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My Design Journey: Chrissy Hunter on Defining Success

Chrissy Hunter in her bedroom.

Courtesy of Chrissy Hunter

For Chrissy Hunter, owner of Harlowe James Design Studio in Sausalito, California, good design isn’t so much about paint colors, finishes, or even furniture. It’s about evoking a certain feeling. As part of our series, My Design Journey, we spoke with Hunter about her jump from freelance to full-time, making the most of small-space living, and finding inspiration offline.

On Last-Minute, Life-Changing Decisions 

Growing up across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco in Marin County, Hunter had her heart set on becoming a fashion designer. After high school, she moved to Los Angeles to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Then, a few days before classes started, she switched her major to interior design.

“It wasn’t completely out of nowhere," Hunter says. "I’ve always been drawn to interiors—but I am not an impulsive person. Normally, I am an over-thinker and over-analyzer, but it was just this instinctual thing that happened.”

Ultimately, Los Angeles didn’t prove to be the right fit and Hunter moved back to the Bay Area to complete her associate's degree. Then, her instincts told her she should move again, this time across the country to attend The Savannah College of Art and Design. Her parents were skeptical.

“They thought I was crazy, and said ‘You couldn't handle L.A. for a year, you called us crying, wanting to move home, and now you want to move to Savannah?’” she says, laughing. But, one campus visit was all it took to confirm that’s where she belonged. And it wasn’t just what Hunter learned in the classroom that set her up for later success.

“People ask me if you need a Bachelor's degree in interior design to be a designer, and I respond, ‘No, you need life skills,’” she says. “I’m an introvert, and being removed from my comfort zone gave me the confidence that I could go out on my own and get jobs moving forward. It changed my work ethic.”

Flowers on table
 Chrissy Hunter

On Planning Ahead

For all this talk of impulsiveness, Hunter is actually quite adept at playing the long game. After graduating from SCAD, she landed a job at the residential design firm Braun + Adams. She stayed for three and a half years while simultaneously growing her blog, Harlowe James—named after a street sign she found antiquing in Savannah—and working toward her ultimate goal of working for herself. She was upfront with her boss, Kristina Braun, about her aspirations. 

“We had a very open, honest relationship," Hunter says. "I told her about my blog, and that I probably would not want to be working there forever. I was so lucky to have a boss that supported that instead of being offended. Kristina allowed me to build my own business while working for her, and it made the transition so much smoother.”

Hunter aimed to be self-employed by 30 and, a month before turning 29, she made the leap. How did she know she was ready?

We're all a collection of the places we've lived, the people we meet, and the moments we share.

“You're never really completely ready,” she says. “There are a billion ‘what ifs.’” But, she had a solid foundation. The year before, she took a hard look at her finances to figure out how much less she could make and still make ends meet. She also reduced her hours at Braun + Adams in order to focus on her blog and increase her e-design services.

“When you’re first starting out, getting a design project that lasts three or four months is rare,” Hunter says. “You’re more likely working with people on little refreshers, so it was important to build out enough clients so that when I did leave, my calendar would be full to the end of the year and I would have a stable income.”

This balancing act wasn’t easy. “At one point, I was basically working two full-time jobs," she reflects. "Throw social media into the mix, and it was nonstop, seven days a week. There were moments where I would be exhausted and over it. You want to give up, but you have to remember there's a bigger picture.”

On Staying True To Her Evolving Style

Hunter officially launched Harlowe James Design Studio in the fall of 2019, and she is grateful that her solo venture took on new meaning as she spent more time at home.

“This past year allowed me to play around and not be so stuck in this aesthetic of what I think will translate well, but what I actually want,” Hunter says. 

Living room with fresh flowers
 Chrissy Hunter

For a multi-hyphenate who has a popular blog and an Instagram following of nearly 50,000, change can be tricky, especially when your home is essentially part of your portfolio.

“When you get a little bit of traction based on a very specific style and then you want to veer away from that, you worry people won’t like it," Hunter shares. "I had to remind myself it's always an evolution. I started my blog when I was 24. I didn't have a lot of money or a true sense of style. For the first time, I was living with my boyfriend. Now, I’m in my thirties, we’re married, and we’ve lived in the same apartment for almost five years. It’s only natural that your aesthetic changes over time.”

