What does home mean to you? Homeownership can mean a lot of different things for different people. For Sherri and John Monte, home is simply, “everything you need and nothing more.” Joining Whitney Lauritsen and Jason Wrobel in an engaging exchange of thoughts, the couple shares their ideas on the challenges of homeownership, the pandemic’s impact on the home industry, making educated decisions about your home, and the benefits of simplicity and minimalism. Sherri and John’s insights show us just how much of an emotional investment homeownership is, leading us to eye-opening realizations about this multifaceted topic. The group also goes into a couple of fruitful tangents on social impact, charity, the difference between what you want and what you’ve been conditioned to want, going against the grain, risk-taking, clarity, and more.
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What Home Means To You: The Emotional Experience Of Homeownership With Sherri And John Monte
One of the favorite aspects of this show is revealing certain things about our guests that I had no idea about. On this show, we bring people on with a specific idea of general topics we want to cover but it was pleasantly surprising to have John and Sherri on and suddenly talk about oatmeal and green smoothies. I veered the conversation into doughnuts because that’s what I usually do. We’re talking about the healthy stuff but life is about balance. If you have a green smoothie, I feel like having a donut on the same day is not a bad idea. I’m going to go treat myself to a small box of donuts. I am curious in Seattle, where you live, if you have what I’ll call Dangerous Temptations. Do you have a local donut shop, pastries or a bakery nearby? I don’t want to use the word guilty pleasure because that sounds shameful but do you all balance out those green smoothies with something a little naughty?What you appreciate appreciates. Click To Tweet
I don’t need a pastry shop. Sherri is a good baker. If you’re talking about apple bread, our son calls it mommy cookies or good old chocolate chip cookies. That would be my go-to. I would be like, “Why don’t you bake something for us today, a little sweet treat?”
I’m all about the bowl of popcorn.
It’s so funny we talk about baking because I remember 4 or 5 months into quarantine in 2020 the phrase, “Quarantine baking,” became this colloquial thing. People I didn’t even know had an affinity for baking. By virtue of the fact, not all but many people were stuck in their houses. It became this nurturing, motherly old-school thing. Never in my life have I seen many sourdough recipes being passed through email threads and like, “I’ve got a raisin sourdough. Here’s a rainbow sourdough.” Someone had a turmeric sourdough. People were getting creative. Truth be told, part of my background is I have been working as a chef for 15 to 16 years and people would sometimes send me to baking competitions. A friend sent me a text that there was a $20,000 baking competition.
I’m thinking that the mom cookies might need to make an appearance in the baking competition because $20,000 is nothing to sneeze at. The funny thing is she sent it to me and I had to text her back. I said, “I can fake it as a baker.” I’m a faker baker but my mom, Susan, is the baker in the family. She’s the one I go to. Whitney has had my mom’s baked goods. My mom for years would send me and my friends a giant box of baked goods.
My mom would spend a week making biscotti, Christmas cookies and little treats. We get this giant box of baked goods. I am going to send it to my mom and be like, “Mom, go for the $20,000.” Sherri, I suggest you, not that you guys don’t have enough on your plate. You have a son, a dog and your business, which we’re going to talk about but you’ve got nothing to lose. What I want to know is if you won, what would you do with an extra $20,000?
Before I answer, I have to tell you that while we’re on the topic of baking during quarantine, one of the neighborhood kids down the road who’s in middle school started this baking competition where he would bake in business rather. I turned it into a competition because Sherri’s baked goods used to be the thing that went to all the neighbors. She’s like, “You moved in. Congrats on moving in. It’s a beautiful home. Welcome to the neighborhood where John and Sherri.” Asher is his name. He’s down the road. He’s in middle school. He started dishing out all these flyers so Sherri’s baked goods weren’t a price good anymore.
He makes some good brownies.
What would we do with $20,000?
I’d go on a long trip. I’m craving some travel after a year of being in the house. I love the home. I’m a homebody but I could go for some travel somewhere sunny.
I’m a do-gooder. I might split half with some charity but doing something and maybe a little bit of selfish shameless travel. She took the high road with the travel. I’ll take the do-gooder mentality and we’ll balance it off a little bit.
