Studio Visit

Vanessa Holden, Creative Director of West Elm

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
20th of September 2013
A look behind the scenes in the New York headquarters of global furniture and homewares retailer West Elm.  Inspiration wall above in West Elm's furniture designer Paulo's office.  Photo - Julian Wass.
A look behind the scenes at West Elm - this area houses West Elm's product development and sourcing teams. Photo - Julian Wass.
Vanessa Holden in the 'pagination' space at West Elm's headquarters in Brooklyn, planning the next catalog with creative manager Michele.  Photo - Julian Wass.
West Elm's Australian creative director, Vanessa Holden, photographed in the company's in house photographic studio, with West Elm's extensive design library.  Photo - Julian Wass.
Vanessa Holden has been on my 'must interview' list for a very long time.  Like, maybe 4+ years. Which, as it happens, is actually longer than she's held her current role as Senior Vice President and Creative Director of US-based homewares retail giant West Elm.  She's just one of those seriously impressive Australian creatives doing us proud in New York City, having held the role of Creative Director at Real Simple magazine, then Editor-in-Chief at Martha Stewart Weddings and Martha Stewart Living magazine (basically, Martha's right-hand woman), before jumping head first into an entirely different role at West Elm in 2010.  Not bad for a woman who only moved to NYC in 2004!  Having originally been introduced to Vanessa by Megan Morton, who is one of Vanessa's closest friends, I knew I had to pin her down at some point for a little feature here. This week, following the launch of West Elm's first Melbourne store (!!), it's finally time to chat to this dynamic and seriously high achieving Aussie ex pat! Born and raised in Sydney, Vanessa's career really started in magazine land.  As she explains below, after finishing uni (a fine arts degree at Sydney's COFA with a design major) Vanessa bounced between roles in publishing, product development, branding and advertising, before settling on magazines.  With a passion for inspiring visuals and narrative, a 20 year love affair with lifestyle publishing soon followed.  In Australia, that included a stint as art director at the beautiful (sadly now defunct) Vogue Living + Entertaining, and the launch of Donna Hay magazine in 2001, which Vanessa co-founded.  Vanessa was part of a small group of influential tastemakers in the 90's who really cultivated a quintessentially 'Australian' sense of style - crisp, fresh, minimally styled editorial spreads, and the celebration of an aspirational yet relaxed, sophisticated yet supremely accessible lifestyle. Vanessa's appointment at West Elm highlights the global trend for the merging of the  retail experience with a content-driven experience.  With so much shopping shifting online, it has become hugely important for large retail brands to create a culture and sense of community amongst their customer base - and who better to faciliate this than a former magazine editor? Globally, West Elm represents affordable contemporary design and homewares.  Their extensive range includes furniture, rugs, linen, tableware, decorator items and everything in between.  In part due to Vanessa's influence, there's also a sense of respect and affection for the independent design scenes in each city West Elm inhabits - through an ongoing collaboration with Etsy, West Elm makes room in every store to display and sell items by local crafters / independent designers.  In Melbourne they've teamed up with Bonnie & Neil to create a custom tote bag especially for their launch, and there are many more local collaborations in the pipeline! When not driving the world's home / lifestyle trends, Vanessa is a busy Mum to two teenage kids - Oh and I'm happy to report that despite nearly 10 years in the US, she still has a 100% true blue Aussie accent.  Not a hard 'R' to be heard.  Now that's an achievement! West Elm Melbourne (JUST opened this week!) 464 Chapel Street South Yarra
Tell us a little bit about yourself – where did you grow up, what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing today?
I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney – completely, totally obsessed with art, pop culture, graphics and every other kind of design discipline, magazines and making things.  I ended up at art school, studying Fine Arts, with a major in Design. As soon as I saw there was a job title 'Art Director' (probably on a magazine masthead), that’s what I wanted to be, and I just got to work as soon as I could. I bounced around between freelancing and full-time in publishing, product development, branding and advertising for a while before focussing on magazines – I was, and still am, a magazine fiend. The combination of inspiring visuals and engaging narrative in lifestyle publishing became my sandpit – one that I’ve continued to play in for nearly 20 (!) years now.
Campaign imagery from West Elm's September catalogue.  West Elm takes every opportunity to generate beautiful content and stories around their product, in part propelled by Vanessa Holden's own background in magazine publishing.  Their extensive web presence and monthly catalogues present an opportunity to generate an incredible growing archive of high quality photography and other content.
Prior to West Elm you worked for many years in magazines, co-founding Donna Hay Magazine in 2001 before moving to New York and eventually taking up the role of Editor-in-Chief at Martha Stewart Living! How and why did you make the move from Sydney to New York originally, and what can you tell us about working for Martha Stewart!?
Honestly, I moved to New York because the opportunity presented itself at a time in my life when I wanted to extend myself, to do the unexpected and try something completely new and different. I was offered the role of creative director at Real Simple, which at the time was just a newsstand magazine, but the opportunity was to work on the magazine and also build out brand extensions in product, special issues, books, television, syndicated content, and online. I was a big fan of the brand and it was a big opportunity so I went for it! Similarly, the opportunity to work with Martha was really a chance to work with what I knew were some of the most talented content creators in the lifestyle space – and Martha – who was a great supporter and mentor for me. I loved working with her – she’s endlessly curious and challenging, always looking to push things forward and explore new things. And her energy and passion for living is extraordinary!
More recently you have moved from publishing to retail, taking on the role of Creative Director at West Elm in 2010. How did this opportunity come about, and how have you found the transition from media ‘commentator’ to ‘creator’?
