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Erin Loechner on Style and Substance: Woman Crush Wednesday

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After I sent off another list of questions last week to today’s WCW interviewee, I wondered how long I’d run this series. My wild and crazy brain is notorious for starting new things, loving them for awhile and then flitting off to find new ideas. But then Erin sent her questions back, and I poured a cup of coffee one morning and sat down to read her responses. In a few thoughtful answers, my friend had written a short book–a good one–one that filled me up, made me feel understood and stretched my perspective a little more–which is exactly what I hope these women do for you too.

I “met” Erin several years ago when a mutual blogging friend connected us through an e-mail group intended to serve as a support and advice channel through the blogging business. In little time, she became known as the helper, always quick to respond with thoughtful advice and well-versed in all things blogging and business. When I checked out her blog, Design For Mankind, there were even more reasons to love her. Not only is she nice and generous–she’s dripping with style and unique design ideas. A former art director/stylist in LA, Erin’s been writing and speaking for years for clients such as IKEA and Martha Stewart and has created a following of over a million design-loving fans. She hosted a 2-year/24-episode web series for HGTV.com and has designed products for a number of companies. But enough about that stuff. There are a lot of creative geniuses out there, and I don’t pick my woman crushes for how cute and stylish they are (but she’s both, for the record). I started reading Erin’s writing, and that’s what drew me in. Speaking pie chart terms, she was one slice design and a whole rest of a pie left for bigger and better things–like discovering how to marry a love of aesthetics with fighting materialism and keeping up with the Jones. I love Erin for her heart and her vulnerability and the way she both pushes herself to be her best and yet accepts herself for who she is. Take the explanation she attached to her interview alone: These answers are me, at my best. They are not my everything, my always, and in fact, I contradict them nearly every time I have a bad hour where my pants feel too tight and I don’t like the crossbar wrinkles between my eyes and the toddler is yelling about the tag on her shirt. I answered these in a fairly peaceful state of mind at my favorite coffee shop and look, they have just brought me eggs and hot sauce. So, I hope I do not sound too Pollyanna, or too much of an idealist, but in truth, I am. I am an intense idealist, and I will always fall short of perfection, and so will every woman who reads these words. I know you know this, so they feel safe with you and your readers. But I never want to Photoshop my words, so there you have it – raw from the cutting room floor.

I’m so thrilled to share my friend Erin Loechner with you today. You’re going to eat her words up.

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You were an art director and stylist in LA, you write a design blog, you research trends and there’s no doubt from your work that you appreciate beautiful things. What I really love and relate to is how open you are in your struggle to justify your love of aesthetics. You’ve written this: “I’ve slowly morphed into this odd, thinky design blog where I’m asking a lot of questions, searching for answers and trying to figure out how design applies to my life now…I’m in this weird space where I see so much value in design, but am also seeing a lot of the cost. Consumerism, materialism, keeping-up-with-the-Jones-ism.” You’ve expressed though that there have been times you’ve compromised your own gifts, talents and interests listening to, as you put it, ”the voices of well-intentioned authors writing their own stories.” Some examples of those voices: You’re a designer? Don’t you feel that contributes to a materialistic culture? or Christian mothers shouldn’t work outside the home or Beauty is an idol. First of all, let me say from a friend who reads your work and follows your journey, I am so inspired by the way you openly juggle these things and entertain both parts of you. Now tell us how you do it. It’s a pill, right? It’s an easy one-time fix and all the questions and justifications go away. 

Oh, Kelle! You do not ask the easy questions, do you? I’d expect no less from a fellow beauty and truth seeker.

The pill, I believe, is acceptance. When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a female attorney that used to come into the coffee shop I wrote from, and she’s the epitome of the image your brain likely conjured when you just read the words “female attorney.” Black suit, dark hair slicked into a bun, Hermes bag. My eyes would follow her long gait as she’d enter, a butterfly of power flitting into the room.

You know what she pulled out of her bright orange bag one morning? Not a manila folder of contracts, documents, briefs. She pulled out her cross-stitch and sipped a latte and sat in the corner and needled, and I was smacked in the face at how little I understand about life and the people who occupy it.