I feel we don’t give that much thought to what we would do with extra money and there are these cliché responses that we have in our head. A lot of them are related to what we thought as kids and fantasizing about money. As adults, perhaps we think about more practical things that we would do. This is something that I’ve been reflecting a lot on myself because one thing I’ve been working on is paying down my debt. I’ve taken an aggressive payment plan. 2021 is centered around that. As a result, I’ve been thinking, “What will happen when my debts are paid down? Is it just that I have less money than I’m spending every month? Am I going to take that money I used to put towards credit cards and the interest? Will I use that for something else?”
My head started going, “Maybe I’ll put more money towards retirement and investments.” Also to your point, John, I would love to have more money to give to others. Once I started thinking about that, I started seeing so many opportunities to donate money. That was fascinating to me but I recognized that I feel I would be happier if I had a lot more money than I thought I would need to donate because once I opened my mind to the possibilities of donating more money, I started seeing opportunities come up every single day to donate and then I started to feel a little bit overwhelmed. One question for myself and this could be for all of us is, “How much money do you want to donate? How often will you do it? How do you even decide?”
There’s a charity for anything you can imagine. I then started to research, “How much are they asking?” It seems a lot of these places were recommending a minimum of around $50. If you have enough money sitting around $50 a day to some charity is not that much money but if you haven’t set aside money, that seems like a lot of money to give away each time. For me at least when I’m focused on paying down my own debt, for example. To your point, John, you also think about that balance between how we use our money for ourselves and our lives versus how we use it for other people that might be a need.Our beacon is purpose. Click To Tweet
An ongoing reflection of mine is, “Am I putting myself first? Am I putting myself in balance with other people?” I’m curious, John, let’s say either if you had that extra money or if you are doing this, where would you put your money and how much would you like to give? How would you even figure that in your head? Is it a percentage? Is it something that you’ve already been working on? This whole conversation around donating money to others or supporting others with our time too because it doesn’t necessarily have to be financial. It could be volunteering. Whatever it is in our lives, how we are giving back, is that something that you’ve given thought to or you’re already practicing?
You bring up a lot of good points, specifically around time and how we use our time. Not to steer the conversation away from personal and more towards business but one of the things that we adopted was a social impact as a company. We wanted to not only say that you get to design and organize your home with us but that we’re going to make an impact together in doing so because everybody wants to feel like they’re contributing. Not everybody can contribute $50 a day or $10,000 a year or more.
If you knew that you were doing something for yourself and your family like creating a home, also getting to give back in some way, that would be amazing. It would be rewarding personally and physically in your space. For us, we created a social impact. It’s for the business but it’s rooted in who we are. The first one is we donate 1% of our profits to different charities. We can go deeper and talk about we started with 1%. It’s something we’ve adopted in 2020. Hopefully, as our business grows and we begin to scale it bigger and better, that too will grow. That’s the goal.
The second prong of that social impact is working with awesome vendors. That’s what we call our vendors as we want to work with skilled craftsmen, people who care about creating the best sofa for your home or the durability and sustainability of the products. When we talk about having some contribution. It’s not always monetary and time. Sometimes it’s in our choices and decision-making. That’s unique for us. We say that the first prong is to donate a percentage of profit. The second prong is to work with awesome vendors. The third is to donate our own time. Whether that’s working locally with youth in our community, with a nonprofit specifically to volunteer time or being a good person helping neighbors.
It’s all about being intentional because what you appreciate appreciates. When you take the time to prioritize or identify the things that matter most to you, in our world, it’s home. We work with a lot of clients who are serious about the home. What better way to know that when you’re investing in your home and doing something for yourself that there’s this ripple effect that you’re working with people who are aligned in your vision, beliefs and helping you to achieve what it is that the end result is. The home that you’ve been doing that for Lord only knows how long but to know that that investment is going to ripple further down the road. It’s going to help other people who are less fortunate, unable to be with or have the things that you have right now. To us, it’s a no-brainer but it’s a win-win approach to creating a home. That’s everything you need, nothing more.
I love that and I find it so important to reflect on all these different elements of it because having a home brings up a lot of different emotions for people and that’s something that I’m excited to explore. I can’t wait for Jason’s response because he’s feeling the same way too. I know Jason especially is focused on buying a home. One thing I wanted to bring up before we get over to that though is I did the math and this surprised me because as we were talking about this idea of giving back financially, I found myself thinking, “Why do I feel like $50 a day is expensive?”
When you think about how easy it is for us to go grocery shopping and spend $50, buy something on Amazon or another website. People spend probably $50 quickly in some ways but when it comes to donating, maybe it’s like, “That’s a lot.” I did the math. $50 times 365 days is over $18,000 a year. It goes back to Jason’s question of if you had $20,000, what would you do with it? In a way, that’s your answer.
