Sunday, February 9, 2014

...about starting from scratch.

“Blank slate.” “Carte blanche.” “Empty room.”

Those words are both a blessing and a curse: full of creative potential, yet sometimes, the complete capacity to cripple a project from the sheer and staggering possibilities, even, at times, for a designer.

Starting from scratch: usually, I don’t have the fun or luxury of doing it for clients. Very often, we’re building from an existing rug, favorite art, some main pieces— a sofa, a dresser, a headboard— traces of a past apartment, loft or life.

And boy, this job was from scratch: an empty rental, with my client “Lynda” starting a new, husband-free chapter, making a clean break to an Upper Westside rental high-rise, with her young son.

And clean it was...  newly renovated, fresh paint and shiny floors. EMPTY. We’re talking echo-echo-echo empty. Not even mattresses, hangers or towels, paper or terry cloth.

So the task at hand was to fill four-ish (more on that later) rooms with every single stick of furniture, piece of art, pillow, accessory and light bulb. Do it quickly (the lease was signed the day I was brought on board), do it on a tight budget, and do it to the standard that the client was used to. (Yeah, that rule of “Time, money, quality... pick two” doesn’t always apply.) The homeowner had used a great designer in the past, under vastly different circumstances where budget was far less an issue than it was here. But that meant the standards were high even if the budget wasn’t.

So with nothing but a floorplan, how and where do you start?

I started where every room, whether half full or fully empty, starts: with a conversation: about what the client likes (that yielded “I like dark woods with no reds in them,” and “No green.”), and about the necessary functions of the main space. “Not too matchy” was a frequent part of her vocabulary, posing a potential challenge to creating a cohesive open-plan public space, much smaller than she had been accustomed to.

We settled on “warm modern” as the closest term for the end product. But I also wanted to give her a settled sense in this time of uncertainty, so shapes were a bit traditional, the aesthetic a bit more classical, in spite of a modern sensibility. And, I wanted it to look as expensive as possible, given the circumstances. I wanted her to be happy to come home, to entertain friends, and not feel like this chapter was compromise, financially or stylistically.

Rental Restrictions
It’s a rental, so the usual restrictions applied: no renovation, no new paint, no hard-wiring. But like I’ve said it before, if you work with what’s there, instead of fighting against it or trying to mask it, you celebrate the givens. Those elements of a space that seem limiting at first become the start of something beautiful, and take you down paths you might not have traversed.

In this case, it was not the typical Manhattan “Builder’s White" walls and mid-tone parquet. Color-wise, this carte was a little off-blanche. Pale maple floors, and a golden tone vanilla wall color that, while neutral, already had a definite flavor. But by keeping neutrals warm, choosing warm metals like brass and bronze, and even picking up the yellow undertones with a true yellow in her son’s room, it all ended up looking like Lynda had painted the place to her own spec, not the builder’s.

When money and time are tight, and the slate is completely clean, how do you make the most of the available resources and the design process to turn white-ish box into fully-realized home-sweet-home? Here’s how I tackled it.

Stock Answer
The best way to move quickly on any interior project is to forego custom, head to a retail source, and focus on the pieces with the longest lead time first, which often means the bigger stuff. And that often means the upholstery.

The way to make sure lead times are kept to a minimum on upholstery is to work with the fabrics those retailers stock the item in. Going with stock fabrics can mean the difference between “get it this Thursday” or “we’ll call you in six weeks.” Here, the stocked (at the time) Metropolis fabric on Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Dana chairs was an instant hit with— and instant gratification for— the client, and arrived in a matter of days. Whew! Someplace to sit! Same with the armed and armless version of the Crate & Barrel Miles dining chairs. In stock, as stocked. Done!

But when the client insisted on going non-stocked on the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Terence bench (and I agreed that Madigan fabric was worth the wait), and the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams Reese sleeper sofa, that choice dragged the delivery window out to many, many weeks. So, just be prepared to make the choice between stocked items and project duration.

Think Ahead
This home is a new chapter for Lynda, but it certainly won’t be her last, so pieces picked specifically for here also had an eye on the future. And that meant the largest pieces were kept neutral so they’d work in future spaces. The other reason for that is...

Monochromatic: Right on the Money
One of my favorite ways to make a space look more expensive than the budget is to match and repeat color but change up the textures. Since we were considering neutrals on the main pieces (for those above in-stock and future-life reasons), and since the “envelope” was vanilla, that stage was already set.

