How to Be an Interior Stylist with Colin King
This episode features Colin King, an interior stylist, product designer and creative director. We cover topics such as his work/life balance, the source of his motivation, how he approaches interior styling, his work routines, his thoughts on professional growth and relevancy, the power of asking for help and of helping others, his challenges along the journey, including encounters with addiction and his path to sobriety, and much more.
As the go-to interiors stylist for the world’s leading brands and publications, Colin King has defined the style of modern American design. After studying dance in New York City, King transitioned his creative background into the realm of interiors through Colin King Studio.
"When you bring that other foot over to the unknown, all the magical things happen."
Colin King is a regular contributing stylist to publications including Architectural Digest, T Magazine, ELLE DECOR, and Ark Journal. King additionally has his own celebrated product lines with the Morocco-based Beni Rugs—where he was recently named Artistic Director-at-Large—and the Scandinavian design shop MENU, with more in the works. In March of 2023, King will release Arranging Things (Rizzoli), a book sharing his intuitive and deeply personal process of elevating spaces through a series of anecdotes and visual essays written with Sam Cochran.
King continues to expand his studio practice to include creative direction, product development and installation design, imparting his signature aesthetic across the industry.
- Introduction [00:00:00]
- The Mindful Creative Year [00:01:02]
- Episode Introduction [00:03:20]
- On Becoming a Creative Professional [00:05:16]
- Advice for Young Creatives [00:13:38]
- Work Routines of an Interior Stylist and Product Designer [00:20:27]
- Managing Your Finances as a Creative Professional [00:36:13]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [00:41:27]
- Importance of Personal and Professional Growth [00:42:11]
- Challenges on Colin King’s Creative Journey [00:51:35]
- Colin King’s Approach to Styling and Challenges of the Interior Industry [01:08:53]
- How to Be a Better Creative Professional [01:23:52]
- Episode Outro [01:29:08]
Colin: There’s something to be said for acting as if and walking through that fear of, “Well, I’ve never really done this before, but I’m going to trust myself and I’m going to believe in myself to just do the job.” It’s like when you bring that other foot over to the unknown that all the magical things happen.
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long-form interview show with the mission to help creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself active in a field of art direction, graphic design and consulting.
This podcast features insightful conversations with some of the world’s most inspiring creatives. Reveals the stories that shape their lives and careers, and offers actionable strategies to help you take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: We’ll be back in a second to talk about interior styling, work-life balance, professional and personal growth and more. But first, a quick message about our upcoming online program.
As discerning creatives, we already know the amateurs wing it and the professionals have a system. And we might have a systematic approach for our clan projects, which is great, but we forget to apply similar intentionality to our own ambitions and the days and months ahead of us. We just wing it. Or at best, we set a few vaguely defined New Year’s resolutions. And that’s BS. We all know it.
However, something to that New Year’s momentum urges us to think about what we could improve or change. And that’s why I created the Mindful Creative Year, a series of practices aimed at bringing greater intentionality to our personal and professional aspirations.
With the Mindful Creative Year, I use that momentum strategically. And instead of ineffective New Year’s resolutions, I make an iterative and inspiring roadmap for the months ahead. And I make it an ongoing practice that I’ve been doing privately for half a decade. And in recent years through this workshop with a small community of creative individuals.
The Mindful Creative Year is much more than an online course. It’s a workshop and a year-long intimate community. On December 1st, we’ll open enrollment for the Mindful Creative Year. It will be the third year I’m running this workshop. And this 2023 session is redesigned and expanded making it the most ambitious one to date.
Forget about New Year’s resolutions. Instead, together we can take greater responsibility for our schedules with the year-long dedicated community and a space for reflection, intent, strategic planning and creating. There’s work ahead. It’s worthwhile. And it should be directed well. Visit creative.voyage/newyear. That’s creative.voyage/newyear to find out more and join the workshop wait list.
In this episode, I talked to an interior stylist and a product designer.
Colin: My name is Colin King. I live in New York City. And I’m an interior stylist, product designer and creative director.
Colin King has worked across a wide range of areas in the design industry. And all his endeavors are characterized by his refined and educated eye for selecting furniture, art, accessories, florals and textiles. And recently, he brought that expertise into the product design as well.
Drawing inspiration from what he calls “the search for perfect imperfection”, he has lent his signature aesthetic to a variety of personal clients and brands such as the Roman and Williams Guild, TRNK, Eyeswoon, Home Depot, One Kings Lane and Consort Home.
As a creative consultant with vast experience in styling, social media and creative direction, Colin has made his mark through his editorial work, producing and styling feature print, digital and social stories for major design and shelter magazines, including Architectural Digest, Clever, T Magazine, Domino, My Domain and Hampton’s magazine. He has recently been named Artistic Director-at-Large at Beni Rugs and released a new product collection with the Danish design brand, MENU.
In this episode, we’ll listen to the highlights of the conversation I have with Colin in September 2022. We cover topics such as his work-life balance, the source of his motivation, how he approaches interior styling, and his work routines, his thoughts on professional growth and relevancy, the power of asking for help and helping others, his challenges along the journey, including encounters with addiction and his path to sobriety and much more.
Colin grew up in rural Ohio. And since he was a kid, he knew he didn’t want to stay there. Growing up, he loved to dance. And at the age of 18, that passion took him to New York to follow his dream. Despite dance being his core created outlet and a way of communication, once he finished his studies and started auditioning, he lost the original qualities he loved about it. That led him from New York to Los Angeles and from dancing to personal training working with the famous Tracy Anderson company.
However, over time, he missed more creativity in his life. In between a few other pursuits, including working as a real estate agent and a content manager, he found himself back in New York. And from one opportunity to another, he gradually shifted his Focus to styling and photography which led him to where he is now.
I’m sure many creatives can relate to this non-linear path of arriving at their current career. I wanted to hear about those early days including Colin’s transition to becoming a full-time creative professional.
Colin: I still struggle with like being called a creative because I think there’s such a way about operating through the world that I don’t even realize I’m creative in that sense. First of all, thank you for having me on the show. I kind of went through all of the social media and had listened to some prior episodes and, really, I love these conversations because I think I’m fascinated by other creatives and how tortured we all can be with our work and our ambitions and our need to express ourselves.
I think from child, I was like very into dance. I really liked to communicate without words because I wanted to express myself but I was so self-conscious of my voice and there were some insecurities around just growing up. I found that dance was a great outlet for me to really be able to communicate.
And I went to college here in New York City for dance. It’s in a very disciplined, strict program. And then I moved to Los Angeles to dance. And as we all know as creatives, it’s not always easy to make a living doing what you love. And I really struggled just paying the rent. I was waiting tables and auditioning. And you can spend a whole day at an audition and never book a job, never see a paycheck, if you don’t get that gig.
And, yeah, and then it wasn’t a linear path for me, the creative world. I then dove into personal training. I worked for this woman, Tracy Anderson, who’s a big fitness guru here in the states and I think worldwide. I lived in London training some people as well. And I was still able to move my body and really rely on the knowledge I had gained through dance.
And then I went off with a client to be her estate manager. And that really opened my eyes to design. Because I grew up in rural Ohio and I had never really seen elevated luxury design before until being exposed to some of these higher end, higher net worth clients. And I really started to fall in love with it. There were some of the projects that were in various phases of renovation and construction. I really got to see how these projects came to life. And I knew that design was something I wanted to explore.
And this, just for some context, was in my late 20s. And I’m 34 now. And I knew I didn’t want to go back to school. I couldn’t do that. I was never a school person. I just kind of tried to make my own way through the design world. I started as a content manager, whatever that is, at a little firm out in Los Angeles right when Instagram was kind of becoming something thing especially for businesses. And I was styling their showroom and capturing imagery, art directing their product photography. And that really ignited something within me. And it was not only objects that I fell in love with, but it was also capturing objects.
And I was creating imagery. And I was really fascinated by finding that tension of objects with the perfect light and the perfect narrative that I could really share with everyone else. And I really was trying to find my point of view in that way. And also, a point of view for a company.
They opened here in New York. I moved back to New York in 2017. I’ve been back a little over five years. And that was when I started really carving my path here as a stylist, and as a product designer, and exhibition designer and all the things. It was definitely not linear. But here I am.
Mario: And how long ago was that transition?
