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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Erika McPherson Powell, designer

Erika McPherson Powell, designer

Erika Powell is one of the most talked about designers of the moment. Her design firm, Urban Grace Interiors, has been heralded by countless publications, from Traditional Home and Coastal Living to The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post. Follow her wildly popular blog, or be inspired by her lovingly curated Pinterest boards, or check out her flawless work at

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

EP: In high school, we read Great Expectations and then did a presentation on what we wanted to do with our lives.  For my presentation, I had a poster board with a big black line down the middle, and on one half of the board it said, “interior design,” and the other side said, “doctor.” Makes me laugh because the two are so different, but I knew I wanted to help people; I just hadn’t quite figured out that science wasn’t exactly one of my strengths.

PPF: How long did that dream last?

EP: Not long, because I started at Auburn University majoring in International Business, which has absolutely nothing to do with being a doctor or an interior designer. I eventually changed majors.

PPF: You are a twin. I’ve always wondered what that would be like. How much did having a twin sister shape your upbringing?

EP: I don’t know anything different, so it’s hard to say how my life has been different from someone else’s.  I guess I had a constant companion, which made moving around, which we did a lot of when I was young, a little easier.

PPF: Were your parents supportive of your creative endeavors?

EP: My parents have always been supportive.  But then again, I think they would have supported me no matter what profession I chose.

PPF: What was your first real job?

EP: I’ve been working since I was 14 years old. My first job was waiting tables at a little cafe, The Herb Garden Tea Room.  I rode my bike until I got my driver’s license.  I worked there for about 8 years, summers and breaks when I was home from college.  If that’s not “real job” enough, I also worked full-time during college.  In order to get in-state tuition I became a part-time student and worked full-time for the Auburn University Dining Marketing Department.  I helped write newsletters and come up with promotions and events for the various dining halls on campus.

PPF: What is your current occupation?

EP: Mother, wife, and Urban Grace Interiors designer and owner.

PPF: Were you formally trained in interior design? 

EP: I was, and no offense to my education, but they don’t teach you in design school how to run a business, so I’ve learned a lot in the past few years.

PPF: How did you eventually land on the side of the board that said “Interior Design?”

EP: I started at Auburn University majoring in International Business, but after a few finance and accounting classes, I realized I was in the wrong program, and Interior Design was really where I needed to be.  I grew up with a mother who is a designer, and I think I was in denial about following in her footsteps.  After my first few days in the Interior Design program, I knew I was exactly where I should have been all along.

PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?

EP: I had wonderful professors at Auburn, and our Interior Design program is pretty intense—and small—so we were a very tight-knit group.  The Interior Design program at Auburn University was ranked #1 last year and for good reason: The teachers push the students hard, but in supportive way.

PPF: You have one of the most popular design blogs around. What made you start it, and when?

EP: My sister Darby started blogging about a year before I did. I kept thinking about how great it would be to have a creative outlet for myself, not driven by what my clients wanted.  Sounds kind of selfish, but sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of what you are passionate about, in both design and life, when you spend your days focused on trying to figure out what’s best for your clients.  Starting the blog was just a selfish little way for me to showcase things that I liked. It’s grown and as it has grown it’s become a little more intimidating and a little harder to write knowing that the audience isn’t just a handful of family and friends, like it was in the beginning.  The beauty of it is that it has opened doors and opportunities to work with people all across the country.  If I hadn’t started blogging, I feel certain the business wouldn’t be where it is today. 

PPF: How would you describe your personal aesthetic?  If you had to put a few adjectives together, that is.

EP: Hmmmm. … I would say my personal aesthetic is comfortable meets classic, with a twist of fun.  How’s that? An oxymoron?

PPF: What are you best known for in terms of design?

EP: No idea, but I’d like to think it’s attention to details. I like details.

PPF: You live in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. What led you there? And is it a tough place to practice design or an easy place?

EP: A job after college led me here, and I would say that it is a great place to practice design.  Most of our local work is second homes, which means people are okay with a “fresh start” and aren’t forcing us to work around existing furniture.  Don’t get me wrong, we do plenty of that with our out-of-town work, but our local work usually starts as a blank slate.

PPF: Tell us your five favorite things about Santa Rosa Beach.

1. The water — the beaches have sugar white sand and emerald green waters and the bay is full of dolphins and birds and other wildlife.

2. The weather — I’ve lived where it’s really cold.  I miss snow, but I don’t miss miserably cold winters.

3.  The atmosphere — it’s pretty laid back around here.

4.  It’s a small town- I have never lived in a small town before, other than Auburn, Alabama, but that was college and doesn’t really count.  It’s really nice to live in a small town. The pace seems slower here.