Relating upholstery to wall colors (even if, as here, you change the value of the colors... we went more mid-tone than the walls, but stayed warm) is also a way to ease maximum furnishings into a smaller space (a definite issue for Lynda, suddenly down-sizing from an ample loft). And while the room is long, it’s not particularly wide, and needed to handle traffic into the kitchen and her son’s room.

Don’t Dismiss Any Source
When time and money are the priorities, you can’t afford to turn your nose up at any source, and I love that pieces from Pier 1, IKEA, CB2, mass-market internet sources and the sale shelves at Gracious Home made it into the mix. But any source can yield gold when you mine it correctly. She had ruled out some sources early on, but they’re actually here, hiding in plain sight. Mixed sources, a few splurges, and careful choice throughout make it look more higher-end than bargain basement, and keep it from looking like it all came off one truck.

Blind Dates and Allen Wrenches
When money is tight, there will be some pieces you don’t see until they show up at your doorstep. Internet and catalogs are great sources when watching costs, but involve a bit of risk. But I proposed sources I was familiar with, and made sure they were places with forgiving return policies if things didn’t measure up to their online photo.

And to keep a project rolling along, and rolling in under budget, someone’s going to have to assemble some furniture. Here, it was the IKEA dining table, the pair of storage towers from CB2 in her son’s room, and the play table from Land of Nod. (Ah, and in this case, it was the designer doing the assembly, part of the “glamorous life” I talked about with fellow blogger/designer Kristen McCory over on her Gild and Garb blog.)

Piecemeal is Dangerous
Because we were filling an empty home that Lynda and her son were already inhabiting, I broke my own rule about saving everything up and doing an “Install Day.” She needed some place to sit, eat, and work.

But I realized pretty early on here that things were not going to go well when each piece was delivered when ready. She second-guessed each delivery, and panicked that she was not going to get the kind of color she was looking for when the first wave of main pieces were mostly neutral. (“It all looks like butter!” she said on more than one occasion.)

So once we had some basic function covered, I put the brakes on deliveries. I saved the last wave so it all happened at once, and more importantly, so she saw things in final context. Yes, that meant she ate off a card table for a while, but it also meant the frequent returns ground to a halt.

If you can’t afford to wait, just prepare for things to feel odd until, well, they don’t anymore.  Or better yet, keep things in boxes and do all the unpacking at once. Context is huge in pulling a space together, and each piece (ideally) relates to the next. It’s like having one lonely guest at a costume party... no one feels comfortable when the first arrival has nobody to talk to. But the guest list— and the costumes— make much more sense once the party’s in full swing.

Be Prepared for More Hurdles
The one-bedroom apartment had been converted to two bedrooms (with a temporary wall that could be removed upon leaving), slicing the living/dining El into one long rectangle of living/dining, and turning the floorplan’s dining room into her son’s room. (It also left the odd remnant of a kitchen pass-though on one wall)

That meant we had one long alleyway, from front door to window, to take on all public functions of the apartment: living, dining, TV watching, lounging, work.

It also meant, on that temporary wall now anchoring the sofa, there were no electrical outlets. Not a one, a particularly disturbing discovery after I had personally lobbied so hard for sofa-flanking lamps, from Zinc Door. Thank god for that peel-and-stick electrical cord cover! Up and over the door to her son’s room we went, to get those lamps lit.

Use Furniture and Stylng to Define a Space
The TV (tucked into the West Elm armoire) had only one wall to live on, which meant it looked like we’d be ending with one of my pet peeves: All the upholstery on one wall, all wood stuff on the other. That ends up looking like a poorly-styled furniture showroom. But that’s what had to happen here.  

The best place for dining was right near the entrance, but if we floated the table, it would have literally blocked the entry into the apartment.

So instead of setting up the dining table to look like dining at all times, it was positioned more as a library/entry table, against the wall. The sconces and mirror created an anchor to make sense of the placement (and the sconces, with high/low switches, were stand-ins for the lack of an overhead fixture), but also made a separate “dining room” where there wasn’t one, and allowed the softening presence of the table’s two arm chairs to break up all the chocolate wood pieces.


When it’s more than just two for dinner, the clever IKEA table (with self-storing leaves) expands to seat six easily. Armless chairs are pulled in from their position flanking her bedroom dresser to round out the seating.

When time and budget are tight, you have to steel yourself for the possibility that you might not find the perfect piece for each item on your list. While Lynda wanted a cabinet to house the TV, we didn’t have a huge budget for it. This one came from West Elm, perfect in scale, function, and “non-red dark wood.” The trade-off for the piece’s affordability (and insta-availabilty)? The doors don’t fold completely back or pocket back into the piece as they might on a higher-end version, which threw a wrench into the first idea for a seating plan. But a custom cabinet, or a more engineered piece, would have broken the bank.