Colin: Yeah, that transition, I mean, it was full of bumps. There was one point when I moved back to the city. It’s a very expensive town here. And I was doing a bunch of stuff. I was consulting for brands on social media. I was training some clients, because I could get in there super early in the morning. I could have a couple clients before everyone else’s day started. And then I was freelance styling.
And freelance styling for me didn’t look like my door getting knocked on or people coming to it. It really meant me finding projects and pitching them to publications contingent on me styling them. Really kind of carving my way very unconventionally through the styling world, because I never assisted a prop stylist. I didn’t even really know what styling was. And I think my lack of experience really helped create my point of view and my sensibility because I was never taught. I never picked up anything from a mentor per se. I was just kind of finding my own way and creating something that I really liked.
Mario: Yeah. And when you look back at the start, in hindsight, is there anything, any advice you would give yourself like looking from your position at the moment?
Colin: I honestly wouldn’t have changed anything. Because if any of my success would have come earlier or in a different realm, I think I wouldn’t be who I am today. Looking back, I really see that there was this constant motion, right? I was in constant action. And I really knew when to move on.
I see creative sometimes really pounding away at their art form. And for me, I was like, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the thing.” And I kept moving on. I’ve always been like a seeker. There was a constant motion. There was constant action. And trying to find where I fit in and what I loved and how I could do it and make a living.
Mario: I think that arc is quite common for a lot of people. And I think when we were younger, we try different things. And ideally, we get an opportunity to try many different things. And through that, in some way, find our path, and which can also change.
And I’m curious you mentioned here that you kind of knew when to move on, which I think is actually a very important skill or maybe a character trait. Is that something that is inherent to you? Or kind of how do you manage that? Because I feel like a lot of us find ourselves in those situations. And then most often, it’s kind of like pushing through and maybe not listening to the other voices. How do you tackle that?
Colin: I tackle it in the sense that, for me, to stand at a closed door that’s just not opening and just waiting for that door to open, you miss so many other things. There’re windows. There’re other doors. There’s a whole other world to explore. And I think as painful as it was to move on from some of these creative ventures that I had spent decades pursuing, yeah, it was something inherent inside of me that just told me like, “Let’s try something else.”
I think that comes from within and really being open to other opportunities. Because I think if you have your blinders on and there’s no flexibility and maybe something else could be just as creative or you could like it just as much or more, I think there’s an openness and a willingness to search for that, especially if that door just stays closed.
And I found that with dance. I just wasn’t getting the jobs that I wanted. I wasn’t able to really put food in my mouth, to be honest, just doing that. There were some circumstances as well that forced me to move on especially in those younger years.
When we start our careers, we can take so many directions. Even if we have a clear idea of a specific discipline that we want to practice, for example, graphic design, there are still so many possible takes on it, different styles and expressions, which makes the creative industry beautiful but equally daunting especially for the young talent.
Here, Colin shares his advice for young creatives including the importance of developing your eye and cultivating your point of view.
Colin: Looking back, when I first started, I really took myself on like artist dates, right? I really gave myself dedicated time to explore to find my point of view, whether it was picking up a phone and just exploring photography, picking up a camera, or going to galleries, or finding unique shows that I thought might pique my interest.
I mean, there were days where I would literally be like, “Okay, today I’m going to the met and I’m just going to take pictures.” And I think developing that point of view, because as a young creative, you don’t necessarily have work to share. I didn’t have a bunch of work to share with the world. I really had to create the work, right? And whether that was photographing a public place, what I didn’t realize at the time was I was developing my eye. And I was drawn to things and I kind of developed this, the dark moody sensibility that you can see throughout my work. I captured that and I was able to tell that story without even producing my own styling work.
And then my apartments were not that nice. I didn’t want to necessarily show them because they weren’t the best representation of what it was that I liked. But I think for young creatives, it’s really important, even if your circumstances aren’t ideal, to explore and find beauty. And it doesn’t necessarily have to even be at a museum. It can be in like a disregarded street alley that you see the way trash is piled. Or I walked by a laundry truck the other day and this like huge pile of laundry was like spilling out a truck and it was so beautiful. And trying to find beauty in the everyday. And for me, that looked like taking a photo of it and almost just obsessing over it. And finding the emotion that I felt when I saw it in person.
Yeah, I think so many creatives are waiting to be discovered. And there’s something about taking the action to put yourself out there and develop your own eye while you’re waiting or while you’re waiting on your break. To just keep moving, and creating, and exploring, and finding, and searching.
Mario: Yeah. That process of developing your eye. Would you do that in public? Or would you do it privately until you feel you’re ready?
Colin: I mean, if I did it privately, I would have never felt I was ready. I think that there was a lot of times where I was hired. I guess I can go back to the first time I did a styling job for Architectural Digest. A photographer friend of mine said, “Hey, they didn’t give me a stylist. And I don’t want to go alone. Can you help?” And that was literally my first styling job. I didn’t even know what to do. I went to a flower market I had never been.
And I think there’s something to be said for acting as if and walking through that fear of, “Well, I’ve never really done this before. But I’m going to trust myself and I’m gonna believe in myself to just do the job.” And I look back at those pictures and they’re not good. I wouldn’t not, I mean, I would share them with maybe like a before and after like my work then and now. But part of it is learning in public, right? And part of it is whether we look at it as failure or just learning very publicly, it’s important.
Because what I found is we’re all very much able to create our own narratives with all the platforms that we’re exposed to today. And I can show work that I’m super proud of. And I can build this beautiful story around it. And then the jobs I do for money or the jobs that I did and I wasn’t on that day. I didn’t have like the magic. I can just let go of and bury somewhere far away.
Mario: Yep. Yeah.
Colin: Yeah, I think that it’s a mix though. It’s a mix of finding that point of view in your eye both in public and in private.
Mario: And I guess in a more practical level day-to-day, I mean, of course, one big part of the equation is that point of view. What do you actually as an individual bring to a creative task? On the other end, there’s practical work or things which are expected within each creative role. Let’s say when you’re considering getting an assistant to help you on a job, what do you look for I think that practical domain?
Colin: So much of our industry, any creative field, is relationships and people. I’m looking for someone that’s very easy to be around, the people like to be around, that it is also a problem solver. I think a lot of my work as a stylist is troubleshooting. And if we didn’t bring the thing that we needed, finding something similar, or turning it all around in the moment, I think someone who is willing and eager. I don’t even look too much to experience. It’s always nice if the person has experience. But a lot of people gave me chances without the proper experience. I don’t think that’s always a precursor to getting hired as an assistant. I think to have the willingness, and to have a work ethic, and a positivity and collaboration. So much of everything that we do is collaborative.
And I do have a point of view. But a lot of times, when I go to clients, they also have a point of view. And there’s a dialogue that happens where I know they hired me because they trust me. And I do need to bring that point of view. Because I’ve gotten lost before with clients where I’m just trying to make them happy. And that I completely abandon myself and my point of view. And then I look at the work and it just doesn’t have that strength. It doesn’t have the eye that I’ve developed because I was trying to make someone else happy.
It’s always a dance. And I think knowing who you are and believing in yourself and trusting yourself that you are hired for a reason is super important too. And then having the proper support of an assistant that I think the number one is just positive. And like how can we do this? Let’s figure this out. And coming up with ideas. Because I think a lot of times, on set specifically, I get decision fatigue because you’re just there to make decisions. Does this look good? Does this work? No. No. No. And sometimes that can be quite exhausting after a day.
Having that person that you can bounce ideas around with, whether that’s an assistant, or the photographer, or the other creatives on set is super important.
Colin is highly multifaceted. And on top of that, he is based in a bustling New York City with his inspiring Manhattan home also serving as his office. I was curious to hear how his schedule looks like these days and how he manages his different roles.
Colin: The thing I love about my job is that it is so different. And every day is different. That’s also the thing that I hate about my job, because there’s no consistency, and it makes it very hard to maintain self-care, personal relationships, all of those things because I’ve made work a priority and that has come first.
The thing that I love to do, and it just makes me tired and it helps me actually creatively because I have so many ideas when I wake up. I usually wake up mid-sentence and with the to-do list and in some sort of fear of forgetting something or whatever. But I work out. I go and I run three miles. And I do strength training at Bari’s here in the city. And I find that that really puts me in my body. I think that’s just from years and years of dance of just grounding myself. And it also helps me sleep. Because like I said, I’m just a, I don’t want to say restless person, maybe a little restless. But always thinking. Working out is always, unless I’m on the road, is always kind of a priority.
