Sheila Bridges’s boss had a question for her: Why are you here? Bridges was working for Armani in the late 1980s after a stint in the buying department at Bloomingdale’s. It was exactly the resume you’d want if you were headed for a lifelong career in fashion, but the Brown-educated Bridges didn’t want that career—even her supervisor could tell. So she quit, and went to work for interior design firm SheltonMindel. It was the first step in a sparkling career that would see her anointed as “America’s Best Interior Designer” by CNN and Time magazine.
In this episode of the Business of Home podcast, Bridges discusses the twists and turns of her professional path, from her groundbreaking early-2000s TV show, Sheila Bridges: Designer Living, to the dark period following the loss of her hair to alopecia areata and her subsequent rebound. “I kept reminding myself that I was not defined by that hair and that my creativity and curiosity and my expertise in design … had absolutely nothing to do with hair,” she tells host Dennis Scully.
In a wide-ranging conversation on the state of the design world today, Bridges also discusses the obstacles she’s faced as a woman of color, and the slow pace of progress toward inclusivity in the design industry. “The design world is getting a little bit better, but there’s still a lot of room for growth and change and inclusivity and diversity and all those things that we’re trying to work toward,” she says. “None of us want to be the only one. I don’t want my legacy to just be about my own work. It’s also about bringing other people into the fold.”
Speaking of Bridges’s own legacy, her Harlem Toile du Jouy pattern (created as a riff on French toile patterns, with vignettes that lampoon African American stereotypes) is playing a growing part of her career in the present-day as it’s licensed for an ever-widening range of products. She finds herself increasingly interested in industrial design, noting that the boundaries between aesthetic disciplines are getting blurry. “Design has become more fluid. ... People finally realize that technology and art and fashion and music and culture and the environment … all of these things are part of design,” she says. “That, to me, is very exciting. The opportunities in design are limitless.”
This episode was sponsored by Buildlane and Dedon. Listen to the interview below and check out a few takeaways. If you like what you heard, subscribe to the podcast (free of charge!) to get a new episode every week.
Fame can be a double-edged sword
Bridges was approached to make a TV show in the early aughts and agreed to give it a shot. The show greatly increased her profile, but came with challenges. “At the time, most of my clients were very, very high-end,” says Bridges. “For them, the idea that I was on television was taking away from the time I was spending on their projects. It [also] made me very accessible in a different way. … It meant we were bombarded with potential projects that had a budget of $3,000 or $5,000. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, that’s not my niche.”
Relationships are essential
When she was working for other designers, Bridges became friends with the editorial staff at various shelter magazines—the people she would send slides to. One of them was Dara Caponigro, now the creative director of Schumacher. Relationships, says Bridges, are one of the most essential parts of the business, and bridges are to be crossed, not burned. “You never know where people are going to be one day. When I was eventually out on my own and I finally had a project that I thought was potentially worthy of being in a magazine, Dara was the first person I reached out to.”
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Bridges’s career has been one of continuous reinvention. She started purely as a designer, then moved into TV. Later, she wrote books, including the can’t-put-it-down memoir The Bald Mermaid. Now, she’s licensing Harlem Toile to the likes of Sonos (and a few other exciting brands we can’t mention quite yet). “I’m always reinventing, always trying to diversify my business. … It’s important to have different revenue streams,” she says.
Homepage image: Courtesy of Sheila Bridges