think we are at a time where we are so inundated with original (and not so original) style and ideas it’s actually harder to silence the outside world and figure out what is “us”, or what is “me”. Now I’m just rambling…but anyway thank you for this post!!!

  2. You are not alone in remembering the pre-internet era. What did we DO with all that free time?!

    I digress. This book is perfect in its imperfection. It reminds me of an Anthropologie catolog in places, esp the tea towel spread! I kind of want to hug that book, we all have something like that from our past that reminds us of how we got where we are now. Style has to be learned, if you stuck with everything you loved when you were 20, you would be in big trouble when you were 40 (oh, Forever 21, you LIE).

    Thanks for sharing that book with us, it made my morning! Going to unearth my saved issues of MS Blueprint now. Loved that mag.

    1. Yes! I was totally thinking it was very Anthro-esque!

      I also shudder to think about some of the projects I did in college, though I am still proud of some of them. I graduated in 2002 with an Arch degree, so we were *just* starting all that digital design, CAD, and 3-D modeling on the computer. It was a nightmare…I laugh now as my boys effortlessly put together models in Google SketchUp, thinking how that same thing would have taken a week or more with FormZ in 2000. This next generation has NO. IDEA. how far things have come in the last 10-15 years!

      1. Oh my god FormZ! What a blast from the past, I’m now reliving those horrible hours upon hours of waiting for rendering, only for the computer to crash at like 97% done….
        (fellow arch student of that era)

  3. I kind of love the idea of taking a book and adding your own collages in there… maybe not some of the particular things you put in there ;). I always look back at some old sketchbooks and always wonder what the heck I was thinking. I love hearing your stories of when you first started out.

  4. Hi Emily-thank you for this, so interesting and insightful to read. So funny I created a style boo, fashion and interior design based as well. I am so happy about it and love it and it, similar to your book, was a collection of images that I love. Is it perfect, maybe not, is it stylish,100% and the best part, It’s original! I am all about keeping the wheels of creativity turning, and creating spreads and colleges is a practical way to design when you don’t have your own space or clients to practice with. So for that reason, creating books like this is such a great idea, it gets your ideas down and holds them forever.

  5. Can style be learned? I feel like style is subjective. How do you learn something that’s subjective?

    So what makes a designer successful? I think that comes down to new ideas that interpret each of our own subjective style. People hire other people or buy their products because they want that subjective personal style turned into a physical space. If your design or product speaks to more people, you will be more successful from a client/monetary/work standpoint. So maybe, just maybe, those who are the MOST successful are really the least unique — interesting thought, no? (that’s not to say I’m not obsessed with many designers who are popular!)

    I think about how some rooms in interior design photos are not my cup of tea at ALL, but I’m sure others love them. Does that mean they don’t have style? No…it just means they’re not my style.

    1. I agree! I cringe when on HGTV or Project Runway they talk about someone’s “taste level”. As if taste isn’t in the eye (or mouth?) of the beholder. I don’t think there are vertical levels and implying there is feels like snobbery.

      1. Very true. I have to remind myself this once in a while. Some people I know might have what those hosts would call low “taste levels” but they are insanely happy and probably spend a whole lot less of their hard earned money on decor. Unlike me. haha!

    2. I also think that to have “style” you have to want to have style–you have to work to cultivate it. Some people could care less about it, thus others *might* look down on them and say they had no style…and maybe they don’t, but who cares? I guess if you’re trying to make your living based on your tastes, this is something you’d definitely be working on daily. I personally feel like I spend far too much mental and physical energy on interior design when I know for A FACT that it’s not something I want to do professionally. I know this bc I did work as an interior designer, and I’m much happier not doing that now. Oh well, ramble ramble ramble.

  6. This was a really amazing peak into your mood board time capsule. It’s awesome to see the changes / growth you have made but still remaining true to your inner eye and voice. I’m an artist and a few years ago, I started making it a point to keep all my sketch books so that the future me can look back and hopefully have a similar moment like you. It’s also really nice to see that sometimes things don’t change and you tend to repeat the same things over and over again but that you can catalog the growth in those projects over time.

    And yes, flowers are always in and I never get tired of drawing them (^.^)



  7. Emily you are so down to earth. I’m glad your trip has been so successful. Now is when I would say don’t ever change but I don’t have to because I don’t think you know how to be any other way than honest and a straight shooter (that’s from the old westerns played on those huge TV’s).
    I think a person can learn style if they have the eye for it but sometimes that is only their style. You might lean towards a certain style but through your blog (which I read everyday it is my first cup of coffee go to)we see how you design beautiful spaces for your clients no matter what style.
    Thank you for sharing so much with your readers and fans.

  8. Oh my goodness…this post. It’s like you wrote this just for me! I am a small business owner and recently had a not-so-nice client question my “training”. And by question, I mean suspected criminals are treated better than I was. Which then made me step back and question myself and my career. Not a good day. Anyway, I have a similar self-taught, series of fortunate opportunities background that all started in a small town with an inspiration journal. So, yeah. This posted really spoke to me. Thank you so much for sharing your background and your first portfolio and your thoughts on the topic. I always love your blog, but this really made my day!

