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Vanessa Holden: Why Beautiful Design Moments Can Exist Anywhere

Vanessa Holden: Why Beautiful Design Moments Can Exist Anywhere
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The SVP and CD of furniture and accessories giant, west elm, shares why, for her, creativity is about making.

Dory Carr-Harris, PSFK
  • 19 february 2014

Why Beautiful Design Moments Can Exist Anywhere

Vanessa Holden is adamant that for her, creativity must involve the act of creation. “It’s getting your hands dirty yourself and making something happen, because without that, it’s just ideas.”

The Sydney native, who now lives in New York, is currently employing her keen design sense as the Senior Vice President and Creative Director of global furniture, home d’ecor and accessories brand, West Elm. “I always wanted to work in magazines or advertising or graphic design—art of some description. Then lifestyle, I think, came later on. But always design, always nice things.”

Prior to heading up the creative team at West Elm, Holden worked in editorial beginning at Vogue Australia, the now defunct Vogue Entertaining, and Vogue Living, Donna Hay, Real Simple and Martha Stewart Wedding and Living.

“Editorial and retail are very different spaces that share some very real similarities. The toolkit that you apply to both of them is very similar. The things that my team and I do every day are the things that editorial teams do all the time. We look at products and figure out their stories.”

“Our role is to bring the product to life, and to really build out the West Elm world. Those editorial filters of, ‘What’s really interesting here? What’s the common thread here? What are people going to be excited about?’ are very similar to the sorts of conversations you have in retail. It’s just that we have this beautiful opportunity to make the things that we’re telling the stories about.”

“Creativity is work,” Holden maintains. “Creativity happens when you’re actually doing something.”

“The culture here at West Elm is very centered around creativity. All of our teams are here in the office, from design to sourcing to inventory. All the visual teams, editorial teams, photography teams. We’re all in house. I think everybody, regardless of their division, is viewed as somebody who is creatively impacting the business. We’re very purposeful about that. I think that we’re proud of the kind of collaborative culture that we’ve built.”

This constant stream of creativity emanating from the office is essential to the success of the brand because according to Holden, “Retail is an everyday business, and that’s incredibly exciting, very exhilarating, but also really demanding. People are in the stores every day, people are on the website 24 7, so your content is out there, and constantly being updated. It’s more like a news site, than anything else.”

Yet, even in the face of the constant demand, Holden is never uncertain about where to find new ideas.

“I get inspiration everywhere. I don’t think that inspiration just exists in things, but rather in the connections that you can make between them. It’s just walking around and being in the world and being willing to go places that you probably hadn’t planned to. I’m ok with discovering things that I end up not liking. It’s just about putting yourself out there.”

“I think it’s a nice asset to have an outsider’s eye, and I’m conscious of being Australian in New York. I probably see things that people closer to the culture don’t see.”

But no matter what she is seeing, doing, or experiencing Holden is always guided by a single principle. “I think that everything that I have done has really been focused on giving people access to beautiful things or beautiful moments. That goes all the way back to my days at Vogue Entertaining, which is where I learnt that you could make beautiful moments happen out of an egg in an egg cup.”

This attitude has helped shape not only the creative vision for West Elm brand but also the brand ethos.

“One of the reasons I love going into our stores is because people think that they can’t choose a paint color for their house, or figure out how to put three pillows together and it’s like, ‘you really can, and we’re here to help you do that.’ Then to see how satisfied people are when they do it, because I think people are told that you either are or are not creative and artful.”

That doubt creates fear, which Holden believes is the great barrier to creative expression. “There’s this idea of having to live with your creative choices which is absurd. It’s about deciding and moving on and then making another decision.”

“Being creative is personal. If you write it, it’s you. If you shoot it or if you lay it out, it’s you, but that’s ok. You’ll live to write another sentence or create another layout, but you’ll learning something in the process. I will put things forward, knowing that one thing will stick, and a hundred things will fall away.”

“You get to a place where you realize that you won’t have only one idea. You’ll have thousands of ideas, and being in that process of being able to put them out there, defend them, and then walk away from them is really how you evolve and learn as a designer.”

Holden has taken it upon herself to help the West Elm team grow through ideation. “Part of my role here is to inspire more discovery and exploration in that creative process. I try as best I can to be as optimistic and energized by what it is that I’m doing and be truly visibly engaged in the day to day. I very actively participate with people. I think a lot of inspiration and new ideas come out of conversation. It’s hard to be creative by yourself.”

The advice that Holden believes all young designers should follow to help them build their careers is to not specialize too soon. “There’s great value in being a generalist. It’s better to know a little bit about a lot of things, and find your specialty later, and always be open to doing things that you’re not a hundred percent confident in.”

“Work in a shop, and screen print, and design on the computer. You’ve got to be dimensionalized, and you achieve that by doing lots of different kinds of work. You never know what you’re going to find that you really love.”

Outside of continually coming up with new ideas, and gaining new experiences, Holden believes that the other key piece to the creative puzzle is finding good collaborators.

“Discovering other people who you can work with is your most important priority, for sure. You think you can do it all, but you can’t. You can do so much more than you think you can, when you ask for help. You can never do as much by yourself, as you can with other people.”

In a similar vein, Holden takes the most pride in the achievements of her current and former co-workers.

“My most rewarding work is not any single artifact. When I think about great work, I really think about my teams, all of who have gone on to work together on the same brands, or have embarked on their own careers. Photo editors who are now photo directors at other magazines, people who were craft editors, who now have their own brands, the thing that I’m most proud of is having had the pleasure, and the opportunity, to really extend other people’s creativity.”

“I’ve been doing this now for nearly 20 years. When you work in the creative space, you really are part of an incredible family. That global community of creative people is a really true thing. I’m most proud to have a spot in that space.”

Vanessa Holden // west elm

Images by Catalina Kulczar

Explore the image gallery inspired by the conversation with Marina on Moodboard by iStock.

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