Essayproducts

How I Finally Found My Personal Style At Age 36

by Grace Bonney

As a blogger who writes about design, one of the questions I’m asked the most is to define my personal style. I’ve been asked to define it “using only three words” or “if it was an animal” or, my personal favorite, “if it was a food!” (I said “ham sandwich” for some reason.)

While this question is never asked with any maliciousness, it’s always felt like someone poking at a bruise I didn’t want anyone to see. Because for a long time I’ve felt like an impostor. My personal life looks different than the things I post about here at Design*Sponge. And that seems to really upset and unhinge some people — and for a while, it unhinged me, too.

A few months ago I was having a discussion with someone in the comment section here where I mentioned that I don’t own most of the things that we post. Not because I don’t love or support those things (I do, deeply), but because I simply don’t decorate in the exact same way I post online. This upset the commenter a lot and left me wondering if I really was betraying people for not being the living embodiment of the company I run online. It made me wonder, can I love a certain style and run a brand that’s known for it without actually carrying it through to my real life?

After this exchange I thought back to all of the awkward exchanges I’ve had with people at work events over the years. Some people seem to visibly wither when they realize that I’m not dressed in head-to-toe pink, like a human cupcake. They actually say that sometimes. “I imagined you’d be in some sort of hot pink tutu, like a cupcake.”

I understand that there’s always a bit of a disconnect when you see someone or something in real life after being introduced to it online. I’ve found myself saying things like, “Oh, they’re so much taller in real life!” or “I didn’t expect them to be so quiet!” It’s as if hearing, “they’re exactly how I thought they’d be,” would be the the biggest compliment anyone could receive.

But very few people are 100% of what you see online. Even if someone’s brand and personal style go perfectly hand-in-hand (which feels like what most readers and advertisers want from bloggers), you’re still not getting the full picture. But celebrating that concept doesn’t make for a neat and tidy post or Instagram photo. It’s hard to fit, “I’m a complex person, like we all are, and while I really enjoy glitter and hot pink and stripes, in my personal life I tend to be too overwhelmed with business decisions and personal stress, so I live minimally and wear the same white, black and grey uniform every day and leave most of my things in piles around the house!” into a cute, hashtaggable image.

I recognize this isn’t anywhere near a serious problem in comparison to survival issues facing so many people in our community and the world at large, but sometimes when I’m quiet and on my own, I worry if people would trust me or the more serious work we’re trying to do at Design*Sponge less if they find out I’m not a super pulled together person (I’m actually really messy, just ask Julia) with great personal style. I worry that I’ll do my team and the essays and the people sharing their voices here a disservice if I don’t step up and play the visual part I think people want me to.

I know deep down it’s okay to be a complicated and perhaps contradictory person, internally and externally. But I’ve always wanted to find a better way to encapsulate the way I feel. So when I came across designer Nick Misani’s Instagram feed and read his bio line, something clicked.

His bio said: “Minimalist obsessed with ornament.

In that moment I felt like I’d finally figured out how to describe the difference between my life and work self. At home I’m a minimalist who finds it calming to be around simple things that get the job done and don’t require much thought. But when it comes to work and inspiration and fun, my eye will ALWAYS be drawn toward shine and color and detail and texture and pattern (stripes!). I just don’t want to live around those things all day. I like to admire them in small doses and talk about them and celebrate people who do enjoy incorporating that exuberant style into their daily life. But at home I’ve grown into a style that feels more about function than form. One isn’t any better than the other, they’re just different. And I love them both.

Above: my style go-tos: jeans, stripes and black and white. When I’m comfortable I do my best work.

I recognize that the styles I’ve grown comfortable with at home and work may change over time, but I also know that there is a style that people have come to expect here at Design*Sponge, and want to feel comfortable knowing they can return here years later. I want to deliver consistency and trust and honesty here, and I will always work toward that. I think there’s room to grow and evolve Design*Sponge into a place that honors our historic love of pink but also makes more room for styles that are simpler and don’t have a lot of ornamentation.

I’m still working on finding that balance and making it interesting enough to make people click through to read — even if it doesn’t lead with a shiny, colorful picture. I haven’t quite figured it out, but I am so thankful to those of you who return here on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis. Your support has helped so many of us here, on both sides of the blog, to find ourselves and our styles and embrace them as they change over the years. So while my personal style may change and our site may evolve in its visual presentation, I can promise you consistency in one important area: We will always provide a safe and supportive space for you to share your homes, your lives and your stories. And whenever we fail to do that, we will work hard to change and improve anything we need to make you all feel welcome here. xo, Grace

*The top photo of my shoes was taken in a cab on the way to a work meeting. I’d taken an early bus into the city and completely forgotten to change out of my “home” clothes into “professional” clothes and panicked a little. But the end result was me feeling most like myself in that meeting and having the confidence to say and ask for what I really needed. So while I will probably not always arrive muddy from a dog walk, I learned that I’m more comfortable (and do my best work) when I’m not dressing up and trying to be someone I’m not.