  9. LOVE this! I’m a lot older and just figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. yikes! Thanks for keeping it real!

  10. Flowers. Are. The. Best.
    And you are too Emily!

    1. Roses are red,
      Violets are blue,
      Flowers are the best,
      And Emily is too!

      Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  11. This post is so great! I definitely think style can be learned, as mine has developed over time with the right exposure as well. Thank you for sharing this story. I’m still trying to figure out how to make my own creative path, and this gives me the same hope you once needed too.

  12. I think style is a kind of skill–some people have natural talent and some have to work a little harder but it definitely takes training, and that’s the exposure you talk about.

    It was totally ballsy and wonderful of you to take your style scrap book into a Martha Stewart interview. I’ve also gone into interviews with nothing but desire, a few scraps, and attitude of I CAN DO THIS PLEASE BELIEVE ME. It’s terrifying and important. Thanks for sharing your journey! You may have gotten trained up in the last 10 or 12 years, but it’s pretty clear you had game to begin with.

  13. Aww love it Emily – you are sooo creative! I’m an interior designer in NYC, and growing up I also had no clue that interior design was a “real job”. My parents are scientists, and I studied Chemical Engineering in college. But I looooved watching “Trading Spaces” on TLC – that show completely blew my mind. It was like omg, THAT’S what I wanna do!

  14. Thank you for this, Emily! I needed to hear this. If I look at my own path, I definitely think that style can be learned. I now have the education (a Bachelor of Interior Design), the passion, and the talent (if I do say so myself), but I’m missing the connections. I grew up in a small town and have traveled for the better part of a decade — mostly for my education — but have ended up back in my small town. I love it here and I love being near my family, but I miss the connections. I often wonder if I should drop everything and move to the city to network. I am 31 now and feel as though my time to get into the business is dwindling. This post has restored my drive to get out there and network. Thank you so much!

  15. Thank you for this! I’m wracked with uncertainty everyday about whether I need to spend $80K going back to school to get into a field i’m passionate about, and plenty of people in the industry say “Yep! Just gotta bite the bullet…we all did.” But your story is really inspiring and seems like an approach I’d much prefer. Do you think it’s harder to do now that creative jobs aren’t well-kept secrets?

  16. I love this. I too wanted to go to New York as a young woman to do somehting in fashion/design. I wasn’t as brave as you were. I too grew up always, always making something and redesigned my bedroom a gazillion times (driving my mother crazy). Thank goodness for the internet because now through my blog I am finally realizing my dream (although small). I think some passion or innate ability has to be there from the start but then it can be taught and learned. I know for me, color has always been a big part of who I am. Growing up my friends would always marvel that I could recognize the exact same shade of green or blue while we were out shopping over and over again. An eye for something has to be there and then composition, scale, and style can be learned. Just my opinion.

  17. What a great step back to see how far you’ve come! Brava! I think style is something you grow into, as you start to believe in yourself more and you start to understand what speaks to you and why. The internet can be helpful as a guide but it can also make you have design ADD! I think if you are solid in what you love and who you are, then the style just grows as you do, too! And thanks for the reminder that a person needs to keep on keepin’ on when it comes to following your dream!

  18. Em- You are such an inspiration to me, it’s insane.

    I’ve been OBSESSED with design and all things surrounding it since I was able to sit up on my own as an infant and thumb through my mom’s Better Homes and Gardens and Sunset magazines laying around the house (thanks, momma!). I’ll be 25 this year and have FINALLY accepted that after years of jobs unassociated with design (though, I did love being a pastry chef and wedding photographer… still creative fields, thank you based god) it is time I chase my dream. I have the passion, go-getter attitude (chock full of sarcasm), but I lack the experience (does making design boards for my mom’s 80’s oak kitchen makeover count? what about drawing blueprints of mid-century remodels to scale while sitting on the toilet for an hour listening to my brother scream at me to get out of the bathroom? no? okay.)

    Basically what I’m trying to say (you can ignore the toilet comment…) is: thank you.

    From the bottom of my heart, this post is exactly what I needed to read. And your tone throughout this post speaks to me–literally, I read it aloud and then had a silent cry because, damn, you just hit me in the feels.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the constant inspiration to push myself to find my career-self. This is the year I will be bold and stick it to the man! (besides planning my September wedding–shoot me)

  19. I loved reading this, Emily! You’re always an inspiration! I love your final thoughts on passion and exposure. They hit a cord with me! You rock big time.

    Love, Poppy

  20. A glance through the comments tells me I’m not alone here, but I’m at the same point in my life/semblance of a design career of trying to find myself. I tell myself every day that it’s no rush, but I have to admit I feel the pressure to get a “real job” (I’m currently working as an au pair/part-time graphic designer in Paris). Everyone here just oozes style, which is pretty intimidating. Guess it’s time to start a style journal!

  21. I so admire what you’ve done. Putting yourself through college, holding down three jobs while following that creative drive that eventually paid off in spades. Not to mention your other major accomplishment – that beautiful baby boy! You are an inspiration to all of us, young & old (like me).

