*The following content originally appeared on Williams-Sonoma Designer Marketplace.*
It seems like Sarah Richardson’s been on HGTV forever, and since she still looks like a relative youngster, she must have been at it since she was barely out of college. Currently working on her sixth series for HGTV, Sarah 101, Sarah’s House, Design Inc., and Room Service have been real viewer faves. I had the opportunity to interview her for Williams-Sonoma’s Designer Marketplace, which was a real treat. Fans won’t want to miss it, and if you’re buying a home in the Toronto area, you might want to check out this casting call for her new show. Maybe you’ll get lucky enough to appear on the show and receive a $25,000 makeover designed by Sarah!
I was interested to discover that you didn’t start out in a creative career.
No, not really. I was young—I went to university at seventeen. I didn’t know what my options were in the world of design. When I was going through school, people were lawyers and doctors. Advertising was about the most jazzy-seeming occupation. Quite frankly, decorating and design was something stay-at-home moms did. Some people looked at me and said, “You should do something creative,” and I kept thinking, “But how?” It’s easy to look at it now and say, “Well of course you should be an industrial designer, interior designer, graphic designer, product designer, and textile designer.” Kids today are far more engaged and educated about the process. I’m quite happy I have a liberal arts education background, because the flip side is that you can be too focused and not have a fall-back plan or any opportunities if that very finite chosen path doesn’t work out exactly as you’d hoped. The really unfortunate reality is that there are a lot of young people holding degrees and working retail today. They have a highly skilled trade that they can’t practice.
How did you go from being a prop stylist to being a TV host?
I chalk it up to serendipity. At the time the TV industry wasn’t even big. HGTV didn’t even exist at that point—at least not in Canada, I don’t think it was in the US yet. It was a niche industry. My first on-camera experience was a favor for somebody who was a segment producer on a daily show, who was filling in for the person who normally handled everything related to home. They didn’t really know who they were going to book while this other producer was on holiday, so they called me up. I’d run this little cottage industry—I did painted floor cloths. They asked me if I could come and do a guest appearance. Could you come in and do a segment where you show us how to do these things, because I don’t know who else to ask.” Because I had been working behind the scenes, I knew how to prep the project. I knew I had to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I knew how to describe it, so when I went in, they said, “Wow, she knows what she’s doing!” That one appearance as a favor led to fifty more, which led to me writing a treatment for a show idea for my first show. I’ve just sent in the pitch for my fifth show, so my life has been filled with a lot of hard work and serendipity and good luck. Some people say that the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get!
You made a name for yourself as a DIY expert. Do you do any DIY projects at home these days?
Sure! We’ve moved houses up in the country and my DIY tends to be more collaborative. I come up with an idea, I get someone to help me, and I then I do a lot of the painted finishes and things like that. I don’t crank up my sewing machine as often, but I do still use it. I pulled it out for a project last season and made a pillow. I used to make slipcovers and my own formal dresses for prom and stuff like that. I still like it. I have two daughters who are four and six and they love crafts. What I like about DIY is the instant gratification of the transformation. Something from the side of the road, from a flea market, from a garage sale—there’s something intrinsically good about it but it’s not quite there—give it an hour or two and you can make it better.
You and your husband are both in creative fields, and based on Sarah’s Summer House, you’ve collaborated on remodeling projects. How do you reach compromises on design? Is he pretty involved in the creative department? Do you defer to each other on certain things?
We defer to each other on certain things. If he has an idea, it tends to be a good one and I’ll embrace it. We have a distinction that we call the “Department of Interiors” and the “Department of Exteriors.” The Department of Exteriors has a sub-specialty in “Stereos and Technology.” During the earlier days, he would want to assert his opinion more and to be honest, now he actually likes to be surprised. So the last two projects that I’ve done, he’s seen them at a drywall stage and then not again until the end, when there are flowers in a vase. He loves that, because I approach our own homes the same way I would approach a client’s home, which is, I want it to be designed for the client. It’s not just about the design, but how will this work and what I know now about him as a person and the way we live and what makes him happy—I can evoke that in the spaces I create. So it’s not about him walking in and there’s hot pink vinyl and terribly uncomfortable. My whole aesthetic is driven by creating homes you want to live in and be in. It’s kind of like he gets to check into a hotel room he never has to leave!
