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Lucy Feagins calls the shots
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Lucy Feagins calls the shots
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Lucy Feagins calls the shots
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“I love when people push the thinking a little and go beyond the conventional ideas of what a house is.”
Conversations
3 December 2014

Lucy Feagins calls the shots

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Sean Fennessy

Berry Liberman on Lucy Feagins

The unofficial mission statement of The Design Files is “everything we do should be done in the spirit of generosity.” That about sums up Lucy Feagins, the gentle and hard-working woman behind one of the most influential and loved design websites in Australia and the world. With a million hits per month, it has grown from an intimate blog and labour of love into an institution with a cult following.

Every day for six years, Lucy has uploaded a new home or project profile, writing most of the words and styling all of the shots. She’s an unbelievably humble powerhouse who is both singularly focused and simultaneously fluid about where The Design Files is heading. It’s one of those rare, well-curated online spaces you can rely on. I’m really curious to know how a frustrated film set decorator becomes the doyenne of the interiors world.

I head down to the hip neighbourhood of Collingwood in Melbourne. Everyone is dressed with an intense sense of personal style and the coffee is serious. Standing outside an old, scruffy building is Lucy, all smiles, excited to show me the empty warehouse within. She’s just taken out a lease on what will be the new design hub of Melbourne. Her vision is to locate The Design Files within a space that acts as a showcase for local designers, artists and makers. Design Files Open House all year round. It’s a typically inclusive move for Lucy and I’m struck by her nervousness—will it work? It is too ambitious?

Lucy reflects, with great humility, upon her success. The Design Files began with no grand plan or strategic analysis. Lucy was a self-described “amateur enthusiast.” Her friends liked what she was doing and they told their friends who in turn told their friends. And so it goes on the internet when you strike a chord.

With the idea of home being challenged around the globe, when war, famine, drought and disease are shifting borders and tearing people from their homes, how do we celebrate and revel in the good fortune of our spaces? What makes a home? What makes community? How do we create beautiful and safe spaces where creativity can flourish and our families and loved ones can find solace from a fast-paced, crazy world? That’s what I go to The Design Files for, to be inspired to create more meaningful spaces.

As we sit down to coffee in the chic Japanese café CIBI in Collingwood, where every detail feels thoughtful and intimate, Lucy is a bit frantic. In the last six months she has gotten married, sold her home, moved in with her husband to her mother’s place and rented a new, very large space to house the future of The Design Files. It’s made her reflective and nervous. Change is in the air.

This story originally ran in issue #41 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: One of the things I love about The Design Files is seeing how people express themselves in their homes, how their spaces tell a story. What do you think makes a space meaningful?

LUCY FEAGINS: That’s interesting because I’m often asked by blogs or magazines for quotes on design trends— what’s in, what’s out. And I find those questions really hard because what I consider stylish or interesting about a space is not necessarily how pretty it is or what trend it’s following. It’s not about the celebrity of the artists on the walls. It’s about the layers and the storytelling and the history of everything that is furnishing that environment.

This story originally ran in issue #41 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #41 of Dumbo Feather

I’m not interested in a space, whether it be a house or an office or a pop-up, that has a kind of soulless sheen to it—that follows a trend but has no depth.

I want to know about the provenance of what’s in a space, the integrity and story of the pieces that are displayed. How much of the person is behind it? That’s what makes a space meaningful.

We were just talking about this amazing Japanese eatery*. Everything in this space seems authentic. It feels like an expression of someone’s inner world.

Exactly. When you’re in this space, you feel the heart and soul of everything here. It’s imperfect, but it’s perfectly complete. It’s not fake. It doesn’t feel contrived or put together. It’s honest. I’ve struggled with some of these ideas over the years. I think when you’re in the world of design it’s easy to get caught up in the surface stuff. But now more and more I find myself asking, “What does this mean? What’s the significance?” With The Design Files’ pop-up shop or online retail store, I don’t want to just sell people stuff. There’s enough stuff in the world. I want people to have a real connection with the purchases they make. And I think—I hope—that is what we’re doing in a subtle way. Not ramming stuff down people’s throats, not telling them to have things for things’ sake. And not telling them to just have beautiful spaces that impress the neighbours.

