It’s no secret Everygirl editors (and lifestyle bloggers everywhere!) sing praises of the design prowess that is West Elm. The brand’s affordable home goods not only appear on our blogs but in our apartments, and a trip to their Lincoln Park store is an easy remedy for a grey day. But when it comes to the colorful catalogues that appear in our mailboxes like clockwork; the glittered or rustic accents with which we’ve adorned our homes; or the white parsons desk so many of us seem to work on day in and day out; not to mention the reasonable prices of it all; it’s funny to think there is one woman behind it all: Vanessa Holden.
Albeit Vanessa, West Elm’s Creative Director, would be quick to correct anyone placing the spotlight on her. A natural born leader, she passionately reminds everyone that it is a very large and very talented team making it all happen. Art directors, product designers, graphic designers, public relations, marketing, the online and social media team, photographers… all following the beat of Vanessa’s drum. An impossible task for most, Vanessa has been honing both her creative and leadership skills for the past two decades.
If we were to peek at Vanessa’s resume, we’d see her “work experience” includes roles such as Creative Director at Real Simple magazine, Editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Weddings and Martha Stewart Living, and most recently, Creative Director and Senior Vice President of West Elm—and that’s just since moving to New York City in 2004. Suffice to say this native Aussie has made quite the career for herself since relocating from Sydney, where she started out as a graphic designer before becoming an editor at Vogue Entertaining and then co-founded her own magazine. Read on to learn how one woman (and mother of two) has been able to rise to the top yet remain grounded, and all the while, has coworkers across the globe enthusiastically stating how wonderful it is to work not for, but with Vanessa.
Full name: Vanessa Holden
Current title/company: Senior Vice President and Creative Director of west elm
Educational background: Bachelor of Fine Arts at COFA, Sydney
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My first design job was as a freelancer at a teen publishing house in Sydney—’designing’ Beverly Hills 90210 and Take That! posters and laying out teen beauty stories. Super cheesy and super fun.
When and why did you decide to move to the United States? What are the differences in style and the work environment in the United States and your native Australia?
I moved to New York in 2004 to be the Creative Director of Real Simple magazine: because I loved the simplicity and sophistication of the brand at that time, was excited about its potential, but for the adventure and challenge mostly. I guess New York was always in my dreams. I was surprised at how different the work environments are —I found the US a lot more formal and corporate (so many meetings!—that’s taken a while to get used to), while Australia is definitely more laid back and unrestrained. There’s more hierarchy here, so you grow with a consciousness of that which was just not my experience in the early years of my career in Sydney – it was very much all hands on deck, let’s just get this done together. It was a huge asset to be able to get my hands dirty in many ways starting out in my career.
Take us on a brief synopsis of your (extensive and impressive!) career path.
I continued to freelance at various advertising agencies and publishers, but decided I wanted to focus on magazines, and found myself in the art department at Vogue Entertaining, which at the time was the most influential food magazine—literally—in the world. We had a tiny but really extraordinary team led by some of the most inspiring (and demanding!) women I’ve ever worked with. They really sorted me out! I then went to Marie Claire Australia, where I met Donna Hay, who was the food editor at the time. We started working together, on her books at first, and we developed a really amazing relationship. We left and set up a studio together—a photo studio with a kitchen and two little desks—both of us working on freelance projects independently and together. I was designing cookbooks mostly, as well as contributing to InsideOut magazine as their style director. When I was at home after the birth of my daughter, Yasmin, we mocked up a dummy of Donna Hay magazine, shopped it around Sydney and about five months later the first issue hit the newsstands. The magazine was hugely successful, but a few years in, after I had my son, Harper, I needed a change and left to explore other (at the time unknown) opportunities. I ended up in New York and London just meeting with a lot of (amazing!) people, and we moved to New York about 6 months later, when I became the creative director of Real Simple. My experience there was incredible—taking the magazine from just a print publication and expanding it into branded products, books, television, events, you name it. I left Real Simple at the end of 2007 and consulted for a couple of years (more books and brands/more time at home with my growing kids) but in 2008 took the leap back into magazines, this time out of the art department and into the EIC role at Martha Stewart Weddings—being in charge of pictures AND words! About 18 months later I was appointed EIC of Martha Stewart Living—working with a dream team at my favorite magazine with one of my personal heroes (Martha! Yes, amazing). Now, at west elm, I have the opportunity to be a part of a team that brings to life what I think is the best lifestyle brand out there in all it’s dimensions: product, catalog, online, store experience, collaborations—in many incredibly exciting ways.
You have a vast experience in lifestyle and travel journalism. How did you realize you wanted to focus on furniture and housewares?
