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Unlocking the Secrets of Interior Design with stylist and Set Designer Extraordinaire: A Conversation with Joanne Thornhill on the New Interior Design Masters Book

She’s a renowned stylist and set designer, known for her impeccable taste and creative eye. Her work has been featured in countless magazines and she’s worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. But beyond her impressive portfolio, she’s also a talented author. Her latest book, Interior Design Masters is a must-read for anyone looking to spruce up their space.

In this article, we’ll be chatting with her about her secrets to creating stunning interiors, as well as discussing her new book and what readers can expect to learn from it. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

Could you please share with us a little bit about yourself and your profession, Joanna?

Of course – I’m self employed and a specialist in the interiors sector: I work as a commercial interiors stylist for brands and magazines (creating set designs for promotional photoshoots, events and editorial features) and I also write content and editorial features for magazines and brands, too, as well as compiling monthly trend reports for global forecasting agency WGSN.

In recent years I’ve expanded my remit a little and now work as a tutor and creative consultant too, and I’ve created several workshops and talks for clients as well as teaching about interior styling at the KLC School of Design in London (with my own online workshops at planning stage, too). I offer creative strategy sessions for interiors and lifestyle brands and also offer remote styling services to homeowners and renters who are looking for help redesigning rooms to help them feel happier.

I’m also the author of four books: Interior Design Masters (in association with the BBC1 TV series of the same name, published by Quadrille), The New Mindful Home, My Bedroom is an Office (both published by Laurence King) and Home for Now (CICO Books). As a freelancer, I enjoy a bit of variation so this mix suits me well!

As an interior stylist, what does your typical day look like when you work with a client?

It depends which stage of the job I am at – though while the types of work I do can vary greatly, the process is broadly the same. I’ll start with a brief from my client (usually via Zoom these days) and then begin to research and plan ways I can achieve their objectives within their budget and timeframe. This might mean pulling together moodboard images and samples, shopping for props, visiting potential shoot locations, and organising any relevant logistics such as booking couriers and assistants and placing orders. I’ll always create some sort of spreadsheet or running order to ensure the shoot runs smoothly and get everyone on the same page.

On the shoot (or set-up day, if it’s for an event), I’ll work closely with the photographer, client or art director depending on the job to ensure we’re achieving the client’s objectives and keeping to time. Often I’ll be packing down one shot and setting up the next all while styling the one I’m currently finessing! (for bigger jobs, I’ll bring along assistants to help with this). Shoot days are often physically and mentally exhausting as there’s always so much to do in a day, but it’s always super rewarding to see all those carefully laid plans come together.

What has been your most enjoyable styling project so far?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some really fun and varied jobs over the years – so I’d say that anything that’s a bit out of the ordinary or super OTT is always really fun, such as the time I had to create a ‘haunted grotto’ for a brand’s newly launched Hallowe’en make-up kits, or anything where I’m able to get a bit crafty and make some bespoke props is always enjoyable. I also styled Ronan Keating’s house for Hello! Magazine a couple of years back – it was for a festive shoot so we set up a ‘forest of trees’ in his hallway as well as adding other festive areas in other spots around his house. That was definitely a bit of a pinch-me moment!

Have you ever had any styling mishaps?

Plenty! From styling outdoor ‘Summer living’ set-ups in the snow (often shoots have quite long lead times, so you end up having to shoot 4-6 months in advance) to working on an outdoor makeover when it poured with rain non-stop. It’s also very common for key props to arrive broken or not turn up, no matter how many contingency plans you make.

Fabric can be a life-saver: I’ve turned boxes into ‘beds’ and ‘tabletops’ in the past by covering them with some linen so you can’t see the box base, and once I had to do a shoot showing how to style a home laundry space, centred around a washing machine, except the washing machine I ordered didn’t turn up and I wasn’t able to get an alternative in time for love nor money. We quickly created a makeshift cabinet curtain and styled the space around it with laundry accessories, so it looked like there was a washing machine hidden behind it. Being able to think on your feet is one of the key skills of being a commercial stylist!

What is your ultimate dream room or space to style, and what makes it so special to you?

I really enjoy the variety of my work and enjoy creating looks that are very different to my personal style, as it sort of allows you to decorate vicariously and play around with different looks and concepts. I’m personally really interested in how design, from the colours and materials we choose to the way we style and arrange things, can be used to enhance a certain mood or atmosphere and generally help people to feel happier in their own homes – so whenever I get the opportunity to weave these methodologies into my work, I’m very pleased to do so.

I’m similar to Banjo (Beale, from Series Three of Interior Design Masters) in that I always tend to create a character in my head based on the sort of person who might be living in the space I’m creating (if it’s for a shoot or event rather than a real-life client). From there I can flesh out what kind of home accessories they might like, what they’d be eating and drinking (so I can use them as props on the set), even down to what books they’d have on their coffee table and whether they’d be organised in a neat stack or displayed in a less structured way. It’s sort of like an actor playing a part, but with cushions and vases!

Can you share your top five tips for creating a beautiful and cohesive space?

Always think about the ‘red thread’ behind your designs: you want to have one narrative or element that’s continuous throughout, whether that’s an accent colour, or repeating a certain material in several different rooms or areas. It doesn’t need to look ‘matching’, but having something with commonality will feel more considered.

Hide things in plain sight: got an ugly boiler or radiator letting down the look of your room? See if you can cover or paint them, to either make them visually disappear or alternatively turn them into more of a considered statement piece.