Having the end result appear on television—does that affect the way you approach design?
It has informed it a bit. I approach design the same way I approach fashion. It’s fun to experiment. It’s fun to do something that feels more current or daring or experimental, but at the end of the day, I like to be recognizable as me. I don’t want people to say, “Wow, what is that look you’re sporting? Who are you dressed up as today?” For me, fashion isn’t a costume and home shouldn’t be that transitional. I like it to be classic and enduring. It’s hard to use the word “timeless,” but if you integrate enough vintage and antique pieces into your work and if you reference and allow yourself to be inspired by the past, your work will never look like a timestamp. It’s about creating interiors that can evolve. The key differential between what we do and what others might do is we capture our design process for television. We don’t design for television. We’re on TV because we’re designers, we’re not designers because we’re on TV, and I think that allowing homes to be exploited on TV is better than trying to make a statement on TV. I’m okay to speak quietly in that realm. We don’t put Astroturf on the walls. There are a lot of things that gave design television a bad name. The way Tommy and I approach everything we do on the shows is, we want magazine-worthy interiors that are also seen on television, not like, “Oh, they just decorate for TV.” It’s an important distinction and it pushes us to strive for better. It’s challenging because it can also make it cost a bit more. In a magazine, because it’s a still image, you have the opportunity to get in there like a bumblebee and look close-close-close at all of the details. On television, the camera pans and it moves pretty quickly. It’s a fleeting glimpse, so in a lot of ways, we shouldn’t sweat the details, but at the end of the day, somebody lives in that environment and I’m accountable to making sure they love that environment for years to come. Not that the cameras stopped and the truck drove off and the legs fell off the sofa. If that was the kind of work I did, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you.
Your girls are still little, but are they opinionated about how their rooms are decorated?
Oh, they are so opinionated! My kids are naturally and authentically creative in their own rite. My oldest absolutely adores art. When my four-year old was two, she would ask, “Mommy, who put that there?” I would say, “I put that there,” and she would say, “I don’t like that there.” I rearranged the furniture the other day because we’re planning a renovation. My husband had suggested that we move the dining room into the living room and turn what is now a smallish dining room and kitchen combination into one giant kitchen. Great idea! I got a mover for an hour, skipped home, rearranged the whole house so it was completely different and my oldest said, “Mummy, I think this is just fantastic, what you’ve done!” They’re interested. They notice, which is kind of nice. They’re engaged enough in the process that I expected a reaction when they came home and I wanted to know, was Fiona going to say, “I don’t like that there.” It’s funny to think you’re looking to a four-year old and a six-year old for positive affirmation.
There’s so much amazing content on your website, there are all of the TV shows, you have this ongoing design business…you have a lot going on! How do you handle the logistics of all of that and keep it all going?
I have a really terrific team of people that work with me—my collaborators. All of us have been together for eight to ten years. We’re a team of twelve and we’re a tight-knit group in terms of wanting to collaborate. There isn’t a tremendous amount of individual ego—we look at this as a collaborative adventure. I’ve always felt that the sum of all of the parts is better than any of us on our own. It means delegation and empowerment and in terms of my day, I’m a quick decision maker. I know what I like I know what I don’t. There’s no second-guessing. I don’t sweat the details, but I do sweat the details because I really care. I care about the font on the website and the color of the background and the difference is knowing it’s yes to this, no to that, what’s the next question, let’s move forward. When Tommy and I are actively working on the show, we don’t spend our time second guessing the decisions. It’s, “You want to do this?” “Yes. Go. Move forward.” We’re fueled by the creative process and the fun and the pace and the energy more than we’re fueled by perfectionism. The more I spend time in the field, the more I realize that perfectionism is not a compliment to most people. Not being able to let go. You have to recognize that design is a fluid, evolving process. Things happen, things change, things go wrong, things go right. Focus on what’s going right, change what’s not working and keep on moving. We’re not about racing to the finish line but being able to say that it’s done. You asked me earlier about what’s different about being on TV and how has that informed the design business—it’s allowed us to make our design business mimic our TV show. Instead of a allowing a home to be created in dribs and drabs, we now load in a house in the same way we set up for a TV show or a photo shoot, which is we go from zero to 60 in a day or two.