5.  The architecture — While I miss the little historic pockets and neighborhoods in the cities I grew up in, there is something to be said for great “new” architecture.  The beach communities that make up Santa Rosa Beach aren’t short on great architecture.  The beach communities—Alys, Rosemary, Watersound, Watercolor, Seaside—all have different design aesthetics, but all inspire in different ways.

PPF: I have seen a lot of beaches, having written for Coastal Living for years, and truly, those beaches are some of the prettiest anywhere. And the new urbanism happening along Highway 30A is brilliant. It’s all so thoughtfully done. I dream of having a vacation home in your neck of the woods. Speaking of dreaming: I’m curious which designers speak to you. If you could personally hire a designer to transform your own house, who would it be? 

EP: I would probably have to pay extra, but I’d like Gil Schafer and Thomas O’Brien to work together on my house.  That’s surely not too much to ask, is it?

PPF: You are one of the most effortlessly stylish people I’ve ever met. I remember shooting your portrait for Better Homes & Gardens’ Stylemaker issue and you wore a floor-length hot pink skirt that your daughter, Sloane, hid under, and a white ribbed tank top with some fabulous jewelry. It was so spot on. What are your go-to sources for clothing and accessories?

EP: Ha! That’s very kind, you should see me right now!  I like to mix high and low. I’m not afraid to wear a tank top from Target with designer jeans.  I like jewelry, preferably vintage, not sure why, maybe because I find it more interesting if something has  a story. I buy a lot of my accessories at antique shops. My clothing comes from everywhere: JCrew, Gap, TJMaxx, Target, H&M, Zara, Old Navy, Anthropologie. I don’t really have a go-to source, I just buy what I like if it fits. We have a Saks Off 5th at our local outlets, and they are a great source for jeans, shoes and bags. I’m really all over the place when it comes to fashion.

PPF: And your go-to sources for your adorable daughter Sloane’s clothing–because anyone who reads your blog always asks?

EP: Sloane’s clothes, like mine, come from everywhere.  I’m frugal with most of her purchases because I know she’s growing fast and won’t wear her current clothes for long.  I’ll splurge on a good jacket and boots that will last all season, but then her play clothes come from Target, Old Navy, Nordstrom Rack, H&M.  Thankfully my kind and crafty sister handed down many of Sloane’s nice dresses, most of which she smocked and sewed herself.

PPF: And what about bargain design finds? Where do you go for great bargains? And what is the best bargain you’ve ever found—your proudest find?

EP: I love a bargain.  I bought my Milling Road dining chairs at Goodwill for $150.  Six chairs for $150… not a bad deal, considering they were still current and when I called for pricing they wholesaled for $400 dollars each. I love antique shows, flea markets, thrift stores. Looking around my house right now, that’s where most of my furniture came from.

PPF: What hotel would you most want to visit because of its design?

EP: Just this past weekend, (my husband) Chance and I were talking about Blackberry Farm.  It’s top of my list, but it’s expensive, so perhaps it’ll be a few more years before I can save up and justify a weekend there.  The rooms are perfection in my book, exactly what I’d want a vacation to look and feel like.

PPF: You just decorated the Coastal Living Idea House. That must have been a major undertaking. It is probably one of the best idea houses I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot. Those bunk rooms—they were so perfect I took notes. One day I will have a room with those very ideas! How much time does a project like that take?

EP: That’s very kind.  It nearly killed me.  It basically ate up all of my time from January through June this year.  The first half of this year is literally a blur because I was in this thick fog that was the Coastal Living Idea House.  I did the math at the end of the project to calculate how much time I had in the project, then after my heart attack I decided to erase that number from my memory. Idea houses are stressful.

PPF: Well, it paid off. I hope it wins you more projects! By the way, I cannot see a Bronco and not think of you. When we shot your house, I asked you about that picture of the Bronco on your stairwell. Will you share the unforgettable story of how your old Bronco became a part of your family?