– Often people make the mistake of simply ‘ignoring’ elements in their room that they can’t change, rather than trying to incorporate them into their scheme. So for example, if you’ve inherited some grotty beige carpet that you hate but can’t replace, consider decorating with complementary tones like warm pinks and sunset colours, so that the beige at least ties in with your new decor (and get a big rug, too!)

Always add more storage than you think you’ll need – nothing lets down the look of a space like piles of clutter with nowhere to go and it can cause lots of frustration, too. Whatever your style, ‘a place for everything’ is a great motto.

Badly positioned artwork is one of my pet peeves – often people hang it too high and too far apart. Aim to hang your art so its centre is roughly level with your eyeline, and hang other artworks closer to it, to make more of an impact.

Congratulations on your new book about BBC Interior Design Masters! Could you give us an overview of the book?

Thanks! So the book is designed to act as a companion to the TV series, but also work as a standalone interiors book – so if you’re a huge fan of the show you’ll find out lots more details about some of your favourite design schemes, but if you’ve never watched the show you’ll still get just as much enjoyment out of using it as a comprehensive guide to how to go about planning and designing your own dream interiors space.

It touches on many of the key aspect the show is known for, such as examining the concept of signature style and talking through lots of the common DIY and construction jobs the shows design contestants create, and it utilises quotes and tips from all the contestants, judges and on-screen trades to give extra advise and insights. There are also case studies throughout which break down how to recreate and personalise some of the most popular designs from across the series, including a few from Siobhan!

Which part of the book do you enjoy the most?

I’m just so pleased it seems to have been really well received and many people have commented on how comprehensive and informative it is – I really wanted it to offer loads of valuable advice and hold its own as a great design book in its own right, which I think it does. Sophie Robinson (one of the show’s guest judges) said it’s like an encyclopaedia of all things interiors and is basically five books in one, so you certainly get a lot of bang for your buck!

Would this book be helpful for those who want to decorate but don’t know where to begin?

Absolutely – it’s been written to make complete sense even if you’ve never watched the show, and it breaks down everything you’d ever need to know if you’re keen to tackle a redesign or renovation project, even if you’re a total novice. It starts by talking through the planning and prep you’ll need to get you started, both in terms of practical aspects to consider and how to work out your own signature style to help steer your decorative choices, before breaking it down into room layouts, colours (and the psychology behind them), different design styles and how to hone them to suit your own space, before rounding things off with a deep-dive into shopping and styling to finish things off.

The illustrations in the book are lovely. Who created them?

Thank you – we worked with a very talented illustrator called Charlotte Orr (@charlotteorrillustration on Instagram), who has illustrated numerous other books for Quadrille, the publishers. It was a potentially risky strategy to go with illustrations rather than photography, but as we were compiling design ideas we wanted to feature from three different series, the quality of available photography between them all was very inconsistent and often there weren’t shots of the clever details and makes that I wanted to share.

By going with illustrations (which are all representative of designs created for the show), we were able to show a much broader range of projects and, hopefully, it will also encourage readers to revisit the show (which is available on Netflix for Series One, and BBC iPlayer for Series Two onwards) as well as look up each design contestants’ Instagram accounts so they can see the real-deal, too.

Are you a big fan of Interior Design Masters? If so, what is your favourite week and design from the seasons?

I’ve been a huge fan of the show since the first ever episode – I love interior TV programmes and watching shows like Changing Rooms and Property Ladder growing up were what made me want to work in this field, so it was a bit of a pinch-me moment to be asked to write this book. Many moons ago I was a runner on an episode of Changing Rooms (my main task was to look after the lovely Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen) and one of my first ever freelance assisting jobs was helping Sophie Robinson with one of her Ideal Home Show room set installations, so to end up being commissioned to write a book which includes quotes from both of them is very satisfying.

Some of my favourite designs from across each series (which all feature in the book as case studies, too) are Banjo Beale’s botanical hotel bedroom from Series Three, episode two – it just looked SO considered and curated, and I loved the ‘drunk botanist’ character he created to inspire the scheme); I thought the country chalet space Nicky Bamford-Bowes and Ju De Paula co-designed for Series One, episode five was just so perfectly reflective of its setting, and Siobhan’s Art Deco barbers (created with Micaela Sharp in Series Two, episode seven) was super clever with loads of lovely details, like the striped wallpaper hung diagonally and the ingenious reupholstered sofa cushions.

I’ve been incredibly impressed with all the Series Four contestants, who really seemed to hit the ground running – unfortunately due to the timing of the book and the series, we weren’t able to include any of their designs in there (as it would have given away spoilers), but I’m glad I was at least able to interview them, so all ten of them are quoted within the book. I’m in awe of how talented Jack is for someone so young, and I loved Tom’s style too which seemed to effortlessly blend vintage and modern with a real sense of polish that somehow also felt super liveable. No mean feat! It’s always a shame not to see more from the designers who leave early doors and I think Kai and Buse, who both have architectural training, had a lot more to offer. I’m now following them all on Instagram to see where the journey takes them.

Where can people find your book?

The book is available at all the usual places such as Amazon, Bookshop.org and Waterstones, as well as stocked by Sainsbury’s and other retailers. I also offer signed and personalised copies directly, which are available to order from my website (which make a great gift!). You can also find out more about (and order) my other books there, too.