Inspired as a child by the design-eye of her mother and taking weekend trips to Toronto rug stores with her grandmother, Anne Sage was set on the industry path from an early age—but with that path came her own twists and turns. From graduate school in New York to the world of magazine editorial and the Wild West of the first blogging communities, we caught up with Innovators Council member Anne Sage to hear her design journey.
When and how did you first develop an interest in design?
I’m one of those people where I’ve been thinking about design since I was a little kid, and a lot of came from being around my mom and her mom. My mom’s a plant biology professor and researcher, but she has this eye and it colors the way she sees the world. Her mom actually was an interior designer, and she and her husband owned a rug store here in town. I can remember being 5 years old and watching my mom and grandma sew balloon shades for someone’s bathroom. We lived in Toronto and when my grandma would come visit us, we would go to the rug stores for fun.
So, design was always around me when I was growing up. I went to school and got an English degree, and after that I went to an interior design school for my master’s, but I hadn’t really done my research on the particular program that I got into. It was very much like an interior architecture, highly technical program. I wasn’t prepared for it and I lasted about 8 weeks. Instead, I got a job as a temp at a little ad agency and learned a ton about design and aesthetics—specifically as they relate to influencing how people see things and what they think. Because of course that’s what ads are, right? But for me, at the time, I was also really interested in editorial work. I was living in New York. I was applying to every single job they posted to no avail, and that’s when I started my blog. I had this triple influence of loving design, knowing I wanted to do design in some capacity, but maybe not the really technical stuff, and then here I am getting exposed to new ways of thinking about design and communicating to people. And I want to work in editorial, but no one will hire me, so I started a blog. And my goodness, it’ll be 15 years since I started that blog.
Can you tell us a bit more about those first years of the blog-universe?
For the first few years it was just blogging all the time, when blogging was just starting to take off. Nobody was making money from it aside from a very few. We were really just building this community. I think for me and many of us who were blogging at that time, that’s when the social side of social media was at its best.
You’d visit your blogroll every day and comment on everyone’s posts. People were actually engaging and interacting in this very authentic way. And the funny thing about it is looking at old blog posts and realizing that at the time, none of us (with a few exceptions) really had the resources or even the foresight to create our own content. We were scanning in magazine pages and writing commentary about other people’s images, and we were making collages of other people’s images, but it was a few years before people started figuring out how to take their own photos and style themselves, or tapping into the possibility of collaborating with brands to do a kitchen renovation.
Those early days were like the Wild West, and it still is. I think it always will be. But compared to then, it’s very structured now and I kind of look back on those days with a fondness when it was all of us doing this because we loved it. We weren’t getting paid. We all had regular jobs. We just really loved the community we were creating.
How did you get into interior design in a more professional capacity?
After so many years of talking about interior design, people started asking me, “Well, can you do my house? Can you do my living room?” So I had to learn a lot on the fly and also use my own home for a lot of trial and error. It was a full circle: Coming back to what I always thought I wanted to do, but just getting there in a very roundabout way.
After building your blog community, you launched Rue. Was that a natural extension of your online presence?
Yeah. At that point, a lot of us, myself included, were like well this is fun. Blogging is fun. But really, I’m just talking about other people’s photos. How do I start making my own? How do I start creating my own content? Which was not a word we used at the time, but that’s essentially what we were doing. How do I start making my own stuff? And for me, not only did I love the opportunity to make my own content, but I loved that we were creating a platform for what other people were doing. My personality is such that I love to bring people together. I love to be able to say, Oh, I know, the perfect stylist and the perfect photographer and the perfect designer. Let’s fly to Manhattan and have a shoot. It helps if you have a business plan and some type of savvy for that stuff, which I didn’t. Which is why after two years I was like this is an expensive hobby! But it got my feet wet in this world of taking an idea from scratch and bringing it to life, which definitely helped me, as well as on the content and social media strategy side of things—in terms of getting more exposure, but also in terms of getting more exposure with brands and getting to go to places like High Point, meeting lots of people, building relationships, and making more of those community connections.