I think of that woman whenever I get into a tizzy about how I’m straddling my own fence; when I’m falsely believing that I need to pick one or the other: style or substance? We cannot have it all, because we’re already all of it. We are mothers and daughters, and we can be teachers and wives and really bad cooks that sometimes go to yoga but mostly just wear yoga pants. We can be foodies who frequent Chik-fil-A (waffle fries, you know it) and we can be skincare experts who battle breakouts. We can be stylists in sweat pants and cobblers in bare feet. We can be mothers who emanate serenity and peace and yet, we might still cry in a heap over spilled rice (me, yesterday, on the wood floor).

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And we can be powerhouse female attorneys in L.A., who cross stitch on our 7am call with Japan.

The reason, I think, we try so hard to compartmentalize ourselves is because we are so busy compartmentalizing others, to make sense of them, to understand them. And so, lately, I’ve been working toward finding the contradiction in others to help me embrace the contradiction in myself. My friend Caroline is a fierce feminist and also a stay-at-home mother who cooks three meals a day in an apron and hot curlers. (Really!) My friend Jones is a prominent chef who eats Mac and Cheese from the blue box every morning – and he doesn’t even add gouda! People are unbelievable. They are swirly mixes, like constellations, like carousels.

And if that isn’t proof of style and substance, I don’t know what is.

(This entire conversation, which I could go on and on and on about for days, is so reminiscent of one of my favorite posts of yours, btw.)


So let’s talk about style. We know that style does not equate to “stuff” and buying and trends. What does it mean in your life and how does it transfer to your home and wardrobe?

I was raised a minimalist and will always bend toward practicality first. If an item has less than three purposes, I often find it useless (this is largely why my scarf collection is unmatched – oh, the possibilities!).

Still, I will not pretend that a new pair of perfectly shaped denim does not make my heart pulse with the magic of transformation. I love style, and I love the magic of transformation. I tend to believe that we reflect the atmosphere in which we live, and so, ever the Midwesterner, I am a 4-season chameleon.

As a child, I was ever rearranging. This is why I identify myself as a stylist and not as a decorator, or an interior designer. An interior designer is meticulous, thoughtful, designing a room with the mind whilst seated behind an oak desk with a measuring tape in hand, pencil behind ear. (I don’t know, perhaps I am judging, perhaps I am missing the orange Hermes bag with the peeking cross stitch beneath.)

But a stylist! Oh, a stylist designs a room with the heart. She walks into a space and surveys it, and begins moving things around like a burst of a tornado, and when she leaves, you wonder why you’d never thought to use that colander as wall art, or the kids’ outgrown boots as an entryway planter, and what, where did those dish towels even come from? (Your grandmother’s blouse, from the bottom heap in your closet.)

Style is really just experimenting, I think. It’s trying on a lot of hats, looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, ooh, this one looks how I feel like feeling right now.

Here, let’s add a feather.

There.


Most favorite meaningful purchase for your home and closet and reason behind its importance?

Oh, this is a tough one! I’m actually very bad at meaningful purchases. I don’t attach a lot of value to things, and am ever too practical, so there is really nothing precious in my home that I’d feel I must gather should the house burn down, you know?

But there are purchases and acquisitions that conjur memories, and the memories, I would miss. A pair of beaten leather sandals I walked the streets of Singapore in, a wooden toy lion I wrapped in scarves and toted home from Ethiopia, a dog-eared copy of The Phantom Tollbooth that has accompanied me for years of haircuts and heartbreaks and red-eye flights. I’d miss my husband’s worn thin scrubs that line his drawers – the ones he’d been wearing the first night we cooked mushroom pasta and chose love.


Your blog is considered a design blog but I love how you haven’t let that pigeon-hole you into a particular style of writing and posts. You write about family, faith, women, being true to yourself, motherhood–things that fit perfectly with design because we are both, we are all. That said, how do these things affect each other? How does your family, your faith and motherhood influence and inspire your sense of design?

You know, all of that substance – the family, the faith, the feelings, the frets – are so very braided into the style that I now find it hard to find which inspires the other. It’s just me, making decisions with my head or my heart, and sometimes style wins over – other times substance.

I mean, design is always a matter of depth, I think. We can pretend like it’s not – like it’s only parties and peonies, stripes and sofas – but in my circumstances, it’s always been much more. Our environment plays such a role in our thoughts (have you ever tried running in a river? relaxing in a riot?), and we’re the great environment makers. We can choose to decide that we’re not stylish enough, or rich enough, or creative enough to change the environment, or we can just change it, little by little. We can stack our favorite books on end and call it a nightstand, if we’d like.