And then it’s tackling the tasks of the day. Sometimes that looks like prep work. Sometimes that’s deep in research. I have a plethora of books in my library. And whether it’s a creative brief from a client or even just developing new ideas, like book ideas or product ideas. I think sometimes a lot of this, and what I would say to young creatives too, is you can’t wait for someone to bring you a project.
I found that some of my most successful projects I have brought to my dream clients or collaborators. And because who doesn’t want that, right? Who doesn’t want like a perfect package and like, “Hey, I have this great idea? And here’s a deck. And here are all of” It’s kind of like picture perfect.
But, yeah. Some days are research if I’m here in the studio. I live and work in my studio here in Tribeca. And, yeah, and then other days, like on Thursday this week, I’m going up to scout a project in Pound Ridge, New Jersey, I believe? There’s like scouting for new projects. It’s always thinking ahead. And a lot of plates in the air.
I’m also working closely with my PR team for some upcoming products launching with MENU. And I have a book coming out in the spring. There’s a lot of strategy around that. And being more active on my social channels and strategy meetings like that. Yeah, there’s always something. I’m meeting with like a location scout today to possibly use my apartment for a location. It’s constantly different.
And then my October is super heavy with travel and working throughout the country with different clients. But, yeah, it’s really hard to pinpoint what an average day or week looks like. But I can tell you, every day is a little bit different. And I really cherish the days that I’m here in New York and able to just be in my studio with my team. And it makes me feel grounded. Because, so often, I’m doing stuff for other brands and other clients, which I love, and I get so much satisfaction from helping. But I neglect my own studio and my own work. And honestly, it’s created my own boredom. I think it’s really important to be bored sometimes. And that’s I think when your best ideas come.
Mario: Yeah. And how’s your practice organized team-wise? You mentioned you have a team in New York. How does that look?
Colin: I have one full-time employee. Ali is my studio manager. And then I work with a lot of freelancers. I have like a first assistant that I work with on all my styling jobs, Tim. And he is just constantly prepping in logistics and all sorts of things. But in-house, I only have one. And then it’s just a plethora of people from an agent manager, PR, bookkeeper, business manager, accountant. And all of those people are on my team, but I don’t see them every day.
But with the emails and everything, it’s actually something I want to talk about. Because I think one of the most important things for creatives is to get organized and to really build a strong foundation. Because I didn’t. And it was a long cleanup I should say.
Mario: Yeah. What have you learned during that process?
Colin: Someone yesterday told me like creatives are allergic to contracts and to anything business related. And it’s fun at the beginning because people are coming to you and you’re excited for all these opportunities. But I wasn’t thinking about exclusivity, and royalties and like all the things that just my brain isn’t made up for.
And I think I felt there was, I think it was end of 2020 where I just felt like I was on this rackety wagon that we were going about 100 miles an hour and like the wheels were going to come off. And I was down in Miami for New Year’s, and I saw this guy who I really respect. His name is Billy Clark. He has a really great design recruiting firm here in the city. And I said, “I just feel like I need help from an admin aspect.” And he set me up with this woman, Lisa, who’s now my business manager. And it’s been life-changing. Because she put me in with a better accountant. And then I had a bookkeeper.
And I think as a creative, if you can, and the busier that you get, it’s really important to find someone that can help you with the invoicing. All the stuff that takes you out of that creativeness. Because I truly believe that when you’re chasing your own income and/or setting your own income. Like, for myself, I’m such an under earner. I was setting my day rate at a quarter of what my agent now sets it at. And I thought I was doing good. But, yeah, I found to like really rely on people that have experience outside of myself because I couldn’t navigate that on my own.
Mario: Yeah, and you’ve mentioned that your studio, your workspace, is both your home and an office. How does that work?
Colin: It’s complicated. I mean, it works beautifully as my studio and home when I’m away, which is actually a lot. I was away most of summer traveling for work. Not traveling for fun. Although it felt like everyone’s like, “Oh, you were gone all summer.” I was like, “Yeah. But working.” It does work because then I don’t have to pay for two spaces. And it’s very convenient that way.
I think it’s also important to have all of my freelancers and team just see how I live. I think that’s like important to like be immersed in the space and also have access to the same things that I’m looking at through my library and things. But also, the privacy kind of goes out the window. But that’s okay. I think you just have to kind of be open, open with your team.
And really find what you need. If, say, I needed a day to myself. It’s just like, “Hey, everyone’s working from home today,” or whatever. But really defining those boundaries. Because I think it’s becoming more and more common. I’ve watched friends of mine navigate it. I mean, my friend, David, has his gallery in his home. And there’s like certain aspects of the home that are just off limits that are just for the family. There’s a lot of people, a lot of mentors that I have both in and outside of the design industry that I go to for advice with things like that.
Mario: At least looking from the outside, and what I’ve heard so far, it sounds like you’re quite busy. And you’re working on many different projects and have different roles. And I guess I’m curious, how do you manage or balance those things? Because it sounds like, okay, there’s kind of straight up freelance kind of one-off, or like shoots or projects. But then on top of that you have ongoing collaborations, including Architectural Digest. And I thought recently you’ve became an Artistic Director with Beni Rugs. I’m curious, how do all those things kind of play together?
Colin: Yeah, it is. It’s quite overwhelming. I am busy. But it’s all amazing stuff. I love the work. I mean, I say no every single day. And I really only try to take on the projects that I believe in and with people that I really admire.
And the nice thing about this industry is, although it does feel overwhelming at times, there are so many different phases of each project. If I’m in heavy design work for Beni, that’s only a week or two. And then that kind of goes away for a month or two until those designs are made and we’re planning the photo shoot. And same with all of the collaborations. And much like how design firms juggle many different residential or hospitality projects. Because there’s always different phases. There’s like the design phase, which is a very small all part of it. And then there’s the demo phase. And then there’s the FFNE, and then installation.
If I can try and time it right and really look at where everything lies in the calendar, which is always a guess because there’s so many supply chain and delays that way. But sometimes there’s just busier times than others. There’s sometimes when it’s like raining and I’m like, “Oh, my God. I’m drowning.” And there’s other times where I’m like, “Oh, my God. Will I ever work again?” It’s just the nature of what we do.
But I think it’s so important to say yes especially at the beginning, because I only know through doing. I don’t know if I like something or not until I try it. And there’s some things where I’m like, “Wow! I’ll never do that again.” Or there’s other things where I’m like, “Wow! I was not that great at that. So I’m going to let that dream go.” But you have to try and decide for yourself.
Because I think, for myself, people can tell me every day like, “Oh, that’s not going to work. Or maybe that’s not a good idea.” But I’m kind of stubborn and want to try for myself. But they’re usually right.
Mario: I think the only way to actually get it is to try it.
Colin: Yeah. Because a lot of people think they want to be a stylist. And I’m like, “Okay, come on set.” And then they’re like, “Okay, I’m good.” There’s a lot of behind the scenes that there’s a beautiful photo at the end. But it’s a lot of work to get that photo.
Mario: And do you have any, let’s say, work rituals? Either some small things or some larger things? But something that maybe I guess provides some either inspiration, or structure, or solace during the week and weeks?
Colin: Yeah, I have a prayer meditation practice. I have this little book of daily reflections that I try and read every morning to just ground me and put things in perspective. Because I think a lot of times, especially when you’re busy, your world actually gets really small because all you do is think about your stuff. What’s happening in your world? And I have like a very large community that I try and connect with people on a daily basis. It really just brings me out of myself. And I get to hear what other people are going through and their experiences. And I think it’s really important to get out of self in a healthy way. And that looks like service to other people for me.
I also always try and have a loose plan when going into to work. Because it’s just important for me to have those guidelines, whether that’s a shot list or a mood board. Because sometimes I can get lost in the noise of everything that’s going on or all the creatives that are on set. And there’s a fine line, right? Because I don’t want it to be too prescriptive. I don’t want to be trying to recreate anything because that takes away like the magic of it all. But it is nice to have a loose plan going into set and to make sure that my team, my assistants, are all on the same page. It just helps things run smoothly when there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen per se.
Mario: In one of your interviews you’ve mentioned, this might be a quote, “I’m really good at doing and not so good at being.” I guess it’s a two-part question. Maybe first, if you can just kind of expand on that? What do you mean by that?
