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?