Despite declaring a much-needed day of rest today, recent Design Star winner Emily Henderson was kind enough to chat with me about her career-changing experience. I was psyched to interview her–not because she won, and not because she validated my pre-season prediction of making top four–but because I’m such a fan of her styling work and her blog, The Brass Petal. Although I am partial to her quirky personality, I am all about beautiful spaces and entertaining writing, both of which she crafts in spades.
But before I get to our interview, she did want to make it known that Courtland Bascon was, in fact, scheduled to help her celebrate at LA’s Agave on finale night, but was called away to Boston for a family thing.
And now for this morning’s pow-wow…
How do you keep a secret this big for this long?
It’s so hard! You have this incredibly life-changing thing happen to you and you can’t tell anyone about it. The thing that kept me quiet was knowing that if I told someone who leaked it and people knew who won, then nobody would watch the show and getting people to watch the show all the way through was critical to my show’s success. I was able to tell Brian (Henderson, Emily’s husband) and my parents. There was a contract. There are some people you just can’t keep that big a secret from.
That green sofa in your sunroom was to die for. Where did it come from?
It’s vintage. It came from a back room at DWR (Design Within Reach). It was like $1200 or something.
The stuff you wrote on your firehouse coffee table choked me up, just reading it. Did you get emotional writing it?
Really? (Yes, I’m a sap for sentimental, heartfelt things.) Those guys were amazing and they lost everybody that day (September 11). I was looking around and noticed all of the decorative stuff they had were mementos that were given to them by people and thought they might appreciate something like this more than some “nice” coffee table. I tried to make it both flirty and sentimental.
How soon before you can look at a mural without having a negative Pavlovian reaction?
Well…everyone has different styles, Robin. (She says very carefully.) I’m not very artistic, so I wouldn’t risk that, but other people have more confidence in that area.
What do you make of Michael Moeller trash-talkin’ about you with Erica Reitman from Design Blahg recently?
Honestly, I don’t believe it. It’s not that I think someone’s making things up, but he’s really snarky and probably said something funny that was taken wrong. We’re friends, so there was a moment after I read it that I got nauseous like it was high school, but really, I think he was just being his usual snarky self.
I so totally identified with you staring at your space during the white room challenge. How did you adapt going forward?
I really have to stand up for myself more on this because it’s one thing to draw out a room and measure for the perfect sofa but we really didn’t have time to do that. I would stare at it and try to figure it out. I’m not a good draw-er.
Have you commiserated with HGTV Superblogger Heather Armstrong about being former Mormons?
Not yet. I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time and wrote to her when I found out that she was going to contribute to the HGTV blog, but she didn’t want to get to know me or like me more than the other designers before the show started. She wanted to be able to write about the show objectively. I’m looking forward to meeting her though, because no one really “gets” you like someone else who’s been through the same experience.
Was it frustrating to be back in New York and not be able to visit your friends and old haunts?
It didn’t even feel like we were in New York—it felt like we were in a façade of New York. We didn’t go out into the city. The most we spent was the time it took to get from the van into a store or into the apartment. That was what was so weird about seeing Scotty. For a second, I didn’t even really recognize him. There was a vague recollection and then, “Oh my God!” It was really weird seeing somebody from real life. The day after the finale, we all went to lunch together—without the cameras—and it felt really weird! It felt kind of good, but it was like, “Where is everybody? What do you mean? They’re just letting us walk? We can walk?”
Have your fellow Design Star competitors treated you differently since you won?
I don’t think so. Casey and I are close and I think we will be for a very long time. You become better friends with some more than others. Those are my friends. Me winning and them not winning, did not affect the friendship at all. The ones I didn’t get along with so well –it’ll just stay the same.
It must’ve been strange to experience such a big moment without your husband, friends or family around you. Was that a buzzkill or were you just too excited regardless?
I was too excited, but I did call Brian when I got back to the hotel. I hadn’t talked to him in a very long time. It was really weird. He was so excited but it just seemed surreal. He picked up the phone and just hearing his voice for the first time, we were both crying. It was such good news and I was going to see him the next day. I think we only talked for a couple of minutes. I don’t want to talk on the phone—I need to hug him!
What was it like, returning home after this experience?