  22. Emily,
    I simply adore this post. It sounds like you were very resilient and self-assured at 23. Bravo!

    You mentioned you courted all the stylists that came in Jonathan Adler by writing “a pretty compelling cover letter.” I ‘d be interested to see that if you still have it, and to know, in your now experienced opinion, what makes a cover letter compelling?

  23. I completely agree about exposure! And the ability to learn, fueled by passion can produce great results. It’s something I’ve thought about before, and all the incredible blogs out there are a testament to it. I’m hoping beautiful design continues to become more attainable (without professional help) in ordinary homes, because people will have more exposure to quality design. And I hope retailers will stop selling awful things (I’m talking about the overabundance of “contemporary” rugs and poufy microsuede sofas).

    Thanks for sharing more of your background with us.

  24. Thanks so much for posting this, Emily. I’m almost 26 and have kind of known that I wanted to be an interior designer since I was 18 (well, 14 if you count the years I spent obsessively redecorating my bedroom). For whatever reason, I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself by going to school for interior design because I wasn’t 100% sure that it was what I wanted but… it is. Now I’m still trying to figure out how to get my foot through the door. Thanks for reminding me that it’s okay to put yourself out there, even if you don’t yet know what the hell you’re doing!

  25. Fabulous. Thank you so much for sharing this Emily. I am an artist and an art teacher and I strongly disagree with the common idea that artists and designers are born with artistic talent. This both belittles the artists who have worked years to develop their abilities, and cuts short anyone who struggles with creative pursuits. You pointed out what I think is the key in the” innate vs. can be developed debate” – passion. People pour time and energy into the things they enjoy. Why would creative people be that different from other fields? Michael Jordan was born with potential for height and athletic grace; he spent years practicing, grabbing opportunities, and gaining skills to become the Emily Henderson of the NBA.

  26. I love your blog and have been following along for a while now, but I have never commented. Your work is genius and you are a true artist. I’ve drooled over all the beautiful and inspiring interiors you have shared here, but I felt compelled to let you know that out of all your posts, this is the most beautiful and inspiring of all. I’m glad you found yourself… and the design world is glad too.

  27. Thank you for sharing! I love coming to your blog and finding interesting things here! Fun to see your past style.

  28. Great post! I’m in that place right now with just finishing school, and trying to break into the industry while still supporting myself to make rent. Really great to hear this side of life – just a good moral booster.

    I think creative people are just that, creative people. They’re always doing something, but not immediately understand until of course they meet someone who is so not creative (which sadly are many).

  29. Great post! I’m in that place right now with just finishing school, and trying to break into the industry while still supporting myself to make rent. Really great to hear this side of life – just a good moral booster.

    I think creative people are just that, creative people. They’re always doing something, but not immediately understand until of course they meet someone who is so not creative (which sadly are many). If that makes any sense..

  30. Seriously, this reminds me of so much of how I spent high school and college. So many collages (pre-Pinterest, we made collages!), bits of this and that. I just went through my old hoard and found so many pieces of art and gifts from friends… seems like it was just so much of part of what we did. We didn’t have the constant glut of images, so we made our own. They weren’t as “good”, but damn it was fun. There was less of a sense that it HAD to be good because there was so much less to compare it to.

    But another point your story makes really well, and something I try to always emphasize to the younger folks, is a) how hard you have to work to make progress in whatever your field is, and b) getting a job because of a job application is really rare. Most of the time, jobs come because you know people and one thing leads to another. So young people out there (Christ, I’m so old), WORK HARD and TALK TO PEOPLE. Also, you have to BE NICE Because if you’re not nice, nobody wants to work with you. Unsolicited advice.

    Wonderful, completely special post. Thank you!

  31. I think this book proves you have always had style. If we could out ourselves back into 2002 I think it would mostly “make sense.” Obviously you have improved but I’m impressed! I think this is so cute and such a fun thing to have saved.

  32. This post is so inspiring! I love hearing about how you’ve built your career. I hope you have more posts like this in the future!

  33. Such a generous post and lots of fun to go on some of your journey with you, and to have it to reflect upon. I am not in what some would think of as a ‘creative’ field, but I am passionate and creative about my work … and this post reminds me that I’m due for another good dose of exposure . Exposure helps keep my passion alive!

  34. This is so fun to walk back in time like this. Thank you for sharing! We all start somewhere, and we’re all embarrassed of what we started with. How will we feel about our current work in 10-15 years? It’s strange to think about!

    On a side note, did you see Fixer Upper last night? Joanna totally channeled her inner Emily Henderson. I think you would love what she came up with – it is very reminiscent of your house and your style.

  35. Hello, suburban southern California here, and I grew up at a time when everything was painted flamingo pink with green edging. Gross. And I knew it then, too, which pleases me very much, but of course my taste was learned. I think what you touched on but didn’t name is GRIT – when you keep going even if you are told ‘no’ or get knocked down a few times. I think grit is what separates anyone who does things well because they have tried so much and so hard to those who try and stop when they are told ‘no’.