If you pick one charity every single day for the entire year to give $50 a day, that could make a substantial impact. Whether it’s an individual, GoFundMe or a nonprofit. There are so many places where you could put that money but if that money is coming out of your personal pocket, to me, $18,000 a year seems like a lot of money to spend when I added it up. It’s interesting to reflect on our concepts around money.
Even if you were to donate to one charity. Can you imagine giving $18,000 a year? It might feel a lot but it might feel like a lot then you could also break it down and think, “I could probably take that percentage of what I’m making. Maybe I could spend a little less at the grocery store and put some of that money. Maybe I don’t go to the coffee shop as frequently.” I always find it so fascinating. This ties into the conversation around homeownership because that can involve a lot of money too and this is where Jason comes in. It feels like you, Jason, are reflecting on the financial side of homeownership quite frequently.
Before I get into the financial side of it, the associations we have with home are something that is extremely important. I talked about this because I was having a conversation with my mom, Susan, who lives in Detroit. Most of my family is back in Detroit. The cost of living for real estate in Detroit, Michigan is substantively lower than the West Coast, Seattle or LA. For the cost of the average house here for the first time ever the median house price in Los Angeles County, crested over $725,000 and in Orange County, it’s over $800,000.
Back in Detroit for $800,000, you get a literal mansion. You get a, “You must be a drug kingpin, an entrepreneur in the tech world or a famous rapper.” The $800,000 in Detroit, you are living large but here it’s like, “That’s a nice two-bedroom fixer-upper.” I was talking to my mom, Susan, about a video you sent me, Whitney, of a woman who had converted as the digital nomad movement becomes a big thing.Home is a mirror reflection of self. Click To Tweet
We see it on social media. People converting the sprinter vans or Ford now has these cool transit vans that people are putting beds, kitchen sinks and portable toilets. This woman had two of her cats and had a cool built-in litter box, living area and everything was convertible. It was an efficient, well-designed space and I thought, “That’d be a lot cheaper than buying a house. I could get a discount from my buddy who works for Ford. I could get the conversion. Great.”
Going back to the emotional side of the associations we have with home, I don’t want to be cliché here but I’m much a Cancerian in the astrological world. Home, nesting, being in my shell and having safety. I was talking to my mom and I’m like, “I could probably get a van like that but exclusively living in a van for God knows how long with my animals.” I thought, at some point, I know myself and my heart will yearn for a house. It’s interesting to me when we talk about emotional associations. The reason I want to buy a house is that the house I’m renting, there are limitations.
I can’t jackhammer the concrete in the back, do what I want with a garden or plant all the fruit trees I would want. Part of my desire to buy a home is the emotional connection in my heart to having my space, making it my own but also investing long-term in the environment that I’m living in. With all that being said, I’m curious about the work that you both do and your clients. What emotional responses or associations do you detect from people? Why is it important for them to create this home in their vision? What’s the deeper and more spiritual, emotional side of the work that you do? What things do you hear from people?
You bring up a great caveat of the home industry and the world of home that launched John and I to diving in and thinking differently about the way we approach. “How do you create a home?” It led us right back to our North Star and the on-center, our beacon is purpose. Coming from a place and understanding, “What is your purpose? Why do things matter to you?” For me, I view a home as a place that’s supposed to nourish and fill you up. We’re being pulled in a million different directions, all day every day being overstimulated. When we come home, we want our space to be a place that we can decompress.
A space that’s intuitive and anticipates our needs but that’s completely different than how other people may interpret their needs from what they need from their home. That’s the beauty and the magic of what we do. It’s getting to a point where we are able to take the time to assess the needs, what matters and what do you value because that’s the core and the foundation that we’re going to make all of the other future decisions about your home whether it’s window coverings, an area rug or an organizing container. All of it needs to be rooted in a purpose that’s true to you.
You, Jason, were all over the vibe of what makes elegant simplicity. When we step foot in a space to remodel somebody’s home, to furnish and style, organize or if we’re looking at it on a table or blueprints, we start our process with the emotionality of home. It is true to the core, elegant simplicity as about the emotionality of how you view home and what home means to you on an emotional level. Sherri talked about that for us. It’s nurturing. It’s this family space. It’s this space that you connect in that you have a lasting, meaningful connection. For somebody else’s home like yourself might be a refuge. It might be the place that you go that’s like, “This is my home. This is where I can not only feel reprieve but I can truly connect with myself.”
