As far as savvy influencers go, there are only a handful of names I can think of that pull the weight of Tamara Matthews-Stephenson, whose blog “Nest by Tamara” has had over 800,000 views so far this year. Not only is she a successful designer with products and interiors under her belt and an influencer across social media, she is a bang-up writer. We’re always bumping into her at design events and it’s difficult to resist peering over her shoulder to see what wonderful design element she’s spotted!
The images I’ve chosen to illuminate this post are of a table Tamara and Susan Young, her partner in Root Cellar Designs, decorated for the Lenox Hill Gala, about which the editors at Veranda said, “This duo’s topiaries invoke the romance of a French garden.” It just so happens the fabrics shown are from their collection, the mention by the magazine not a surprise given the classic point of view they bring to their designs. Without further ado, I share with you a conversation we had recently during which I asked the influencer about her twin disciplines, her love of textiles and the experience of developing her own product line.
PdB: You’re one of the rare designers who merges writing and design. Do you ever find you are more drawn to one discipline than the other?
TMS: For me, designing and writing fall under similar umbrellas: they are mediums of expression dovetailing my love and passion for interior design. Since my initial career was as a writer, which I began right out of college when I graduated with a B.A. degree and a double major in English and psychology, writing about design has come naturally to me. I didn’t pursue a career in interior design until later—I was into my thirties, in fact, when I took classes at Parsons School of Design in the evenings after working my day-job at a public relations firm. Writing, promotion and communication are all important aspects of my talent.
Design was a hobby my entire life, and I learned to love it by participating in the DIY world with my mother, who was an early adopter in creating her own style. On a daily basis, she painted, decorated and created a beautiful home. In fact, I think I should mention that my mother was a single parent with three children; she was working two jobs while earning a Masters Degree in Social Work. She loved gardening, art and design, and it was normal for her to re-decorate, repurpose and paint with a stylish flair in order to create a lovely home for us.
Although money was extremely tight, we lived with beauty. This optimistic approach to design is what draws me to the industry. To me, it’s not about spending the highest amount of money, but relishing in the joys of the “good bones” of architecture, the gardening potential and making the most of what you are working with. Designing is optimistic, and I love taking a home to its very best potential. Writing about design, the products and the artisans is another layer of that very same perspective.
I will say that once a story is edited and submitted, I move on, so a writing project is easier for me in that it provides immediate gratification, and it is rewarding to see my published story in print or online. With a design project (especially a larger one with clients involved) the moving-on process is lengthier. There is nothing more rewarding than a job with enthusiastic and decisive clients who love what you do with their home. The level of gratification of a design project depends upon the client’s personality and involvement in the project, and I like to have involved clients who are invested in the design. This was a circuitous way to say I equally love design and writing about design.
PdB: Can you think of a product you’ve seen recently that you knew you’d not only write about but would include it in a project?
TMS: Almost everything I write about I would spec for a client or use in my own home. I set the bar high when choosing which products to write about on the “Nest by Tamara” blog, and I visualize my readers much like my own design clients, who I feel have a high level of standards. This certainly helps me to decide which products I should cover on the blog.
PdB: Do you have a formula for how you divide your time between designing and writing?
TMS: I am an artist first, which means I have no formula. I don’t even have an editorial calendar for the blog. I have been writing the blog for nine years, posting as many as four or five stories a week. I tried to become more formulaic but life with two careers and a family just doesn’t work that way for me. I take a more organic approach, and sometimes fit in my blog posts depending upon which products I’m specifying or events I’m attending. I must say I feel very fortunate to be living and working in NYC because I have a plethora of inspiration surrounding me at all times, and these experiences shape my stories daily.
I also travel a great deal—to cover design through sponsorships for the blog, which adds to the fodder I am afforded. For my freelance writing projects with deadlines, I just fit them in somehow. I have not suffered from writer’s block, and mostly because there seems to be an endless wellspring of content I could write about in my life. The challenge is fitting it all into my life time-wise, and there are some nights I am up until the wee hours of the morning writing my stories.
PdB: What is your philosophy when including textiles, like bedding and curtains, in a space?
TMS: When I graduated from Parsons I worked for a designer with offices in both New York City and Greenville, North Carolina. I was a glorified textile and wallpaper shopper for their office, and I learned the in’s and out’s of the D&D building, as well as design through the fabric showrooms. This cemented my love for textiles, and it is simply the most favorite part of the project for me. I love layering a home with beautiful textiles. Working for a southern-based interior design firm, I was educated on the very finest, most traditional forms of curtains and bedding, which gave me a deep education in this aspect design, much more than school provided. Now, all of these years later—as a co-owner and designer of a home textile company—I tap into that education. When it comes to decorating a home, I like to keep the draperies simple but elegant unless a client is open to me designing full curtains. They add a tremendous amount to a home, but the decision also depends upon the client’s lifestyle and the amount of natural light in the home.
PdB: Can you tell us about the moment you and Susan decided to found Root Cellar Designs?
TMS: Susan and I have been great friends since college. We complement one another with our skill-set but we also have a very similar work ethic. We have been friends for over 27 years, and for a dozen years before we worked together, we acknowledged that someday we wanted to collaborate. About five years ago, she began creating textiles for the dress collections she was designing at the time, and I helped her with her very first fashion show during New York Fashion Week. She created a full runway show on the rooftop of the Empire Hotel with 20 models wearing her designs. That evening while celebrating the success over a glass of wine, we agreed that someday, when the time was right, we would create home textiles together.
PdB: Has the effort brought any surprises to your career?
TMS: As the author of a popular interior design blog, Root Cellar Designs has been afforded opportunities beyond our expectations in many ways. The blog has given me the opportunity to travel to design trade shows all around Europe and the Untied States, and from these experiences I have met many professionals who have featured us, represented us and who sell our fabrics. The blog and my branding, quite frankly, opens doors for us.
PdB: Has it enriched your career in any way? I’ve heard other designers say that having products in their portfolio has brought immense satisfaction to their lives. Has this been the case for you? If so, can you describe how?
TMS: After years of profiling other designers and artisans on the blog, it is rewarding to be creating a permanent design element with our textiles. I like making collections that will live on; that will add graciousness to the design industry. Additionally, since we are both designing the patterns, it is great to have two creative inputs, and I think our collections are richer for that.
PdB: You’re a professional whom I’ve noticed is very keen on philanthropy. How important do you feel it is to give back to the world at large?
TMS: Again, I must go back to my roots. With a mother, who was a social worker and dedicated her entire life to helping others climb out of poverty (her thesis was titled, the “Feminization of Poverty”), philanthropy was something that was simply a part of our lives growing up. We never thought about it as charity; instead, it was expected that we would give back in our family, and it was just how we lived. It is a natural way for Susan and I to showcase our textiles, and through these events where the design community comes together showing beautiful work, the added bonus to us are the funds raised to help others in meaningful ways.
PdB: Can you remember the first time design changed your life in some way?
TMS: My husband and I built a beach cottage in East Hampton over 16 years ago. Building a home is an arduous and lengthy process, though a rewarding one. It is wonderful to take a vision and make it a reality. Of course, there were limitations, some due to budget constraints, others because of topography or permit issues, but finishing this home from the framed-out walls to the decorative finishes, I was given invaluable on-the-job training while making mistakes costing only me. This remains crucial knowledge to me as a designer.
One Busy Design Sophisticate
Not only is Tamara a board member of the New York Chapter of the non-profit organization IFDA (International Furnishings Design Association), she is acting VP of Communications. She brought the non-profit organization into the social media realm, writes their blog, and created and manages their social media platforms. Tamara is a former board member of The Flawless Foundation in New York City. She chaired their annual fundraiser in 2102, planning the details—from creating the dinner’s flower arrangements to decorating the room and tables for a 150-person sit-down dinner at the historic Burden Mansion in New York City. She also launched the organization on social media in their early days.
Tamara is involved also in myriad fundraisers and interior design industry charity events where she utilizes her creativity to showcase designs for a variety of causes. The influencer has co-chaired the IFDA NY Chapter’s annual Take A Seat charity auction, raising significant funds for Habitat For Humanity NYC. She styled a kitchen for Traditional Home magazine’s annual Art of the Table event in the Bilotta showroom, which you can see in the video above. Tamara has also created a French seaside dining room for the charity event Design On A Dime benefitting Housingworks; and this past April, she decorated a table for the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House spring gala at Cipriani restaurant, images of which are shown in this post.
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