Sheila Bridges is 54 and lives in Harlem, New York. She is a whirling dervish of energetic creativity and is equal parts interior designer, product designer, TV host, and entrepreneur. We feel lucky she found the time to share some of her philosophies and insights about design and life.
How would you describe your style philosophy?
I like the challenge of mixing and juxtaposing things – classic furniture with contemporary art or using off-kilter colors in unexpected places.
You do such a great job swinging between aesthetics, from contemporary to classical. What advice do you have for someone who’s trying to combine different pieces from different styles themselves?
Start with a base layer that is going to be timeless rather than trendy- then add the other styles gradually. Connect them by using similar colors or textures. I think the best interiors are those that aren’t rushed.
Your Harlem Toile de Jouy pattern is so iconic – even my 26-year-old colleague who has never done anything in design is completely obsessed with it. How did you come up with the idea, and what does it mean to you?
I have always loved French toile fabrics and wallpapers but when I was looking for the perfect toile for my own home I couldn’t find one that reflected the African American experience so I designed it instead. I’m very proud of this particular design because it is represented in several museums throughout the country.
How has your style and approach to design changed as you’ve gotten older?
I think I’m actually more confident and therefore more of a risk taker than when I was younger- particularly when it comes to the use of bold colors and mixing different elements together.
What are you most excited about in design right now?
I am excited that design has become accessible to everyone!
Style is so much more than just one aspect of our lives. Do you feel like your approach to clothing comes from the same place as design? Or is it totally different? How has that changed?
I think great style is great style in the same way that good design is good design- it transcends all disciplines. It doesn’t matter if it is fashion, graphics or interiors- all of these are now interconnected.
You have a pied-a-terre in Reykjavik, which might surprise some people. What about Reykjavik compelled you to buy a place there? And in case anyone reading this is planning a trip, what should they not miss?
I went to Iceland on vacation a few years ago and fell in love with the creativity, the landscape, the horses and the light. It takes less time to get to Iceland from NY than it does to get to LA and personally, I think it’s far more interesting. There is so much to see and do in Iceland but I think one should absolutely plan on taking a dip in the thermal waters or pools that are located all around the country.
You’re extremely talented and have the career to match, doing homes for everyone from Sean Combs to Bill Clinton’s Harlem offices. You’ve written books. You even hosted a TV show, “Sheila Bridges: Designer Living.” How do you balance everything and make sure you don’t take on too much?
I have yet to figure out “balance!” It’s definitely a continual work in progress in my life. I think it’s a challenge for most women because we all are required to wear so many hats and continuously juggle so many balls at once without letting them drop. I am finally learning to say “no” which has taken some time.
Years ago, after your hair started falling out, you were diagnosed with the auto-immune disorder alopecia. For women especially, the subject of hair is emotionally intertwined with beauty, and femininity. Can you talk about what that was like for you? How did it change the way you feel beautiful?
It was a very difficult and depressing time for me and even after all of these years (I was diagnosed at 40) it’s still not easy because of the emphasis that is put on hair and appearance. Part of my decision not to wear a wig has to do with my desire to destigmatize baldness and redefine beauty. Having alopecia has taught me the importance of being comfortable in my own skin.
Your memoir The Bald Mermaid is so gorgeous and colorful, much like your designs. Was writing a memoir cathartic? A different kind of creative challenge?
I’ve always found writing to be both cathartic and a challenge. Writing a personal memoir was a huge undertaking but I’m really glad I did. I believe that as a woman of color it is important to tell my own story since our stories are rarely told.
Culturally, aging is viewed as this sad thing. In reality, I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t feel bad or sad. I feel better than ever. How do you want to change the conversation around aging?
I am definitely a far more interesting, empathetic and evolved person than I was in my twenties. That can only happen with maturity and life experience.
What’s your go-to hostess gift?
Don’t have one. I try not to buy the same thing for different people.
Your biggest splurge lately?
Designing and building a new country home for myself.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
If you had a warning label, what would it say?
Swim at your own risk.