At our neighborhood elementary school, the teachers’ lounge was in pretty rough shape. Institutional, uninspiring, mismatched, cluttered. So our PTA thought that for teacher’s appreciation week, we should spiff it up a bit. Initially, we weren’t all that ambitious…we were thinking about a fresh coat of paint, maybe seeing if anyone had some unused furniture in their basement that they’d like to donate…and then Charlotte Smith stepped in, and stepped up. The mother of five and blogger at the appropriately named “At Charlotte’s House” got involved, and suddenly we had a gift registry for parents to purchase items, we were getting brand new donated refrigerators from GE, and new furniture from Raymour & Flanagan. The place was shut down for a week or so for a construction project, and the big reveal was simply amazing! The staff (and the parents) could barely believe it was the same space.
I was simply amazed at her talent in planning and executing this enormous project on a tiny budget. After school let out for the summer, I asked Charlotte if she could tell me about her work and how on earth she was able to pull that off. Happily for me, she said yes, and here is what she had to say when I met her at her house.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Charlotte Smith
Date: June 27, 2017
Occupation: Blogger, At Charlotte’s House
Hometown: Alexandria, Virginia
Current town: Southport, Connecticut
Good to talk to you today! Thank you for taking the time to discuss your work, which I really do appreciate. How did you get involved in design and blogging and how did you get where you are today?
I have a degree in fine arts, so creativity has been a common thread in my career. I majored in art history, but I didn’t want to work in a museum, so instead, I interned at a grade school, and ended up being a first grade teacher for five years. Then I moved to New York City and tried corporate America. It turned out that I hated corporate America. So, what to do next, grad school? I couldn’t decide between interior design or working with people through art therapy, and I ended up at Columbia University getting a degree in psychological counseling.
Your blog says that you used to be a high school guidance counselor.
Yes, I lived in Brooklyn and worked in a school in New York City until we moved to Connecticut. Then I fell into blogging when I found myself a stay-at-home mom.
I had a friend who didn’t want to work full time since she was home with the kids, and she became a freelance writer. Well, I like writing…and to be a writer, you need some writing samples, so I started a website. I thought that sounded interesting. I was writing about leaving New York City for the suburbs, I thought people might relate.
When I started, the only blogger I was familiar with was Perez Hilton! I grew as I went. My blog used to be called “Ciburbanity,” a combination of city and suburb and sanity. But no one could pronounce it! From the city to the suburbs and keeping my sanity, all the obvious names were taken. But people stumbled over the name.
“At Charlotte’s House” sure is easy to say and to remember!
Yes, and as time went on I was writing less about the kids, and slowly got more into design. This is a much better name!
So I was writing about fixing up an old house, and not just writing, but really documenting my project. So I started looking at do it yourself blogs and that resonated with me. I began copying the things that they were doing, and from where that started I found an amazing community.
I made friends all over the country; I went to a conference a year in, when I really still didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve learned over time, and also the blogging landscape has changed. I am creative and visual. I see things that stay with me. Learning from friends who do this and looking at things, and learning more, I gradually developed a following.
The old model for a blog that had thousands of readers was to make money by selling advertising.
But now, not as many people read blogs, and there are so many of them. It’s a crowded marketplace. There’s a lot more editing and staging, things are not as simple as they used to be. Bloggers are de facto stylists and photographers. They really have the same skill sets as designers who get a following. And more outlets are looking to blogging to create content.
The bar is at a much different place. Now a blog is more like a marketing tool than a business destination.
What are your design influences? Where do you find inspiration?
I’m influenced by friends in the blogging community, some of whom have more eclectic styles, the Boho scene. Emily Henderson, although she’s more mainstream, things I see on HGTV, things I see in Instagram feeds. I have learned to separate what I appreciate aesthetically that other people do, from what is really my own style. I love pattern and color and what Sara Richardson does, mixing patterns and flea market finds, blankets and pillows. It is always a creative idea to take something you find and make it look cool and fresh.
How would you describe your style?
Fun, frugal, repurposed, eclectic.
Can you work with different types of architecture? I live in a Dutch Colonial, but around here there are also Cape Cods and cottages, and modern houses, farmhouses, and arts and crafts style houses, all kinds of styles. Could you work with these different spaces? And if so, have you thought about taking on design work for clients?
Yes! With my style, there is a bit of a tension between my style and my house, and I think I push it a little bit.
My house, this old house, used to be mustard yellow. It had a country cottage look, and that’s just not my vibe. This room was dark green and white; there was fabric wallpaper, big billowing curtains. It all worked with the house, but just not with our stuff!
We didn’t have any money for construction, except for necessary things (like putting money into the barn to keep the place from collapsing). But I painted this room white. I have plans to paint the cabinets. I replaced the backsplash. I painted over the vegetables on the tiles. A lot of simple changes. I can’t throw money at every room, so this is going to take a while.
My style is quirky. My style wouldn’t necessarily translate to other houses, but I’ve done work for Habitat for Humanity and of course at the elementary school. Doing e-design work would be another way to monetize, by getting clients, because my readership isn’t necessarily local. I could take on an e-design project in Arizona!
So I kind of land in the middle. Sometimes I get paid to do work and post it on my site. Sometimes I do guest blogging, highlighting a product. And there’s sponsored content. So I get some ad revenue on the website and on YouTube. Sometimes I get paid, and sometimes I get product. (Which is terrific, at least at first!)
I imagine it’s great to get comped an appliance or something useful, but after a while, bartering would lose its appeal. After all, you don’t need too many refrigerators!