In all, and in spite of restrictions, hurdles, a quick calendar and tight purse strings, a home I hope Lynda is happy to come home to.

What are your tips and tricks to starting from scratch?

All After photos: Jody Kivort

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

...traction, opportunity and gratitude: the personal design best of 2013.

Lucky ’13: to quote Old Blue Eyes, “it was a very good year.” A couple of tough ones behind me, and then this, what finally seemed like movement, momentum, and traction. At the heart of the happiness, some great opportunities, new challenges, new connections, some leaps of faith (with me and many others doing the leaping), and with a LOT of help from my friends, that all let me participate more actively in a design community I’m so happy— and proud— to be a part of.

So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to count down (up?) to the very best of the best of my Year in Design 2013.

7) Table for Two
I loves me some table-tops. I shoot one for just about every interior design I complete. So when Jan Maclatchie of JanMac Brands asked me to get my style on for a tabletop set-up and photo shoot for the great American brand Lenox, I said yes, please. Then it got even better: I’d be crafting an intimate fall-into winter tablesetting for two. My favorite time of year, and pure delight for this hardcore romantic.

6) Getting Graphic
My roots were showing a bit... my past Graphic Design life made a cameo appearance in a year rich with interior design highlights. I was delighted to be able to work on two book projects, one, the cover for my sister’s second book of poetry published for Ahsahta Press, and the other, working with gentleman scholar and vintage glass dealer Damon Crain, of Culture Object on his sparkling book of mid-century American architectural art glass. 
It was fun to delve into stock photo research and talk about fonts and grids again, for two projects I was honored to be part of... and could not be more proud of the outcome on both.

5) Baby Makes Three
Two firsts yielded a third: my first repeat client, my first nursery, and my first appearance in Meredith’s publication American Baby. Delighted, honored, and so happy that the happy project was for perhaps the sweetest young family I’ve had the pleasure to meet, let alone help make their space enjoyable, pleasant and personal... and have the chance to do it twice. But I can think of no bigger honor than to help create a young person’s very first space.

4) All in Moderation
As part of D&D Spring Market, I was asked to moderate “Spring Break Table Escape,” an inspiring and interactive event where five designers created gorgeous tabletop designs built around the exquisite textiles of the gracious host for the event, JAB Anstoetz, with the also pretty-exquisite Caroline Vaughn at the helm of their first-floor showroom. 

Tabletops again, but this time I was talking to, and learning from, some of the best in the biz, including my hilarious, giving and wildly-talented friend Michael Tavano, the, um, masterscaper who always manages to wow, whether at DIFFA Dining by Design, Bilotta, or in the warm and lovely home he shares with his equally loveable hubby Lloyd Marks (the dashing duo behind window-finesser MT Custom).
I was delighted to meet the so-fun Tara Seawright and Bella Mancini, and chat up friends... the lovely Alla Akimova of Archives ID and the colorful and dapper Christopher Coleman, along with Mr. Tavano (with whom I publicly discussed, well, balls. Don’t ask.) We laughed, we learned, and we all ogled the table creations that showcased JAB fabrics and the remarkable range of these design all-stars. So, so much fun.

3) Paint Bucket List
Paint me excited: When asked to talk color with paint and color experts Valspar, on the virtual and print pages of House Beautiful, I was over the Blue Moon. I first became a Valspar paint fandeck fan during Design on a Dime, where they are the generous donor of every gallon of paint used for the event. And I’ve always been a fan of House Beautiful. So to participate in their advertorial series, where I’d be featured in an online mini-magazine (including a video) and make it on to the magazine’s pages was both pure blast and high honor.

2) Third Dime’s a Charm
It was my third appearance at Design on a Dime to benefit Housing Works, and my favorite year of the three so far, spurred on by a buoyant Schumacher wallcovering, a great position (corner “office”!!), a giant green parakeet from Australia, and an oddly-popular, white-lacquered lobster that had them lined up in the aisles before the shopping broke loose.

The event just keeps getting better and better, and not just for me, but for the charity: The 50+ designers this year helped raise over one million dollars for Housing Works Thrifts, working to end the dual crisis of homelessness and those living with and affected by AIDS.

The generous many who make the event possible stepped up yet again, and as always, I was delighted to showcase, show off, and sell off the pieces of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Pagoda Red, Currey & Company, Bernhardt, Bungalow 5, Jayson Home and Wisteria, who’ve all been with me since Year One of Design on a Dime.

It was also an honor to bring back artists Dan Romer and Babette Herschberger, while welcoming Aaron Smith, Gary Moran and David Peterson to the booth's walls, while adding Room & Board and OLY Studios to the roster of the oh-so-generous.