EP: Of course!  I love my Bronco.  Chance had one as a second vehicle that he used for going to the beach. You can drive on the beach here if you are a local. I have always loved them and wanted my own.  One summer, I saw a green one that I loved and mentioned to Chance that we should call and see how much the guy wanted for it. Chance claimed he called the guy and it had already sold.  Fast forward nine months later… Chance actually bought the green Bronco I loved and had been hiding it in his parents’ barn.  He worked on it as he had time and kept it a secret until one day in June, the day before my birthday, he came by and picked me up at my house and told me he wanted to ride out onto the beach, which was odd for a weekday, but I agreed.  When we pulled out onto the beach that green Bronco that I had seen the previous summer was parked on the beach with one of those black and orange “For Sale” signs in it.  I was confused, but asked him to pull up beside it so we could see how much they wanted for it.  When he got close to it, I realized the sign didn’t say “For Sale,” it said “For Erika.” I was trying to register everything, and figure out exactly how he managed to hide it from me.  I jumped out to go open the door and get in, but the door was locked.  When I asked him if he had the keys, he said, “I looked everywhere for a good key ring,” and when I looked down there, clasped around the keys, was a ring box.  I nearly had a heart attack, and all I can remember is saying, “Do not get down on one knee!”  I was overwhelmed and embarrassed, people were looking, and for Pete’s sake, he had just given me a Bronco. I couldn’t believe he had a ring too.  I was shaking and nervous.  I told him yes, I would marry him, and then he wanted me to drive the Bronco.  But it was all too much to take in, and I was shaking too much.  So I made him drive until I calmed down. We’ve since sold his Bronco, but we will keep mine forever and ever.

PPF: That story makes me cry every time I hear it. So–speaking of tears, have you had a lowest moment in your career?

EP: Probably the point when I was juggling everything by myself.  I was frazzled and trying to wear too many different hats.  I was being pulled in a million different directions and unable to say no.

PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

EP: Hmmm.  I don’t know, maybe the highest point is yet to come.  I’m just really happy to be doing what I love. It’s a pretty good feeling.  We do have a client right now, and it’s our second time designing a house for her, and she said, “Surprise me!  I loved the last house, I know I’ll love this one!” Like, surprise her with the entire house.  She didn’t want to see paint colors, fabrics, furniture, none of it.

PPF: That is a dream, right? To have such freedom! So what is essential to help you do your best work?

EP: Time alone.  Being a mom and going full-speed at home, then straight to the office, where it’s also full-speed, it’s tough.  I rarely allow myself a break to recharge my batteries.  We’ve recently changed our office hours at work and on Friday afternoons I am often alone in the office.  I somehow find time to clean off my desk, get contracts out, sort through emails, and then as soon as my desk is clean and my to-do list has been tackled, I somehow get a wave of inspiration.  Now, I just need to find a few hours alone in my house every week!

PPF: Describe your version of the perfect Saturday.

EP: This would be a summer Saturday: Breakfast at home with my family.  Gardening and house-related project work until lunch.  Lunch at home. Trip to the beach in the afternoon.  Dinner out as a family.  Sunset boat ride.  Outdoor shower.  Bed.

PPF: What (or who) most inspires you & why?

EP: The girls at my office, because just like me they are passionate about design.  It’s a wonderful thing to have people with common interests on your team.

PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

EP: I don’t know. I guess never say never.  Maybe a nursing home project. Nursing homes are kind of sad and institutional, but then my sympathetic heart says, “But those old people deserve a nice environment, too.”

PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

EP: I’m not very daring, I’m pretty safe. So I can’t even pinpoint anything!

PPF: When have you been most afraid?

EP: When I was 15 weeks pregnant with Sloane and Chance suffered a traumatic brain injury.  He’s okay now, thankfully, but it was scary.
PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

EP: My friend, Marla Carter, told me to hire someone.  She was right, I needed help, and that was really great advice.

PPF: What do you want your last meal on earth to be?

EP: Dad’s beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce, a salad with ranch dressing and lots of cucumbers and carrots, a loaded baked potato with seasoned skin, and chocolate cake for dessert.

PPF: Yum! I want your dad’s beef tenderloin recipe! Here are a few questions I’m asking everyone: What’s on your bedside table right now?

EP: A box of tissues, because we’ve all been sick, a glass of water, a stack of books, a silver bowl, a couple of John Derian postcards, and a tube of lip gloss.

PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?

EP: Other than Blackberry Farm, I’d like to take a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park.  Probably need to wait until Sloane is a little older.

PPF: First concert you ever went to?

EP: Can’t remember… I think it was Garth Brooks.

PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

EP: I can’t think of the best. The last one I went to was Merle Haggard at the Panama City Civic Center. I enjoyed it. Hard to find time to get out these days.

PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

EP: Gillian Welch’s “One Little Song” is one of my favorites, and it is representative of my creative life. I feel like with every project, whether personal or professional, I’m trying to show people something that hasn’t been seen before.

PPF: There’s got to be a song left to sing. One little note that ain’t been used. One little note that ain’t been abused a thousand times in a thousand rhymes. I love, love, that song. So next up, best meal you ever had?

EP: Yardbird in Miami. Slow braised short rib sandwich.  It was divine.

PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

EP: Driving. Lame answer.

PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

EP: My dad.

*Photo of Erika Powell by Marla Carter.



















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