 

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Comments

  • Hooray for Blundstones! Great post – as a 35 year old outdoorsy/comfort-seeking artist I’ve finally found it easier to just dress however i damn well please – and freely flip back and forth between kooky vintage and jeans/fleece.

  • I have to say, knowing you are a messy person gives me hope for myself. I think there is this pervasive myth out there that successful people have everything all put together 100% of the time and I just don’t think that will ever be the case for me. That being said this year I rocked at work, have thrown nearly double digit dinner parties and have been refocusing my creative self. I think there’s this pressure to be “Complete” as a human, and I’m starting to realize that that won’t ever be me (and I don’t want it to be). I love the excitement and flurry and mess of learning new things, about myself and the world.

  • Many interior designers keep their own personal interiors quiet and calm while doing dramatic statements for their clients. Their peaceful environment is exactly why they’re able to bring the drama for others. I see no disconnect or lack of authenticity there. Whatever feeds a creative mind = authentic. Make no apologies for it.

    • I completely agree. I’m an architect who does mostly interiors. If my home/wardrobe/workspace are cluttered or overwhelmingly bold, I have less room in my brain to think of what best suits my clients. I like to think of it as maintaining a neutral palette in my mind and environment upon which many design ideas can grow. Though some would certainly argue that I’m just a boring architect who likes gray and black. :)

  • I respect and love this so much Grace! The less I own in my personal life, the more I can appreciate and honor great displays of art and beauty. Also, I’m happy that Design Sponge is here and that there are non-traditional styles, views and people here along with the fun of exploring styles we may not use IRL.

  • I have to say, that is exactly how I thought you would be/look/dress/and decorate. Years ago, when my sister introduced me to your site, she described the Design Sponge style as feminine, but not too girly. As I have viewed the site over the years, I would add inspiring, comfortable and real to the description. I love seeing the evolution of the site as you, yourself, have evolved as a person over the years.

  • It feels like once I hit 30 I “lost” my sense of style. In my 20s, especially early 20s, heels, dresses, and bright colors were my wardrobe staples. Slowly all of the items I used to wear no longer felt like me. Now I’m figuring out what I feel best in, and how to create a relaxed and professional look. Being in a creative field (luxury kitchen and bath sales/design) almost makes it harder. I have a lot of leeway on how to present a “professional” look, but sometimes that means I look at myself in the middle of the day and say, “You probably should have put a little more effort in your look” (I’m not a morning person, so sometimes it’s grab and go with clothing.) More and more I consider transitioning into all black because it’s easy…but I do love color. Maybe I’ll have it figured out by 36 too!
    By the way, I’m a naturally messy person too. I do best in organized chaos. I’ve controlled it to small piles here and there, and throwing my things into cabinets or decorative baskets. My wife likes to poke fun at me for it but I always respond with, “It’s because I’m creative!”

  • I’ve been reading this blog for a decade, and I’ve always felt like you have portrayed an authenticity and honesty through all of the evolutionary phases of your content, both the blog and social media. I think that’s what keeps your readers coming back for more.

  • This is why I keep coming back to DesignSponge year after year…because of pieces like this. Your honesty, your commitment, your vulnerability…all of it feels real in a way other sites don’t. I love seeing the houses and the decor, but more importantly, the stories of so many varied people and what they consider home. And I kept thinking of Whitman’s words from “Song Of Myself” as I read this because I think we can all relate (if we’re being honest): “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.” Thank you – please keep doing what you are called to do – the truth of that resonates deeply.

  • This is awesome!- I think Bill Cunningham is a great example of this way of operating in the world!

  • What a relief! Thanks for sharing this perspective. I remember being so inspired by an After the Jump message years ago where you spoke about having a uniform. This post feels like a natural, relatable and beautiful evolution of your personal style. You affirmed for me again that the messy parts of our life are usually the most interesting and delightful.

  • I think both your blog style and personal style are very YOU! Isn’t it odd that we have such expectations of these characters we create from the glimpses we get into people’s lives? I’m in awe of how gracefully bloggers (like yourself) indulge such a variety inquiries…some of them quite presumptuous and invasive. This digital world is still so new in the scheme of things that we readers haven’t fully grasped our boundaries or rules of engagement. Readers demand free content, curation, and intrigue, but also a say in the process and permission to freely critique another’s work and authenticity while benefiting from the guise and anonymity of screen names. Tall order.

    Thanks for sharing your style and for taking us along on the ride.

    PS. Was in Kingston this weekend and saw Julia’s book for sale!

  • Loving this essay. Brave to go ahead and post this aspect of yourself/yourstyle/yourinterests. My husband is a high-end residential architect, but our home is rather humble and plain by comparison. As a librarian who reads ALOT, you’d think I’d have books piled from floor to ceiling in bookshelves, but I hardly have any books. Love the contradictions! (btw, I was one of those comments way back who asked you “grey blazer, huh? what? I’m confused.” hee hee. I ask for forgiveness!