I definitely think of myself as a creator of content and a storyteller in all of my roles: there’s just never really been that distinction for me. A brand like West Elm offers me the unique opportunity to not only create content with the great team we have in-house, but inspire people to create and share a whole host of lifestyle content around the interests we share. The aesthetic diversity of our product, coupled with the values of the brand around handcrafted products, supporting the maker and local initiatives make the stories we can tell incredibly diverse but inclusive. It’s very exciting. There are just so many great stories to share that are connected to what we’re doing at West Elm – from designer and maker stories, to seasonal style and product ideas, to inspiring images that our customers create at home or in their local communities. Where we seek and find content has shifted so much that the commentator and creator have become one and the same.
Campaign imagery from West Elm's September catalogue.
West Elm opened its first Australian flagship store in Sydney earlier this year, and the Melbourne store just opened yesterday!  Was your launch here influenced by your own affection for Australia, and how does it feel bringing West Elm to your homeland?
I’d love to say that I have that much persuasive power, but the decisions were really driven by the business. We started shipping internationally via our website a few years ago and Australia immediately jumped up to the number two country in sales right behind Canada. We started looking for real estate very quickly and have found these two amazing locations. I couldn’t be more excited and more proud to bring West Elm to my home.
For Aussies who don’t yet know West Elm, how would you describe the brand briefly, in non-marketing speak?!
Hah – well, what we do is pretty straightforward – at West Elm, we make it easy to express your personal style at home. What that means is we’ve created a brand, products, stores, resources and services that are truly creative spaces and that take the intimidation out of 'decorating'. We work really closely with our customer to connect them with people, products and ideas that inspire them, help them identify their style and bring it to life. And we work to connect our customers to people who share similar passions around home, handcraft and creativity.
Campaign imagery from West Elm's September catalogue.  West Elm takes every opportunity to generate beautiful content and stories around their product, in part propelled by Vanessa Holden's own background in magazine publishing.
Campaign imagery from West Elm's September catalogue.
West Elm has a great reputation for collaborating with local designers and creatives, bridging the gap between mainstream retail and independent design. Why is this important to West Elm and what plans for collaboration do you have lined up for Melbourne?
This is so important for us because it makes us better at everything we do: it opens us up to new aesthetics, techniques, processes, and ideas. The design and creative community in Melbourne is just extraordinarily rich: there’s no shortage of amazing possibilities for collaboration. For the opening, we’ve partnered with Bonnie & Neil and they’ve created a tote bag for us that’s available only at the Melbourne store. Their optimism, graphic voice and approach to colour is so great! I’d love to do something with Christopher Boots – his point of view is so unique; and a visit to Craft is a treasure trove of opportunity – don’t get me started!
Diane, manager of packaging and signage at West Elm.  Photo - Julian Wass.
What does a typical day for Vanessa Holden involve?
7.30am - Wake and do the morning hustle with the family, then by... 8.30-ish - Head to the office. If I’m good, I’ll walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – if I’m lazy, I’ll jump in a cab. I grab a coffee downstairs at West Elm Market, then I’m in my office in Dumbo by... 9.00am - Emails! I get into as many as I can before… 9.30am-6.00pm - A day in the office. There really is no typical day - other than it’s non-stop! Depending on where we’re at on the brand calendar I could be meeting with any number of teams - collaborating with our design team to develop concepts and palettes for future seasons, reviewing sketches and samples, working with our graphics and editorial teams on concepting stories, photography and graphic treatments, reviewing and refining layouts for the catalogue, emails or; with store visual on in-store display, as well as things like signage and packaging. I could be out of the office visiting with a future collaborator, talking to a blogger, or working with the photo team on set at our studio. I eat on the go – usually grabbing something from a pop-up vendor like Rice + Miso (totally addictive!) at West Elm Market or from one of the food trucks that hit our neighbourhood every day: Calexico is a current fave. 6.00-7.00pm - Wind down at work and head home (usually) or out (2-3nights a week) – to meet with collaborators and partners, or attend events in support of their work or the design community here in NY. I love meeting new people and finding ways to work together - the creative community here is endlessly inspiring: there’s always something interesting going on. 8.30-9.00pm - A good week means I’m home by 9pm most nights. If I’m home earlier, we’ll eat together as a family, catching up on each others days. Once the kids are in bed, I’m usually back online to finish up email, check out favorite sites and blogs, and check in to what’s showing up on instagram from Australia – it’s one of the perks of back-to-front days! 11.30pm/12.00am - Peel myself out of the interwebz&zzz.
West Elm's The visual team, Jim, Cipriano and Saba, working on plans for a new store opening layout. Photo - Julian Wass.
What has been one major career highlight so far?
Launching Donna Hay Magazine was pretty amazing. There’s nothing like being a part of something from concept to creation. And I actually get to do that every day at West Elm too, which is pretty great. Every season we’re designing new product, and telling new stories. The possibilities are really endless.
What are you looking forward to?
Taking West Elm to the world – so far this year we’ve opened in Kuwait, Montreal, Sydney, now Melbourne and in November we will open in London – connecting people through the values and passion that we share around handcraft, community, creativity and distinctive style at home. I’m always looking forward to a new season too: this holiday season is just around the corner and I can’t wait until it gets to the stores! There’s nothing like setting new product and presentations! We have so many really unique exclusive gifts, décor and trim stories - and I love that the holidays and the celebrations around them give you the opportunity to really experiment with new decorating ideas. And the collaborations coming next year that will be available worldwide – stay tuned!
A sweet corner in the visual team's area at West Elm HQ.  Photo - Julian Wass.

