The interior design business is a multifaceted one, with no singular path to success. In the spirit of demystifying the industry, we’re speaking to some of the most influential designers, bloggers, and creatives in the field to get the low-down on how they’re making it. Have any questions for your favorite designers? Submit them via our Instagram for a chance to have your queries featured in our Ask a Designer series. First up: Justina Blakeney.
She may be one of the most prominent figures in the contemporary design world, but Justina Blakeney has tried being a traditional interior designer and has decided it’s not for her.
“It was a lot of driving, a lot schlepping around, a lot of purchases and returns, and a lot of client negotiations and it just didn’t work with my personality,” says Blakeney, whose blog, The Jungalow, is often looked upon as the bible of bohemian design. “I am very creative and fast-moving. As my blog started to gain more popularity, what I was trying to hone in on was how I could be an interior designer without having to have clients.”
Blakeney defines the term “multihyphenate.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone in the industry who wears so many hats and pulls them off equally with such aplomb. She has over a million followers spread out through three Instagram accounts. She regularly updates her blog, offering her followers easy DIYs and endless amounts of inspiration. She has created virtually every kind of home decor product possible, selling it all through collaborations with big retailers like Anthropologie or Target and her eponymous online shop. She has authored two design books as well as a slew of craft books. And she does it all with her signature candor and inimitable voice. She is, in short, the non-designer that every aspiring designer wants to be when they grow up.
We chatted with Blakeney to learn how she got to where she is, how she juggles everything, and what her advice for breaking into the saturated design blogging industry is.
Did you always know you were going to be a designer?
I grew up knowing I was going to be in a creative field, but I didn’t know exactly what form it would take. When I was younger, I wanted to be in the performing arts. I moved to LA to go to UCLA, started going on auditions, and became sort of disenchanted with the world of acting and singing. I started taking more classes in the design and architecture departments and did a year abroad in Florence, where I studied design. After I graduated, I moved back to Italy and lived there for another six years, working in design. I figured it out pretty early on, but it’s not something I always knew I wanted to do.
How did you get into interior design then?
Everything about the way I came up in this industry is a little unusual. After I went to design school, my sister and I decided to start our own company designing handbags. We opened up a boutique in the historical center of Florence.
I paid my way through college by selling stuff on eBay; through that experience, I had a grip on how [the retail] scene worked. I learned a lot about digital media from eBay. I started getting excited about finding mid-century stuff on eBay, and we started scouring flea markets and going all over Europe to buy for the shop. I became passionate about collecting old things. My love for design has always been multidisciplinary. I love fashion design, interior design, graphic design, and product design. When you own your own business, you get to do all that.
When I was 27, I moved to New York with my sister, and while we were working on a series of craft books, I started working as a writer and editor for a handful of arts and culture magazines—most of which are now defunct—and taking on odd jobs. I was doing everything from tutoring Italian to consulting for a vintage store to designing websites and logos for small businesses. Three books in, around 2006, our publisher suggested we start a blog, so I started a blog.
What were the early days of the blog like?
When I first started it, it was almost like a place to announce where we would be, like, we’re doing an event at the Madewell store in Soho, come! Little by little, I realized that I really enjoyed it. I loved all the different aspects. I loved to write, I loved photography, and I loved communicating with people all over the world. I made a commitment to start blogging every day, and that’s when I really started to get into interiors. As my blog started to pick up steam, people started asking me to design their homes and I built a portfolio. People started to call me “interior designer Justina Blakeney,” which was weird because I never saw myself that way, but I didn’t fight it.
Was there a moment where you felt like you had “made it”?
The first was a marketing activation I did with CB2, who had approached me about designing a rooftop space. It was picked up by a lot of media outlets; all the sudden, I was in Elle Decor. It was sort of an out-of-body experience.
The other was [my first] interiors book. I was met with a lot of rejections at first; people said, “you’re not established enough to do this, no one really cares about houseplants, this ‘Jungalow’ thing is too niche.” After I got about 15 rejections for the Jungalow book proposal, I just rebranded it as The New Bohemians. When we got news that it was on The New York Times best seller list, that was probably the most pivotal moment of my career so far. You can feel like you’re faking it until you make it, but when you write a book that’s a The New York Times best seller, the doubt starts to dissipate.
What’s a typical day like for you?
There is no such thing as a typical day. The truth of the matter is that we are juggling so many different projects, so today, for example, is a day filled with interviews. I’ve set up my lifestyle in such a way that my days feel like they have a rhythm to them, even though each day is very different.
How did you come up with your signature style?