  36. Love the post – thanks for sharing your story!

  37. That book is the bomb! Fritz Karch seems pretty eccentric from where I’m sitting; I’m surprised he didn’t love it. (He was probably worried you would outshine him.) I think all of us who’ve travelled this path should start a club. It looks like there are a few of us here. I moved to NYC at 19 after growing up in a tiny rural midwestern town. I got an appointment at FIT to show a portfolio–I had no clue what I was doing. Looking back, I’m grateful the staff didn’t guffaw. Eventually I worked as an high school art teacher. I had so, so many students and parents tell me that you must be born with artistic talent to do well in art. I strongly disagree. I think you can learn to draw well if you are willing to work at it–most people don’t really have the desire/passion to do that. It’s hard work. I think you can have an inborn passion and maybe excellent fine-motor skills that will propel you along, but it’s mostly practice and experience. As far as personal style goes, I think it’s growing and changing constantly. While exposure to style and design feeds personal style, you have to want that exposure–you must work for it–so it must be important enough to you to work for it.

  38. “I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a prop stylist, spokesperson and let alone a blogger.” Well, you seem to be so much more to your readers. Let’s add mentor and muse. This is a wonderful post and you nailed it with passion and exposure as the keys.

  39. As someone who is in the process of applying to get my masters in Interior Architecture (graphic design background here) this made my heart so happy. Thank you for being so honest and giving me hope that my love for interiors WILL be a possibility.

  40. I love reading stories like that. Though I often still feel like you guys in the US (or anywhere but Germany really) start figuring stuff out way earlier than us. I’m 26 and a post-grad student (everyone does masters degrees here though) Most people, as I will, finish university at 27 or even older. We all reach the same point as you did when you were 23 after university, only we are in our late twenties by then!

    As a social scientist and supporter of Bourdieu I certainly believe that our social and cultural context determine what we like. However, as your life changes your tastes changes too, I think that is what feels like you are learning to have taste, when really it’s just changing. Most importantly though, those factors do not give you some sort of superior as in better taste.

  41. So funny to read this today. On the weekend, I found a similar book I had made, back in the pre-Pinterest world. I was, like you, baffled by some things, but in flipping through, I noticed that my taste has refined somewhat over the decades, but that I remain true to my core aesthetic. I found it reassuring, as I sometimes get fed up with the overwhelming quantity of NEW CONTENT on blogs and in magazines and worry that I let my true self get swayed by trends that don’t really speak to who I am, creatively, personally, aesthetically. Thanks so much for sharing– I think your book is really beautiful and I love that it is solid, tactile and contains so much personality.

  42. I have really been loving your blog lately…I always love it, but even more so now. Great variety of content and today’s was particularly inspiring!

  43. Sooooooo you mean not applying for your intern posish like I wanted to was stupe? I have some experience and years of school under my belt and still felt (in a world of driven 18 year olds already in design school with no responsibilities) under-qualified :/ I guess it all comes down to good old fashioned ‘Chutzpah’! This story is inspiring (you’re a badass) and heartbreaking (cause I should have been bad assier) Too many times I sell my creativity short because “there’s always someone cooler than you.” I know it’s lame. I knew before and I know now. Thanks you for nailing this post!

  44. I wish your blog had existed back in the 90’s when I was trying to figure out what I could do with my life. Our childhoods were very similar except sub Pennsylvania for Oregon, 2 kids for 6 kids, and factory workers for teachers. But where you had the guts (and the guy) to move to NYC I schlepped myself to be with my totally wrong guy in rural Indiana. Then had a baby. Then a divorce. I know I won’t be satisfied to do what I currently do for the rest of my life (design AV systems in autoCAD) it’s so boring. Have I missed my window forever or do you know successful people in the field who only got there after their kids were nearly grown?

    Style is mostly innate I believe but it can be convincingly faked with enough exposure. Passion is innate but so is laziness and complacency unfortunately.

    I’d rather be lucky than good.

  45. Also I’d LOVE to know who in the business with poor taste you had in mind although I know you could never ever call them out on your blog.

  46. I la-la-love you for this post Emily! I’m 23 with a degree in business, working a 8-5 front desk/accounting assistant job while taking interior design courses at Portland CC. I’m just keeping my eyes and ears open for that opportunity to come my way for experience and exposure. I so badly just want to be designing/decorating/styling and am so anxious to get there. Your story is truly so inspiring, and motivating.

    Style is a combination of learned & innate. Some people don’t care, and that’s okay. You have the sense, or you don’t. If you have it, you just absorb everything around you and you filter it…that becomes style.

    Thanks again for always being open and honest about all of this. So many of us really appreciate it.