Colin: Yeah, I am really good at doing and not so good at being. And that’s why I love being on set, because it creates these guard rails for myself that I know the task at hand. There’s like a time frame. There’s a huge financial commitment with everyone involved. And for me it feels safe. Because when I’m being, when I’m just on my own, or in my own brain, that part kind of feels a little bit more scary than having a task.
I don’t love being still. It’s something I’m trying to work on. I like having things to do. But, yeah, I’m a doer. I’m very action-oriented, which I think is good. But there is, like I was saying earlier, there’s a time and place to be bored and to not have plans and to just kind of surrender to the day and see what happens.
I live in like the most, one of the most beautiful cities, to me, in the world. And like there’s a lot that can just happen spontaneously walking out the door. And there’s so much to see and do. Yeah, I think it’ll probably be a lifelong journey of learning to just be.
Mario: And at the moment, what are some of the things that you’re, I guess, doing when you’re not working or not doing? How do you relax or unwind?
Colin: I really love human connection. When I’m not working, it’s really, I have an identical twin that I’m reaching out to FaceTime with. He has a daughter that is my first niece, which I love going home to see her. It’s really the only place I can completely be myself and relax, I find, is when I go home and be with my family back in Ohio.
But that connection to friends, even if it’s a late dinner. Like, last night, my friend was like, “Oh, it’s eight o’clock,” and all I really wanted to do was go to bed. But he wanted to go to dinner. And I was like, “Let’s go to dinner.” And that was a really special hour and a half of just connecting.
I think I had so much misguided self-care when I was growing up, whether it was with food, or alcohol, or even isolation in a way like where I just thought I needed to be alone. But really, I found the anecdote to all of that is being with other people. Anytime I feel this like strong need to be alone, I’m like, “Ah, that probably means I need to be with someone.” Because I always feel better seeing other people than I do isolating at home thinking I’m going to do all these great stuff. But I really just end up doing nothing.
Mario: I think it really is about often about getting out of yourself and that like loop that we have in our minds. And we’re often, I mean, I think also as creative people, even if you’re very much hands-on, there’s a lot of that. A lot of thinking and the kind of back and forth in our minds.
Colin: Yeah, there is so much noise. And I think for me being on, when I’m on set, I never look at my phone unless it is to take a photo or to kind of capture what the frame will be. There’s no way I can be fully present and creative if I’m like looking at emails or text messages. I usually put my phone on like do not disturb and try and be as present as I can when I’m working.
Money is one of the key elements that makes us creatives and professionals. Even though our higher education often ignores this topic, it’s crucial. Here, I’ve asked Colin how he manages his finances.
Colin: I can say I was trying to manage it on my own. And that really wasn’t working. There’s a fine line of knowing when to ask for help and then when trying to figure it out on your own. And I thought I was doing okay. But then things just... From my industry, there’s a lot of jobs that are net 30, net 60, net 90, which means I may not get paid for a job for 90 days. But I’m paying for the props or paying out my assistants. And that can really catch up with you because, or it caught up with me because I was basically being a bank. And I wasn’t asking for the proper advances from clients. And there was no structure in place.
I think once I got an agent, which I know isn’t necessarily like a must and/or practical for everyone. But she really helped me because I think she also had so much experience. She knew what industry standards were. And we really were able to create a process. Because before, there was no process. And it might not be an agent. It might just be a good accountant. Or for me, I loved doing my own invoicing because I was such a small company that it helped my brain kind of compute where I was. How the business was doing in a way? And I didn’t want a bookkeeper. And I was still trying to do all the invoicing myself until like two years ago. And I gently let go and began to trust someone. And it’s not rocket science, what I do, or how my business works.
And once I explained it to this woman, she was like, “Great. I’ll do the invoicing.” It would be simple things like I would pay my credit card bill off in full right when I got the bill. Instead of waiting until the end of the month when all the other checks came in. Or it’s like silly things like that where I was in a tight pinch when I didn’t have to be.
I’m cautiously optimistic when it comes to finances because there’s also a lot of fear wrapped up in that. And not just as a creative, but just as a human. Giving people access to your accounts and forging those relationships that can sometimes be very scary. Everyone that I work with came through a lot of recommendations. We all have people. I don’t know why we’re also afraid to ask each other for help sometimes. I’ve fallen prey to that as well where I’m scared to ask really good friends of mine like, “Hey, who does your PR or your accounting?” And they’ve always been so generous and eager to share and help.
Yeah, I think especially with finances, it’s about asking for help. Because so many times, I look at what I do as just what I do. I don’t see it as like a creative wild art form that some people have given it like helped reverence to. I need someone to help me make sure I’m not being taken advantage of and looking out for my best interests. Because I have a hard time doing that for myself.
Mario: Yeah. And if you look at, let’s say, I guess maybe the distribution or the breakdown of different sources of income, do you have a certain sense of how that is playing out? Do you have any, let’s say, kind of ongoing or monthly retainers versus project or shoots versus maybe royalties or stuff like that? How is that distributed?
Colin: Yeah. I would say 85% of it is still styling and being on set. And yeah, it brings up that really scary word for me, scale. How to scale your business? And I think that’s like kind of a word that plagues creative fields. Because I know that the more I scale, the further away from like the work that I love that I’ll be doing. If I build a team then I’m going to take myself further and further away from being hands-on and being on set.
That’s why I’ve always tried to stay as small as I can and only really hired and if there was a demand or an obvious task that I needed help with. But yeah, 85% of it is still styling. I would say like five percent is royalties. And that can vary. When a Beni collection, a new one, comes out, those royalties are usually a little bit higher because there’s a splash, people are ordering, and then it slowly decreases.
And then I don’t have any monthly retainers right now. There are some quarterly retainers. And that would probably be about 10%. I think hopefully that added up to 100%. And I’m trying to balance it a little bit more. Because the more that I’m on set, the less free time, I have the less personal life I have. It’s a lot of running around.
In my mind, I’ve done a lot of that for the past five years or so. And I’m looking to kind of make that a little bit more equal so I can have more passive income and not have to be on set every day. But when you are the product, when it’s your name, it’s very hard to scale because everybody wants you, which is not a problem. But it also makes it difficult to navigate.
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It seems that, as a creative industry and a modern society at large, we’re just getting busier and busier. It’s a miracle that we can keep up with all the daily work demands and perhaps have weekends to catch up on sleep or fun. At the same time, we need to nurture our development. Otherwise, we might find ourselves at a professional or spiritual dead end, or at best, merely stagnate. I was curious to hear how Colin is navigating those dynamics.
Colin: That’s the fear, right? It’s like, one, becoming irrelevant or becoming stale, stagnant, like you said. Because so many of the clients that are hiring me are wanting a look that I’ve been doing for five years. And maybe I want to try something new. Maybe I want to not do the branch, or not do this heavy shadow, or not do the beam of light. But ultimately, that’s what the clients, that’s the work that they were drawn to. So, it’s a really, really great question.
And I think there’s always ways to dig deeper in everything that I do. Right now, a client of mine, Roman and Williams, Robin who’s half of Roman and Williams. Her husband, Stephen, is the other half. She and I had a long dinner one night and she said, “I think you should be a photographer?” I’m like, “Really? I don’t know.” And she’s like, “Well, will you try it?” And I was like, “Sure.”
I’ve actually been shooting for them. I think I’ve done four shoots with them and really have had to rely on the technical aspects from an amazing tech and a lighting gaffer who’s been great. But that has then helped me grow a little bit. And not in the sense that you’re going to think I’m going to say like. I’m not going to change my career into a photographer by any means. It actually taught me that I missed the collaboration with the photographer. That when I’m trying to photograph and style something, I can’t do both.
And it really made me appreciate the collaboration that I have when I am shooting with other creatives. But I am learning. And I’ve tried a lot of new things with that particularly. But I think I’m also working here in the studio to really carve out this time to create and just put two hours in the calendar, whether that looks like creating a still life, or picking up a book, or going to see an exhibit that I want to go to. I think it’s really important to look and see as a creative and not just look and see within your studio. But look and see art, and shows, and people. Even like I’m looking out the window and I see people on the street and I can get so much inspiration from the way a sweater falls or a color combination of someone’s outfit. But it’s trying to see beyond your four walls as well.
And in the pandemic, well, quarantine specifically, I started doing this like Stay Home Still Life Series. I want to start that up again. Because to have that daily practice, that daily ritual, of just being like, “Hey, I’m going to do a still life today.” And I would say three out of four of them weren’t great. But one of them was really good out of the four or whatever. And to just flex that muscle and then try new things is really important.