I think, for me, the way my life shapes my design sense – now, in this moment – is that it’s teaching me what matters and what does not. I have always obsessively craved order and peace, and yet, there is a toddler underfoot, and my spatula is missing, and good gracious, what are you doing in my sock drawer?

A crazed monkey has snuck into my sterile little lab, and I am learning to like it. To wit, the contents of my former bar cart reveal much about our current state, about the delicate balance between intentional order in the name of Mama’s peace and creative disarray in the name of fun. From left to right, an empty jar of almond butter, three cookbooks, a swirly clump of dried brown Play-doh, an errant wooden block, a whistle (?), nine thousand rocks, leaves and various nature “collections” and an ominously empty tube of toothpaste, of which I have not yet found the remaining contents thereof.

Ah, and there is my spatula! Naturally.

I’m learning to let go of my need for order, control, organization, and on good days, I write this. On bad days, I do this. I will never get it right, but I’m trying.


I love conversations about leadership and women and how true leadership is really a melding of leading, following and listening. Yes we “lean in” but sometimes we need to lean back, especially if everything within us is saying “this isn’t working!” You founded Clementine Daily, managed writers, spent some time as “the boss” and recently wrote about how that role doesn’t fit with what you want right now. As you wrote, “It is hard to talk about female leadership now without entering a feminist conversation, without tiptoeing around words like empowerment or equality, without taking a stance with our feet planted firmly, lips pursed. I don’t particularly enjoy planted feet.” Can you tell us more about these feelings and how you used them to shift some things around to make sure you were living your best life?

Oh, yes yes yes. It’s hard to talk about prioritizing family over career without the feminist word rearing its head, without the choir shouting that we are stomping on the graves of the historically brave women who fought for so much of what we take for granted.

And yet, these suffrage women were so very against the grain, and I am now beginning to believe that – were they here, were they my mentors – they would not have furrowed their brow and said, “Fight for your right to lead.”

I believe they’d have patted my hand and said, “Fight for your right to choose where you lead.”

I don’t know, it’s like the more free we are in reality, the more shackled we become in our minds. Do we not know our own freedom? Are we not owning the fact that – when our alarm rings at 6am – we can roll out of bed and pick up a briefcase or we can roll out of bed and pick up a binky? Do we not know that we get to choose, without justification or expectation? What a gift! What a gift we have been given.

I am romanticizing, of course. Not every gal gets to choose, and not every woman is free from expectation.

But here’s the truth: I love my life because I have chosen to love my life. I have chosen to lead my best life, which is equal parts in the coffee shop at 6am, writing my beliefs, and equal parts in the yoga studio at 9am, centering my beliefs, and equal parts in the playroom at 12pm, teaching my beliefs, and equal parts in the kitchen at 3pm, practicing my beliefs, and equal parts in the dining room at 6pm, living my beliefs.

I do not believe in the words, “I have to,” as in, “I have to go to work, or I have to raise my children.”
It is only, “I get to.”

We get to go to work.
We get to raise our children.
We get to take out the trash, evidence of abundance.
We get to chop these vegetables, evidence of nourishment.
We get to rush out the door, late and frenzied, with the diaper bag spilling and phone ringing, evidence of life abuzz all around us.

Some of us could choose this perspective, but won’t. And that’s not suffrage. It’s suffering.


I dug through some of your old writing and life lists and saw one of your goals last year was to say no more. Whether it’s saying no to friends, opportunities or people we don’t want to let down, it’s still hard, especially for pleasers—I’m one of them. I just want everyone to be happy! Have you followed through with that goal this past year? What filters do you use to decide whether or not your answer is a “yes” or a “no”, and have you found a way to confidently deliver those “no”s that feels comfortable to you?

I am truly terrible at this, but am recovering, slowly, and am working hard to not confuse the terms servanthood and martyrdom.

I suppose the biggest shift is that I continually ask myself:
Will this ____________ leave me with enough energy to be the __________ I want to be?

Will this writing assignment leave me with enough energy to be the mother I want to be?
Will this volunteer position leave me with enough energy to be the wife I want to be?
Will this new project leave me with enough energy to be the friend I want to be?

I cannot show up for everyone; I am not a gift to the world. I am a gift to my world – to the people in my life, my real life – and they are a gift to me. If a “fill in the blank” will leave them with an empty box to open at the end of the day, then well, I must pass. It’s only fair. No one loves an empty gift.