  47. Hi Emily, I really really enjoyed reading this, thank you for sharing your story. A little bit of my story: being raised by (in the late 80’s in china) by a mother with a very good taste, I’ve always had really cute clothes growing up even there wasn’t that much available back then. And I came to the States and went to high school and college, and loved to shop, mainly for clothes but also just pretty/cute things in general. I took 3 years of Art class in high school and cried once over the phone telling my mom how I wanted to switch from science to design after a bad chemistry mid-term in college. But I never did switch. Back then I didn’t know much about the world of interior design. So many years later, now in my late 20s, I really really want to get into interior design. Of course I have no real experience besides decorating my own home, but I am really happy with just how far I’ve come along with decorating my own home. I should have known I loved this when I would spend my college friday nights re-arranging furniture in my dorm room. So I’ll keep trying 🙂

  48. I’m so encouraged by this post! I studied Illustration and graduated last year… And while I’ve always loved to draw, I wouldn’t say I grew up particularly cultured or that I was ever current on trends or pop culture… which, when I came to art school and met so many people who had seen all these films and read these plays and dressed fashionably and listened to music I had never heard of, I felt so intimidated. I have been blessed to have my share of successes, but this past year out of school has been challenging emotionally for a number of reasons… especially the struggle to fight off the fear that I simply wasn’t born with that extra special creative gene everyone else seems to have. I think the hardest thing with the Internet is learning to not compare yourself to others and seeing past the curated perfection of everyone’s facebooks, instagrams, blogs…etc. So…when a blogger like you is vulnerable about their own journey, it truly is an inspiring thing! Thank you so much.

  49. This post is one of my favorites, I love the fact that you still have the book.

    I think being in a creative industry is challenging at times… and you sometimes wonder to yourself ” What the hell am I doing”? Yes, we could have been nurses, or x-ray technicians .. but we really do have wonderful jobs. We get to use our creativity to solve problems, make peoples lives better and play with beautiful things all day. It may take a little longer to get your feet on the ground financially but I believe it is worth it! Also this made me laugh so hard that I cried ” I think I found a huge scrap of it at a thrift store and I’m pretty sure I just rubbed it against my face for years, like how a fat rich banker might with his piles of 100 dollar bills. “…

    You’re a gem!

  50. Emily, it is so refreshing to hear more about your story and background. I’ve been working in healthcare my whole adult life and making stuff on the side for years. I’m ready to start making a transition to a more creative field but have zero experience outside of home projects. I have been so intimidated to apply for jobs, even internships, because I don’t have much of a portfolio. Somehow I just landed an awesome DIY internship and I’m so excited to get some experience and create some cool stuff with some awesome women… Your story is definitely inspiring, thank you for sharing!

  51. Here I am in my mid-thirties with three kids and clinging to the hope people like you give me. Passion is keyed is the only explanation of why I continue to work at something that barely even pays me.

  52. Great to see another creative-typed history grad! You have perfected what I love – mixing vintage and new, old and modern – what I think is so important in making a house a home (preserving the past while always moving forward is an important lesson you learn as a history major). You are a glowing example of what someone can accomplish even when they haven’t had a formal education in the area.

  53. Hi Emily,
    I loved that book! its such a great idea. I had a similar experience when I was applying to design college. I graduated as science student , electronics engineering to be precise and i was applying to a design school for my masters with no portfolio what so ever. But had to carry something so i just took all my drawings/ scribbles/paintings and scanned them and made a slideshow with music in the background. Just added some words which showed my passion for design ( at least i thought they did ) and burned a CD. I felt like a fool sitting outside waiting for my interview and watching these other students with huge files of portfolio work, 3 modeling projects and what not. The only thing I was confident about was my passion for design. And i sooooo agree with you on the ‘personality on the chair & passion ‘ thing. I got selected and was one of the 7people in the entire country selected for that course in that year. ( This is National Institute of Design, India back in 2006) It was the proudest moment of my life . Since then I moved to the United States in 2010, gotten married and now am a full time blogger ( designforsoul.com) . So to answer your question I feel creativity is a combo of both , you should have the innate quality of self initiation and you can develop your style eventually by exposing your self to the right environments.

  54. Such a fun post! I used to keep a style inspiration binder that was very similar 🙂 It’s so fun to revisit and compare your present and past tastes.

    Love the Gerhard Richter candle painting on the first page.

  55. Thank you so much for posting this. I graduated with a degree in studio art and have worked for a couple of great arts non-profits, but I recently completed an artist residency and it made me realize how much I missed actually *making* things. My attraction to some elements of interior design and architecture has also left me unsure about where to go next. But you’ve reassured me that some persistence and initiative (taking new classes, meeting people in different fields) goes a long way. 🙂

    Also, I think the idea of putting together a book at all was snappy and brave given your lack of experience and portfolio. Not to mention that some of the pages are really great! Brava!

  56. I’m totally laughing at this because I work with Fritz now and I can’t wait to tell him about this. Every day Fritz walks into the office I can’t help but smile. The thought of 23-year-old you sitting in front of him is so adorable to me.

  57. Absolutely love this post and it spoke to me in every way because I had a binder too and I believe that you only need that little spark and drive to do what you love. I remember seeing Jonathan Adler (my hero) on Oprah when he told the story about how his pottery teacher told him this wasn’t for him but he believed in himself. And his pottery happens to be one of my favorite things ever.