Sydney vs. New York City !

Your favourite neighbourhood and why?
Sydney: Bondi and Tamarama. For me, Sydney’s all about the beach. If I want to eat or shop, I can drive. NYC: Tribeca. It’s the only neighborhood I’ve ever lived in in NYC, and I love it – it’s comparatively quiet, and everything I need is here, but it’s an easy walk to Chinatown, Soho, Nolita, the West Village and Chelsea – pretty much anywhere below 23rd st. It’s close to the Hudson River Park, so I can get outside down by the water to bike or relax when the weather’s great.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney and New York City?
Sydney: I think Sydney does breakfast better than anywhere else in the world, and my fave is at Ruby’s Diner – not only because it feels like I’m eating at my friends place, but that definitely gives it the edge. Any meal at Kitchen by Mike is perfect too – great, unbelievably delicious food anytime of day. Also, the last great meal I ate in Aus was definitely at Cumulus Inc. with you Lucy – that was FANTASTIC! NYC: I love a late late dinner out in NY, and I love the more neighborhoody standbys: where the food and the vibe are familiar, consistent and get better the later it gets – I revisit the likes of The Odeon, Il Buco, Omen and Bar Pitti over and over.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Sydney: Up and out for a swim with a breakfast-with-friends chaser. NYC: Grab a coffee (usually from La Colombe on Church) and go go go: Saturday morning is all about my kids – getting them to various sports or classes, galleries, shopping, supplies – catching up on the week and hopefully getting a little bit ahead of the next one.
Sydney / NYC’s best kept secret?
Sydney: Any rock, any long afternoon on the harbor between Strickland House and Shark Bay near Nielsen Park. If the lights right and you’re inclined to sit a while, it can be magical. NYC: The rooftop gardens! New York is so much greener than you think. Get up to a rooftop bar in Tribeca or Chelsea (like The Top Of The Standard, Soho House or The James) and enjoy the greenery.
The incredible view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Vanessa's office at West Elm HQ in Dumbo.  Photo - Julian Wass.

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