Interview: Design*Sponge Founder Grace Bonney

Posted on: January 5th, 2012 by David Garber 3 Comments

Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge. (Photo: Jamie Beck)

Do you need to define yourself as a preservationist to be a preservationist?

Even here at the National Trust, we have wide-ranging and disparate definitions of what the word means. Some are in it for the aesthetics. Others for the history. And others still for the environmental benefits. To one person, exposing brick is a breath of fresh air. To another, it's a preservation travesty. And the movement, on the whole, benefits from the checks and balances of a diverse set of passions and definitions.

My favorite places tend to be the kind where history and artifact are valued. Mix a collection of old buildings in with a pop of modern architecture and infrastructure and you have my ideal style: old meets new, rustic meets clean, background meets foreground. But for as much as I think preservation is an important ingredient to the specialness of places, it's a charged topic that can mean a million different things to a million different people. What's worth saving, and why, is different for everyone (and for a million different reasons).

On the recommendation of a coworker, I recently checked out the popular blog Design*Sponge. By chance, it was on a day that the site's founding author, Grace Bonney, had posted about her enterprise's recent move to the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn - a c. 1923 art deco factory building characterized by (surprise, surprise) gigantic terra-cotta reliefs of yellow pencils.

And so, bound equally by my personal obsession with warehouses and a curiosity about what makes a building like that attractive to other people, I requested an interview. I wanted to learn why she chose that particular building and what, as a tastemaker, her thoughts were about the role of history, old-ness, and artifacts in contemporary design. I also wondered: does Grace Bonney consider herself a preservationist? Read on to find out.

You recently moved offices into the Pencil Factory in Brooklyn. What drew you to the building?

I lived right around the corner when I first moved to New York City in 2003. I walked by it every day, and when I moved back to the neighborhood in 2011 it just seemed like the right place to be. It's chock-full of amazing artists (many of whom we've covered and love) and the building itself has a ton of character - but is still raw enough that the landlords pretty much let you do anything to the interiors. Which is great for me because I really wanted to make some changes inside. I feel really lucky to have a new space to play with that's still so close to home.

Describe your personal design style.

It's really been in transition for a while now - the past few years I've really been moving on from the "cuteness" I think I'm associated with (at least in terms of Design*Sponge and that aesthetic) and have been moving towards a slightly darker, more masculine look. But with a preppy, traditional spin.

I'll always have that Southern part of me that longs for something that reminds me of the old-school preppy kids I grew up with. I both loathed and loved them. I never fit in with that group because I wasn't one of them, but their style - that sort of Ralph Lauren traditional look with a Southern spin - is something my internal barometer has always deemed cool. So I'd say I'm leaning towards that sort of traditional tailored style (lots of navy blue) with a Brooklyn spin.

What is your favorite neighborhood (anywhere) and why? Feel free to mention a few.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn: my first and current New York City homebase. It's really come into its own in the past 10 years and I love that it's got the sort of restaurants, bars and shops that I love without being overly sceney and hipster-crowded like similar parts of Brooklyn.

Bedford Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (Photo: Flickr user MatthewChamberlain)

The NE quadrant, Portland, Oregon: I spent my summer in Portland last year and this area was my homebase. If I could wake up and walk to Ristretto coffee every morning I would be a very happy girl.

The Sunset District, San Francisco: I didn't really discover this area until this summer when we interviewed local artists for our newspaper. It instantly reminded me of home (I grew up in a beach town) and felt like a cooler, more progressive version of my hometown.

What role do old buildings and objects play in the contemporary design world?

I think they've played an overly heavy role lately - people have become somewhat obsessed with them. I have always preferred to surround myself with older "things" as much as possible, but not to the level where I'm faking age. It's kind of maddening to see so many stores carrying objects that are clearly mass-produced but have had a low-quality "aged" finish applied. That said, I'm glad people really have learned to re-appreciate (everything moves in cycles) antiques again - I just hope they'll dive a little deeper past the industrial or mid-century craze and really learn more about the history behind the objects and why people loved certain styles at certain times. I find that part, the sort of cultural reasoning for design trends, fascinating.

No judgment zone: Do you consider yourself a preservationist? Why or why not?

No, I don't. My desire to preserve anything tends to be pretty subjective, if I'm being honest. I feel incredibly passionate about preserving "old" New York and parts of the deep South, yet I find myself also appreciating the ways in which some cities, like Venice, Italy, are embracing the natural disintegration of some of their oldest structures. So it really depends on the thing/place being discussed. But in general I tend to see both sides of any argument for and against preservation. New York City is a great example of that debate - there's an insane amount of history here, but there's also so much new life and innovation, it can be tempting to see both sides at odds with each other and not know which to embrace.

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

General, Interviews, Local Preservationists

3 Responses

  1. Melanie

    January 6, 2012

    I think this interview with Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge demonstrates the way in which the word “Preservationist” continues to cripple the effectiveness of this movement. For here is an individual who is a well educated, intelligent and astute (I’ve been a follower of her blog for several years so I know this very well), exactly the type of design-minded person who would choose a historic building with the character-defining distinction of pencil-shaped ornaments around its parapet. And yet, when asked if she’s a preservationist, she answers no, and her reasoning is that the dynamic places she loves such as New York City would not be what they are today if preservationists had had their way. What she doesn’t realize – and I would suggest that most people don’t realize – is that these very places have retained their character because of the intervention of preservationists. It’s time to depart with the word Preservationist and the stigma that comes with it.

  2. Grace

    January 7, 2012


    I just wanted to clarify one part of the interview. I didn’t suggest that “the dynamic places she loves such as New York City would not be what they are today if preservationists had had their way”. I don’t think that at all. I know that so many places in NYC wouldn’t be what they are without the work of preservationists. But I also know that NYC wouldn’t be what it is without new structures and letting innovative ideas/structures occasionally replace older ones. I see a case for both sides and understand both the need for preservation and innovation.


  3. Melanie

    January 7, 2012

    Thanks for your response, Grace. I agree – not everything old should be preserved. Your response to whether you call yourself a preservationist is right on. My concern is more with the continued use of the word because it tends to be defined by everyone outside the inner circle of historic preservation as the “no” person, rather than the person that helps manage change in a responsible way. A lot of people are surprised to learn that in my professional role as an architectural historian, most of my time is spent proving places SHOULDN’T be preserved (though I get to work to keep really special places intact as they come along). I, along with others that are grouped under the term preservationists, serve as a “check” in the review process that can allow for at least an opportunity to consider whether there may be something important in a place rather than allowing a place to be indiscriminately demolished. In my experience, development usually goes forward, permitting new innovative architecture to be constructed (the sort of stuff that preservationist will be preserving 50 years from now). Keep up the great work at Design*Sponge – I’ll be following along to see how the new office turns out. Love those pencils!