Do you get accosted in furniture and home décor stores? Are there any crazy fan stories to share?
My husband always gets recognized in airports because he’s a redhead—he’s pretty recognizable. People tend to be lovely. The difference is that people like Justin Bieber seem so otherworldly that he incites crazy screams from teenage girls, but what I do isn’t otherworldly, so people tend to just say, “Oh, hi!” Maybe a photograph or a quick piece of advice, but I’d say everyone’s really lovely.
I read a story about a woman who interviewed you in her own home and she spent $1400 prepping her place for your visit. Are people intimidated to have you over?
Well, I guess she was!
How does that spill over into your private life, like playdates with your kids and whatnot?
People think I’m going to judge and the thing I always say is that being invited into somebody’s home is a gift. When I talk to people about their homes, it’s their personal space. You decide who comes in. I treat any invitation as a gift. I’m just happy to be there. You don’t have to make me a gourmet dinner. I’m happy to have macaroni and cheese. I prefer to have the opportunity to be there as opposed to not being invited and to be denied that opportunity or to miss out. Yes, it is my field and I’m passionate about it, but it doesn’t mean I’m crazy judgmental. My home’s not perfect either.
I was going to ask you about that. You seem so industrious—do you have any home projects left undone?
We’ve lived in our house in Toronto for twelve years, so we’re going to embark on a renovation of it. At this point, it’s a house from the sixties—it’s far from perfect! I love the opportunity to start from scratch and get it right, but the reality of it is, it was our first house together and we were scraping by—it was a stretch. “Perfect” doesn’t matter to me—is it comfortable? Is it happy? Do you love it? If so, invite me over!
Will this renovation be covered in a TV show?
No, I don’t think so. It’ll show up somewhere—I’ll share photos sometime—but the next show we’re planning on doing will have a different focus. The television landscape changes quickly, and we have to make new shows that respond to what people are interested in.
You and Tommy have such great chemistry on all the shows you’ve done together. Were you friends before becoming coworkers?
He went to school with my husband and he knows my sister. We went to school together at the beginning of university and knew of each other. Then he started working on Room Service, which was my first show. I got a hint from somebody that he’s was interested in getting into the business and that was over a decade ago. It started out friendly and led to being inseparable. We joke that I have two husbands—Tommy gets days and my husband gets evenings and weekends. Sometimes I get to go to things with both of my husbands! Work is work, and it’s hard. If you have any say over what you do and how you run your work life, you need to try and make it fun. We don’t laugh all day every day, but if you’re inspired, it’s easy to love what you do.
What are you working on now?
We’re doing lots of residential projects. I’m working on a lot of product lines and launching a line of fabrics for Kravet, which will be launched at High Point in June of 2013. I’m working on a line of furniture and a number of other product lines. I’m throwing myself into it full force. I’m enjoying it so much that I’m not willing to let someone else have the fun of designing it.
Since you do have so much on-camera experience, do you have any advice for other designers who may want to create their own videos for their websites?
The number one thing is, don’t be nervous. It’s really important to remember something I learned very, very early on from working behind the scenes, which was that anybody who’s helping you is there to support you and they want to make you look good. It should be regarded as a friendly medium. If you’re making videos, you’re speaking to a friendly audience. If you’re a designer and you’re offering advice, people want your advice. Speak from the heart and don’t be scared. The camera’s not going to bite you. The person watching it is far away so you can’t actually see their reaction, so just be natural, be yourself. Never lose sight of the fact that it’s supposed to be about fun. It’s not supposed to be serious. It’s supposed to be about solutions that make people happy in their homes. If that can be your guiding principle, it helps put a lot of it in perspective.