But I just want to talk about the fear really quick too. It’s a real thing. I get scared all the time. Because there’s a lot of editors that look at me and they’re like, “Okay, what’s next? Everyone’s doing what you’re doing now. What’s next?’
And/or it’s not singular to my industry or the creative field, it’s I think universal, but there’s an element of really grinding and really working really hard to get to kind of the top of your professional field, whatever that may be. And then everyone kind of looking around and being like, “Hmm, we should try someone new.”
And I’m like, “Wait. What? I’ve been like working so hard and they want to try someone new?” But I think that is that what we were talking about earlier, about growth. And then it’s like, “Okay, yeah. Maybe it is time for someone else to have a chance and then for me to kind of push into another realm or dig deeper into another aspect of my own studio.” Because there’s so much of me that really wants to keep doing what I’ve been doing forever because it’s familiar, right? It’s like I know that.
The unknown, the future, is a little scary. It’s like you’re kind of straddling the familiar and the unknown. And it’s like when you bring that other foot over to the unknown that like all the magical things happen. Because I think it is really important for every industry to evolve and for new talent to have opportunities and chances and live in that world of abundance and knowing that there’s enough for all of us. And that I don’t need that job and this job. I’m just going to do whatever job fits in the schedule that seems the right fit for me. Because there is that like moment where you can be a little, or where I can be greedy at times. Where it’s like, “Okay, easy. Let the kids do it.” You know?
Mario: Yeah, yeah.
Colin: Because they always come back. I think there’s something to be said about having just like done the 10,000 hours, having the experience. Because you do deliver like a very professional product by nature just by having that experience. I don’t think there’s anything that anyone can take that. No one can take that away from me or anyone else. But I think it is important to breathe new life into some of these areas with new talent.
Mario: It sounds like you are being, I guess, aware of this topic. And in some sense, trying to invest at least some of your time and kind of carve some time in your schedule for different projects. And I guess going to be on top of it as much as you can, which I think it’s great.
And I guess, I think in that sense there’s a lot of these almost, let’s say, micro Investments that we do for ourselves or for our practice. Is there any, let’s say, bigger or kind of best investment that you think you’ve made in yourself especially in your, let’s say, professional side?
Colin: Like you were saying earlier, my professional and personal are so intertwined. And I got sober in 2016. I’m coming up on six years. The best thing I ever did for myself. I mean, if you ask me what I’m proud of, that is probably the only thing I can pinpoint being proud of. Because it was the hardest thing I ever had done in my whole life. But my life got immediately better. And the humbling, the kind of deflation of ego that happened during that period was necessary. And it completely changed the course of my life for the better.
I think that is my proudest accomplishment and biggest investment in myself. I think laying that foundation with a business manager, a bookkeeper, that whole thing. And I had to do a reverse. I had already built a house and I had to kind of tear the house down and re-pour the foundation. And then I’m starting to build again. And now I feel so much better because it’s not this like house of cards that maybe will fall down at any time.
And that took a year to clean up. Like a really solid year to go through process and just how the business was operating. Because for me, I think like most creatives, I didn’t think I had a business. I’m like, “What do you mean? I don’t have a business. I’m just like styling.”
And like I remember she said, “Can I see your P&L report?” And I was like, “What is a P&L report?” I was like, “I have Chase Bank.” I thought she was asking what bank I had. I was like, “P&L? No. I have Chase.” And she’s like, “No. Profit and loss.” I’m like, “Well, I don’t have any. What?”
It’s funny the way my brain worked. I didn’t have any knowledge or experience from a business aspect. And I didn’t really even take myself serious, which I think is sometimes can be a hurdle for creatives. I know it was for myself, that take yourself seriously. Believe in yourself. Invest in a strong foundation so you can build a strong house.
Because right now, I don’t have to try and make it anymore. I feel like I’ve made it. And now it’s more about longevity, right? How am I going to keep falling in love with this practice, this art form, daily? I don’t want to burn out. The burnout and fatigue is a real thing. And I’ve had those days where I just don’t love the work. But I think that’s normal.
And also, I guess the other big investment was, I had mentioned earlier that I was like training people. I was consulting social media. I was freelance styling and making that parallel from like trying to stay in what you know. I would call them like the just in case files. It’s almost like an insurance policy that I’d be like, “Okay, well, if this doesn’t work out, then I have these five things.” I had five side hustles.
But when I just said, “You know what? I’m going to put all these side hustles aside and I’m just going to try this one thing. And I’m going to go all in.” And it’s not to say you can’t be a multi-hyphenate and good at many different things. But for me, it was a pivotal point when I just said I’m going to just do styling for a minute and see what happens.
And when all my attention went to that it was like gasoline on a fire and everything kind of took off. There’s something to be said about the distractions of trying to ensure that everything will be okay and then trusting and believing yourself and making that full leap into something full-time. Even though the work wasn’t really there. The demand wasn’t there. I just trusted it would be.
Terry Laughlin, an American swimming coach and author said, “Life is not designed to make things easy for us, but present challenges that help us grow.”
Here, I talked with Colin about some of the challenges on his journey. And we dive into a few timely and relevant topics, including addiction, the importance of asking for help and helping others, the difficulty of achieving the work-life balance and more.
Colin: It’s easy to kind of give the cliff notes and button everything up and put a bow on it. But there were a lot of times I felt really lost and very confused as to like what the next move is. Because there is one thing knowing that it’s time to move on. But there’s another thing to actually move on. And where do you go? And what you do?
I made a lot of mistakes in my 20s. I lived in Los Angeles. And it was like my focus was not necessarily on longevity, as I spoke. It was an opportunistic kind of life, a very transactional life that I was living. I do this. You do that. It was kind of everyone was on a basketball team. And if you didn’t play your part, then you were benched. It was like chess.
And I knew that I was not the only one operating like that. I think everyone was operating like that. It was what can you give me? What can I give you? And it’s very easy to lose yourself there.
For me, yeah, I lost myself in Los Angeles. It was an isolating place. And without going into like too many specifics, because they’re just like war stories. But that’s where I hit my bottom both spiritually, emotionally, physically. And they say pain is the price of admission. Or we grow at the pace of pain. And I was in enough pain to make a choice. And that choice was to like completely leave California and come to New York. But the funny thing is California wasn’t the problem. Los Angeles wasn’t the problem. I was the problem. Because they say like wherever you go, there you are. I can run away from places, but I can’t run away from myself. There was a lot of self exploration to do.
I think leaving a rural town in Ohio, coming straight to New York, running to Los Angeles, I never really got to know who I was, or what I liked, or what I didn’t like. I just wanted to be whoever you wanted me to be. I was the type of guy that sat across from someone and was just like trying to navigate who I thought you wanted me to be without having the strength and character to be myself self.
And so, it was really moving back to New York in 2017 that changed my life. And that’s when I asked for help. I hit my knees and just like asked for help. It’s like one of those pivotal points in my life where I just knew everything was a little bit unmanageable and I needed help. I got the help that I needed. And it was really like a spiritual awakening.
I’m a big writer, because I find that so much of my thoughts can get confused easily. And I tend to like repress emotion a lot. Getting all of that out every day is super important, journaling. And just distilling like what it is that like is emotionally disturbing me at the time, because I think we all have these super complex feelings. But when you put them on paper, they’re not so complex. They’re quite simple. And we’re so similar.
When really building the cheerleading team, I have so many people in my phone that I can call and reach out to. And it’s super important. I didn’t have friends before I moved back. I had basketball players. I had transactional friends. The friends that I have now, there’s like an unconditional love there that they don’t need anything from me and I don’t need anything from them. We just enjoy each other.
And finding a community and staying in like a pact is like very important. I thought it was really cool to be self-made for so long. I’m like, “I’m just going to do everything on my own. I’m going to leave Ohio and I’m independent.” It was really lonely. And I actually mismanaged a lot of steps along the way. It wasn’t until I surrendered and asked for help.
And one of my favorite definitions of surrendering isn’t really giving up. It’s just like joining the winning side, right? You don’t have to like give anything up. It’s just like, “Okay. You guys are right. I’m going to come over there.” I had to stop like trying to do everything on my own. Because I didn’t want to join anything. I didn’t want to say I needed anyone. But once I did, like, yeah, my whole world opened up.
