ONCE I WAS, NOW I AM
Design*Sponge Founder Gracey Bonney Prefers Substance Over Style
I wasn’t surprised when Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney told me that she grew up wearing Laura Ashley. Though I grew up in Michigan more than a decade before Grace, who was born and raised in Virginia Beach, something about her sensibilities has always felt deeply familiar to me. Grace’s Design*Sponge empire might have popularized wabi-sabi — or the Japanese principle of finding beauty in imperfection — but beneath the rough-hewn ceramics and salvaged barnwood pieces and the high-low aesthetic at the heart of Grace’s style is a call to order that reminds me of the cheerful rigor I so admired in the well-heeled Midwestern homes I visited growing up: the fabric of a headboard in tune with the long, lined drapes, which in turn harmonized with the piping of the towels in the en suite bathroom — in short, the Laura Ashley life.
At ten years old, Grace was still living that Laura Ashley life when she suddenly found herself thrown headlong into a period of adolescent turmoil: She fell in love with her best friend, who happened to be a girl. “I think I kind of outed myself…and that did not go over well in my family or at school.” Just like that, her tidy, well-ordered universe was turned upside-down. This period in Grace’s life was, as she puts it, “brutal.”
She soon found solitary comfort in her room, “the place where I didn’t have to play all these roles,” she says. Listening to music, making collages, painting the walls and decorating, she began to cultivate her interior life by designing the room that lovingly protected her. Twenty-plus years later, one young girl’s pain was transformed into a blog, a business, a world that has empowered so many millions of us to create coherence and beauty in our own rooms, and to pick up the hammer and do it ourselves.
Grace is telling me all this in the light- (and pet-) filled breakfast nook she shares with her wife, the celebrated cookbook author Julia Turshen. Her renovated farmhouse is lovely, of course, with her mother’s Blue Willow plates on the wall, a bright kitchen, and cozy living room, but it doesn’t look or feel like it’s posing for Pinterest. Quite the opposite. It feels like home.
From the beginning of Grace’s journey, she’s been committed to depth and soul in interior design — rather than mere surface. Design*Sponge specializes in homes that tell a story — for instance, a blended family, an accessible home, a couple’s travels. How do our interiors capture who we are? Grace is forever asking. What are the secrets our spaces tell? When she began Design*Sponge in 2004, she was pretty much the only design blogger out there. By 2016, she was invited onto Good Morning America to redesign host Lara Spencer’s workstation. Her impact is such that The New York Times called her “Martha Stewart for Millennials,” and Forbes named her Top Home Influencer of 2017. She has over two million followers across social platforms. She’s written two bestselling books.
Grace’s vision resonates.
So it came as a shock to the design world when Grace announced in January that she was shuttering Design*Sponge later this year, on August 31, the 15th anniversary of the site. As we chat, her reasons for this decision come as a surprise and a revelation to me. As she carefully explains it, “I think my currency has been labeling. This is the style, name-that-trend, define your brand. I think I’ve fully worshipped at the Church of the Internet and thought that this is where everything meaningful happens.” I was not expecting the blogger with one million visitors per day to be disparaging of the Internet, the very stage of her success. And then she really surprises me: “All I want right now is to get off the Internet. I don’t want to break it. I don’t want to take it over. I just want to get away from it.”
Grace is unapologetic, clear, and poised as she describes her biggest before-and-after yet — a total life 180. “I’m done with clapback culture and call-out culture and cancel culture and hot-take culture…you don’t have to have an opinion on everything,” says the tastemaker of our times. At one point, when I tell her how much I love the rip in the linen seat cover of the bench she is sitting on, she replies, “People say they want to see real houses in real life, but if you put that on the Internet, people will say, ‘Why didn’t that person clean up? How could they do this? I can’t believe their pillow is ripped.’ I just don’t think that the design community has quite found a way to appreciate the beauty of the imperfect.” This is especially true, she says, in the way women look at each other.
Grace grew up in a strong “matriarchal” culture, and yet she has spent her life struggling with approval-seeking and suffered from an eating disorder when she was young. She is acutely aware of how women are so incredibly hard on themselves and each other, which she calls “internalized misogyny.” It’s a phenomenon that she was seeing transferred online. “If we’re showing a husband or a boyfriend and they’ve got a ‘man cave,’ a phrase I hate, and that’s full of video games and it’s a mess, people will just laugh and think it’s adorable, like, ‘Oh, well, bless him and his man cave and isn’t that funny?’” she says. On the other hand, “if there’s a lot of pink or a lot of flowers or a lot of scallops edging something, people will shred it for not being perfect.”
And so Grace decided she needed a change. And while the announcement of Design*Sponge’s closing might have seemed abrupt, it’s a shift whose seeds were planted a while back.
Since moving upstate in 2014, she and Julia began spending time with older women in their rural community who weren’t the least bit interested in what she did on her blog, which Grace found liberating. “When I get off of Twitter for a few days, I realize, Oh, I go there to be angry…there’s so much expectation of just what everyone should be doing. And at the very least, I know I’m not somebody who should be dictating what anybody else does, because my experience is very privileged and very basic, and I just would rather listen for a while, and primarily in person.” She’s now writing a book about women over 50.
When I ask Grace what success looks like to her now, she says, “I think for me it would be to just produce or do or be in a way that doesn’t require somebody else’s approval. That would feel like success for me.” The irony of Grace Bonney seeking an out from the intimate world she helped create — where interiors and influence and approval reign supreme — is not lost on her. Nor will her exit mean an end to the thorny parts of Internet culture, or the beauty and empowerment Grace has offered these many years. Grace Bonney may be closing Design*Sponge, but her impact will be felt in rooms everywhere for a long, long time.