Is it why people come to your site, do you think? Because it inspires on a deeper level?

I think so. What I find our readers like about The Design Files is the fact that we’re keeping it real. We don’t tend to document really lavish houses, because they don’t resonate as much. We like to capture creative spaces, eclectic spaces, spaces that aren’t massive big budget, but are massive on thought. When an architect finishes a really massive beautiful house, it goes straight to Belle magazine and that’s a really easy transaction. It’s not hard to find those beautiful, polished, big-budget homes. And so with the spaces we document, there’s more of this sense of discovery.

For many, the homes on The Design Files are like a window into the home owners. We very rarely share a portrait of the person unless they request it. It’s really about documenting enough little pockets that tell a story of that home, of that person and their family. And I guess that’s what people respond to. It’s real.

It’s interesting—the idea of documenting a space.

Well, as humans we’re naturally inquisitive and voyeuristic. And unfortunately there’s somuch showmanship in big marketing and ad campaigns—everything’s so shiny— that our thirst for real spaces, spaces where there’s no pretence, isn’t being satiated. People appreciate the warmth in what we document on The Design Files. It’s the reason why we rarely shoot a house when someone’s just finished it. We know our readers aren’t really into that super-perfect look. For instance, we just shot this house before it was about to be torn down; it was the most incredible ramshackle Fitzroy warehouse. The lady had four kids so it was a real challenge to make it happen. And we shot it literally a month before it was pulled down. She was just so thrilled that it was captured in all its ad-hoc glory. That’s a very literal kind of documentation of a moment in time which will never be repeated.

And a beautiful space that has a story and a memory.

Right. When you’re living in a space, you don’t see it from the outside. It’s always in a state of flux. And I guess there’s something about being part of a process like this where we document a space in a way that forces you to see your home from the outside, and reflect on it in a way that can’t be done when you’re in the craziness of daily life. It’s a moment captured in time that forces introspection.

It is. What’s a space, anywhere in the world, that you’ve been really moved by?

There’s a handful that we’ve documented on the site that will always stand out. They’re usually the really random discoveries, and the ones that gain the most traction on the site. I don’t know if you recall the Kagans?

Oh! It’s all I’m thinking about while I’m talking to you.

You knew I was going to say that! That’s one in a million. And it was a privilege to document. They’re a beautiful couple who are in their eighties now. They bought the site and commissioned an architect back in the early ‘50s to build this house from scratch on this block of land that had been subdivided off the Rippon Lea Estate. They’ve lived in that house from the beginning. Their kids’ rooms are in pristine condition, untouched since their middle-aged sons were children. It was so much about their story.

We were able to use that home, the documentation of the space, as a vehicle to actually tell a broader story about that family’s history and culture— the challenges they went through to secure that land and build their home.

And it’s still one of the most popular stories we’ve run because people connected with it. That’s one that always stands out.

And for me actually, there’s Lisa Marie, who works with you, her Nonna’s front living room.

Yes! So many people in Melbourne connected with it, because of that strong Italian personality. “My nonna’s front room looks like that! I remember that!” It’s this snapshot of familiarity that people connected to. So there are those real hidden gems. And then at the other end of the spectrum, there’s Alex Kennedy. She’s 20-something and converted her parents’ double garage into a self-contained unit that looks and feels very Japanese. It’s this gorgeous studio apartment in Carlton that was subdivided off her parents’ property. That’s the next generation of what the Kagans did. Scrimp every last dollar to build something…

Amazing and personal.

Yeah! It’s about not feeling constrained by what you think you should be doing. There’s no way this girl could have afforded to build or buy a house. So she just thought outside the square, and that was really inspiring to a lot of readers. They were like, ‘Wow, I would never thought to have done that.’ We stood in the middle of it and just shot every angle with our tripod. There was the bath and the kitchen, everything, in this one space the size of a double garage. But it’s beautiful. I love when people push the thinking a little and go beyond the conventional ideas of what a house is. ‘Oh, I don’t need to have a huge house and I can live with my partner in a tiny shoebox if we make it beautiful and if we do it in a way that works with our lifestyle.’ And I think it’s really cool when something we put on the site changes the way people think about what a home could be.