I was looking at my Pinterest page one day and I zoomed really far out so I could try to see what all [the Pins] had in common. I was able to distill it into three words: color, pattern, and plants. All the spaces I had created had those three elements and not in a quiet way. Once I had pinpointed that, it was easy to say that if it doesn’t have color, pattern, and plants, it’s not Jungalow.
A lot of it is just coming from me. You’re going to see a lot of nods to Italian modernism because of the time I spent in Italy. You’re going to see a lot of African elements because of my African roots and how I’m inspired by them. You’re going to see a lot of natural materials because I’m a hippie and I grew up in Berkeley. My style is an extension of who I am.
What is your relationship with social media like? Do you see it as a positive or negative force?
My mother-in-law always says this about raising kids, but I think it’s also true of social media: You get out what you put in. Those people who, in the early days, spent a lot of time establishing a voice for their feeds and creating visual cohesion, are really reaping the benefits. My propensity for being open and sharing, coupled with my experience in publishing, was really helpful. I was well-groomed to be able to harness social media. One of my strengths has been being unapologetic about who I am and my personal style. I’ve always had a sense of, “my people will find me.”
Also, the fact that it’s a free tool and it drives like 90 percent of my business is huge.
What advice would you give people in the industry about harnessing the power of social media?
Because I wasn’t doing traditional interior design, I was inviting my audience to participate and be right there with me, pulling back the curtain and sharing my resources, telling people where I bought things and how much things cost. Traditionally, in the industry, all that is very hush-hush information. I’ve talked to so many designers who are used to having things be so perfect that they think too much before pressing the “publish” button. I think people need to sort of put their ego aside and just start posting—don’t be so afraid of what people will think. I mean, when I first started blogging, I was a terrible blogger. But after the first few months of blogging every day, I learned so many tricks. You can’t grow if you’re not trying. You have to be in it.
What’s the question people ask you the most?
“Where do you find inspiration?” I get that a lot. I don’t think there’s a real way to answer that. It’s not like inspiration comes from a single source, like, “well, I have a fountain in my backyard and inspiration strikes every time I go out there.” It’s not like that. It’s personal.
How did you find the courage to become a small business owner?
Well, I’m privileged, and I want to acknowledge my privilege. There are people who can’t just say, “I’m going to move to Italy for six years.” I wasn’t living large out there and it’s not like my family is super wealthy, but if we had a rough month in the shop, my mom would wire transfer money so we could pay our rent. I had support and I don’t want to feign like I did this all on my own because I didn’t.
But I will say that I’m a hustler. Even in those years where I had full-time jobs, I still had my blog. I would wake up at 5:30 am, and when someone else might have gone to the gym, I stayed in front of the computer and wrote my blog post. There’s something to be said for discipline and for the passion I have for what I do. I’m obsessed, and you sort of have to be in this industry. It will take over your life.
What advice would you give for someone trying to pivot into the design world from another industry?
I think you can make a lot of strides without dropping your job. There’s a lot you can do, especially with social media; maybe on the weekends you assist on installs or hone your photography skills. I would really recommend spending a bit of time shadowing somebody to make sure this is really what you want to do. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to like being an interior designer until I started doing it.
How do you focus on the bigger picture and avoid getting into the weeds?
It’s really hard for me to think about those big-picture things when I’m at a desk, and my world at the office is a constant stream of interruptions. A lot of the work I do where I need a solid block of time, I do at home on the weekends or at night. Oftentimes, I write my blog posts at night at home. I do a lot of walking meetings and walking interviews. It gives me the headspace and a change of environment.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about design?
It’s about the connection that you have with other human beings. A lot of times, people are busy following trends and making a space look cool, but ultimately, design is personal.
What would you tell someone trying to break into the design industry now, especially from a digital standpoint?
Using social media is very beneficial. People are looking for valuable information. You can inspire people, and that’s wonderful, but you’re also going to want to empower people. For example, you might be sharing a beautiful bathroom, but the second you tell someone something that they didn’t know about that bathroom—it could be something as simple as the source of where you got that tile—that’s important.
Also, engagement. I know a lot of people who turn their phones off after one Instagram post, but [it’s also about] responding to comments, liking other people’s photos, and telling other people that you love their work. Engagement is a conversation. It’s not one way. It can be one way if you’re Beyoncé, but if you’re trying to grow, you need to be in conversation.
See more intel about the design world:
What Working at Domino Taught Us About Design
The Best Design Blogs for Your Decor-Loving Hearts
10 Design Experts on What Modern Design Means to Them