1) It Would Be So Nice... if We Took a Holiday (House)
It was a wish, a dream, another bucket list item, and perhaps the most challenging thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing: Holiday House, 2013. Ever since I set foot in the Academy Mansion at 63rd and 5th in Manhattan, I dreamed of bringing a holiday to life in these remarkable halls, rooms, niches and passageways in a room of my very own. And this year, that dream came true.

I’ve loved the event for many reasons. Because it’s always in the same house every year, you see the power of pure décor in transforming spaces. I love the Tim-Gunn-esque additional challenge of holiday theme on top of designer showhouse. And I love the charitable nature of the event, bringing the two loves— interior design, and women’s health— of founder Iris Dankner together under one remarkable (and remarkably stylish) roof.

But the surprise of the event came from the remarkable camaraderie of it all, making late November and December seem like one non-stop holiday party, with friends old and new, celebrating, laughing, toasting.
Along the way I met some extraordinary people, was introduced to the talented troupe behind the Fundamental Theater Project, saw two wonderful gents get married in a magical space of their very own creation, all while getting to bring a taste of my version of Dublin to Manhattan’s East Side, and helping, in small part, to shatter the house’s past fundraising levels.

It took remarkable work, considerable budget, the generosity of MANY, and taxed the patience of more than one of my design clients, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Thanks for letting me toot my own horn a bit on this New Year’s Eve, while helping to thank some the many people who made 2013 so remarkable.

What was the design highlight of your year? What’s ahead in 2014? I’d love to hear from you, and I wish you a year of health, abundance, joy, hearty laughter, and gorgeous homes. 

And I thank you for the support you've shown AskPatrick. Hope to see you even more in 2014!

UPDATE! Whoops, this should be SIX for 2013! The Lenox gig was technically 2012!! Time flies when you're having fun!

Get social! Find Holiday House NYCMT CustomJAB Anstoetz, the D and D BuildingMitchell Gold + Bob WIlliams, American Baby, Bella Mancini Design, Tara Seawright DesignArchives ID, Ahsahta PressJanMacBrands, LenoxValspar, House BeautifulCurrey & CompanyPagoda Red, Wisteria, Jayson Home, Room & BoardBungalow 5, Fundamental Theater Project, and Housing Works on Facebook.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

...about Holiday House 2013: seven tips from a St. Patrick's day show house room.

Show houses are fantasies. Purchasing budget? No concern (as long as you have generous donors). Clients? None (unless you count the fictional ones many designers use to create a room’s back story).

But even in fantasy, there are lessons to be learned.

And even though my first ever show house room, at the prestigious Holiday House, now in its sixth year here in Manhattan, was pure folly (inspired by St. Patrick’s Day, to suit the house’s “every room is a different holiday” theme), it illustrated many of the principles and approaches I use in any room design. Here are seven tips that, even though they're based on a room with a one-month life, can help your home year 'round.

1. Small, Dark and Handsome
Painting a tiny room bright yellow won’t make it any bigger, physically or visually, so when faced with a small room or space, I like to go dark. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s not: Dark colors make the edges of a small space fall away. Plus, you end up with a room that embraces you, looks sexy after nightfall (every home needs a night-time space, whether master suite, media room or guest room) and just seems deep, dark and luxurious.

What makes a small room seem small is contrast, so to make sure these dark walls didn’t close in, I employed one of my favorite tricks: Keep window treatment (from MT Custom) and the largest furniture close in color or value to the walls. The two pieces with the largest mass are the sofa (Avery Boardman) and the antique chest (Anthony Lawrence Belfair), yet since they’re so close in tint or tone to the wall colors, they don’t take over the space.

Artwork, Tim Lehmacher, Daniel Cooney Fine Art
2. Minimal isn’t Always Maximal
You can still get a considerable amount of function from a small room, and that means more furniture and lighting than you might otherwise think (or had budgeted for).

In this space, barely 10 x 10, there’s seating for four to six, room for a laptop, space to put your feet up, considerable storage, a bar, tables for drinks and books, and five light sources, not counting the window. And a lot of the furniture is flexible, movable, and ready for multi-tasking.

3. Celebrate the Givens
Considering we had to spend three of our eight days of set up merely PREPPING the room to get started (due to about five years of layered wall treatments, ghosts of designers past), I was relieved to see I could make the gold ceiling and grayed floorboards work with my intended scheme. And that’s not unlike the challenge of working with a client’s rental wall color, flooring, or other unchangeable elements (or early choices that seemed like a good idea, but cause some midway panic before calling in some designer back up).