And there’s so much beauty in helping other people and then also letting people help you. I think that’s really important too. Because you have to give it away to get it in a way. And I always had a hard time letting people help me because I felt obligated and I felt, “Oh, no. I don’t want to owe this person anything.” But then when they ask me for help, or even not them, somebody else, I was like, “Oh, great. This is my opportunity to kind of show up and help someone.”
Mario: If my timeline is correct, you’re also before talking about getting sober. I guess that’s all connected? I guess this transition?
Mario: Would you like to explain a bit more about that time?
Colin: Yeah. I think we all have our own vices in a way. I don’t know anyone in my community that hasn’t been touched by addiction. And/or our phones are built to have that addictive element. And we’re always constantly trying to get out of ourselves. But like we talked about earlier, there’s a healthy way to do that. And then there’s the dead end way to do that, which is spiraling on social media, or food, or whatever the vice may be.
For me it was I didn’t know that I struggled with substances. I just thought that that was kind of how everyone operated. And it wasn’t until I reached my handout and was talking to someone and they saw something in me that was like, “Oh, wait. You have this thing. You’re an addict.” And I was like, “Oh, my God.” And then I went into that community of recovery and I really started hearing things that I was like, “Oh, my God. That is me.” And I started to identify with other people. And that was the first time where I felt not alone.
And I think it’s not a lifestyle for me. It’s the only way it can be. I cannot safely use substances. And that’s just me. But there’s a lot of sober curious. There’s a lot of mocktails there’s a lot of things it’s more of a lifestyle, like a healthy thing. But for me, it was much darker than that. And when you were even talking about like spirituality, and I love this idea of spirituality because I was such, I grew up very religious. I went to an all-boys school, Catholic school, my whole life. There was a very strong recoil from religion.
But I was always a seeker. I was always drawn to something. I knew there was something bigger than me. The science and the complexity of the universe, I just don’t think was made by any sort of force or intelligence other than like a higher power of some sort.
And one of my favorite sayings is like religion is for people that are scared to go to hell. And spirituality is for people that have been there. And that rang true to me because I’ve been to the depths and the gallows. Sorry for the siren again. But I’ve been to the depths and the gallows of what my bottom was. And everyone’s bottom’s different. They say your bottom is when you stop digging. And I was done digging. I was trying to manage everything. And my management of my own life got me into a whole heap of trouble. It was when I decided to put that shovel down and call for help that everything opened up for me.
Mario: Is there something that you’ve, let’s say, changed your mind on recently? Professionally, let’s say?
Colin: This is like a complicated topic, changing your minds. Because I think I’ve had to do a lot of work to unravel that. Because when I grew up in Ohio of that Midwestern mentality of just like when you decide to do something, you do it no matter what. Changing your mind was kind of frowned upon. You don’t change your mind. If you make the decision, you see it through.
And professionally, I had to change my mind with a few employees, people that weren’t the right fit, which is complicated and actually really painful. Because even though my relationships don’t look the way I thought they would. Like, I thought I’d maybe have a partner by now, or these things. But I’m in relationships. I have co-workers and people that I work with. And we can learn something from every relationship that we have in our life.
But to say like something isn’t the right fit, and not even assassinate their character, or their creativity, or their ability, but just say it wasn’t the right fit, that was so hard for me. And it was scary. And I actually was like sick for a day after that conversation. But to really stand in my truth and do something that was the best for me and my business was ultimately a relief. I feel much better about it.
But, yeah, I had to change my mind. And they say firing is a hiring problem. I hired wrong. But I learned. And changing my mind, I’ve given myself the freedom to change my mind a lot even when I’m on set. There’s been days where we’ve done a full day of shooting and I’ll come back the next day and just say like, “I kind of want to start over. Is that okay with everyone?” If I’m on like a three to five-day shoot. Because like, I don’t know, something I think the demand for a photographer and stylist to be on every single day, like you got to be on, you got to deliver, is quite daunting. Because some days you feel connected to that. And then other days you don’t. And like you’re not super happy with the product. And it’s not as easy as just changing like a vase. Sometimes it’s like a whole living room or it’s furniture. It’s a daily practice to give myself that freedom to change my mind.
Mario: Is there anything that you’re might be experiencing as a challenge at the moment?
Colin: I didn’t plan on talking about this. But from that addiction, it shows up another area. I work a lot. Some people like throw around the term workaholic. Like, it’s not a real thing. But it’s a real thing. I think balance is something that is a challenge for me. And really making that time for myself and knowing what that looks like. Because it doesn’t mean isolation for me. It just means giving myself time away from the work. And that can look like a lot of different things.
But balance and moderation I think will be my life’s work forever, like in moderation. Because I’m kind of an all or nothing person. I don’t know how to like kind of do anything or only take two jobs a month. It’s like either I’m booked or I’m like not, you know?
I think balance is probably my biggest challenge now. And also, knowing what to do. Knowing where to go. I’m kind of at that crossroads in my company where I have a lot of things that I want to explore. But in order to explore those things, I still have to be doing these things over here to support all of those ideas.
Yeah, and there’s a lot of opportunities that come and that I’m actually exploring. But there’s like some hesitation because I’m like, “Is this the right decision for me and my company?” A lot of these deals are like two to three years. And I’m like, “Well, where will I be in two to three years?”
But I think experience shows me that there’s no real mistakes that you can make. I think if you’re grounded in your intention and intuition, then you just move forward. And maybe you learn and you don’t do that again. But I don’t think you can necessarily make a mistake. It’s really about believing that everything’s going to be okay. I can’t live my life in fear of like, “Is this the right decision? Is it not?” It’s more about just walking through the fear, which I’ve always done. And trying to enjoy the process. Because I really do love what I do. But I try not to take it too seriously. If that makes sense? I’m not saving lives. I’m creating and finding beauty, which is super important. It fills my tank. My gas tank. And I know it does with a lot of other people. And I’m so happy for that I love seeing other people’s work as well and learning that way. But yeah, I think when people take themselves too seriously, they kind of rob the magic from the art form. Because I do have people in my life that it’s like life or death. And I’m like, “I don’t know if it’s life or death.” There’s like too much pressure. Or there’s too much at stake, which for me just doesn’t feel right.
Mario: And it sounds like you’re obviously, I think, quite also driven. I’m curious, have you ever thought or kind of reflected on where does that motivation come from?
Colin: I think that’s like complicated. I think it comes from being just a young kid that kind of never felt seen and then really wanting to be seen. Yeah, I think I really wanted to do something that mattered. And there’s the search that starts, whether that was from being on stage as a dancer and wanting to be seen. But also, wanting to control. To control that. And there was a separation.
I guess what I’m trying to say is like even though I want to be seen, there’s a difference between that and also intimacy. Because I think I always had a hard time with like being super close to the work. I still want to control the way you’re seeing the work, if that makes sense. Whether that was with dance or even, now, creating these beautiful imageries. There’s still some a sense of control there.
And, yeah. But I think the ambition comes from, I hate to use this word again, but it’s just like seeking. Because every time I get to the thing that I think that I want, I’m like, “This isn’t what I wanted.” Or like it doesn’t bring me the joy that I thought it would. That’s like kind of my motivation to like find that. Because I know it actually doesn’t really lie in the material world. I don’t think it’s going to be the cover, or the next job, or even the relationship, or the family, or all these things that we convince. I’ll be happy when that happens. Because again, wherever you go, there you are. I’m still are going to have that discomfort and disease with inside of myself that is like, “Oh, there’s something more.”
I think the exploration of trying things and learning what I like is why I’m so ambitious. And also, yeah, finding the joy. And I think that will always come from within. But all of these exterior experiences have informed that.
Mario: Yeah, yeah. I guess it provides some kind of, I guess, vessel to explore that. And almost like, I guess, they can kind of bounce back whatever you think maybe you can test and get some kind of input back. And then hopefully refine it. And maybe, I think as you said, most often we are driven by this, I mean, in some sense there’s a probably some maybe even core insecurity. I mean, that’s the case with me. But then, at the same, time there’s also this promise of it’s going to be great when something, whatever, happens. That position. Or as you said, that cover, or that shoot, or that amount in a bank account. Almost, it seems like we have to have enough of that to realize that it’s not going to be that. That we need to also look into other direction equally, maybe even more.
I mean, of course, we also need to have our citizens and be family members and friends and, let’s say, earn the bread. But then on top of that, find the time for that other side, that inner work, I guess. Which is I guess so important. But it gets pushed aside way too often.