Why do you think people welcome you into their homes?

I’m so grateful that they do! Of course, not everyone does. I think we’re so lucky now. We have really built something that people trust and know. They trust that we’ll present their home in the most genuine way. It’s a big thing for people to open their doors and let us do things our way. But almost everyone whose space we feature is a reader, so they know and trust we’ll do them justice.

We don’t have official mission statements or anything, but I always say, “Everything we do should be done in the spirit of generosity.”

If people have a business or something that they want to promote, of course we’ll support them. But it’s never about showing off. It’s just about documenting a space and bringing like-minded people together.

You’re getting a million page hits a month. That’s a huge community you’ve built.

I was thinking about this last night actually, because at the moment a lot of the work I do doesn’t feel like it has a social core. And I would love to move into that in the future.

But then people reminded me, ‘What you do is actually a very community thing,’ and it’s true. It’s bringing a community together through thoughtful design. And I’m starting to think more and more about how spaces—homes, but also just any space— can be a catalyst for community and social enterprise. I used to think of the work I do as being quite anonymous in that we’re online. And that made me see the value of physical space, which was the catalyst for Open House, where we bring all these designers together and connect with a community in the real world. It’s all very well to be online, reaching a million hits a month. But there’s a level of meaning and engagement that needs to happen in a physical space too.

It makes me think, Humans Of New York has been doing a series in conflict zones. So he’s going to the Middle East, Africa, he’s now in the Ukraine. Can you imagine The Design Files doing the same thing—going to refugee camps and seeing how people live there?

It would be incredible. With the same focus about where people live and how people live? And documenting their spaces? Yeah. It would be quite confronting.

But maybe they’re confronting in the way that, “this is how people make a home with less than nothing.”

I agree. I’m always looking to push this. With the connections we have, the stories we come across, there’s so much potential. The challenge is to get out of the comfort zone. So much has changed for me in just six months. I’m always learning. I’m excited about the possibility of what we can do with this.

You mentioned Open House* before, can you tell us more about that?

It started as the physical manifestation of The Design Files. If The Design Files was a physical space, what would it look like? And the idea is it would be a beautiful Australian home designed and filled with artwork by Australian people. It’s a pop-up retail event on a slightly ridiculous scale that we host once a year. I always think about the magic, the idea and the vibe before I think about the logistics, because it’s definitely something that if you planned from a business point of view would seem ridiculous. We did the first one in 2011. It’s always a wonderful up-hill battle, ‘cause we’re not highly resourced. But we give it our all and make it work. And it’s just this lovely manifestation of our online world that people can engage with in a physical sense.

How do you find readers consume The Design Files?

What I’ve realised is that people have a sense of ownership over The Design Files. They sit at their computer, the vast majority of our readers, and read every single morning. They connect with the site daily. It’s become part of their morning routine when they’re, you know, having their coffee, making breakfast for their kids. And they consume it on all these different platforms: their phone, laptop, PC, iPad. So in a way it really becomes their experience. The parameters of The Design Files have never been defined. It means different things to different people. That’s why we get lots of empassioned feedback when we do a redesign. Readers are like, ‘Hold on. This is my thing! Why have you changed it?’ That’s interesting to get your head around—that

I’ve created this thing, but actually it’s nothing without the readers, and the readers really own it as well. I can’t control that.

Have you had to take many risks to get The Design Files to this point?

Well, I’m quite cautious by nature. I haven’t taken any financial risks. But I’m becoming more and more aware of my visibility as a person and a business—how everything I do and say is seen every time I write a post. I don’t really think too much when I finish and hit send because I’ve been doing it every day for six years. I can’t think of the hundred-thousand people who are going to read it. As the site grows, I feel like I’m more aware that everyone reads what I’m saying. And I’m trying to get my head around the obligations that go with having such a strong online presence.

So that’s not a risk as much as a vulnerability. But you know, I don’t feel like I have had to risk anything in terms of my personal life either, because I really don’t believe in work-life balance. For me, work and life is a big jumble. It annoys me this idea that if you don’t have a balance between these two dimensions you’re failing somehow.