So the gold ceiling made even more reason to bring brasses into the room, and the gray floors worked with the intended plan to use white as a real color player in the almost-all-emerald room. The white marble with gray veining (bounced around the room in Chesney’s fireplace mantle, Atlas side table, and Gold Leaf SIde Table) worked the floor "choice" up into the rest of the room.

When you celebrate the givens, they end up looking fresh, new, and totally intentional, not remnant afterthought of a past homeowner, tenant or designer.

4. Change Your Architecture with Décor
This room was a basic box when I first saw it, with an opening (door or window) in every single wall. and those doorways and windows were placed off center on every wall. It also had a very high ceiling, both blessing and curse.

So, like when working with renters or the contractor weary, I turned to pure (and portable) décor to mold the room back into something more livable.

Enter the upholstered screen (custom made, and meticulously studded by The Workroom), stretching wall to wall and hiding one doorway, giving me a wall where I could thankfully center a fireplace (Since I wanted a somewhat formal feel to the room, at least one symmetrical elevation was crucial). This screen would also allow you to hang and wire sconces or picture lights without busting into plaster walls, so you can get your security deposit back at lease’s end.

Window treatments hung higher and wider than the actual window’s dimensions, did three things: visually widen the window, accentuate the room’s height (making sure that gold ceiling was celebrated), and hide a hideous window unit air conditioner.
Widening the window treatment past the size of the window also meant the sofa had a suitable place to park, without looking like it was balanced precariously like a tufted seesaw.

The scale of the artwork, and a brought-in fireplace, also add "architecture" where there wasn't any.
"Demitree" gold resin side table, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams; Hall chair, O'Sullivan Antiques

5. Weight Down, Step Down
Depending on the proportion of the room, a super high ceiling can be both pro and con. Here, in a room I wanted to give the vibe of a Dublin rowhouse sitting room, a ceiling this high wasn’t ideal, certainly not conducive to “cozy” or “intimate.”

So how do you tame the height? Weight down, and step down. I added a wainscoting and chair rail to weight the lower portion of the room (beautifully aged by Jason Phillips and Raj Autencio, grads of the Alpha Workshops Studio School). It also gives a relatable point and strong anchoring horizontal when seated.

All barware: Waterford
To keep the eye from wandering all the way up to the highest corners of the rooms, you have to point it earthward. At the top part of the room, the highest element (the window treatments) step down to the screen, which in turn steps down to the art and mantle, and the room’s one odd soffit. The end result? The room’s proportions are really relatable when you’re seated... it doesn’t feel like you’ve fallen down a well.

6. Text(ure)book Solutions
Small rooms benefit from a monochromatic scheme, but whether beige or emerald, a limited-color room really relies on texture to make the room look intentionally color-limited, and not look like you just had the budget for one can of paint and one bolt of fabric.

So the green appears as velvet (crushed and not, hand-painted and not), sateen (all from JAB Anstoetz), pieced grass cloth, "Heliodore," from Arte, through Koroseal, at Studio K in the D&D Building, and painted finish. The color-matched but texture-varied approach makes the room lush, and rewards the eye without fatiguing it. 

Tray, decanter, faceted box: Waterford

The same rule applies to the whites used in the room... white marble, sheepskin (on the Modernist bench by DESIGNLUSH, matte metal lamp from, white (lacquered and painted) picture frames.
Artwork, top: "Mr. Green," Dan Romer; Bottom : "A Stranger Blue," Jefferson Hayman

7. Swing Both Ways
My favorite rule for making choices and additions to a room is “Compare and Contrast.” Things should be intentionally similar, intentionally different, or a little of both. So the geometric wall covering has a curvier counterpart in the Roman shade’s  handpainted pattern from Coleman & Taylor (through Savel in the D&D Building) over the JAB crushed velvet. The Vestal fire screen has traits in common with the Wisteria candleholders and the Orgues brass (and sexy) light from Donghia, but enough difference so they don’t all look like they came off the same shelf.

The mix of hard and soft, contemporary and antique, light and dark, matte and shiny also yield a room where both men and women find something to like (It’s interesting to have hundreds of people walk through your room, a never-ending focus group, of sorts) and proves the point that every room should be a mix.
All barware: Waterford

Fantasy or not, teachable moment or fleeting folly, show house rooms always have something to say. And being able to design a room at Holiday House has been a dream come true. Is it wrong I’m already plotting another holiday theme, if I’m lucky enough to be asked back??