Colin: Truly. It does. It’s so funny. I’ve heard someone say like you’re so successful because you’re so driven and insecure. But you can’t enjoy your own success because you’re so driven and insecure. It’s like it’s me. It’s not Los Angeles. It’s not New York. It’s not success. It’s not despair. It’s me. I think, as you said, doing the inner work is vital. And checking in with yourself and your intentions. And for myself, it’s really like if I can really surrender daily to like I don’t even know what to ask for. Because I’m here saying that getting sober was one of my greatest achievements and accomplishments and investments in myself. I didn’t ask for that. I wouldn’t have asked for that. If someone would have told me that 10 years ago, it would have been like, “Oh, no. That’s terrible.” But also, yeah, I don’t know what to ask for.
And I also think this business can really make a person jaded in a way. And like you have to have that very decisive attitude. I always like, not only do I surrender every morning and try to say like, “I don’t know what to ask for. Show me the way.” I also try to say, “Help me be amazed.” Because I find that so little amazes me anymore because you see so much. And it’s always the things I don’t think that will amaze me, whether it’s like FaceTiming with my niece, or like finishing a cup of coffee, or like getting that final letter of the crossword puzzle, or like picking up a book, or listening to a podcast, or seeing the sun come through a window. Like those little things are what bring me so much joy. And I think if I can look for the those on a daily basis, then that’s a good day.
At this point in our conversation, I was curious to hear about Colin’s approach to interior styling. Here, we talk about how he developed his craft, the role of a stylist on a photo shoot. And discuss some of the challenges in the interior design industry.
Colin: I approach interior styling in a way that I wanted to feel unstyled. I want there to be some honesty, and truth, and depth, and life within every image. I really study unstyled spaces. I study what a table looks like when we all get up from it after having a meal. I love looking at drapery when someone just like threw it against a wall without placing every single thing perfectly. I look at sofa cushions when someone just got up from them or someone placed them down. I think there’s so much beauty in when people are mindlessly placing things rather than carefully placing them.
Public spaces, even when I began, I’m going to start trying to show process more. But I’ve started to photograph my mess off to the side. Basically, outside of the crop. Because I find when I’m just moving very quickly not thinking about it, there’s some interesting things that happen that aren’t planned and that I can really learn from. And ultimately, I have to try and recreate for an image. But there’s a beauty in imperfection. There’s a beauty in letting things be and not being perfect. I think that’s my intention with every shoot, is to really make it feel unstyled in a way.
And then I don’t know if it’s from being a dancer or what it is in my brain. But when I see an image, I’m not really looking at the things. I’m not looking at what bowl that is, or what table, or what chair. It’s more about composition and placement. And it’s really hard to explain to people. Because we all see an image and every one of us looks at it differently. And everyone sees something different.
But when I look at an image, I’m really looking at relationships. Like how that little object is talking to the other one and the layers? And how everything’s being translated. Because I think that’s all my job is, is really forging relationships between objects. And if there’s larger objects, like sofas, and making sure those relationships feel right. And there’s proportion. And there’s scale.
There’s so much to learn from imagery as well because I think anyone who wants to get into this business just needs to. There’s two things. It’s doing. It’s practicing. It’s experience. But it’s also looking at images and then finding what you’re really drawn to and asking yourself what is it about this picture that I’m drawn to? Is it the light? Is it the arrangement? Is it the composition? And then bringing that with you into your shoots.
And there’s a difference of not saying to like recreate anything. But when you’re trying to capture something that you’ve seen. And it’s more of an emotion, right? It’s like when you see something that you really like, you’re drawn to it and asking yourself what that is. And then bringing that into your work is really important.
And I think all, ultimately, creating for yourself is what’s going to get you there. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have the nicest apartment. I wasn’t taking photos of my own apartment. But I was clever in a way where when I would go to dinner parties or when I knew friends of friends, I would ask to look at their houses. And then I would ask, “Would you ever publish your house?” Like for ones that I really liked. And if they would say yes, I’d be like, “Okay. And who’s your dream publication?” And they would tell me.
Specifically, this happened with a man out in East Hampton. And I saw his house. And it was quite humble. There was nothing magical about it. But it was quite industrial and minimal. And I was really fascinated by the way he arranged his objects. And I felt like, “Wow! I would want to see this. Why haven’t I seen this?” And he said I only would be published in the New York Times. And I’m like, “Oh, damn. I don’t know anyone at the New York Times.” And this was like back in 2016, I think.
But I did know someone who was a lawyer at The Times. And I reached out to him and I said, “Do you know anyone at T Magazine? I have a guy that has a house and he kind of wants, he said he would be in it. And I want to style it.” And so, he’s put me in touch with the design director at T Mag. And then that guy, Tom Delavan, ended up coming to the house. He loved it. We shot it.
And yeah, there’s a curiosity there, right? There’s a curiosity and there’s paired with that ambition and fearlessness of making your own work. No one was coming to my door being like, “Can you style this project?” I had to kind of find projects contingent on me styling them and just hoping it would all work out. And learning from all those experiences.
Mario: And what would you say is expected from an interior stylist on an average shoot?
Colin: It’s funny. Some clients have like a lot of expectations. I think it’s really important for those to be defined at the beginning. And those pre-production conversations are vital. And I’ve learned the hard way over and over again of what is expected from not only myself but from the client? Because every job is different. Every scope is different. I’m so happy to source whatever it is we need, from art, to furniture, to rugs. And I’ll do anything. But that has to be discussed. And then I have to be compensated properly for that. There has to be a certain amount of prep days. And then don’t forget that if you’re prepping, then you’ll probably have to return stuff. So, you have to build in a return day at the end.
There’s all these kind of things to think about even from those initial conversations. Because I just love getting picked. Sometimes if I get picked for a job I’m like, “Yes, I’ll do it.” But then you have to backtrack and make sure that all of the expectations are clearly laid out.
But from an editorial standpoint, when I’m working with interior designers specifically for the shelter magazines like Architectural Digest, or The New York Times, or whoever it is. Usually the majority of everything that I need it is there. It’s more about working with the photographer. Creating a beautiful narrative and making sure that the space is translated beautifully into a picture. Because I think any photographer, anyone who’s even tried to take a photo of their own home, can see how it’s experienced in a completely different way, in-person and on camera.
I almost feel like the interior stylist is a translator in a way. Like, taking this beautiful home or place and then translating it to a screen or even a print, like a 2D image. But yeah, my favorite jobs are the ones where everything’s there. And I can even shop the house and be like, “Oh, well, that’s beautiful. And we probably won’t see it over there. But let’s bring it over here so we can capture it.” And where I can really use what’s there and then bring in. Sometimes I’ll bring in a floral. Or for me, kitchens and bedrooms are always like the two trouble areas. Because as we know, soft styling. Or maybe you don’t know. But soft styling can be brutal. Like, beds can just be back breakers in a way. I always bring bed covers.
I love like a clean bed. I’ll always bring that. And sometimes floral or fruit and just make sure that the vessels and things that I need are there for those moments especially in like the kitchen and the more layered areas where you want to breathe some life.
But yeah. I mean, sometimes I ask designers if they have vessels. If they need me to source them. It’s just more of a conversation and making sure that sometimes they’re like, “Okay, I’ll bring this. And then you bring that.” And then it’s a group effort. It just is really about communicating. This whole industry is about communicating.
And there’s other shoots like with commercial jobs that they completely strip the house of furniture. And we decorate it in like a couple hours and shoot it. Every job’s a little bit different. My favorites are those jobs where to really get into the intricacy of objects and creating these beautiful compositions and telling the story of spaces.
Mario: Everybody has their own path and their own journey. But let’s say somebody likes your universe and kind of what you’re doing and different roles that you have. They would like to go into that direction and do interior styling and creative direction and so on, do you have any thoughts on how they should go about their education?
Colin: I wish there was a one-size-fits all. This isn’t like a college degree. There’s not really a clear path. Growing up, I didn’t even know styling was a thing. Someone told me I was a stylist before I even knew what that was, which I think is also interesting. Because sometimes the greatest creative journeys are ones where you don’t even know you’re on it. And someone has to point it out to you and be like, “Hey, you’re a stylist.” And that’s really what happened to me.
I really can’t answer the question that well other than what we’ve already talked about with getting out there to photograph. What inspires you? Creating your own vignettes at home. Possibly pitching your own stories. Because I never assisted a prop stylist. There are days when I really wish I did because I would love to know how other people do it. I really do.