I prefer to say work-life alignment.

That’s good! I like that. Because really if you adore what you do and you’re passionate about it, you love it, you do go to bed thinking about it. My business is all-consuming, and from the outside it must look really bad. Because people always say, “Oh but what about Gordy?” That’s my partner’s name. They think he’s a victim of all this neglect! But he’s in on the journey with me and I’m on his journey. We’re both similar. He runs his own business as well and neither of us have had nine-to-five jobs for some time. So we get each other.

And I know you’re recently married and you’re about to create your home together. How do you approach that?

That’s a big thing too in that we are creating it from scratch. And for me, what I love to document and what I love about homes generally is this layering that happens over time. Spaces that tell a story. Through circumstance we’ve ended up with a block of land and of course we’re going to build a beautiful home on it, but it’s daunting to me to create something that has that heart and reflects us when it’s going to be brand new, shining, from scratch.

I know in the past we’ve talked about you being a bit of a perfectionist.

Yeah I am. Very much so.

Which is a funny thing to be—there’s no such thing. Do you get to perfection?

No, you don’t.

But it’s the striving for it that is what really defines perfectionists, more so than the arriving.

It’s soothing for you then? Striving for perfection?

“Soothing” is not a word I would use! [Laughs]. I demand a lot from myself. People often say to me, “What’s your motivation? How do you stay motivated?” I’m like, What a weird question! There’s no choice. I’m not choosing to be motivated. It just needs to happen! That’s the way I approach The Design Files.

Have you always been like that?

Yes. But working for yourself takes it to another level. There’s a lot of pride in doing something that you created. I used to work in the film industry. That’s a hard thing, because you get this tiny slice of a bigger project, and you do that as well as you can, but at the end of the day it’s blended into the fabric of the whole thing. There’s no real sense of ownership. I guess that’s heightened now that I am my own boss and everything I do is really tied to me. As you get better it gets harder. I’ve learned so much on the way and I’ve become so much more proficient at every aspect of what I do. Yet I’m more self-conscious now than when I was fudging it.

When the stakes weren’t as high.

Yeah. I do get this feeling of being under surveillance a bit. But you have to give yourself over to it. Because I just think it’s more important to get it done—to put these beautiful spaces out there—than obsess over how you’re being seen.

It’s the thing that Brené Brown talks about, “The man in the arena.” If you’re not in the arena you don’t get to pass criticism.

Yes! It’s like, ‘Hey! It’s not perfect, but we’re doing shit. What are you doing?’

Something I really admire is your work ethic.

I’ve always been a hard worker. I was a very studious kid at high about you school, obsessed with getting good marks. Very organised. It was how I measured my value. That strong work ethic was always encouraged in my family. I was born in the UK and my parents were both in advertising. In the ’90s they lost their jobs. There was a recession. So they came to Australia where my mum’s side of the family were, and started again. My parents were always losing their jobs. Advertising was volatile. So I always had this strong family culture of getting back up and working hard. I’m the first person to really start my own business. My parents used to say to me, “Never go into advertising, be your own boss,” and I guess working in film kind of cemented that too. Feeling like you’re constantly trying to beg someone to give you a job because you’re always in between jobs and looking for the next one, even when you have a job. It’s tough. I don’t know how you can run your own business and not have an extremely strong work ethic.

What’s your working day like?

I feel like there’s a real pace to what I do because there’s this daily deadline that’s not a big deadline but it’s there and it’s constant. So it’s quite “pace-y”. You’ll get the images the day before they go online and it’s constantly quick turnarounds. And then of course I’m scouring for the homes and doing shoots.

But you know, I’m in this transient stage at the moment where I’ve just got married. I’ve sold my first home and within three months we’ve moved in with my mother. Before I would have seen myself as a lot less flexible, especially with my business. I wouldn’t have settled for things being done another way. But these experiences force some perspective. At the moment our office is at home with my mum. My staff come to Mum’s house every day and we work in the spare room. This has been going on for three months while we’ve been setting up the office. So Mum’s upstairs making breakfast or having a friend over and I’m trying to run a business downstairs. And we’re competing to use the phone lines, and there’s nothing you can do! You just got to chill.