All photos: Jody Kivort

Holiday House NYC is held in the Academy Mansion, 2 East 63rd Street, New York, NY. The  house is open to the public daily from November 21 through December 18. All proceeds benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

... about where to start.

More and more, people are asking me how to pull a room together...

layout advice, color inspiration, how to make a room feel finished, why a room isn't "working," where to start when selecting a color scheme... So I thought I'd start publishing some of those questions, share some advice, and meet and work with people outside of Manhattan.

Welcome to Ask Patrick, an interior design site where you can submit your own rooms and questions for makeover advice, guidance, and inspiration.

Send your images and questions to

Sunday, November 10, 2013

...about giving it away.

“Hey,” the email started, casually enough, one "girl" away from a Ryan Gosling meme. “We're looking for a couple designers [sic] to put together a couple of boards for us to feature on our homepage re-launching soon. Would you be interested in making a quick board for us?” 

It went on... 
"Digital design boards are super easy (my emphasis, not theirs) to make. I'm sure you've made a bunch before. We will credit you as the designer / artist and refer people to your blog or website. It's good publicity.”
It’s the kind of request with which bloggers and designers are quite familiar. But this particular request sent by email, (to me, and unfortunately, mass-mailed to over 50 recipients, all listed... talk about not feeling valued, from the start), got a swift reply from one angry recipient:
“Thanks for your email and for thinking of me.
 You are correct, I have a wealth of experience putting mood boards and working with brands to promote their social media activities...
 However, good work deserves to be paid. Time spent on a project deserves to be paid, bills that we all have need to be paid and while I'm hugely grateful for the amazing publicity working for free will give me, I do not work for free.”  
It, too, went on...
“And I think companies like yours, should stop thinking that bloggers do not require to be paid on the basis that you provide 'good publicity' because let's face it, it's complete bollocks and I sincerely hope that any of the designers, bloggers, creative people copied on your email will take pride in what they do and turn down your 'very attractive' offer to focus on paid work or quality time with their families.
Warm regards...” 
(For the record, it wasn’t I who responded. I wouldn’t have hit “Reply All," for one thing... but ANYwho...)

That response touched off a virtual volley of high fives, Amens, and you-go-girls among the many on the list who received it, who might not have responded that way were it not for the sudden empowerment of this virtual Norma Rae's "Reply All." 

We’ve all heard the pitch... “It would be tremendous... (wait for it... wait for it...) exposure.”

Exposure. Any blogger and most writers know the “e-word” all too well. Some days, it seems the most popular form of currency. Actually, some days, it seems the only form of currency.

That email response to the e-word wasn't the only recent backlash against the “no-pay-to-play” offers that beleaguer the blogosphere. Charming chum and well-connected designer-blogger Christopher May had a say (including some staggering financial statistics about one of the ones doing the freebie-asking) over on his blog Maison21, as did a recent piece in the New York Times

Maybe I’ve seen Les Mis one too many times recently on HBO, but suddenly, I hear a faint chorus of “Do you hear the people sing?” off in the distance.

Is there a revolution afoot?

In print and on the Internet, even with the ease of Pinterest and Tumbler (two vehicles, I think, that have somewhat diluted the value of blogging) content is still king. And ultimately, content, for somebody, is cash. So how come fewer and fewer people are offering actual cash for it?

Because somewhere along the line, content also became a commodity. So many people said yes to getting paid with exposure and nothing more that it’s become acceptable to be asked to do something for nothing. It made me wonder why we bloggers give it away. Especially when blogging itself is not making anyone rich, anytime soon.

It’s sometimes funny to hear the heated discussions about minimum wage happening now... if you spread out the work over the time it takes for blog posts, even for reputable, highly trafficked sites, suddenly $7.25 an hour doesn’t look too shabby. It's not unusual to spend 30+ hours for less than a $200 yield to source, scout, photograph, interview, write and build a post, for sites with clicks and visitors in the MILLIONS.

Of course there are perks to blogging: great invites, goody bags, prestige, priority seating at certain events, press access, and more... but so far, my landlord doesn’t take “goody bag” on the first-ish of every month.

The hope for many or most of us with blogs is that they’ll eventually lead to the kind of traffic numbers that finally bring in ad revenue through sponsors and advertisers. Or, that the blog and the audiences they build will ultimately lead to other deals: books, product lines, licensing, as some bloggers have done, the talented Jeanine Hayes for one, Ronda Rice Carmen and coco+kelley some others.

But all this made me wonder: why do so many of us, myself most certainly included, do so much for so little? I’ve said yes, on a regular basis, to freebies (or “e-bies, to continue the “exposure-as-currency” analogy).

Is it ever good (or at least, appropriate) to “give it away”?