As for delivering this perspective, I can only offer this: If you write publicly that you are working on saying “No,” fewer people are inclined to ask you of things. 😉

But truly, I’ve also been incorporating many more clear and specific boundaries when I do agree to something. It’s a “Yes, but,” which is similar to a “No,” but feels a bit less selfish. I could potentially be kidding myself here; I haven’t yet decided.

For example, if a friend is moving and asks me to stage her home, instead of saying, “Sure! When do you need me?” I’ll simply say, “Sure! I can come from 4-6 on Tuesday, but I’ll have the toddler with me – can your older girls keep an eye on her while I style away?”

It’s direct and clear and doesn’t mean I’ll need to rearrange my schedule or prioritize something that doesn’t necessarily fall in line with my priorities, but that sounds like something I’d enjoy doing.

And as for declining certain opportunities, I’m learning that “No” can be a sentence, if we’d like.


You work from home and raise a toddler—two things that don’t always mix well. I know because the cushion covers from my couch are in the washer right now after an entire bottle of ketchup was squeezed all over them, and I’m behind on e-mail. And yet I’m thankful for the opportunity to do both and I constantly make changes where necessary to keep things as balanced as possible. If you had to give your three best tips for balancing work and motherhood, what would they be?

1. Compartmentalize, if you can. I don’t imagine a chef particularly enjoys cooking in his garage, and I don’t particularly enjoy writing in my bedroom. I’m a big space compartmentalizer, so I need the elements to be served with as little distraction as possible. To do this, I wake up at 4:45am, jet out of bed, shower and sneak out of the house to the local coffee shop. I carve out a chunk of work in a quiet spot before the rest of the world wakes, and when I return home (as early as 9am on a good day!), I’m energized after having some productivity under my belt. When I’m at the coffee shop, I’m writing. When I’m home, I’m home. It’s pretty cut and dry for me, and it works well. (I am a terrible multi-tasker!)

2. Reassess often. Parenting stages change so quickly. I’m a morning person, and my husband is a night owl, so when Bee arrived we thought, “Awesome! Both shifts are covered!” I took the morning shift with Bee, and Ken took the night shift. But, as freelancers, we both struggled to get in the work mode and eventually we realized we were utilizing our best hours on tedious infant tasks (with love, of course, but you know what I mean – changing diapers isn’t the most intellectually stimulating duty). So we swapped. I started working in the morning, during my most productive moments, and Ken starting working at night. The swap stuck and although we’re always shifting more hours here and less hours there with the changing demands of work and play, it’s a really good system for us. We’re unusual in that we both have flexible schedules, both split childcare and both work from “home,” but I know of many creative working mothers who swap childcare or run a miniature co-op for littles where they take turns teaching special skills once a week while the other mamas get a break.

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3. Pick one. While I believe it is very possible to balance work and motherhood with a supportive village, some creativity and a healthy dose of flexible solutions, there are bound to be moments when the two do not complement each other. The baby skipped her nap but your conference call is in five minutes and she’s hungry and the dog just ran out into the street and the eggs are burning and… well, we can’t do it all. It’s a priority I’ve set from the beginning, and in those times, I let motherhood take precedence and the conference call gets rescheduled, with immense apologies. I believe in priorities, and I believe motherhood is mine.


I had typed “What’s next for you?” for this question but then erased it because sometimes “What’s next?” can seem like what you’re already doing isn’t good enough. So tell me this, what are you excited about right now?

Oh, many things! We’re planning a trip to Ecuador in a few months, so I’ve been furiously researching Quito textiles. We’re also in the early stages of an adoption – something that has taken years to fulfill and still unearths deep fears and anxiety for me. But you know, a lot of good things bring a bit of anxiety for what lies beneath – murky oceans, towering canyons, aging carpet – and you don’t get the gem without the dig.

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I love the way you dig, Erin. Thank you for digging, for letting us in on the dig. I’ll get my shovel and meet you out in the canyon. When it gets hot, will you show me how to properly tie a cute head scarf? xo Thank you for your words today.

To read more from Erin Loechner, you can read her blog, Design for Mankind (grab a shovel–you’ll be digging over there too). 

And for more inspiring words from fabulous women, check out other Woman Crush Wednesday interviews here.