What’s your idea of good design? When you’re going into a design project, what’s your goal?
I always have a few goals, and some of them are higher level. The biggest, most important one—and this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way: The project has to stay as positive as possible throughout, which of course is hard because you’re working with different personalities and lots of moving pieces. But if the energy of a project starts getting dragged down, the end result will reflect that. The more that everybody can work as a team and really stay true to the vision of the project, the better the end result will be.
Physical spaces take on the energy that created them, and I’ve seen both the good and bad of that. That to me is the power of designers: We can make people feel amazing, and that is our biggest, most important job.
Aside from aesthetics and function, the next really important goal is getting the space to work for the people who are using it. That one isn’t always easy for me, because I love to choose form over function. I’ll choose the pretty thing over the useful thing every time, but that’s not the only thing I’m there for. I’m there to think about: What are the needs of the people using this space? How are they going to move through the space? What views are they seeing as they sit at this table? I take those questions very seriously.
The third thing is the tricky balance between my own personal style and listening to clients who may not have design language, and translating what they’re saying into a design that feels like them. I want them to feel like the space is theirs, as well as a space that has my own personal stamp on it. That’s a really hard balance to achieve.
Part of the process that I don’t think we in the industry talk enough about is vetting clients to make sure that they understand when they come to you, they’re asking for your style. I’ve learned that one the hard way, too. People come to me and I’m so excited about the project that I don’t realize they haven’t looked at my portfolio. They don’t know that I don’t do a lot of color, or that I like clean, modern lines, and a higher-end, sophisticated look with some of those fun touches. And it’s been a really difficult thing because the client will want a green bedroom, and I’m like, sorry, you want what? Do you know who you’re talking to? But the contract has been signed. So ideally, people have done some research, learned that I love neutrals, you know, that’s my palette. If there are exceptions, of course, like if I’m doing a kid’s room, I’m happy to layer in some color, but on the whole, I’m not a big color girl. I’m more on the modern side of things, on the light and bright side of things.
There are always exceptions, but on the whole, I lived in LA for 10 years and my style was certainly influenced by that bright and sunny California modern look.
How do you like to start projects?
It’s sort of a twofold process where I try to start thinking simultaneously about function and form. On the function side of things, I’m pretty neurotic about measurements and getting all the physical parameters down of the project. What can we change in the architecture, and what can’t we change—things like that. Then, of course, talking to the client about how they envision themselves using this space, what their needs are for this space, for example, if it’s a family of four. That’s very different than an unmarried bachelor with a dog. I’m also trying to nail down a visual direction, so I’ll start Pinterest boards and Instagram folders, saving images. I’ll save like 400 photos, then talk to the client and after sitting on some ideas, I might pull the top 25-30 into a mood board and show it to the client. Sometimes the client is me, right, because my own home is my testing ground. And it’s like: Okay, we’re running these visuals on this mood board through the filter of the functional needs of the space. What are the physical parameters? Then, usually as I’m going through that process, I come up with a story for the space that’s a more abstract impression or idea that goes along with both the use-scenario and the visual direction. For example, I’ve been working on my daughter’s room and the story I have for it is Italian beach club in the 1950s. But I didn’t just land on that. I arrived to it after pulling lots of photos and realizing there’s a theme of these bold cabana stripes that remind me of cool umbrellas, and I’m loving this mix of French and Italian mid-century deco that feels a little fancy. And my daughter loves the beach! She loves pools, right? All of these pieces come together in this one condensed 1950s Italian beach club sentence.
What inspires you?
Travel is a big one, and as a bit of a corollary to that, so are hotels and restaurants. I love the world of hospitality design for a few reasons. One: I think designers who are specialists in that industry often have permission to push the envelope aesthetically a bit more because it’s not a person’s house, right? They’re there to bring a brand to life through design. I especially love how restaurant design is an extension of the food and the menu. Even the way the waitstaff is attired. I love that attention to detail and how it’s all just one big puzzle that comes together. The same with hotels.