Exactly! Also, I’m pretty comfortable on camera, and video does pay.
You must be constantly learning new things as you do this kind of work.
Yes, I learn new skills all the time…so many random skills! And I enjoy it. Now if someone offered me a counseling job tomorrow? I miss working with the kids. I do really love that.
Well, maybe someday again. Life is long (we hope)!
About skills on the blog…I’m helping a local client with their social media plan. I’m not an expert, I don’t have spreadsheets tracking Facebook likes and shares! But I definitely can help with social media 101.
Do you use WordPress for your blog?
Yes, WordPress. I find that I wear a lot of different hats, writing, technical stuff, helping out with volunteer projects.
I think I’m about 20% distracted 100% of the time. But with the five kids, I think they don’t notice! My threshold for chaos is a little higher than most, I think.
Is there a book in the works?
Here’s the rap on books…don’t do it to make a dime! Even top bloggers, who write best sellers, and get advances, if you work out their time on the project, it’s something like $4 an hour. But, it’s an amazing feather in your cap. It adds to your brand, and it adds to your legitimacy.
I think it would be a cool project, though, to put a book together.
Oh, absolutely. Maybe someday!
Is home and interior design very different from other types of design? One of my friends says that design is design…if you can do shoes you can do jewelry you can do interiors? Do you agree?
I don’t know. I think if you’re creative, you can probably get there. But it would be a different audience. Different audiences have different expectations. Some blogs are provocative and out of the box, but some readers take comfort in familiarity.
Who are your favorite designers and bloggers?
What advice to you have to people who are interested in pursuing this type of work?
It depends on what you need to get out of it. My goal was, don’t kill my kids! I didn’t realize I could monetize it, initially. Do your homework. There is information to be had. I should have taken a month to study. Of course, you learn some of it by doing. It was hard for me to tease apart appreciation of an aesthetic and my own style. I can appreciate a Zen room, but it is not what I am going to do.
Also blogging technicalities. There’s a lot to understand on the back end, technical things. I had to copy and paste hundreds of posts, dealing with all kinds of inefficiencies. If you are not careful, you can find yourself with a big mess.
And Google rankings. You can have terrific content but if Google can’t find you, no one will read it. You have to learn about website optimization. And images. If they are too big, your site takes too long to load, and you will lose an audience that way.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
There are a few things I wish people had told me! Taking risks is something I try to aspire to (which sounds weird when it comes to home design). Walk to their beat of your own drum. Trust your gut and trust yourself even if you’re not in the middle of the bell curve. Have your own viewpoint and be comfortable going upstream on occasion.
My dad pulled me aside when I was younger and said, “You need to appreciate how privileged you are. You have a roof over your head and live in a democratic country.” We get in our own way a lot. We can always compare ourselves to people who have more, but we’re all very lucky here.
Do you miss the energy of NYC?
I do miss it. I would gladly have stayed in New York City forever, but it wasn’t realistic for us. I miss the dirt and the grit and the mess and the color.
I worked in a diverse community. I keep those things in mind when it comes to the books my kids read, how we talk about things, subjects I don’t dodge. “Not seeing color”: that idea makes me irate. When it comes to ethnicity and culture and race, Columbia was very culturally focused, and it makes me crazy when we try and ignore reality.
Like the quote by Audre Lorde, “It’s not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” I think our culture has a really tough time with that. And on a more personal note, what’s something most people don’t know about you?
I played division one lacrosse. (A hundred years ago!) I have a sporty side. I run marathons.
I’m very impressed by people who can run 26 miles!
Twenty-six point two miles!
I won’t short you the point two miles! (I’m actually impressed by anyone who can run at all!) If you could go back and time and do something over, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change my trajectory. I think I landed where I needed to land by dumb luck. Brown shaped my sense of diversity and my path in life.
Then I stumbled into Columbia later on. When I went to Columbia, I didn’t realize how much cultural competence was involved in teaching counseling. Pulling apart baggage and unpacking. Three and a half hour group sessions, learning skills, discussing race and privilege. I crew up with educated parents, and it took me time to realize how very lucky I was.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in life?
Probably moving to New York City, that was a big deal for me. I didn’t know anyone. I’d lived in DC as a teacher, I’d studied abroad in Australia. But it’s good to get out of my comfort zone. I ask myself what is the worst that can happen when I try something, and then I try it.
Do you have a favorite celebrity?
Ellen DeGeneres. I love her!
I love her in Finding Nemo. My older daughter was obsessed with that movie for a while and it was constantly on in my house for what seemed like years, so I must have seen it a hundred times. If it were anyone besides Ellen DeGeneres playing Dory, I think I might have broken that DVD!
What is your strangest phobia or superstition?
I don’t love thunder and lighting. And I avoid going into the ocean at night.
Last but not least, is there anything you would like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes, check out my blog and my YouTube channel!
All images courtesy of Charlotte Smith
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Victor Calise, NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design
*Claudia Connor, International Institute of Connecticut
* Sarah Cox, Write A House
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Wendy Dutwin, Limelight Media
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Martha Albertson Fineman, law professor
* Bob Freeman, Committee on Open Government
* Carrie Goldberg, internet privacy and sexual consent attorney
* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Bill Harley, children’s entertainer and storyteller
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
* Michelle Jenab, anti-racism activist
* Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
* Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
* Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Craig Pomranz, cabaret singer, children’s book author
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Juliet Sorensen, law professor
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Pauline Turley, Irish Arts Center
* Vickie Volpano, Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Krissa Watry, Dynepic & iOKids
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor