What do the worlds of publishing and retail have in common? According to Vanessa Holden, who enjoyed a 20-year career in print journalism before becoming senior vice-president and creative director of the U.S. home-decor chain West Elm in 2011, it’s the art of storytelling. “Customers really care about knowing the stories behind our products, our process and our inspiration,” says the 41-year-old Australian, a former graphic designer who worked at Vogue and Donna Hay magazines in her native Sydney before moving to New York in 2004. There, she became the creative director of Real Simple, then editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Weddings and Martha Stewart Living.
At West Elm, which significantly expanded its presence in Vancouver recently, Holden’s unerring eye for the next big lifestyle trend and adeptness at packaging has guided the retailer through a number of innovations, from establishing a relationship with the artisan and craft site Etsy to the development of a new concept-store model, West Elm Market. The ambition of the latter: resurrecting the practice of “common-sense” shopping.
You live in New York now, but you were born and trained as an artist in Sydney. How does what you learned and experienced Down Under translate to the rest of the world?
You know, I think Australians are known for their optimism and make-it-happen spirit. And when you combine that character with an outward-looking world view and the curiosity that comes with being creative, you come up with something pretty unique. Each of us has our own particular blend [of those qualities]. I think it’s pretty terrific that both the visual excess of Baz Luhrmann and the restrained style of Donna Hay represent totally the Australian aesthetic.
Besides being outward-looking, you are also interested in working locally. How did the relationship with Etsy, whose B.C. artisans are featured in the new Vancouver store, come about?
Serving as a connector between our customers and artists in their own backyard is incredibly rewarding. We have a fun, lively store environment and to be able to share it with small businesses, people who are making things by hand, is exciting and motivating for us. Adding a local Etsy assortment to a store makes it distinct, special and a true reflection of its community.
West Elm has also introduced a new concept-store model. What is West Elm Market?
It’s like the best general store – a real neighbourhood destination that offers useful household goods to make even the most practical chore a little more enjoyable. It is focused on product in four key categories – kitchen, garden, personal care (soaps, lotions, candles) and care and repair (brooms, laundry detergent and the like).
What prompted this idea?
It was really the idea of our president, Jim Brett. He has been obsessed with these classic general and dry-goods stores that are few and far between, the kind of places where you go to get a tool you’ve been meaning to buy, then grab potting soil and a jar of local honey on your way out the door. He wanted to create a place where the customers can gather, learn and have a real relationship with the shopkeeper, where they can connect not just about product, but about ideas, recipes, gardening tips, anything.
When does West Elm Market launch?
It makes its Canadian debut in Vancouver in early December. The Vancouver Market store will be located at 2951 Granville Street in the same block as our new West Elm decor store. We have also just started putting Market shop-in-shops in some of our larger locations, including the store in [Toronto’s] Liberty Village. An assortment of West Elm Market product is also now available online at www.westelm.com.
Home decor is such a booming sector. Why do you think interior design has everyone’s attention right now?
I think we’re probably spending more time at home and we want our spaces to really reflect who we are. And everyone is inspired by TV and magazines – makeover and DIY shows in particular – to feel like they can really do it themselves. But I still see people being a little bit intimidated by “big D” decorating.
Can you describe your own living space? What’s your personal design sensibility?
I have moved a lot, so my home is constantly evolving. And I have two kids, so it’s not just my design sensibility at play! I see a lot of colour and pattern and activity at work, so I like living with a fair amount of white at home, but we definitely layer in pops of colours here and there. Most important to me, my home is really livable, comfortable and looks like me. It’s full of items that I have collected or gathered over time, from my grandmother’s sofa to a piece of art from my latest trip.
How does an entrepreneur, mother of two, wife and creative director unwind?
Honestly, I’m lucky: My husband is the cook – a really fantastic one. Unwinding for me is time with the family and friends. I like to escape the city when I can and of course get back to Australia as often as possible.
This interview and has been edited and condensed.