Some designers have a great eye for color or pattern. Others have an architectural sense that can create drama out of the simplest shapes and varied proportions. Yet others have an innate feel for which fabrics complement each other—even when they don’t seem like they should even live in the same room together—or how to place accessories just so for the ultimate unstudied-looking, lived-in arrangements. Boston-area interior design Erin Gates possesses all of these qualities, which is why her work has been featured everywhere from O the Oprah Magazine to Boston Magazine Home and Better Homes & Gardens.
Erin just so happens to also be a great storyteller. Her Elements of Style has been one of the top design blogs for nearly a decade, and last year, her first book, also named Elements of Style, became a New York Times best-seller. If you joined us for her guest styling gig last week, you know she has incredible taste and the opinions to back it up, which is why we invited her for a little sit-down on all things design.
Fresh American: What’s your earliest memory of being interested in design?
Erin Gates: From the age of five, I was totally enamored with the idea of home design. My dad was an architectural designer. We’d go to his office and he’d set up drafting tables with blueprints and pencils, and we’d make floor plans together. As I got older, I also really loved fashion. Interior design combined the love I had for architecture with my love of fabrics and prints and soft goods.
FA: What has been the biggest change in your design approach or aesthetic over the years?
EG: The aesthetic has definitely gotten more refined. I trust myself more. In the early days, it’s harder to trust yourself, especially when you’re spending someone else’s money. I also find that there are more ways to be inspired now—for example, I can go on Pinterest and be inspired by design from around the world.
FA: Do you use Pinterest a lot for your designs?
EG: Definitely. We ask all our clients do Pinterest boards. It really helps them communicate what they like and don’t like. They can share items and spaces they love, which gives me a much better sense of how they want their interiors to look and feel.
FA: What’s your greatest challenge as a designer?
EG: Probably saying no. I sometimes take on more than I should. With a baby on the way, [Erin’s first child is due in November] I need to be better about balancing my time and work time.
FA: Which design rule or idea do you refer back to over and over? Which have you tossed out?
EG: I always use a mix of new and old, high-end and low-end. All of one category can make a room look stale, but making sure those four elements are in a room will give it more personality. Remember that antique and vintage finds don’t have to be expensive—you can find great items at flea markets and tag sales—but adding a little patina brings a room to life.
As for rules I’ve tossed out, I don’t agree that dark wall colors make a room look smaller. It’s just the opposite. I also disagree that you can’t use large furniture in small room. Those two ideas are just straight-up wrong. [Laughs]
FA: What are your go-to sources for inspiration?
EG: Pinterest is one of my favorites—there are so many images out there these days. Other people’s blogs are a source, as well, and magazines still, though a little less than they used to be; I feel like the content’s not as fresh as it used to be. Traveling always gives me great ideas. When I go antiquing, I always end up being inspired by something.
FA: Describe a project that didn’t go quite as planned, and how you turned it around.
EG: For one kitchen project, we ordered some really amazing, expensive backsplash tiles from a vendor I won’t name. [Laughs] It was supposed to be a brick pattern and ended up being herringbone. I was worried when I opened the boxes! But the client ended up liking the pattern better, and we got a discount because of the error. It was a win-win.
FA: Which design trend or idea do you wish would go away? Which design trend or idea are you loving right now?
EG: I’m kind of over all the chevron prints. We need to find a new pattern. And DIY is great for certain things and in small doses, but when it’s a whole room of DIY, it ends up falling on its face.
I’m still loving all things brass and gold. I’m a little obsessed, actually. I’ve barely used nickel and chrome fixtures recently. People were a little scared when brass came back into fashion, but they’re enjoying it now, which is great for me, because I think it’s so much lovelier.
FA: Which designers or blogs can you not get enough of?
EG: Lauren Leiss [of Pure Style Home]—she’s great. I really love her work, and I’m excited for her book to come out. I also love the Note to Self blog, which is written by the art director at Ralph Lauren. She has such a beautiful eye.
FA: In your opinion, what’s one thing that will never go out of style?
EG: A really nice tufted, tuxedo-style sofa or a roll-arm sofa.
FA: What one item in your home could you not live without?
EG: I’m pretty obsessed with my cheetah stair runner. I was a little nervous to do it, but I love it and don’t regret it at all. And some of the art I’ve collected over the years, and things I’ve picked up on travel or at Brimfield. Those are really unique finds and are irreplaceable to me.
FA: If you were to chuck design for another career, what would it be?
EG: Dog walking. I’m crazy about dogs. I’d have 20 if I could!
FA: Which book is on your nightstand, and which movie is tops in your Netflix queue right now?
EG: At the moment, I’m reading a lot of baby books, like Bringing Up Bébé.
For movies, I really want to see the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd. I’ll have to wait till my husband goes out of town to indulge in my love for period pieces, though; he’s not up for that one. [Laughs]