I also have so much respect for the way that hospitality designers do all of their work within extraordinarily tight code restriction and traffic flow and, you know, how many inches between the chairs. All of those really, really important details still have to be considered while creating something magnificent that people are going to remember and take home with them—the sense of awe that they bring away from a restaurant or a hotel. I love seeing what people are doing in that space.
What’s the hardest part about running your business?
For me, the hardest part is that I’m a real lone wolf. I’m pretty controlling and quite the perfectionist. What that means is I don’t work well with others. Some people who are perfectionists and controlling choose to work with others anyway and grow an empire. I, for my own sanity, have decided I don’t really want to work with other people. I want to keep doing it all myself, which of course can become really exhausting and means there’s only so much I can do, which is really frustrating for someone with tons and tons of ideas. If my hands are the only ones implementing, then there are only so many of my ideas that can be implemented. It’s a tradeoff I’ve made that’s an ongoing challenge of being content with what I can do personally with the knowledge that that’s the price—I’m not going to have the headache of managing people.
What’s your favorite part of running your own business?
How fun it can be—I think that’s my favorite. In every project, whether it’s a small DIY bookshelf like I just did for my daughter’s room or a huge renovation, there’s a moment where, up until then, you’re really wondering if the project is actually going to come together. Where you’re like, Oh crap, this is going to be a massive fail; this is going to be the one that doesn’t work. And then everything clicks and it’s like Nope, I was right. This is brilliant! I am absolutely doing the right thing. This is the best. That’s the moment that I live for.
How do you incorporate your personal brand into your work?
I actually have, again for my own sanity, just decided not to. I’ve decided that. The satisfaction of bringing a space to life that someone is happy with is enough. I don’t need to be there photographing the before and after. I don’t need to be there micromanaging how high the art is hung.
In the past couple years, partly as a result of moving to a smaller town, party as a result of becoming a mom, and party a result of the pandemic making everybody do a reality check, my design work for clients and my personal brand that you see on social media are quite separate.
That said, my personal brand certainly does live in the projects for my own home that I showcase on social media. I try to showcase everything in a way that feels fun, and looks nice, but also doesn’t take itself too seriously. The way I see my role on social media is not necessarily to put up a picture or a video and say here’s exactly how I did it. Here are the 10 pieces I used and here are 10 links to buy it all to replicate in your house. I think that sounds horrible, and I’m a bad salesperson to boot, so I’m just bad at remembering links in general!
People follow me because they’re doing it themselves, and the most important thing I can deliver to them is that sense of fun and adventure. To figure out what you like is a process, and you have to realize that you might make some mistakes that require correction. And it’s all going to be okay at the end of the day! I think that’s the great part about it—how you can show that sometimes it wasn’t the right choice, and I had to go back and correct it. I think that’s important and it definitely helps people come to terms with their own DIY fails or design fails. There’s so much out there that asks us to feel bad about ourselves and I want people to come away from my work feeling good about themselves.
How does community fit into your ideas of design and/or your business?
It feels tricky these days to make sure that the community component is still getting tended to and looked after because everyone’s attention is so fragmented, and everyone is so busy and stressed. More than ever, it feels like. For me, the way that community plays an important role is hanging on to the one or two interactions I have a week, usually in direct messages or sometimes in a comment thread with a colleague or a follower where the connection is just a little deeper than normal. Because most of the interactions are like “What’s the link for that thing?” or “Haha, that’s funny, right?” That’s most of it. But if I can have a few interactions every week where I’m showing up with a little deeper version of myself and they are showing up with a little deeper version of themselves…usually for me it’s around parenting stuff. And also, as a woman of a certain age, sharing the getting older part of my reality right now, I’m bonding with people around that. Like, Oh my God, my shoulder hurts and I didn’t do anything to it. That type of stuff, right? Just going underneath the surface and feeling less alone in our experience together.
What advice would you give a designer starting today?