In some instances, I still think yes. And here are a dozen reasons why.

The Gilded Stag - "Design on a Dime Details"
1) As a Thank You
Landon Shockey, the gentleman’s gentleman behind the Arkansas-based The Gilded Stag, volunteered to donate his gorgeous (and 100% custom) Shaftesbury Bar Cart to last year’s Design on a Dime without hesitation. So when he also asked me to contribute a piece about the event to his blog, no hesitation from me either. Plus, it helped me further promote the event (and, let’s face it, myself, too). And because the Design on a Dime story was one I loved to tell (and had done so several times over when courting donors) it was also very minimal time commitment. Speaking of which...

2) When Time Commitment/Expectation is Minimal
Sometimes, I’m cheap when it’s easy. When I get a request to answer a question, and the deadline is not “today by five,” I’m happy to lend my name and ideas to a discussion or article, since it’s part of my own brand strategy to be a tastemaker and go-to “voice” on the topics of interior design, small spaces, color and art consulting. But there is a difference between providing a quote and writing (and building) a blog post.

Bubble & Squeak "Ski Lodge Mod"
3) When You Love the Vehicle
I loved the gorgeously presented content by the boys over at Bubble and Squeak the very first time I saw it, so when they invited me to do a guest post, I said yes in a heartbeat. I love what they do, love how they do it, and it let me flex my creative writing muscle a bit more than usual (they have a lovely narrative format with all their perfectly-crafted blog posts), while bringing a long-term trend concept, “Ski Lodge Mod,” to vivid life. Win, win. 

They also offered me a giveaway opportunity to grow both of our audiences, and they built the blog post. Win, win, win. And Eric Retzer, one half of the Bubble & Squeak partnership, brokered my first Design on a Dime exchange with the wonderful folks at Pagoda Red, so this was also pay-back (the good kind).

Huffington Post Gay Voices
4) When it Helps Promote Something You Feel Strongly About
If you only know me through AskPatrick, you only know me as an interior design writer/blogger. But if you know me through Facebook, you know I also contribute to the LGBTQ website The Bilerico Project, another gig for which I don’t receive compensation. Same deal with Huffington Post Gay Voices.

But while neither pays (no, not even the wildly-read HuffPo.), my writing for both has allowed me to add my voice (and attract a new audience) to some issues about which I feel strongly. And the personal nature of some of the pieces, whether about break-ups, family loss, or marriage equality and gun control have proven strongly cathartic. So even though freebies, I get plenty back from both.

The Bilerico Project
Aside from reining me in when I go all CAPSLOCK, Bilerico founder and editor Bil Browning gives me a very long leash and tremendous freedom when it comes to timing, frequency, and subject matter, things worth considering when asking for free content from others. The less they pay, the more (reasonable) freedom they (or you, if you’re doing the asking) should extend.

This kind of writing is highly rewarding, and has also led to some remarkable friendships, an invigorated social circle, and even the occasional comped theater ticket. Plus, “published work” (and this counts) is what they ask to see once you do grab the attention of a paying publisher.
I love print shelter magazines, so when I had the opportunity to contribute to New England Home magazine’s blog, I jumped at the chance, (actually, I think I asked them if I could contribute, when they shared a roster of upcoming guest posters on their Facebook page.) It put me on their radar and is a potential door-opener to future in-print possibility. (important distinction: that was my hope and not their pitch.) 

They are also remarkably sensitive to asking for free content. They limit the number of pieces they ask for, spread it out judiciously, and are also remarkably open to kind of post, topic, and length, which also indicates they have a true appreciation for the value of content.

Magazine editor Kyle Hoepner has made it clear that he understands the benefits have to be mutual, and that’s also an important distinction... the Asker needs to understand—and acknowledge— that there is real worth and value to what’s being requested of the Askee.

Plus, the connection to NE Home also gets my name out to a region where I could also potentially do design work. And as a RISD grad, I still hold a soft spot in my heart for all things New England.

An important distinction, too... the NE Home blog is a support community to the subscription magazine...  and nobody’s asking for written content for free for the magazine itself. Which leads to...

6) If it’s NOT for a Paid Subscription
I will most definitely draw the line if someone is asking for an article or ongoing writing when the end vehicle is a paid subscription, print pub or e-zine, selling basically words and pictures. And yes, that request has crossed my radar.

7) As a Showcase for a Skill Set You Feel is Underexposed
Speaking of my RISD roots, I’ve always loved fine art and art collecting, so I’m always looking at ways to work myself into those kinds of conversations. I had two separate chances, one for iLevel and another for artist Todd McPhetridge when he himself was guest blogging for Lori McNee’s Fine Art Tips.