  58. I love that white flowered wallpaper; it’s simply divine! I’m really into interior florals now as I live in an apt and don’t have acres of gardens anymore, so am trying to bring the outside in. (Plus I agree with you, flowers will NEVER go out of style). Wouldn’t it make a fabulous quilt or pillow if it was a fabric? This was a very inspirational post, Emily; I think your book was the start of who/where you are now, and I can see you and your style and tastes in all of it. It’s just an earlier version of who you are today and good for you for keeping it, and sharing it with your readers. (If I may say so, I think Charlie and future siblings will enjoy learning where their mother’s talents came from!). Btw, you’ve really turned me onto peonies, and you can’t beat anything blue, white or pink. Ralph Lauren said that fashion is not necessarily about labels or brands, but about something else that comes from within you. I think the same way about design. Ultimately, it’s what you bring to the table, a representation of yourself and in your case, often ‘assisting’ others to live in the beauty that surrounds them (and you enhance that in so many ways). What a role model you are!!! Can’t wait to see the bathroom updates……. 🙂

  59. Crazy! I was just talking to a friend about this the other day!!

    Sure, style is somewhat innate, but without exposure, you won’t progress or move beyond what “you think your style is.” I didn’t grow up exposed to style per say, but was lucky enough to have an artistic father. He wasn’t up on the latest trends and wasn’t in the design world, but he appreciated art and voiced a clear direction in his projects.
    The advice I gave this friend, who was looking to break into the interior design world, was to be sure to hone in on her own aesthetic.
    I went to interior design school, where they taught space planning – not style. That you have to teach yourself. No one holds the final say in style.
    Money can’t buy you style. I snag fabulous antiques at thrift stores. Limited funds do not limit my style.
    While in school, for example, I admired and lusted after the handcrafted feel of Anthropologie’s home goods. I wanted to understand how to create the vision they mastered so well. By working with the brand, I was able to better appreciate what makes something beautiful and desirable.
    Creating your style (which is essentially a creation of your self/personal brand) is trial and error. Occasionally, you’re going to pick something that’s off-brand. However, you eventually learn why that item didn’t sing to you and are careful to not choose it again. I for one, will not choose butterfly clips again. Third grade me has moved passed cheap plastic.

    Also, I am a proud owner of that same pink bird print 🙂

  60. Style can be innate and it can be learned. I had an acquaintance visit who is a trained interior decorator. She took one look at my house and was agape. Basically she couldn’t believe that I could mix European and Chinese antiques, new stuff, modern art, and pretty ancient religious iconography yet come up with something that worked. I just buy what I like, have very good color memory, and move things around until they please the (my) eye. My “trained” friend got hung up with right and wrong and time periods and way too much fear. I also have something from nature in every room…sometimes fresh flowers but more often big pots of moss, berry branches, or things I find like shells or nests.

  61. I so love hearing your story (especially as a fellow stylist). Love the way you narrowed it down to passion + exposure. Fun inspiration!

  62. I loved this post, Emily! I love that you care about process! You so often show us your design process (which I’m inspired by on a near-daily basis), but getting a peek into the larger process of how you’ve built your career is so helpful and refreshing. Thank you!

  63. I really love the book idea! These days everything is digital – which is super great don’t get me wrong – but I think there is such value in having a tangible thing in front of you that sort of showcases who you are and what you are about, it kind of reminds me of a time capsule!
    And I think as far as style being learned or innate is a very interesting idea. I know for me it’s definitely learned and definitely a combination of passion and exposure like you said. I didn’t grow up in a design environment and there are days when I’m like ‘I bet I would be better if I grew up with parents who immersed me more in the design world’ and that may be true sometimes but maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much because I work so hard every day to be a better designer and learn more about this world I love so much.
    BUT I also think it’s innate. I think in some ways you have to have that eye for it, or knack like you said, and the ability to understand what looks good and what doesn’t. I think it takes practice, passion and exposure (all the things you said) but I also think some people just don’t have it. Sometimes I am also shocked when I come across designers in my field who don’t have good taste, and maybe it’s because they lack passion or ambition to immerse themselves more in getting better? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think every person can be a designer nor do I think they should, because the world needs thinkers of different kinds. But I do certainly agree that if you have the passion and the drive to want to expose yourself to as many experiences as possible, in anything, then I think it can lead to success.
    I felt like I just rambled there and I bet I don’t make any sense but your post was just so awesome and it got my brain thinking I just had to respond!

    P.S. This blog has been KILLING it lately with the fun, thoughtful and relevant posts. Seriously best blog ev.

  64. I’ve just started studying interior design after getting my teaching degree and teaching for two years and I know now this is what I should have done in the first place! You’ve just reminded me from when I was little I used to have scrap books filled with the things I loved cut out from magazines which I found not too long ago. When you described being around beautiful things that’s what I’ve always loved but never knew how to make a career out of it either. Thanks for the insight Em!

  65. One of my favorite posts EVER. I am an actor (not a designer) and now teach acting as well….and all these observations and questions apply. Thanks!

