Design Mom blogger on why she always keeps a jar of pretzels on the counter
Gabrielle Stanley Blair is the creator of Design Mom, an award-winning blog where she has been sharing parenting, design, cooking and DIY tips for the past 15 years. She is also the author of “Design Mom: How to Live With Kids: A Room-by-Room Guide.”
Many of her design ideas involve solutions to familiar problems such as organizing backpacks and school papers or dealing with toys. Blair, who began her career in New York as an art director, recently moved to France, where she is raising six children while renovating a house from the 1600s.
She joined The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: Our family, like yours, has moved several times. Of course the pandemic has made this more difficult, but I think the children especially have had a hard time feeling like this is home. They still miss our old places and people. So I wonder: what about your home design has helped your kids acclimatize and feel at home wherever they are in the world?
A: We try hard to keep familiar items around us. Certain family photos or pieces of artwork get displayed right away. We keep a big glass jar of pretzels on the kitchen counter wherever we live. When our kids are adults, even if they had never been to the house we are living in, we would want them to instantly recognize it at ours.
Q: The home has taken on new importance as a place where parents can work virtually and children can attend school online. Are there changes in home design that can help families deal with these challenges?
A: As someone who has worked from home for many years, something that helps me is creating rituals that mark the end of work and the beginning of family time. It can be simple things — like going from window to window and closing the blinds, or clearing your “desk” that is also the board game table. Turn on music, turn on some lamps and light a candle. Spend five minutes saying goodbye to the workday and welcoming your home time.
Q: How do you decide what to do yourself and what to hire out?
A: A lot of it comes down to budget and the availability of tradespeople. If I can afford to hire it out, that’s great, because it means more time for other kinds of creative design work. But sometimes I want to learn how to do some specific skill. Other times, I need to move the project forward but I don’t have anyone available to hire, so I’ll tackle it myself. Some of it comes down to momentum too. Like there was a lot of excitement when we first bought the Tall House, and we wanted to be there and work on it right away. We couldn’t do the electricity or the plumbing but we could certainly peel wallpaper, so we did.
Q: How does a design-oriented person deal with family laundry?
A: Probably the most distinctive part of my laundry routine is that I use the time to assess the kids’ clothing. It’s when I notice holes in socks (and throw them out). It’s when I set aside items they’ve outgrown to send to Goodwill. And it’s when I notice if something is looking really shabby and needs to be replaced.
Q: Many design books assume there is a children’s bathroom and a parent’s bathroom, but in my house we all share one small bathroom. Any tips for making it more livable?
A: The best thing we did to help on space was to create hooks (not rods) for our towels that we hung just outside the bathroom. We use white metal hooks drilled into the wall and added colored ribbon loops, with a different color for each person, to each towel.
Q: How agreeable are your children to helping with your renovation since I see them in your videos? Have you always had them do chores around the house? We’re struggling to figure out a good system.
A: The kids are generally very agreeable about helping with the renovation. It helps to manage their expectations. I let them know ahead of time how long we’ll be working, and what the project is. We try to keep it under two hours and we take before and after pictures of whatever space we’re working in, so we can admire what we accomplished (like removing wallpaper or clearing rubble). Making a time-lapse video that we can all watch afterward is also very rewarding. And if we do a house project in the morning, we make sure to do something more fun and relaxing in the afternoon — like a board game, or a walk.
Q: Do you have advice for being open to your teenagers’ taste in decorating? I understand it’s important, but it’s hard.
A: Pinterest is a huge help for this. Have your teen create a board where they pin any room they like (it doesn’t have to be a bedroom, and they don’t have to like everything in the picture). Help them with search terms if they’re not coming up with anything they like. Once they’ve pinned a ton of images, sit next to them and look at each one. Ask them to tell you what they like about each image — it might be the color of the walls, or the overall feel, or a particular chair or a cozy rug. Try to get a sense of what all the images have in common and then describe what you see as the commonality. If they agree with your description, you’re ready to go — because now you have a sense of what they really like and what they are picturing for their bedroom. Once you’re on the same page, it’s much easier.
