Erin Gates, designer/blogger
Meet Erin Gates, the designer who’s made a name for herself around the world with her wildly popular blog, Elements of Style. When she’s not revamping other people’s houses–or renovating her own–she’s connecting with loyal followers on everything from fashion trends to decorating advice. Oh–and she’s writing a book in all her spare time. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter @elementsofstyle.
PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?
EG: I spent a lot of my childhood hoping I could someday be the checkout lady at the grocery store. But soon after I was drawing houses and floorplans with my dad at his office or hoping I could be a sales lady at our family’s clothing store. It’s funny how those two dreams actually came true.
PPF: I love the stories of people who listened to–and followed–the initial instincts and interests they had as children. Tell me about your first job.
EG: I was a fry cook and counter server at a little place where we had our beach house. I’d get up crazy early to actually “make the donuts.” It was hard work, but I’ve always liked working, and I loved chatting with all the old men who came in everyday for breakfast and told me I looked like Natalie Wood!
PPF: Tell me how you came to your current profession. Did growing up around design help inform your career path?
EG: I grew up deep in the design world. My great grandparents started a women’s clothing store when they came over from Ireland in the ’30s. My grandparents took over next, and then my dad –who met my mom there while she was working as a salesgirl.
But he had a great passion for architecture and taught himself about it from books on the side. Soon, with no formal training, he started designing small homes and buildings for people and ended up with a design firm that is wildly successful. So I was entrenched in both fashion and home design my whole life and knew I’d be a part of it someday. I started out in fashion and then changed it up and focused on interiors. Now I do a bit of both.
PPF: Was there ever a time when you veered off course from your dreams? When you changed gears?
EG: After college, I worked in an art gallery for a bit and then took a job at an insurance brokerage agency. Nothing I was interested in at all, I just wanted to make more money and felt lost. So for the time being, I thought I’d just work there for a bit. That turned into two and a half years! I became an actual broker and then one day thought, “What the hell am I doing?” I networked and searched for a job in interior design, since I thought it was my true passion. I landed an internship with a big local designer and finally quit that cubicle job. It was so freeing to say, “I quit.” I had felt so uninspired. That job lead to making moves to start my blog and own design firm.
PPF: Do you believe that someone can be trained to be a designer, or do you think it’s more of a natural gift?
EG: You can be trained to be technically good at design- AutoCAD and such, but no one can be taught to have “the eye.” That is a gift. Before starting my own company, I was accepted to an Interior Design Masters program in Boston and was kind of hemming and hawing about spending four years studying; my dad’s self taught design story kept making me feel like it might be a waste of time for me, as I had no plans to try to get a job with a big commercial firm. So I deferred—permanently. And I started working in the field instead and have never looked back. I now hire people to do the technical stuff for me and it works out great.
PPF: What about your fashion sense? You told me once that you grew up with a very fashionable mom. How did you find your own style, and how has it evolved?
EG: Being part of the family business, I grew up amongst tons of fashion—granted, not high fashion, but still….My mom has always been a beautiful dresser and eternally put together no matter what, and that certainly influenced me. But so did seeing the new things that came into the family store and watching people dress the mannequins in the windows. One of my favorite childhood memories would be going down to the store after dinner with my Dad and brothers and getting to play in the stock room while he worked. I have loved fashion from birth, I think. I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t enamored with clothing, make-up and such. In my baby book, my mom wrote that when I was two or three, I asked Santa for make-up! I started early.
PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?
EG: There are a couple. My parents for sure, who always fiercely supported my love for art and design from the very beginning. And obviously my dad’s career is a huge inspiration to me. But also the first designer who hired me certainly changed my career path, even though it was a tumultuous relationship, and I ended up getting laid off, he still taught me a lot and gave me a chance with no working experience in design.
PPF: Your blog, Elements of Style, is quite the success story. Were you surprised at how it took off? How would you describe what you do on your blog to someone who has never seen it?
EG: It wasn’t an overnight sensation. I’ve been blogging every single weekday for almost six years, and it’s been a huge amount of work, but it’s still the best part of my day. I love it so much. It is still shocking to me that so many people read it. I remember in the beginning, when I’d see my stats, and it would say that 75 people visited my site, that was shocking and super thrilling, which is funny now. I think my blog is different than a lot of other design blogs in that I bring a strong personal voice to it, and I mix up the content so you never know what you’re going to see on the site: Some days fashion, interior design, celebrity stuff, beauty, or personal essays about life in general, my struggles and successes. I am an open book; I have no qualms about sharing the not-so-flattering parts of life and design. I’m not perfect. No one is. I think the design world reveres perfection, and I want to be a fresher, more honest voice in the industry.
PPF: What is the greatest praise or validation you’ve ever received?
EG: Being chosen by Oprah—well, her people—to be the interior design expert in a partnership with IKEA was a huge amount of validation. Getting my book deal is right up there too. I still cannot believe a huge publisher not only wants me to write a book, but thinks it’ll be “huge.” Say what?
PPF: I can’t wait to see your book when it comes out. It is going to be huge! Tell me a little bit more about the partnership with Oprah. That must have been quite a thrilling moment, when you got that news.