It’s out of your control.

And it’s been a good learning curve for me to be in this slightly non-ideal but still full of love and busy-ness and fun environment. I adore my mum and I adore the girls I work with. And we’re in this crazy mess together. This beautiful mess.

It seems to me the love of doing this is what nourishes you as opposed to external perceptions that it is draining for you. You look like a happy creative being. I am. And I do really love it. It started as a side project and it became a job. So by its very nature, that is an amazing thing—to be able to do something you never planned to be your job, and to be able to do it full time. And for it to be supporting and promoting creative people, and sharing in their success. It’s interesting because it didn’t start in a normal proper business way where I had a plan and an endgame. And so I don’t really know what the endgame is. I always say,

“I feel like it knows where it’s going and I’m just chasing to keep up with it.”

Wow. So you’re happy to follow that wherever it takes you?

Yeah, but I do feel like I’m always in the storm and I can never get out to make a really clear decision. I make a lot of decisions on the fly. And I wonder how much I would benefit from being a bit more strategic and a little less intuitive. But that instinct is what’s gotten me to where I am now. I’ve had a few business mentors here and there, and they always say, “You need more structure. You need more of a plan.” But it’s never that easy in the middle of the storm!

You know, I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. Yes I strive for perfection, and maybe that’s a bit foolish, but it’s easier than pretending to be something I’m not. There’s a lot of myself in The Design Files and part of its appeal early on was that it’s a voice of an enthusiast more than an expert. I’m not a designer and I don’t want people to think I’m an expert. I’m often asked for these quotes, to put an expert voice to something. But really I’m just an observer like everyone else. I’m lucky people have responded to my eye and sense of aesthetic.

How did the concept come about?

When I started The Design Files in early 2008, there were no homes to start with. Because it wasn’t really geared that way. It started as a documentation of creative people doing creative things. So it was covering artists and illustrators and designers. And the homes came a bit later because I love interiors. I was working in film, and there was a set dresser who had a really amazing creative home. And hers was the first home I featured.

And then everyone loved it, they said, “More of this, more of this.” So it started as an occasional thing, and I decided to do it religiously every week. And now it’s not necessarily about creative people, but creative spaces, which can be much more surprising. It’s not just about someone who calls themselves a designer.

You never had a vision for it?

No. It was born out of an interest in design and creativity. It was an opportunity for me to explore a passion. And now it’s become part of the fabric of Melbourne, part of this creative spirit, this incredible culture we have here. I’m so proud of that.

Were you a creative child?

Yes, very. I always loved art and Mum says I was never still. She said, “the family would be sitting on the couch watching TV and you would come in with your piles of crayons and pencils and craft.” I was obsessed with drawing and creating. I’ve never been good at being idle or just relaxing.

So what would you say to the Lucy 10 years ago?

Ten years ago? Twenty-four. I would say, “Trust your instinct, do your own thing, start up your own business.” I spent a long time frustrated in film that I wasn’t getting to the next stage—not getting any creative control after seven years in the industry.

I always wanted to be in the position of calling the creative shots. It took a while to realise I had to set that up myself. No one was going to give me that job.

So I would say, “Forge your own path. Do it your way.”

There’s been all this talk of perfection and beautiful spaces. What do you think about messy?

Messy? [Laughs] it’s funny you say that because I was reading another blog the other day, Design*Sponge. Grace Bonney, who runs that site out of New York, has been an inspiration to me. I see her site as having a similar trajectory to mine—albeit on a much bigger scale. Anyway, there was an article on there about this very idea, which really resonated with me. This idea of the “now home,” which goes against this culture of people designing and accruing things to create their future home for their future dinner party or their future family. It’s the aspirational culture we see in interior magazines especially, where everyone’s working towards this perfect lifestyle or home. But this article was telling us to celebrate the “now home”, and just have people over for dinner now! It doesn’t have to be perfect. You could be eating off a trestle table and who cares? If it’s a personal and honest expression of what your home is like in that moment, that’s okay! It’s the flipside to what we’ve been seeing in design and interior magazines for years. And it’s something I feel very passionate about. So I guess in that context a little mess is not such a bad thing.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Sean Fennessy

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