Q: How did your children react to the big overseas move? Was the chance to design their own spaces part of their appeal?
A: The kids had lots of input about the move and were able to weigh in on options. We didn’t know we were going to buy a house when we moved here, so that didn’t factor in as much. Probably the biggest factor that got the kids excited about the move is the French school schedule. In France, school is typically six weeks on, two weeks off. And during those two weeks off, we love to road-trip around Europe, which happily has so many different countries so close together. The prospect of lots of travel was really appealing. But of course, the pandemic happened! So we haven’t been able to do as much traveling as we thought.
Q: Putting baskets and bins everywhere seems to be a major design trend. Can you have a home now without them?
A: If you’re not into baskets or bins, there are all sorts of other organization options. Think cupboards and shelves and closets (if you have them). I found baskets to be especially helpful when the kids were very young, but I don’t rely on them as much these days. The needs of your family change over the years.
Q: I don’t have children, but I have plenty of friends with them. I’m building and designing a new home right now. How can I make my home comfortable for all ages while still looking appropriate for a grown-up home?
A: I would recommend mixing in children’s books with your own book collection. I would also have some board games in the cupboard (there are tons that are great for kids and adults), and why not put a few “art” toys on the shelf? Like magnet blocks, which are appealing to all ages.
Q: I have two children in middle school. I feel stressed in my house, particularly with the pandemic and all of us being here all the time. How do you keep things tidy? And do you have any suggestions to calm the clutter and make the house an attractive and fun place to live?
A: One thing that really works for me is to have at least one space in the house that is “finished.” It can be a small space like a reading nook, or a larger space like a bedroom. I make sure all the design decisions in that one space are done, and that it’s easy to keep tidy. When my brain needs a break, I go sit in that space (I can tidy it first if needed), and I don’t have to run through a mental checklist of everything that needs to be done, because that space is already finished.
Q: We have an open foyer without a closet. How can we make a mudroom out of this?
A: We had this same issue when we moved to our home in Oakland, California. I created a mudroom in the hallway near the front door. I added cubbies for backpacks, wall hooks that folded up when not in use, a file organizer mounted on the wall for mail and paperwork, and a place to sit for putting on shoes. It wasn’t the perfect mudroom, but it served us well for six years.
Q: We have knotty pine paneling, built-in bookcases and a mantel, and I want to paint them white. Should I? I want to update our space but can’t decide.
A: Probably yes. White is great if you need to reflect lots of light, but don’t feel like you have to avoid color. Color is awesome. Check out interior designer Meta Coleman for a great example of someone who uses lots of color and pattern in home design.
Q: Do you have ideas for creating sleeping arrangements for when kids have sleepovers? Trundles aren’t available for their beds. Also, our small office has enough space for two small chairs or one larger chair to share with a child. What would you put in there?
A: We love Japanese roll-up mats for sleepovers. We have three and they’re still going strong after three years. If the goal is to read with your child, go for one big chair.
Q: Where do you store your holiday decor?
A: I use the red Rubbermaid bins with the green lids that are sold around the holidays. They’re just so sensible. I stack them in our attic.
Q: You’re redoing a house in France, have six kids and a massive social media following that comes with some trolls. How do you stay calm and keep going?
A: One thing I do that really helps is sharply limit my Instagram use. I know that sounds bizarre because a huge part of my work is sharing stuff on Instagram and responding to direct messages. But even though I create on Instagram, I rarely consume on Instagram. Scrolling Instagram can put me in a bad mood so quickly (weirdly, Twitter does not do this for me). Instead of scrolling, I’ll seek out specific Instagram accounts depending on my mood. Once in a while, I’ll scroll just to get a sense of what’s happening, but mostly I just don’t scroll at all. It’s been a huge help to my peace of mind.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge since your relocation from California to France?
A: Learning French. It’s tricky because I am working in English all day long, and with the pandemic, I don’t get out very much, so I have to try really hard to find times to practice French. I admit, I get lazy about it, because the kids and my husband are so good at French.