I’ve learned so much from my assistants. Shout out to anyone who’s ever assisted me. Thank you. Because I’ve really learned so much from them. I hadn’t even stepped foot in a prop house before starting this. I didn’t even know what a prop house was. I didn’t know what the flower market was. I thought it was like a grocery store or something. There’s a beauty in that.
And having a natural gift, which I think every creative has. And exploring that without these constrictions of how you think things should be yeah. Oh, I have to be an assistant. And then I’ll get my own job. Because I find that a lot of people that start out as assistants sometimes never quite break away from that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t never be an assistant. I think it’s probably a vital. And I had been. But I think in addition to that, you have to also be exploring your own avenues. It can never just be all one thing especially when you’re starting out. I think it’s about saying yes to a lot of things because you never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn on any shoot.
I did a lot of stuff for free at the beginning just for the experience because I didn’t have a lot of experience to garner a big paycheck. And I think, yeah, I don’t see that as much anymore of people just doing things for the experience rather than for a paycheck. And when you’re starting out, it’s really important just to see how things work. Tag along. That’s what I did my first job was a tag along. I literally tagged along with my photographer friend. And then they got a hold of my name. Being open and showing up I think is my advice.
Mario: As you said, you’re trying to not become complacent with your work, with your practice. And you’re going to want to be relevant and keep going forward. I think in that sense, part of it, part of the, I guess, solution is to also be aware of the challenges overall. And culturally of course also. But I think on a more practical level, in the industry. I’m curious, in your experience or your estimate, do you foresee any kind of major challenges for the, let’s say, interior design industry at the moment? But also, let’s say in the near future?
Colin: With us being flooded with so much imagery and so much content, there’s this demand for more. And the quality starts to slip. I’ve now been on sets where previously the client would want 12 images and now they want 40. And they want you to do a video at the same time. And you’re like, “I’m sorry. What?”
But I think there’s like this unrealistic demand on content especially when we’re trying to create quality imagery. Kind of setting those realistic expectations with clients I find challenging at times. And they want to do it in a day and they want to do it for a dollar. That may always be the case with how society is. But I think that’s a challenge.
Also, renderings. Renderings are getting better and better and better. And you can put whatever chair that you can afford in that corner. And you can build whatever beautiful room with whatever beautiful moldings. I see people share renderings and they think that they’re photos. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. But I’m like, “Wow!” That’s somewhat threatening in a way or challenging.
I’ve also seen people like take little branches of mine and like almost they must trace them or something and then put them on like their bedside table or whatever for the rendering, which I kind of love. I’m like, “Oh, my God. That looks cool. But yeah, I think those are for me two main challenges for the interior design industry.
And also, this idea of video, right? Video is being really pushed upon all platforms. And how do you make that video interesting with inanimate objects? I’ve been on sets, and even with Beni as the artistic director. And we’ve tried and failed and tried again. Showing scale. And even the narrative or the visual interest of videoing just a room isn’t always captivating.
For me, that’s a challenge. Because I haven’t cracked the code yet. And I haven’t really seen many people trying and/or something that I’ve really been drawn to unless there’s a human being in it, which I always loved that part of my job that there were no humans involved in the actual. No models I should say. But when doing video, it’s very helpful for scale. And it’s also very helpful for a narrative.
Being open to that as well, I think we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to try new things and be open to failing. Because especially in this ever-changing world of technology and social media, I think you can quickly fall behind if you’re not attempting to participate in a way.
Mario: Yeah. And I can relate. I think with all of them, also working in the last four years, I worked closely with MENU. And I think all those three, I would agree, are quite relevant. And even like during that time, let’s say, all those three actually showed up. I think from the first few shoots with MENU to the last few shoots with MENU, the amount of images and expectation and video. And also, started experimenting with renders.
Colin: Yeah, it’s a whole new landscape really. And I think part of it’s very exciting. But part of it can be a little bit overwhelming especially when you’re trying to drive a car and fix the engine at the same time.
We’ve come to the last topic I’ve discussed with Colin. As with previous guests, I’ve asked him to share his top three learnings based on what he experienced so far on his professional journey.
Colin: I think number one is building a strong community. I think surround yourself with people that have what you want and are living a life that you find inspiring, whether that’s creatively, personally, professionally. And you don’t want to be the smartest one at the table. I’d much rather be the dumbest one at the table, the least experienced. Because when I can set my ego aside and really be around people that have a lot more experience and a lot more knowledge and wisdom is when I’m like a sponge and I absorb so much.
And I think people genuinely want to help. And when you’re living in that world of abundance, having a community is so important. I always say I can’t move a huge stone table by myself. But I bet like eight of us could. And the power of people and the power of more community I think is really important for creative.
With that community, the next thing would be this is all a people industry, right? it’s relationships. I think having, and I even said, the one requirement for an assistant is positivity. Being able to work with others is vital. Being able to collaborate. This is not a one-person show. There are upwards from 5 to 20 people on set at any given time. Sometimes I walked by a shoot on the beach the other day and there were 100 people on set for like a David Yurman shoot or something.
Being able to be flexible, collaborative, kind, generous and respectful is ultimately why people will hire you again and again. I find that, of course, talent is super important. But if you’re the most talented person in the world and/or bear to be around, people aren’t going to want to hire.
I think community, being a good collaborator. And although it’s not like the most exciting, I could go into like more gut-wrenching darkness. But really building a strong foundation so you don’t have to tear down that house to do it all over again.
We talked about that being financial. And really, it’s super important, whether you’re doing one job a month or 50 jobs a month. Having that process internally to just stay organized. I don’t think people talk about it enough in the creative field because it’s quite boring to creatives actually. But creating those processes that are fail proof that you’re protected both monetarily and your time is protected is vital to any thriving studio. There’s a behind the scenes team working to do the payroll, do the invoicing, do the taxes. All of that sort of stuff is really important.
Mario: Amazing. I love that. Is there something else that you would like to discuss or mention?
Colin: I’m just sitting in the studio that was beyond my wildest dreams and like I could not afford at the time. I think it’s really important when you’re growing to really stretch yourself and really figure out a way to take yourself to the next level. Because when we stay stagnant, when we stay small, it really makes it hard to grow. And I didn’t have the means to make this happen. But I had people in my corner, my business manager, saying, “These are the facts. And if you keep going this way, you’re going to be fine.”
It’s a belief in yourself. It’s a trust in yourself. It’s an investment yourself. This place was a huge investment for me. Because I’m sure by the time this runs, you’ll all see it published, which is super exciting. I’m getting to host MENU here in October as for my new objects to launch. It’s like that movie Field of Dreams. Like, build it and they will come.
I think sometimes you have to grow beyond your world to attract the things that you want. Because I was living in a very small apartment in Brooklyn. And I knew I needed a full-time employee. The demand was there. And so, I started looking for a studio and I found this place. And I was like, “I can’t really afford that. But if I can buy my studio and my apartment” And you make it work and you make sacrifices. And sometimes the payoff is great and sometimes it’s not. And you learn.
But for me, getting this place, it’s on the cover of my book coming out, was one of the biggest and smartest Investments I did over the past couple years. Because I would have been trying to save a lot of money in that Brooklyn Heights Apartment, I would have sat for years trying to save money to make something like this work. And it’s similar to the business model of like I have a lot of things going on, but it’s never everything going on all at once.
Really knowing when to spread out. And being okay with the unknown. Because I know that I’ll be fine and it’s like driving at night and you can only see what your headlights can see. But you can’t really see beyond that. That’s one of my favorite metaphors because like I don’t need to know exactly where I’m going. But I know I can get at least this far. I have my headlights on.
Hey, everyone. That’s it for this episode. I hope you found it useful. And if you like this podcast, tell a friend. I want to thank Colin for this conversation. I’ve been a fan of his incredible work for a while. And I’m grateful for his insights and honesty. Links to Colin’s work and some other things mentioned during the conversation can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast.
As mentioned at the start of this episode, we’ll soon start accepting registration for the Mindful Creative Year workshop, which opens only once per year. And we have limited spots. If you are curious about joining a year-long community that will provide support and accountability on your path of creating your best personal and professional year, visit creative.voyage/newyear.
And lastly, if you haven’t already, subscribe to this podcast. And if you feel generous, you can also rate or review the show. Okay. Until next time, my friends. Enjoy the journey.
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