EG: I was coming back from a trip and got a voicemail from O Magazine. I almost peed in my pants. Who doesn’t want that call? I was asked to be the interior design expert in a partnership between O and IKEA called the Life Improvement Project, which aims at helping people share and be inspired to make improvements to their life through their homes. I got to have a huge photo shoot in New York City and then film a commercial in LA and speak at the Oprah conference….and be featured in O Magazine–twice! It’s been magical. I am so grateful for this opportunity.
PPF: What was it like to meet Oprah Winfrey? Were you pinching yourself?
EG: Surreal. When you see Oprah in the flesh, it’s like seeing a unicorn. You cannot even believe she’s real. I met her for all of ten seconds, and I pretty much blacked out. She is so friendly and cool. She was drinking wine and eating guacamole and really engaging with everyone—from famous people to regular ‘ol people. I do have a picture with her, but sadly Harpo says I can’t post it anywhere online. So I think I’ll put it on a t-shirt and wear it forever. And probably be buried in it.
PPF: That seems like a pretty high moment. Was that the highest moment of your career?
EG: Getting the word that I had a book deal, and hearing a dollar number I never would have imagined, that was a major “holy shit” moment, pardon my French, but there is no other way to explain it.
PPF: How about the lowest moment in your career?
EG: I cry a lot! I think there is so much self-doubt that comes with designing. Making very expensive mistakes is painful and makes you feel like you are the worst designer ever. I had a pretty dark period last year where I felt really bad about myself and my life in general and spent a lot of time incredibly depressed. On the outside, everything looked shiny and perfect, but I was drowning inside. I wanted to quit everything. My husband has kept me from careening off the edge with his incredible support, inspirational speeches, letters, and love. It’s like living with Tony Robbins. Without him, none of my success would be possible. I’m in a good place now. I’m stressed about all I have to do, but it’s good stress. Blessed stressed.
PPF: You seem like a super busy lady. What is essential to help you do your best work?
EG: My assistant, Lindsey. Did I luck out when her resume crossed my desk! She is the most amazing woman. She can do everything from design a beautiful room to doing all my books and tracking every order. She is a ninja! I could do none of this without her. You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.
PPF: You work a lot. Tell me about your perfect day off work–say, a Saturday or Sunday in Boston, where you live.
EG: I’d have coffee with Andrew in the morning, then take a long walk with my two dogs, and then go to a long yoga class. Then, I’d have a leisurely lunch in the city with girlfriends and do a little shopping on Newbury and go to a museum and stop for a nice coffee. Then I’d have cocktails and dinner in a fabulously lovely place with Andrew and some other fun couples, and then get in bed and read a great book with my hubs and dogs. I’m not a party animal—I prefer small groups and early nights.
PPF: Me too! What, or who, most inspires you and why?
EG: The blog world inspires me most. It’s a magical thing to be able to see the work and ideas of so many incredible people that just ten years ago, you never would have crossed paths with. I think it’s such a wonderful thing in which we can share ideas and thoughts from across the world in real time. And it’s a very supportive group of people in my experience. There are a few bad seeds who think they are above all, but for the most part, everyone wants to help each other, and that alone is incredible.
PPF: What music do you like to listen to while you work in your office?
EG: None. Isn’t that weird? I love music so much but when I work I need it to be quiet.
PPF: I have never been able to write with music on, either. So I understand. What are three of your favorite blogs?
EG: Note to Self, Garance Doré, From Me to You
PPF: If you weren’t doing design work, what else could you see yourself doing?
EG: Well, I’m getting to do a lot of other things, so I get to indulge all my creative desires right now. I’d certainly be a writer if I couldn’t design. Or a painter or a photographer. Or be a dog walker, if we’re talking what really makes me unconditionally happy.
PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?
EG: Tollbooth worker. Monotony and smog. No way. I’d rather be a stripper.
PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?
EG: Quitting my job to start my company! I am someone who loved security and is very risk adverse, so doing that felt like jumping out of a plane.
PPF: When have you been most afraid?
EG: Any health scares for myself or my family, I absolutely freak out because it’s so out of your control and I have issues with control.
PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?
EG: To just try. When I was wanting to design on my own but was scared both Andrew and my Dad told me to give myself a year to try it out. If it didn’t work, I could always get another job, but if I didn’t, I would always regret it. So glad I took that advice.
PPF: If you could choose it ahead of time, what do you want your last meal on earth to be?
EG: I eat like a three-year-old. Seriously, I am not an adventurous eater at all. I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every other day and hate sushi. That said, I’d have the Caesar salad from Eden Roc in St Barths, the grilled Mahi Mahi from the Four Seasons in Maui, some really good truffled mac and cheese on the side, and then a huge slice of Funfetti cake with white icing for dessert. And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
PPF: Here are some questions I’m asking everyone. What’s on your bedside table right now?
EG: Just finished re-reading The Great Gatsby and have been looking through Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook quite a bit.
PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?
EG: A safari in South Africa!
PPF: First concert you ever went to?
EG: Debbie Gibson. I was her biggest fan.
PPF: Best concert you ever went to?
EG: Coldplay- three times in one tour. They are incredible live.
PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?
EG: “Fix You” by Coldplay, just because it’s my favorite song of all time. And it’s depressing, I really love depressing music.
PPF: Best meal you ever had?
EG: Fresh mahi mahi at the Four Seasons in Maui by the beach.
PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?
EG: Parallel parking. I’ve had men compliment me on it randomly while I am in the city.
PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?
EG: Tina Fey. I freaking love that woman.