Your aesthetic isn't necessarily a look, it's how you feel when you look at something. I like layered materials, soft lighting, cozy linens—it’s a whole mood.

For Hunter, this means more color, more patterns, and more ambivalence about other people’s opinions.

“In order to be a good designer, I think you have to care a little bit less about what people think of your work and of you because it's a weirdly personal thing,” she says, adding that signing off social media helps. 

“In scrolling, you become inspired and influenced, and then everyone just starts buying the same stuff," she says. "This past year, I went on social media so much less, and I found myself discovering things I really loved, not just something I saw someone else post. So much of what I'm attracted to is the personality of the designer or the people who live in a home. It doesn't feel like this sort of Pinterest-perfect image.”

Long walks, old Hollywood movies, and fresh flowers from the farmer's market have all played a part in cultivating what Hunter calls her “homey” aesthetic. 

Open shelving in kitchen
Chrissy Hunter 

“I never know what to say when people ask me to describe my aesthetic because so much of what I am attracted to is feeling-based," she says. "Your aesthetic isn't necessarily a look, it's how you feel when you look at something. I like layered materials, soft lighting, cozy linens—it’s a whole mood.”

One thing is for sure: Hunter is a pro at creating vignettes that transport the viewer.

“The first thing I ever wrote on my blog was that ‘We're all a collection of the places we've lived, the people we meet, and the moments we share,’” she says. “For me, it is about the little moments—the music playing, the lighting, the candles, the flowers. There are no airs to that. You're not trying to show off or be something you're not. It's just saying, ‘This is what brings me comfort,' and, especially now, I think we all need that more than ever. If I can provide that in a photo or a video, it's truly the most satisfying thing.” 

On Design Mistakes, Both Big and Small

Hunter’s most regrettable faux pas is something many millennials can probably relate to. 

“My mom would say my biggest mistake growing up was inflatable furniture,” Hunter says, laughing. “But, I feel like there's been a zillion little things, like hanging lights too low or too high, or thinking that everywhere has to have a piece of art. Now, I have a more stripped-down approach, where I don't feel like I need to add stuff just for stuff’s sake.”

Living room
 Chrissy Hunter

This philosophy is key when you share roughly 500 square feet with your husband, cat, and an impressive gallery wall featuring works passed down from your great-grandfather, a former New York gallery owner.

Hunter’s best advice? “Spatial planning is the biggest thing for my own space and it’s the biggest thing in design projects, too,” she says. “You can make a tiny space look even smaller if all your stuff is disproportionate to each other. Scale is huge.”

On Being Content With Where You’re At

If you’d asked Hunter in 2019 what her plans were for the future, she could have rattled off a multi-year plan. But, recent events have made her reconsider.

“If this past year taught me anything, it’s that life is super unpredictable, and it's really okay to just slow down and enjoy the process of where you're at now, not constantly searching for the next thing,” she says. “Eventually, I would love to push my skill set a little more and possibly expand my business. In what way? I'm not sure. I would also love to work on a project abroad. In what way? I'm not sure.”

Bench at the end of bed
 Chrissy Hunter

Even though she’s come to terms with—and even embraced—uncertainty, Hunter says the pressure to do more is real.

“When you see people that may have started off around the same time as you getting ‘victories,’ you just have to say to yourself, ‘That's incredible for them. But, that's not my path.’” she says. “People group influencers, bloggers, and designers into one category, thinking they all want the same end result: a book, a store, a product line. Success is so relative and also incredibly personal.”

Lastly, Hunter says it’s important to remember where you started and celebrate each milestone along the way.

“At the end of the day, we're all just trying to figure it out,” she says. “I feel incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to be off on my own at this point in my career, but success is this big, huge word that's also broken down into a million little successes over your life. You should just be fully engaged with them as they're happening. Anything that progresses you forward in whatever direction you want to go should be looked at as a success.”