  66. Good question… I think style can be nurtured, but only if you don’t care what others think. The more you practice it the better you get at it. Nurturing one’s own style is effortless, why effortless? because if its your ‘own’ you know it better than anyone! you feel it, you can feel that energy that only you can feel. You know when a colour and a shape inspires you, you feel it. It’s easier if you have exposure but it needs a balance or you’ll just be a cookie cutter designer. The best stylist or designer is the one that comes up with something on its own, you don’t need to be in front of a Mona Lisa, you can be in the shower with your eyes closed and have all they style you need.

    I like that you kept the book, its fun to see!

    In regards to finding yourself, I believe that’s a never-ending labyrinth, I’m always finding things about myself. New things I like, questioning this and that, caring about this and that, or not. I’m always evolving, and I find that liberating. I’m always changing absolutely everything. The common question among my friends and family is “What are you doing now?”

    I better go, loved commenting on your post.

  67. This is amazing! And such a great point about passion + exposure. I think that can apply to many jobs and industries (and aspects of life). I love it!

  68. Love this post! Inspiring for younger folks who are just starting out, and even for those of us who don’t think we’re creative enough, but are passionate. Thanks for sharing some of your story!

  69. By golly, you’ve outdone yourself yet again. This is my favorite post of yours, ever. You are such an extraordinary woman.

  70. Oh, and to answer your question, I think it’s both. I remember a designer friend visited my post-college apartment, one that i meticulously designed on a shoestring budget, and she said that a lot of things I did followed standard design rules. I had no idea.

  71. Really compelling and thought-provoking post. I think the fundamentals of “style” can be learned and executed, but without aptitude/talent and passion it’s just gonna look flat. I mean, magazines and web sites (and TV shows) are full of uninspired designs, aren’t they. I love your work. Thanks for sharing your journal.

  72. You know that bit in Bill and Ted when they’re on their knees bowing up & down and saying “we are not worthy”… well that’s me now, over you. And next I’m going to be saying to myself: “Come on girl! You’re 35! Enough already, get your act together and get on it!”

  73. Emily,
    I don’t normally leave comments, but this post was so encouraging I couldn’t stop myself. I’m a 26 year old Executive Assistant living in DC wondering how you break free with no experience and little education… Your story makes me feel hopeful that it is possible. Thanks for sharing.

  74. Emily,
    This post was a real pleasure to read. I am 24 now, working as an Assistant Designer in a fashion company and I am starting to realize that I would be happier if I was actually working in interior design, working with my hands in a more creative field. Although fashion design can seem like a creative job, 80% of the time it’s not, and I didn’t know that until now. I have been thinking a lot about what should I do with my life, and this post inspires me to not be afraid to try different things, even if I don’t have any education in a concrete field. I hope to one day find something I am truly passionate about, just like you are with interior styling. Thank you!


  75. Oh my gosh. I feel like I could have written that post but with “rural MN” and “DIY parents” and “interior design but degree in Business Administration” as my details. I agree completely – some of my first designs were so entrenched in the era that I can’t decide if they were horrible or just part of a world full of eucalyptus wreaths and where faux ficus trees were acceptable. While I love the internet for all of the exposure to new ideas and design (things which would be hard to get exposed to in small-town America) I also get frustrated seeing that it tends to homogenize design too. With the good, the “bad”, I suppose…

  76. I sure hope style can be learned because I come here to learn all the time. I have always been drawn to design…as so many people have said already, I rearranged my room constantly as a child. But I was not exposed to much as I grew up conservative Mennonite with a Mom who, bless her heart, is not very creative. Now I am making a home for my own family and I want it to be warm and calming and fun. So I try to seek out knowledge and inspiration all the time so I can express myself and make a wonderful home for my family. Thank you Emily. I LOVE coming here because you teach design and have a wonderful personality!

  77. I truly needed this post this morning. It’s refreshing to hear that anyone can really accomplish their dreams if they work hard enough. I went to school for Apparel/Textiles, but have always had a love for Art and Interior design. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get my foot in the door, by utilizing my degree that I already have.

    Thank you for sharing this and for always being so honest.

  78. This is fabulous. So glad you held onto this! So special.

  79. Emily, I saw your Instagram post of this adorable journal followed by your Instagram post of the pages from your new book, and both are so lovely. Honestly, if your journal were being published with your new book they would BOTH be on my coffee table. Looking forward to owning the latter. 😀

    1. YES! I would love to see this published!

  80. i adore this post. so genuine. so real. as a person who has pursued lots of passions… in a million directions, i appreciate your authenticity. i love that you kept your (analog pinterest) book all these years. “how to grow a design star!” you’re simply the coolest. ever.