Get all of your contracts and paperwork airtight and talk to as many designers as you can who are running successful businesses. How do they make a profit? How do they stay sane? I think those are the two hardest things to do as a human, but particularly in design. One of the reasons I don’t take on a lot of clients these days is because it’s so easy to lose money on projects. If you’re doing it right, you can make a great living as a designer. And if you’re not being careful, it’ll essentially be an expensive hobby. So talk to people about how they do that. Talk to people about how they keep their mental health on track when they’re interacting with so many different personalities. Because there will be clients who want you to be their therapist! And there are contractors who think they have all the answers, right? There are so many people that you end up becoming the hub of a wheel with a lot of spokes, coming at you all day and it’s exhausting and makes it very hard to keep that positive energy that I talked about a little while ago. So make sure that the business side of your business is watertight, and talk to people about how to stay as sane as possible, knowing that you’ll probably still go crazy, but at least you’ll still have something in your back pocket to bring you back from the ledge of crazy.
Also, build a community of colleagues who you love and respect and who feel the same about you. Go to the conferences, go to the workshops. Show up in other people’s social media posts. Talk to them there. Build those relationships online and cement them offline in the real world. Because certainly when the rubber hits the road in your business, having colleagues to talk to who get it is so important.
What advice would you give to your former self when you started on this path?
I both love and hate that question because it makes me think really, really hard. And the gravitas of it feels really potent! I think that the biggest advice is to trust. Trust that you have your own path. Trust that it will simultaneously all be okay and yet also never feel totally okay because even here—I’m 40, I have an amazing family, I live in a home that I love—because I’m a creative person, there’s always a part of me that says it’ll never be enough. I need to be doing more. Is this going to be my legacy to the world? What? How can this be it? And that’s the tension between what I think all creative people feel between being satisfied and acknowledging what you’ve done while still keeping your creative fire stoked. To my younger self I would say you can chill out a little, but also start accepting now that you’re never going to be a totally chill person.
As far as sourcing, is there a piece of furniture or lighting that you must have in any project?
I always come back again and again to FLOS. I love all of their pieces. I have several in my own home, and whenever there’s a budget with clients, I use them in those projects, too. I think they’re instantly recognizable yet utterly unique. And for me, lighting is very much a sculptural moment in a project, and all of their lighting feels like art. Plus it’s fun—the way they play an off-balance thing or a cantilevered proportion, you can tell that they’re having fun with it.
How do you like to source? When you’re looking for a product, are you going custom? DIY?
It’s certainly a mix. Since I live more remotely now, I do a lot of online sourcing. And so much depends on the budget. If the budget’s there, I’m looking at higher end websites like Chairish and 1stDibs for unique vintage. But if the budget’s not there, I’ll start sort of the same way that I begin all my projects. When I’m sourcing for a specific product, I’ll pin maybe 50 beds, 50 chandeliers, then pull the 3 or 4 that feel like they’re the right vibe with the other things I’m loving. I’ll play around with everything in the mix that’s looking good together.
When I have the opportunity to do so, I love to thrift and go to second-hand shops in person, because of course you can get better bargains and find unique stuff that wouldn’t necessarily make its way to Chairish or Etsy or any of the vintage stores. I think vintage is really important for adding character and history. And also, the more we have to think about sustainability and design, I think vintage is a really important part of that conversation. I love when vintage, a high-end piece, and a great price all converge. There are a few stores in LA that would bring in a container from Amsterdam or something, and maybe 6 Charlotte Perriand stools would come off it. And they were in the budget, and I was like those are mine. That’s the best when that happens.
Any final thoughts?
Since I think that a lot of the people who will be reading this are working designers, I think it’s important to note that having a strong social media presence is a really important part of running a design business. More and more people use Instagram as their search, or Pinterest is how they discover new ideas. Even though it can feel really overwhelming, keep up that part of the business. There are ways to do it that can make it feel less burdensome, and I encourage people to find those ways. It’s an investment in the overall health of your business, so don’t neglect it.