If, six years ago, you had told John and Sherry Petersik that their little DIY-and-decorating blog, Young House Love, would eventually become their full-time jobs, they’d have chuckled. Tell them they would have their own lighting line, a Benjamin Moore paint collection, HGTV appearances, and a New York Times bestseller under their belts, and they’d probably have laughed outright.
No one is more surprised and delighted by YHL’s success than the Petersiks themselves, whose blogging adventures began with just a small fixer-upper house, a slim renovation budget, and loads of enthusiasm.
To this day, they continue to churn out inspirational tutorials and learn-as-you-go project ideas–only now their little blog gets over 5 million pageviews a month. This week, in anticipation of the pair’s second Curator’s Collection for Joss & Main (which launches April 7), we checked in with Sherry and asked her to share some insights she and John have gleaned along the way.
You and John been blogging a while–through two houses, a baby, and a book deal. Has your style evolved dramatically over that time?
It’s so funny to us when we look at everything we used to do, from our style of blogging to the way we wrote tutorials to the objects we brought into our home. I think when we had Clara, that was a defining moment for us, and it marked a shift in our design sensibility. Before we had a baby, we felt like we had to design a home that looked grown-up, and we were very drawn toward a neutral, tone-on-tone look. When Clara came along, we had this realization, like, we’re clearly adults now! And that freedom let us dive into bolder styles — bright patterns, rugs, lamps, and accessories. Now we have fun with things like lanterns, pillows, and garden stools. That was liberating and exciting.
At one point we did a fun post on how we’d do our old house differently now. I look at the old pictures and wonder, What if we had switched out those white curtains? Why not an ikat or a polka dot? I wish I had thrown in some colored pillows. But then again, the choices we made in that first house made sense for that house. It was only around 1,200 square feet, so it needed to feel cohesive. Now we’re in a larger house, and it’s not as dire that the 12-foot wide room flow perfectly into the 8-foot room next to it.
There are certainly colors that both John and I gravitate toward that will always be our common thread. We’ve always liked green and blue–they’re safe, because we both like them. It’s not me trying to convince John to like coral, or him trying to convince me to like navy. In this house we’ve also had a lot of fun with bright yellow. And we’ve learned to embrace dark colors.
As for the look, we love wood tones, dark wood floors, natural fiber rugs, and unfinished, older, and industrial influences. I like that those elements allow me to bring in some brighter tones, even some pinks, and it doesn’t end up being entirely girly. We’re noticing lately that we can feel our style swinging back and forth, like a pendulum. Our style may flex to be more modern, but then we bring in a jute rug or basket, and swings back to neutral and natural. Or it starts to go traditional, and then we bring in something modern. We never swing one way and stick; we’re always flexing and finding a mix. We’d get bored if there was only one way to describe the house.
How have your priorities and renovation strategies changed over the years? Do you tackle projects differently now?
Well, the blog is our full-time job now, so we approach it more seriously. That doesn’t mean we bring in experts to do the work for us–we still DIY and do the research, and share our experiences and pitfalls with our readers along the way. But we do give ourselves more structure. These days we have a toddler to juggle, and desk work, like reader comments and research, to deal with during the day. So even though we’re still doing the projects at nights and on weekends, we’ll always make sure we’ve done two to three projects a week now. We can’t just step away for a vacation and not do anything. It’s our job. But it’s also still our passion.
Is there pressure to invent projects (or redo things) for the blog’s sake?
Our original method, which we are still sticking to, is that we’d live with the house a long time and gradually build our list of projects to undertake. We hardly ever do anything just for the content. Everything we do for the site is born from the actual needs of our family, or from a checklist of things we’ve been meaning to do. Our goal is never to do something on the blog that we don’t already want to do ourselves.
We don’t take on projects just because we think everyone will like them, because there’s just no way to predict that. You shouldn’t do things because you think they will be pinnable, or get lots of shares. We really advise against that, because you don’t have any idea what will be a hit. Sometimes at the beginning we’d be really excited about a project, and then after posting it, it’d be crickets. That’s okay. And not everything has to be a new idea–it’s okay to take on projects that other people have covered, because we might find a different tool or method that works out for us. And even if we’re following someone else’s tutorial, we talk about what was challenging along the way, and what modifications we made.
It was much harder than we’re expected. We thought, we’ve written 2,500 posts! We can do this, easy! And in many ways we tackled it the same way we work on the blog. We sort of share everything. We wrote tutorials together, because we needed that critical eye. And we divide the work: John would be outside priming 16 different pieces all laid out on the lawn, while I was inside giving Clara lunch or working on a draft. But the timeline was so different. We had just three weeks to do all of the projects in the book, because we had a photographer booked for just that amount of time. And in those three weeks we had to take pics of before, during the process, and after. Once the clock started, it was really a sprint to get everything done.
It was also really different because we’re used to sharing things with our readers as we go. We outlined the book two years before it published, and we did all the projects one year ahead. In that time we wondered, Are we still going to like these projects a year from now? What if they’re totally out of style or they’ve been done to death by the time this comes out? With the site, we’re used to finishing a project and sharing the results within 24 hours. And writing a book is a lot more formal. On a blog, if something’s not clear you can post an update and say, “Whoops, those were three-inch screws!” or add other important details you may have forgotten. The book was so unforgiving–you had to look at every page with a magnifying glass. We proofed it, like, 22 times. In the end it was just a different animal. But doing it really was a life achievement for us.
Clearly, ambition is not something that’s lacking in the Petersik household. What skills do you think you two have developed the most through Young House Love?
John has been amazing. He has gone from a novice woodworker to, well, I would consider him a carpenter. I can use tools, but not the way he can. He singlehandedly built a deck for us, and he built our wooden mantel. We’ve had professional carpenters look at something John built and say, “I’d charge $1,500 for that.” I’m so proud of him. We’ve both grown in leaps and bounds with photography and writing, too.
Well, there are things that we’re not likely to be able to do again without a lot of headache. Floors are one: When we moved into our current house, we had to move out of the old place and into the new one on the same day. We have lots of floors here that we really wanted to refinish, but once you have all the furniture in, it’s really hard to do. You have to move it all out, or move half of it to one side of the house while you do the other side, and then repeat. Realistically, it’s not happening any time soon.
Any projects you won’t touch with a ten-foot pole?
Ha–I think we’re getting stupider, actually! We’re willing to try doing anything ourselves. We’ll always consult an expert, of course, but if it’s something we can reasonably attempt, we generally won’t sit back and hire someone else. There are two things we always bring in pros for, though, and that’s when you’re dealing with electricity or anything structural. Make mistakes with electric and it can burn your house down; structural mistakes can knock your house down. But if the worst thing that can happen is you have to repaint something or return it because it doesn’t work for the space, then we go for it!
When you look back at how your blog (and your ambitions) have grown, is it a bit bittersweet? Do you miss being those wide-eyed DIYers who started this whole thing?
To me, our blog is our way of helping people who were just like us when we started. They’re a little frustrated and disenchanted–they’re saying, I have to hire an upholsterer for this project? And it’s going to cost how much? The thing is, almost anyone can do the things they want to do in their homes. Almost anyone I know can make curtains, even if they can’t sew. I think that’s why we do it. We hope we’re sharing our enthusiasm and excitement, and helping people to create the homes they really want.