I think the common thread in terms of my career path is less about category than it is about my passionate belief that everyone enjoys beautiful experiences (even if they’re very simple), and that anyone can make those experiences happen in their own lives, given the right inspiration and tools. I think the transition I’ve made from Donna, with a food and celebrating focus, to Martha Stewart Living, which covers such a diversity of creative content from craft to collecting, entertaining, decorating, and gardening, and then to my work at west elm with furniture and housewares is really reflective of that: I’m super passionate about people being creative and confident in their creativity. If not in your own home, then where, right?
What was a typical day like working as the Editor-in-Chief of Martha Stewart Living?
Amazing! You’ve seen Charlie and The Chocolate Factory? It’s like that—super talented, creative people with great ideas making beautiful, magical things.
How is your creative work at west elm different from your previous leadership roles at Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple?
In many ways the same—figuring out the most beautiful, inspiring, informative ways to present our seasonal stories—but it’s also much more broad and diverse, and more challenging (and fulfilling). In publishing or retail, it takes a team to do the work, and the team at west elm is bigger, they’re spread out all over the country (and overseas soon, too!), they have completely different skills, it really feels much more like being the conductor of an orchestra (ugh, sounds so cheesy, but it’s true). Painting the big picture by focusing on all the tiny details, and making sure everyone is creatively challenged and satisfied doing that. And I get to travel a lot more, which I’m finding inspiring in completely new ways.
What obstacles have you faced during your career, and how were you able to overcome them?
You know, I think the only obstacles you create are the ones you create for yourself, and I think you just have to keep moving forward, right?
Do you have any advice on developing a signature visual and editorial voice?
Be fearless in defending the uniqueness of your voice. Don’t be distracted by what other people are doing. Focus on your vision, your work, and your voice, and review, reshape, refine continuously. It helps if you’re willing to be your own worst critic—if you’re not willing to be, then someone else surely is.
What attributes do you look for in recruiting and hiring team members and colleagues?
I’m always looking for the shiny penny—a talented, skilled person with a can-do, hands-on attitude. And someone who laughs easily, especially up against a deadline or maybe a tough critique: the ability to be able to reset your balance and refocus quickly and keep moving forward is invaluable.
The job of creative director requires diverse skills, knowledge, and broad experience. What should someone in their twenties be focusing or working on if their goal is to some day do what you do? What personality traits are necessary to do your position?
Re: skills, I’d say don’t specialize too quickly: its important to get your core skills down, obvs, but it’s equally important to know how what you do is connected to other parts of the process/other industries: it deepens your understanding of the big picture, while also developing your ability to flex in and out of different kinds of work environments.
Focus on just doing great work (and letting people know about it). Understand what excellence is in your field and aim for it all the time: excellent work isn’t the end product, it’s something you strive for every day.
Personality traits? Curiosity. Passion. Relentlessness. Enthusiasm.
Any suggestions for people working with small living spaces and a tight budget? i.e. investments pieces, items to save on, etc.
I’ve always had a home office—a little place to escape and be creative in—so that’s what I think of first when I think of small spaces. The most important pieces in there are a comfortable chair and some great lighting (or an open window!). For me, it’s less about what you spend on things and more about what pieces have the most meaning—flea market finds can be the most valuable items in your home if they have a story and reflect you personally. I still have my grandmother’s sofa, and it’s one of my favorite pieces in my home. I guess, after packing it up and moving it around the world with me, it’s officially considered an investment piece!
Describe a typical day working at West Elm.
Ha—the only thing that’s typical about a day at west elm is that it’s busy! Depending on where we are seasonally or in the production cycle, I could be doing one of about a million things—collaborating with our design teams on developing concepts and palettes for future seasons, reviewing sketches and samples; with our graphics and editorial teams on concepting stories, photography and graphic treatments, refining layouts for the catalog, emails or westelm.com; with store visual on in-store display, as well as things like signage and packaging. I could be visiting with a future collaborator, talking to a blogger, having a meeting with one of our partners, like Etsy, just across the street. My role is broad and the things I do everyday are very diverse . There’s no such thing as typical—who wants typical?
In such a demanding position, how do you achieve a work/life balance?
I’ve never really looked for work/life balance because I’ve always focused on “more” in both my life and my work. More challenges, more adventures, more risks, more fun. That approach doesn’t necessarily end up “balanced,” but I’m totally OK with that (and so is my family). Sure my life is hectic, but I like the rush of the rush, and I’m OK with a little chaos. I control the controllables and just ride out everything else—and I happily take the calm when I can get it. 🙂
Best moment of your career so far?
Getting the green light for Donna Hay magazine (and being at the launch party five months later). First day at work in New York Freaking City! I was glowing like a light bulb. Moving out of the art department and into the editor-in-chief role—first on Weddings, but then on to Martha Stewart Living? Dream. Fulfilled. Taking the leap after nearly 20 years in publishing into retail at west elm: the best thing about being here is I know there’s so many ‘best moments’ ahead of us.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Don’t be distracted by what you think other people are thinking. Stop getting ahead of yourself. And (this is a big one): it’s OK to ask for help.