GRACE BONNEY

WRITER, BLOGGER, FOUNDER OF DESIGN SPONGE. DESIGN CURATION.

What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day? “Drink a cup of coffee and read the obits,” said illustrator and artist Maira Kalman. The question came from Grace Bonney, and the answer is in her bestselling new book, In The Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs. Grace is the founder of the website Design*Sponge and she joined me to talk about reckoning with her own mistakes, celebrating opinionated women, and how to turn your life upside down and come out intact.

Debbie:
We talked for a Design Matters episode in 2011 and I couldn’t believe how much both of our lives have changed since then. You got divorced from your then-husband, Aaron. You came out. You met and married cookbook author Julia Turshen. You moved to upstate New York, you were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and you published a bestselling book. How are you doing?
Grace :
I’m a little tired. It’s been a big few years. But a good few years.

Debbie :
How is your health?
Grace :
It’s all right. It’s been difficult with the book tour, but I’m at a point with my diagnosis where I can see the silver living. Thank God, because the first few months were brutal. But if nothing else, this disease has given me the incredible gift of being very present. Every five minutes of my life, I have a monitor on my arm that tells me what my blood sugar number is, so I now live life in these tiny increments—and that is in direct opposition to how I used to live life, which was imagining these huge swaths of time.

Debbie :
When you first started Design*Sponge, YouTube and Facebook hadn’t even launched yet. You now have nearly if not over 2 million readers per day to the site, half a million followers on Twitter, and nearly a million followers on Instagram. How has this changed your business model?
[Though the site is no longer active, I’m leaving the wording of these questions as is, and we can explain in the intro that the site is no longer running and that the interview is, in a sense, “archival.”]
Grace :
Social media both killed and re-birthed bloggers in an interesting way. Pinterest, in particular, felt devastating for blogs. But at some point I realized, this is a gift, this is a challenge, this is a thing to help you either rise above and evolve or fade off. I’m not a fan of fading off, so it was a challenge I accepted, and I love Instagram and Twitter. I’m learning to enjoy Facebook. I’m trying to think of them as places to communicate in different ways.
Debbie :
How do you feel about Pinterest now? The craze seems to have died down quite a bit.
Grace :
It never clicked for me because I’ve always had a place to talk about the things I love and collect them and virtually pin them to something. But I understand why that was such a huge hit for people who weren’t bloggers, or who wanted an additional place to do that. Over the last 12 years, my blogging has undergone a slow evolution away from things and decorating, and toward people and stories, so I’ve moved away from image-based platforms and toward places where more talking happens.
Debbie :
You’ve said you like Instagram because it has a fun, informal feeling that you don’t get with a blog anymore. While you plan your website content to be more serious, Instagram is its lighthearted companion. How have you come to understand the audiences of each social network and online community?
Grace :
The biggest gift of being a blogger is having a connection to a group of people that you don’t know, but whom you feel very attached to. But now, they don’t come to the blog anymore. They’ve gone to social media. It’s my job to go find them, understand what they’re talking about and what they want, and then synthesize that and combine it with what I want. That’s the challenge, because I’m not interested in producing content solely for other peoples’ interests. I want to find a way to combine that with what I enjoy.
Debbie :
In 2009 you published your first book, Design*Sponge at Home, which sold over 100,000 copies. Your latest book, In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs, is now a New York Times bestseller. It celebrates an extraordinarily diverse group of women: ceramicists, crafters, furniture makers, tattoo artists, designers, painters, prop stylists, and writers, ranging in age from 19 to 78. From what I understand, this is not the book you were initially asked to do. What was that book supposed to be?
Grace :
I was contracted to write a huge DIY encyclopedia. It was supposed to be a younger, scrappier answer to Martha Stewart’s encyclopedia. I found myself dragging my feet, and then I thought about hiring somebody to do it—which I had a real ethical quandary with—and then I came to the realization that I was avoiding it for a reason. I kept looking at Pinterest and the internet and thinking that with all the free DIY projects online, why would anyone pay for this? I couldn’t put my heart and my name behind it, so I spoke with my accountant and asked if I could give my advance back. I spoke with Julia, my wife, and she said, “What about all the things you’ve been talking about, about women in business?” I had pitched this book idea a few times before and no one was ever interested. Julia said, “Why don’t you rewrite it?” She is the world’s best one-sheet writer, so she wrote the pitch for me, made it beautiful, and I sent it off with an email to the publisher saying, “I’m very sorry, but here’s your money back, and here’s another idea.” The next day my publisher wrote me saying, “I love this, you can do this but you have the same deadline, which is two months from now. So, good luck.”
Debbie :
Oh my God. You interviewed and photographed 100 women in two months.
Grace :
That is entirely due to two women, Sasha Israel, who was the principal photographer of the book and Kelli Kehler, who’s my team manager at Design*Sponge. She project-managed everything from day one. Sasha would sometimes photograph six people in a day, which is unheard of. It was a perfect storm of the right people in the right place at the right time, and the people we invited either got that energy and were into it or couldn’t make it work. I loved it. Everybody jumped in and responded with, “This is nuts, let’s do this.” It was the best summer vacation ever.
Debbie :
The night that you had sent the email and hadn’t heard back, what were you feeling?
Grace :
It was terrifying. It was a real eye-opener because I don’t think I realized how comfortable I had gotten at Design*Sponge. The market is constantly changing, ads are always dying, and traffic’s always splitting up and going somewhere else. So I felt like I was never on solid ground and I was always adjusting. But I hadn’t realized that the general day-to-day running of the site had become somewhat of a machine. So to have this moment of, “Wait, I could totally fall on my face,” helped me to realize that I need to take much bigger risks and dream a hell of a lot bigger than I’ve been dreaming. It was good. It was a scary good.
Debbie :
I understand that the idea for the book started out as a Post-it note on your laptop.

Grace :
I can credit Pinterest for this, actually. I was flipping through Pinterest one day, and I came across an old pin-up magazine photograph of this incredible woman who appeared under the words, “Bold Women.” I thought about how much I love loud and opinionated women. I started a digital sticky note with the names of opinionated women like Kathleen Hanna, Nikki Giovanni, Rachel Maddow. I thought, “God, I just want to surround myself with women like that. Why aren’t those the women I’m hearing from in magazines?” The design community, in particular, tends to favor and borderline fetishize this very specific type of woman who is soft, tall, wafty, and almost broken down. That’s not what makes me excited or happy or interested or inspired. I wanted to provide an alternative to that. So the book started as a list of 20 women I hoped to interview one day.
Debbie :
In 2013 you came out publicly on your blog. You had ended your marriage and turned your world upside down in the blink of an eye, as you put it. At that point, you realized that out of nearly 20,000 posts that you had written in your previous 10 years running Design*Sponge, far fewer than you hoped had celebrated or documented homes or businesses belonging to the LGBTQ community. You said that the weight of your own hypocrisy felt overwhelming and you worked immediately to change that imbalance. Was the book part of that move toward righting the imbalance?
Grace :
Absolutely. When I came out, I became incredibly aware of my site being a huge part of the problem, especially in the lifestyle community, in putting the same type of person and the same type of family on the platform. A lot of young white couples, basically. I completely understand why queer people and people of color and disabled people wouldn’t feel welcome at Design*Sponge. It was a crushingly awful feeling to realize I had created that. There was no one else to blame but me. So it was an overnight U-turn. It was a stop the press, we’re having a giant team meeting: This change is happening. It’s going to be difficult. We have to reach out to completely different people who don’t know us, who for very good reasons probably don't trust us, or don’t have any interest in being a part of a site that hasn’t included them in the past. It took us at least a year to make those strides and changes, and we lost some of our team in that process who weren’t up for the challenge.
Debbie :
You said that at that time you’d gotten too used to the sound of your own voice online and realized quickly that you needed to talk less and listen more. How have you done that?
Grace :
This book was a big part of that. I wrote an introduction and that’s pretty much it. I wanted these women, and anyone on my site from now on, to introduce themselves in their own words. I don’t want the site to be through my filter. I’m trying to turn Design*Sponge into a platform where people can tell their stories in their own voices.
Debbie :
When you asked many of the women in the book what they wanted to be when they were young, almost everyone had aspirations toward careers in performance. What do you think that means?
Grace :
I would say 90 percent of the women in this book said they wanted to be a ballerina or an actress or a singer. When you are the face of a business, you have to perform. You have to be brave and confident, and I think a little spark of that is often retained from childhood when you had the courage and blind excitement to be on stage.
Debbie :
You also heard that many women had to let go of the notion of work-life balance because it holds to this ideal of perfection.
Grace :
Yes, that was an interesting development I did not anticipate. I went into this book thinking I was going to find the secret to work-life balance. But when I was speaking to Amalia Mesa-Bains—an incredible painter who is in her seventies and lives in California on the top of a mountain—I was asking about her work-life balance and she responded with something like, “What are you talking about? That’s not a thing. Have you not figured that out yet?” It was a wonderful moment of realizing that many of the women in the book had learned to let that go. I realized that everyone felt that way but wasn’t talking about it. I would relay that answer to other women I spoke to, and they all sighed as if to say, “Let’s cut ourselves some slack.” I left that book feeling much calmer.
Debbie :
Another common denominator in the book is that the success the women have attained is almost entirely self-made.
Grace :
That was extremely important because so many business books focus on people who have venture capital money, or some sort of grant, or their family’s paying for something. I know a lot of businesses where people are bootstrapping it and working second jobs, third jobs, to keep things going. It’s important to show all those paths, so that owning a business becomes less intimidating. It doesn’t have to start with a million dollars someone’s given you to make a startup. Businesses can start as hobbies, side projects, or passion projects.
Debbie :
I was also struck by how candid everybody was in the book. How did you get people to reveal so much about their insecurities, anxieties, and fears?
Grace :
That’s the crux of the book, and that was non-negotiable for me. I chose people because either I knew they were people who are willing to speak openly, or because they were people I felt I could get to be open and transparent. During the conversations, I offered examples of times I’d totally screwed up or things I’m not proud of or that I’m still working on. Taking that first step makes people feel comfortable. Also, I hired Sasha, the photographer, because she took a photograph of Julia years ago and that’s the only time I’ve ever seen Julia comfortable in front of a camera. Sasha had this incredible, calming effect at the photo shoots. She is blissfully unaware of a lot of the people in the book, and that worked in our favor, too. She did not know Christy Turlington was a famous supermodel. We were taking her picture and she leaned over and goes, “She’s really good at this.”
Debbie :
Some of the women’s responses to your questions are absolutely priceless. When you asked Tavi Gevinson what was the best piece of business advice she’d been given, she answered, “Own everything.” Matika Wilbur said, “We don’t live like nobody’s watching, we live like our ancestors are watching.”
Grace :
Matika is an incredible human being. She has been on an epic photography project to document members of all of the remaining First Nations tribes in North America. That answer still sits in my head because I think a lot of us don’t have this idea of ancestry and family in our work. It reminded me of the lineage behind everything we do and that we’re not just doing it for ourselves, or for this year or next. It’s about a long picture that starts and ends with family.
Debbie :
When you asked Maira Kalman about the first thing she does every morning to start the day, she said she drinks a cup of coffee and reads the obits. If one didn’t know Maira’s work, one would hear an answer like that and think she’s very pessimistic and gloomy. Maira’s one of the most optimistic, open, engaging, and brilliant artists of our time. What was it like to talk with her?
Grace :
I had the pleasure of interviewing her before on Design*Sponge. I was terrified, because of the sheer volume of her accomplishments. She is a New Yorker through and through. When I hear that answer, I don’t hear gloomy, I hear New Yorker. My mother-in-law reads the obits every morning, and Julia likes to read the obits. They are all born-and-bred New Yorkers, and for all of them, it’s not about sadness. It’s like reading a highlight reel. It’s a positive thing.
Debbie :
You have talked about what you’ve learned from not only writing this book, but also having panel discussions with many of the women included in the book at various events around the country. Those learnings apply to anybody, not just creative women. The first one is dream big and ask for what you really want. How important is the asking part? Lots of people dream big, but very few people ask.
Grace :
This is particularly difficult for women. I didn’t want to make a lot of “women do this, and men do this” comments in the book, but I’ve spoken to so many women over the past 12 years and it is a common thread. We tend to belittle or dial back our dreams to make them more realistic or achievable. For me, this book was a great example of asking for exactly what I wanted to do and knowing that it may not work out. I need to do a lot more of that and so does everybody else. The women in this book asked for what they wanted and they asked for help. That’s a good thing to do.
Debbie :
You also encourage building a support system.
Grace :
It’s the most important thing any woman in business can do. Period.
Debbie :
I want to ask you about something you’ve done brilliantly: embrace the pivot.
Grace :
I’ve spent the last 10 years slowly moving away from the core things that I founded Design*Sponge for; I’m not someone who spends a lot of time thinking about design anymore. I’m far more interested in the people and the stories behind the products, but it’s scary to move away from the thing that is successful and safe. This book is full of women who have made those moves. We all know it’s okay to make those changes, but we don’t necessarily have a system or a guide to follow when we do make those moves. That’s an important thing to remind people—of course you can change your job, you can evolve, but don’t expect it to be a seamless, graceful waltz into the next chapter.

Debbie :
One of your big pivots was moving upstate to the Hudson Valley. You and Julia moved there last year. How has that changed your business?
Grace :
It has made me so much happier in every possible way. It’s helped me to step away from my business for a second and consider what parts of it are working and what parts aren’t. New York City had a way of making me feel that every part of my business had to be number one, or the most competitive, or the most successful. I moved upstate, I took some time off to work on the very old house that we bought, and I realized I’m proud that I have a business that is functional and profitable and supportive of the people that work there—rather than lamenting the fact that I’m not the number one trafficked blog. I got caught up in that. Leaving the city helped me to appreciate the site and the business for what it is.
Debbie :
You stated in a press interview that now that you own a home and have a family, you’re growing up. What do you mean by that?
Grace :
I spent my twenties entirely devoted to my job. It was great and I love my work. But crossing into my thirties and moving out of the city, I’ve learned to appreciate my personal life and to let go of things that I thought would be important to me at this age but that aren’t. I’ve learned that what I need is not the most important thing in the world, and whether that’s taking care of our dogs or making sure that Julia is happy or planning the expansion of our family, these are all decisions that make my voice a part of the chorus and not the only one. For me, that feels like growing up.

GRACE BONNEY TALKS WITH DEBBIE MILLMAN

DEBBIE TALKS WITH GRACE ABOUT HER NEW BOOK ON WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS AND MAKERS AND ABOUT THE NECESSITY AND DIFFICULTY OF CHANGE.