Grace Bonney nibbles a chocolate croissant at a booth inside the hip Greenpoint coffee shop she visits so often the baristas know her name.
Troost, a dim, narrow café where one customer sits knitting on this muggy Saturday afternoon in July, is just a short walk from Grace’s one-bedroom apartment and the vast, sunlit office where she runs Design*Sponge, the online mecca visited by tens of thousands of design, décor and do-it-yourself enthusiasts each day.
Grace, 31 and newly single, grew up in Virginia Beach and settled in Brooklyn, where eight years ago she started a blog that was never meant to be anything other than an outlet for her obsession for art and design and all things beautiful. Design*Sponge would morph into much more, of course. Today it is full of ideas and inspiration on how to do just about anything, from planning a party to mixing a drink to tackling a home project, the latter of which there is an almost limitless supply: lampshades made from scrap fabric or woven balsa woods; handmade, mesh-screen beach bags and paper clay barnacles – suitable for votive candles, small object storage or pretty centerpieces.
The 400-page décor bible called Design*Sponge at Home, named for the website that started it all, came out just over a year ago and is sold from Amazon to Anthropologie. Just the other day, Grace says, she watched a shopper pick up her book inside an Anthropologie in Manhattan. The woman flipped through it, then added it to her stack of purchases. Grace, who’s wearing a pretty black slip dress and sandals with animal-print straps, claps her hands together and grins giddily when she tells this story.
Despite her success, she is almost shockingly down-to-earth, which surprises the fans she meets. “What do they expect me to be like?” she wonders. Mention that she is famous, and she raises her eyebrows in surprise: “I don’t see myself that way at all.”
Grace is still intimately involved in the day-to-day workings of Design*Sponge – she works six days a week and on this Saturday will meet two bloggers she wants to hire for the site. She hosts a weekly
radio show, organized a national series of meet-ups for women with design-based businesses (Grace funded them herself) and set up a design scholarship.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost sight of how lucky I am to set my own schedule and do what I love every day,” Grace says. “I don’t ever want to stop being curious.”
Grace grew up the only child of Christopher and Elaine Bonney, both of whom had an aesthetic eye. Her dad, a market researcher, built a second career out of photography; her mother dabbled in interior design.
From an early age, Grace says, she understood “that idea of making things around you special.”
She went to preschool at Virginia Beach Friends School, where she learned to respect differences in people, to empathize and show consideration for others, says her father. “More than anything else, that experience shaped who she is as a person.”
She was studious and driven even as a young child – and methodical when she set her mind to something, he says. “She came to the dinner table with a case. She just kind of thought things through.”
Grace’s design-minded mother also let her decorate her bedroom, which she did often. Grace laughs about her choices now: Purple walls with a grapevine border, gold paint with sunflower wallpaper. But the bedroom re-dos gave the studious, solitary child a creative outlet and a place of her own making to do what she liked best – write, think, play music and dream about being a grown-up in a faraway place.
That place turned out to be New York City. Grace got her first taste of it on a trip to celebrate her 13th birthday. She stayed at the Plaza Hotel and shopped for swimsuits at Bergdorf Goodman and thought she was the coolest girl ever, she recalls with a laugh.
“As soon as you touch down,” she says of the city, “it either grabs you or terrifies you.” For her, of course, it was the former: “It felt like somebody plugged me into a wall.”
Barely a teenager, Grace set her sights on New York University. First she would have to survive high school. At First Colonial, Grace took honors classes, played field hockey and made good grades. She mostly kept to herself, she says. “People thought I was snobby and aloof.”
The truth of it, though, was that Grace understood that high school, particularly the social aspect of it, would have little to do with the rest of her life. “It’s everybody else’s high school cliché,” she says. “I knew exactly who I was and exactly what I wanted.”
Barely 5 feet tall, she wanted to run cross country in field hockey’s off-season at First Colonial.
Christopher Bonney remembers watching her run alongside girls with gazelle-like legs. “There’s Grace Bonney with her little feet, running as fast as she can.”
In her free time she listened to punk rock, watched MTV and My So Called Life. On the newfangled World Wide Web, she talked to people in other parts of the country who shared her interests.
She spent one summer in high school at Governor’s School at the University of Richmond with gifted students like herself: kids who wanted to be writers and artists and actors.
“I knew then I wanted to be around artistic people my whole life,” Grace says.
She earned a scholarship to NYU to study journalism, and her parents, who preferred she attend college in Virginia, tentatively gave her their blessing to move north. New York was all that Grace remembered. But NYU, with its big classes and disconnected campus, was not what she’d thought she wanted. She transferred to the College of William & Mary after a year.
“Colonial Williamsburg wasn’t the hotbed of activity that I had found in New York City,” she wrote in the introduction to her book, “but it was this change of scenery that helped me to find myself.”
Grace majored in art history and fine art with an emphasis on printmaking. She was not an artist, she says, a fact some professors pointed out. But she had a good eye.
Between classes, Grace watched Trading Spaces, a show on TLC in which two families traded houses and redecorated a room with the help of a designer and a $1,000 budget. The show – and a young, barefoot designer named Genevieve Gorder – inspired her. Soon, Grace had redecorated her dorm room and begun the Trading Spaces concept in her dormitory. She also started asking her professors lots of questions about design.
A professor named Elizabeth Peak responded with armfuls of books about decorating and furniture and product design, which Grace hungrily consumed. After graduation, she went back to New York, settling in Brooklyn.