It was weird, I’m not gonna lie. It was a six-week adrenaline rush. Every second that we’re awake, your adrenaline is up and excited and all of a sudden you’re home and not waking up to challenges anymore. It was such a contrast. It wasn’t a let-down but it kind of was, because you have to keep it a secret. I wanted to tell the world—I was so excited! I was about to host my own design show but I had to keep it a secret so there were a couple of things where adjusting to normal life was difficult. Poor Brian, because I was waking up at 6 and he was like, “What are you doing, you need to sleep!” and I was like, “No I don’t—I need to paint the walls!” I couldn’t get out of challenge mode. I needed to work and be productive.
Do you still retain a little bit of that?
Yeah, but I’ve always been an over-productive person. Relaxing isn’t as easy for me as it is for other people.
You seem like a decidedly un-fussy person, yet one would assume that magazines and retailers are super picky about their photography styling. How do you navigate that minefield?
That’s a good question. Every client is different. The reason they maybe hired me over another stylist is because even though they may be picky, they still want it to feel a little more effortless and unfussy. They want me to bring that a little bit to the table, yet you always have to remember what the product is and what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to. The art director is always really clear, so I never feel like I don’t know what to expect or what they want. That’s the fun part of the job. Every client is different and you never get bored. It goes all the way from styling jewelry on a piece of velvet—which I’ve never been all that into—to building sets like houses. It was really fun. I’m going to miss it in a way, but I think this will be more fun, obviously!
Did you travel a lot as a prop stylist?
Yeah, we traveled to New York, Mexico, Italy, and then all around the Northwest. As soon as I moved to LA, even though it’s still a flight, people think I’m closer to Portland and San Francisco, so I would travel to those western cities, which is awesome.
What can you tell us about working for Jonathan Adler?
I worked for him in the store for about one and a half or two years when I was really young. It was great! I knew that I wanted to be around pretty things. At the time I was dog-walking and bartending. I went to the gift show and saw his stuff. He wasn’t huge yet—he was getting there. Working there was really fun. He was great. Then I met a bunch of stylists through him, who would come in all the time to rent things. I was just a shopgirl–I didn’t have any responsibilities beyond that. It was my introduction to the design world a little bit because prior to that, I was in college. I studied English and History–I didn’t really have much of a background in design. I tried furniture designing and took a couple classes at Pratt and I just wasn’t that good at it. When I decided I wanted to style, I just emailed all the stylists that had come in there for years and a couple of them started hiring me all the time. I worked for this woman, Cindy DiPrima for four years and she was amazing. I was super lucky.
What is it about the Victorian era that fascinates you so much?
I don’t know…I guess it’s the femininity. Fashion-wise, it’s really flattering and I think I brought that into my spaces. I really like it juxtaposed with masculine things too. Most of my furniture is mid-century modern and most of my accessories are feminine and more antique. Not necessarily Victorian, but a lot of curves, a lot of carvings, porcelain…it goes a little more feminine. I’ve always just loved it. All of my shirts have princess sleeves.
Your apartment is adorable. What can you tell us about the blimp art in your dining room?
It’s awesome! I got it at a flea market when I was 26. It was one of my first major purchases. It was $400. I came back every week and every week he came down on the price. When it was $250, I got it. I think I had $500 in the bank at the time, but I really wanted it. I have a connection to it because it was my first grown-up piece of art. It was done by old soldiers—I think in the ‘60s—and it’s kind of Beatle-esque and has more meaning than I understand. I just like how big and graphic it is, because at the same time, it’s quiet. It’s not a huge color distraction. Even though I love blues so much, it’s kind of calmer. It’s a great statement without making a lot of noise.
Was it surreal to style your own home for a magazine photoshoot?
It was weird! I wanted other people’s input more than usual because it’s just harder to be objective with your own space. I do have an emotional connection with everything that we’ve bought. I sound like a hoarder, but it’s hard for me to look at it like it’s the first time I’ve seen it. It was helpful to look through the camera because then I could be objective and pretend it’s a magazine, but it was hard.
How did you and Brian meet?
We met in college. He’s an actor and I saw him in a play. My friend was the stage manager so I was like, “I like him and I’d like to meet him.” We got together that night. We broke up for a year in New York, but otherwise, we’ve been together ever since–ten years now, which is crazy. We got together when we were 21!
What celebrity wardrobe would you most like to design a room around?
I love Zooey Deschanel—her style is sort of playful and vintage-y. Rachel Zoe seems pretty obvious because she’s really glam and feminine and weird and unexpected.
What comes after Secrets From a Stylist?
Hopefully it will get picked up and will run for the next 35 years!
Happy 31st birthday next week to Emily Henderson! Watch her upcoming special, Secrets From a Stylist this Sunday night at 9pm CST on HGTV.