  • I can identify with this so much! I have a lot of passions, and adore many things- but that doesn’t mean that my budget or my house can fit them! Even clothes, just because I like something doesn’t mean that I will feel good in it, and there are millions of DIY projects that I would just love to do- but expense and talent on my end are lacking in some areas. Thank you for this post so much! It is so easy to feel like an outsider or a fraud in your own skin. I think you’re more amazing for this post! I am 38 weeks pregnant with a little girl, and am already planning how to explain things like this to her, so hopefully she doesn’t have to feel as much awkwardness and uncomfort about these things as I have.

  • Great article. I would love to see your minimalist home one day. And I just need to say why can’t you like pink and fabulous colours one day and then black and white the next. I collect dolls and they are all pink and girlie and glittery. My vacations are hot, tropical and turquoise. My home and personal clothes style is however monochrome and simple. These styles are all me. All me. You be you :-)

  • Who we are changes over time as should our personal style! I read somewhere recently that one should never consider their home “finished” and the same applies elsewhere in life. I am also 36- and as a new mother I am SO grateful I have cultivated a daily wardrobe that doesn’t require a big effort to use.
    I see your role as aesthetic researchers and not living role models. I visit this site for inspiration to meld with my own ideas not to copy it.

  • I think you have great personal style, Grace. Blundstones, blue jeans, white T-Shirts, etc. are simple and timeless. As someone who lives in the world of design, I think it’s important to stay a little grounded and you seem to express this through your style. I would have enjoyed hearing more about what makes the things you wear and own “your personal style” and how they feel right for who you are (and how you figured that out at 36 and not 30).

  • I’ve experienced the same treatment my entire adult life, I am known for my uniqueness and people expect me to obsess over fashion and point blank I find it vapid and a serious waste of money. I tried playing the game for so long, and now I am happily wearing my uniform of rock n roll t-shirts, jeans and chucks…and well, I’m doing just fine. Thanks for the post Grace!

  • Bravo, Grace! You are YOU, and as always, delightful. I don’t know where the idea came from that says those involved in design should necessarily espouse a very particular or unique sense of style. Perhaps because so many who spend a lot of time and energy on their interiors and/or their clothing are folks with talents who choose fashion, design or other creative endeavors.

    Over the years, some of the most creative people I’ve observed (in person, online, etc.) who were involved in all aspects of fashion or design, were folks (of all ages, genders, etc) who wore what could be called a “uniform.” I never thought less of their capabilities or creativity. In fact, if anything, their focus on putting their creative energies into their work, instead of themselves, confirmed their devotion to the work and NOT personal PR.

    Along the way, I’ve met a number of folks who were incredibly creative (in terms of writing, and other things) who had either no personal style or were perhaps very disinterested in their clothing, hair, etc. (Both men and women. ) Again, to me it is about the work. I’ve known interior designers with some really incredibly wild, vibrant and unique POVs. One goes to their home and is perhaps surprised to see very simple, serene and low-key interiors.

    Many have said that in order to “see”/visualize in their work, they need to have very minimal and serene surroundings. That they focus more on functionality and don’t want to waste time in their personal life on clothing, etc. beyond some very good pieces of clothing.

    Many artists I’ve know, always wear simple, tailored black clothing. BUT…they have the most exquisite and unique jewelry or scarves or shoes.

    I love that your focus is on doing the work, presenting really thoughtful entries on the blog, and just being exactly who you are.
    You don’t have to be anything else.

    I’m amazed that anyone would expect you to have everything in your home that you like or choose to highlight on designsponge. I myself like many different types of decor/interiors. Doesn’t mean I’d want individual pieces or interiors for my own.

    People who obsess over their exterior appearance as if it was the ultimate expression of their interior and/or their level of creativity always make me a bit suspicious. When it’s all about “you” how much energy is there for the work?

    Real artists have little time to waste on what they might label the “frivolity” of clothing. And their interiors are often a hodge podge where there studios are far more relevant than a dining room or kitchen’s design.

    Nothing wrong with folks who do make statements with their homes, but honestly, is that what the real world is about?
    Or is it just having the people and some things you love around you whether a home is ready to be photographed or not?

    Designsponge always makes one feel as if any/all are accepted and labels and judgment are NOT being passed. As such, it’s a deeply engaging site. Keep up the good work, Grace and crew!

  • Oh my goodness. It’s 6 am in my Sydney hotel room, I can’t sleep from jetlag and I have stumbled across this piece randomly pre-coffee. It’s one of those landmark reads for me. I have a disjunct between my work and home lives and its so reassuring to read your story. At the moment I have massive blisters on the soles of my feet from having to wear shoes and walk on concrete for days on end. I work mostly from home and live rurally. My feet are usually bare or gumboot clad and are used to soil and sand!

  • We all come to your site for fantasy, ideas and input. Love your reality. Sometimes I feel like R2D2 needing creative input in my life just before I let the dog out, and go do the dishes until the dishwasher repair man shows up to fix the damn thing. It is called life and I think your are doing a superb job of it! I will continue to be a sponge of your site and create my own reality to fit my needs. Bottom line is you both look happy. AWESOME

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