Lori McNee's Fine Art Tips - "Art Buying Secrets fromTop Interior Designers"
While it may seem like giving away industry knowledge for free, I think it helps give you back referral points when leveraging your identity in a specialty niche. It’s also why I gave up my time and insight several years back when asked to sit on a panel of art collectors for the annual :scope art fair. And I don’t see too much distinction between being asked to write an article for free, or being asked to moderate a panel at something like the Design and Decoration Building’s twice-a-year Market events... or being asked to lend your voice to an interview or blog post.

Here in This House - "Creative Types"
8) Mutual Admiration Society
I loved the ladies of Here in This House the very first time I met them, so again, when they asked me to tell their readers about me, I said “Tell me when.”

They made it very easy, they built the post, and gave me plenty of time... then they also actively promoted it, another key criteria for knowing when to say yes. The timing was also perfect: pre-Design on a Dime, so it wasn’t just about promoting me, it was also about promoting the event.

I’m sorry they’re no longer publishing, and I miss their real and virtual presence here in Manhattan. If they ever fire up the blog again, I’d contribute again.

9) If it has True “Cash” Value
There are some things you just don’t say No to. When House Beautiful and Valspar approached me to be part of their series of designer-featured advertorials, I think I might have paid them. The end result: a full page advertorial (the content of editorial, the real value of paid advertising). As a starting-up designer, it’s going to be a while before I can afford a full-page ad in House Beautiful, so this deal (including a professionally shot, edited and packaged video, and an online e-zine feature) had real the real value of cash, not just cachet.

10) Backing a Brand (and Doing What you Love)... with Something to Show for It.
I was asked by my friends at JanMacBrands and Lenox to style a tabletop for the Lenox Tumblr page, and while it took some time and (initial) money to do it, four things made me say yes: 1) Lenox is a great brand with which to be aligned. 2) There was a reasonable budget and I was reimbursed for all out-of-pocket expenses, 3) I LOVE all things tabletop, and 4) (perhaps most importantly), the gig was professionally shot, shots to which I’d have access (which, as in the House Beautiful gig, has an actual value attached).

I’ve heard more than one interior designer on dais or panel say, “Always shoot your work.” And while this wasn’t an interior, it was something I do include in my portfolio of services. So this one, although “unpaid,” had a definite pay-off, among all the other less tangible benefits, and without going into my own pockets to do it. On this one, the shots were the clincher.

11) Staying Busy... and Creating Content
I will admit, when design work was slower, I was more apt to say yes to a freebie request, and as I’ve become busier with paying work, I’ve been more cautious about giving it away. But I’ve also found that, for me, “busy creates busy” so there were times where I welcomed the work mostly for the energy and forward momentum it created, even if no monetary value was attached.

But that led to another breakthrough, of sorts: when I want to write for free, why was I writing for free to add value to someone else’s brands? So now, if I have the time and want to create some of that momentum for myself, I write a blog post on my own blog first (even if it's about one of those brands), and entertain outside offers second.

12) You Want Something New to Promote
And all these examples gave me something to talk about through social media, gave me something to leverage, and help build my brand buzz.

I realize it's not all one-sided, in this merry old Land of Blogs. Exposure does count, and some sites and brands who ask for something do deliver in return: wider audiences, traffic spikes, the start of a long-term partnership... but all of that starts from mutual respect. Every arrangement should feel like a partnership, not like you're being milked dry so someone else can bring home the bacon, to mix my barnyard metaphors.

But freebie requests aren’t just limited to design sites or style writers. A friend passed along a call for writers from a site for which I have tremendous respect, The Good Men Project. I was excited about the possibility, until I read their own pitch, striking in its matter of fact nature and prioritization of cold, hard fact:
“Answers to FAQs: a) unpaid b) 2 month minimum commitment c) you can always link back to your own blog d) the majority of your posts will need to be unique content e) you will upload and format your posts, however, we will have final editorial say f) yes, we work with many large media companies and will help push your work outward.”
But it’s not just bloggers who are getting asked to provide content for free: some of them are doing the asking. One prominent blogger, when asked what the compensation was for designers to be featured in a new book, answered, “Notoriety.” We’ve got a ways to go, inside and out.

Next time someone asks you to do something for free, see if it’s worth your while. Actually, see if it’s worth your worth. And make sure it’s on your own terms.

So what do you think? Valid reasons, or guilt-assuaging hindsight justification? Is it ever right to give it away, or are we just undermining our own talents when we do it? I’d love to hear from you! and I KNOW you have opinions on this one!