  81. Inquiring minds want to know – who is Cindy?

  82. I think style is both learned and innate. My sense of style is missing, always has been. Interestingly enough, I’ve had luck with my freelance work in writing, but vision in art and design is zero. My daughter (now 33) always had a love of art and ‘making things”. She was not exposed to it from me, she just liked it and all things associated with it. When she was in 3rd grade, her Christmas list read, “office supplies in all colors and anything else that goes with offices.” I think maybe her little brain thought an office was the samw thing as a studio. She continued her loved of art, design and decorating. She went to 2 universities, one to get a degree in an Interior Design and the other to get a degree in Art and Art Education. She was quite fortunate to land a job right after college as an asst. at an interior design firm owned by a friend of my husband. That was her foot in the door and she became a butterfly. She then got married, moved away, but continued to get more freelance work than she could handle. Whoops! She got an unexpected surprise and while she was pregnant decided to immerse herself in her love of art, while taking just a few freelance jobs here and there. She decided to be a stay home mommy for a few years, still keeping a toe in her ID work but continue to self-educate in art. Now, 10 years later, she adores her life. What is she doing? Teaching full-time as an elementary school art teacher (720 students) and occasionally taking a very small design job here. She now has 3 sons. They’ve had tons of exposure to every kind of design and art possible. The middle son is a chip off Mama’s block and craves learning about art, making art , all things art and Math(?). Her other 2 sons could care less, mostly less. So, in my experience with kids, both mine and my grandies…art IS innate AND learned.

  83. I loved this post. As a former accountant, now mom that loves interior design but never grew up thinking something like that was a possibility for me, I think it is so great that you found what you loved and made it a reality. Love you style and passion for design.

  84. Wowza! That journal is beyond awesome! It looks like a spread in some really cool magazine like I-d, Apology or Interview. No wonder they were confused at Martha Stewart – it’s a total bore-fest over there. You were ahead of the times! I can see why each page works, even the gold and burgundy pairs when with the smaller gold and white pattern on the other side. And that pink lace looks awesome against that grainy brick wall. Even the fact that you tore the pages out instead of cutting them into perfect squares lends a really cool effect. Love the whole thing!

  85. Loved the personal history and personality behind this post! Thanks for that peek into your past.

  86. What a wonderful post! You and I are the same age. I also moved to NYC in 2002 as a cook. Recently I found a journal/collage book from that time. In it was a dish idea I had; Seared Dover Scallops with Nettles, Blueberries and (wait for it) a quenelle of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. We’ve come a long way, baby!
    Great post! Your sense of humor, humility and of course, your FANTASTIC brains/taste are what keep me checking in daily.
    Cheers and thanks! – kat

  87. Oh my gosh! This is my story! Well, kind of. I’m from Missouri and went to college for Vocal Performance in Iowa. After school I decided music wasn’t my only/main passion and I went to New York. I had done some interning/modeling at a few boutiques in college and had my own jewelry business. I went around to all of these interviews in the fashion industry with a book of all these kind of middle America, amateur images and collages from my experiences. I was so green to what I was getting myself into, yet I had loved those things in my own way for a long time. People saw the passion I had. I still have that book and I totally cringe looking at it! But it’s a part of me and my journey. I love that you shared this. And you can build furniture?? I’m totally impressed.

  88. Wait, am I the only one that thinks this book is SO COOL?! It’s such a fun look into your start, Emily.

    I currently work in Advertising but have always dreamed of working in design. Maybe it’s just that I don’t think I’m the most talented in that field and I’m hopeful that one day I can live up to the accomplishments of others, but style can most definitely be learned. Like many things, it just takes practice. And I think you’re a wonderful example of that!

    Kate | dashofdogwood.com

  89. Love the journal, and love the story even more. Hearing that you didn’t get what probably felt at the time like your dream job, and yet you ended up being more successful than that job would have allowed you to be is so heartening. As is your honesty – as always 🙂

  90. First of all I want that book or maybe I will just start making my own. Second of all, I am over 50 and just started my own interior decorating business in our little town. I was not born or raised in the industry but by God! I’m here and one day will be successful. I’ll keep in touch 😉

  91. Great post Emily!!!! I loved it. Nice to be prompted to THINK about creativity and careers, and direction… and whether you can learn it or are born with it…or a bit of both. I’m currently juggling a 3 year old and trying to paint everyday, and wondering how the hell I accelerate my creative career whilst juggling a 3 year old, and how I stumble across/find/hunt out that all important exposure you talk about. Both exposure to other talented people to learn from them, and exposure for your work…which has to coincide with that critical point of….being good enough to be noticed. hmmm…I guess persistance is important in all of this too. That tenacity to not give up and have faith that it will happen.

  92. I love this post. But I am wondering if you think the way you got your start still holds true today? It seems like now more than ever you have to somehow magically have experience in your field (interior design) before you even begin thinking of getting a real job. Is it just all about connections/networking? In your opinion, does sending a great portfolio with little experience still hold weight for you? Where I live, designers won’t even hire you as an unpaid intern without a bachelors degree and 1-3years work experience.

  93. Both, for sure! Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I suspect those who seem to get “style” naturally have an innate sense of proportion and scale as they relate to the human body and eye, and perhaps they see color dimensions and nuances more easily than others (hello dress debate!). But I think you hit on something that is also really important with learning style, and that’s the constant process of prototyping and refining. While you were busy crafting and sewing and shopping, you were exploring your personal style and learning by doing instead of constantly analyzing. Also, making things really does help a person understand the way the construction of an item and the aesthetics of it go hand-in-hand. Over time your style appears more developed because you’ve spent so much time refining it and experimenting to understand what works and what doesn’t. Like growth in many other parts of life, the most important part of learning style is the process of experimentation and reflection!

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