She worked briefly for an independent music label, then went to a public relations firm that represented furniture and design companies. Later she worked as a contributing editor for House & Garden, Craft and Domino. She obsessively thought – and chatted – about chairs and fabric and flooring and color palettes, so much so that her now ex-husband suggested over lunch in August 2004 that she begin a design blog.
Grace launched Design*Sponge on Blogger.com by day’s end.
Grace called her blog Design*Sponge because that’s what she considers herself, she later wrote in her book, “someone with an insatiable desire to absorb absolutely every tidbit about design that comes my way.” That first blog was a skeleton of its present self. And Design*Sponge was in no way an overnight success, Grace points out. At first, she wrote about objects that inspired her: “a square vase by the designers (and brothers) Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec; a Tivoli radio that was simultaneously retro and modern,” she recalled in her book.
To her surprise, people started reading – and responding. Design blogs did not populate the Internet the way they do today; blogs on affordable, accessible design were rarer still.
As Grace’s readership grew so did her content. She hunted Brooklyn’s burgeoning design scene, posting stories and photographs of shops and objects and student art shows. Design*Sponge’s first column, Sneak Peek, was born after Grace featured a look inside the home of one of her favorite artists. Her blog followers were as insatiable as she was.
Within a year, Design*Sponge had a few thousand readers a day. Then The New York Times featured Grace and her blog in a story about design blogs. “That put me from a few thousand readers a day to 10 to 12,000 readers a day,” Grace says. “That kind of leap doesn’t happen anymore.”
As Design*Sponge flourished, the magazines she worked for folded. “It was not until all the design magazines closed that I realized that wasn’t the end-all, be-all of what I wanted to do,” Grace says.
Three years after she launched her blog, she used her savings for a website redesign that set Design*Sponge apart from the design blogs that had sprung up all over. The impact was instantaneous.
“That day,” Grace says, “the traffic exploded.”
Design*Sponge was now a full-time – and profitable – endeavor. She hired an advertising team and her first freelance writers. She decided that rather than write about the same pillow or chair as everyone else, she and her team would create their own DIY projects – popsicle chandeliers, woven wicker plate stools, fabric storage boxes and rubber-dipped toothbrushes with materials lists, detailed how-tos and step-by-step photographs.
As the popularity of Design*Sponge grew, so did the feedback. Much of it was positive: The Times called the site the “Indie girl band of the design blogosphere.” It routinely topped lists of design blog must-reads, including Martha Stewart’s Editors’ “Best of the Blog” Picks. Good Morning America, The Nate Berkus Show and Martha Stewart herself brought Grace into their studios for guest appearances.
But not everybody has had nice things to say. One reader accused her of being too happy. Some have criticized her writing. Others have made personal attacks. An interior design purist said she
represented everything he despised. When Grace wrote that she’d once played street hockey, a few readers were appalled. “I’m supposed to wear dresses all the time and eat cupcakes,” she says wryly.
The experience taught Grace that some people will assume they know everything about you simply because you are in the spotlight. After confronting the purist who had posted his profanity-filled diatribe about Grace online, she discovered that those with particularly virulent criticism probably didn’t see her as a human being in the first place – and would never say the same things to her face.
“I have never seen someone deflate so fast,” she recalls of the confrontation.
Afterward, she wondered if that wasn’t what she was doing by reading gossip magazines speculating on personal lives and grousing about wardrobe choices. She stopped reading the magazines after that.
In September 2011, Design*Sponge at Home hit bookstores. It had taken two years from start to finish. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Grace says. The result is a 400-page, vermillion-red home décor bible with sections on home tours, DIY projects, room makeovers and basic tutorials like how to upholster furniture.
A three-month, 33-city book tour across the U.S. and Canada followed. One of her final stops was Prince Books in Norfolk, for a craft event and book signing. Grace announced the occasion on her blog: “To say that I’m excited to do a book tour event in Norfolk, Virginia is a massive
understatement. Ever since I started the blog I’ve been wanting to put something together in my hometown area.”
The place was packed. Grace’s parents – and the rest of the Bonney family – showed up, too. Christopher and Elaine brought cupcakes.
“As a parent, you would do anything you could to help your child be successful,” Christopher Bonney says. But Grace always managed to stand on her own. “I wouldn’t begin to try to predict what’s next.”
For now, Grace is back in Brooklyn, trying to slow down and strike a better work-life balance, the topic of one of her recent radio broadcasts. In January, after eight years of working from home – and working constantly – she rented her first office space inside the iconic Pencil Factory, which manufactured pencils for more than a century. The brick building, with giant, tiled pencils between the windows, serves these days as a work space for artists, a reggae radio station and what Grace calls other “creative people.”
She tore out the walls, turning the space into one giant rectangle, and had bookcases and a rolling library ladder installed. She works at a watermelon-pink table on a nest of brightly colored, hand-woven rugs from around the world and leaves her laptop behind when she leaves for the day.
Mindful of the intimacy of Design*Sponge’s beginnings, she has only a handful of regular writers now. She and her team still personally answer the hundreds of emails they receive each week. She does not want to grow so big that she loses creative control. She wants Design*Sponge to remain relatable, accessible and, as she calls it, “scrappy.”
Grace has some mini-books in the works: budget weddings, flower identification. She wants someday to create a line of beautifully designed tools that she hopes will encourage people to really do it themselves.
“If you can’t afford something you really love,” she says, “you can make it.”
She imagines a traveling conference that would bring creative people together in communities across the country to create the kind of artist-hubs that many feel they must move away from home to be a part of.
“I really want to do more in-person things. As a generation, we’ve spent 10 years on the Internet. You lose connections,” Grace says. “You can only talk about something for so long. I want to talk about life and not just the stuff in our life.”