I always say that, “Home is a mere reflection of self.” I remember as a child sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car driving at night time from wherever we were to back home. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized as I was driving through the neighborhoods and see all the lights on in their windows. To me, it spoke. I was always curious, “What’s happening inside? What’s going on in there? What stories are there unfolding?” It was Oprah Winfrey who said, “Everyone has a story to be told. They just need a platform to tell it.” That’s how John and I view home. We have this opportunity when we create a home to tell the narrative and curate all of our materials and belongings in a way that tells the narrative and the story that we want the world, our family and everyone that we welcome into our home to see our story. What story do you want to tell them? That’s a fun journey.
It’s interesting that you’re talking about this because I was laughing inside when you’re describing it. I’m like, “That’s voyeuristic.” As a child, you were like, “I wonder what’s happening in that house.” I feel that way too. There are times especially when I’ve lived in New York and Chicago, I would be in my building and looking across at a building on the other side of the avenue or the street. You see these little snippets of people’s lives and the theater of the mind comes in. It’s like, “I wonder what they do?” You get glimpses of people fighting, kissing or making love. It’s like, “I shouldn’t be watching but I can’t stop.”
My point is when I go into people’s homes, it is always interesting to see this reflection of who they are. Our previous guest, her name is Kate Faust posted something about home design which I thought was interesting. She was talking about how the aesthetic of minimalism and modernism has been something that she’s been reacting against. I thought, “This is interesting. I’m going to keep swiping.” I’m a huge fan of Dwell Magazine. I read modern architecture. I’ll talk about this in a minute trying to speak in words as a pseudo client of yours. I’m getting closer to describing what my aesthetic is.
My point is when Kate posted this thing, she was showing all the slides of, “This is what people think is contemporary and modern. Every time I see housing magazines, this is all I see. It’s the same thing over and over. What I’m claiming? I’m a maximalist.” I was like, “That’s interesting. What does this mean?” She showed images of houses in Marrakesh, Morocco and all of these are what we in the Western world would call tchotchkes, ornamentation and very ornate. A lot going on in terms of design. She’s like, “The hell with minimalism. I want all my stuff. I want it packed to the gills wall to wall.”
I thought it’s so interesting because I’m curious how you both feel in terms of trends and things that you see people wanting. Whether or not as clients, that’s what they want or if it’s what they’ve been conditioned to want because they’ve seen it over and over again and that’s the hip thing. Bring this up because she was contradictory and being, “I’m a maximalist. I want all my stuff. I want my den.” It was cool and I’d never heard anyone phrase it like, “I want to be a maximalist in my home. I don’t want to be a minimalist.” What do you see? How do you help people get to the heart of what is true to them instead of paying attention to trends in what’s calling the moment?
We don’t want to see your Pinterest or Instagram collection. Certainly, we want to be disrespectful but that’s not what we’re after because as you’re going after, that is conditioned. You’re conditioned to what you like to see so you only open your mind to what you have seen. This girl that you’re speaking of, kudos to her. If she’s like, “I am a maximalist,” go for it. That’s her jam. That’s what she needs and that’s what we talked about. Our belief is, “Home is everything you need and nothing more.” If she needs everything, that’s fantastic. That’s great.
If she were, let’s say, our client, we would dig deeper and say, “Why? Let’s peel back the layers and start to dig into understanding why you feel compelled and you gravitate towards them.” As you start to dig deeper, you start to uncover more about yourself that a lot of times, we don’t even know if it’s there. As we grow and when we go through life, we’ve built up this shell, this protection layer around us where we’re being conditioned by our environments.
What we see, what we do, who we surround ourselves with that we don’t know what we don’t know until somebody steps in and helps open your eyes to peel back the veil to expose you to a new way of thinking or seeing life. When we go through the initial assessment phase, we always challenge our clients, “Don’t come to us with pictures of things they want us to recreate. Certainly, we’re going to create these beautiful, drop-dead gorgeous spaces for you but in order for it to be a true reflection of you, we need to spend some time digging into you and what makes you ticker or motivates you.” A lot of the home industry jumps straight into the fun part of the organizing reveal and the HGTV reveal of picking out the pink colors and the color swatches. That’s all fun but there’s a time and place. Like anything else in life, if we want to achieve a goal whether it’s to get fit, eat healthily or travel to every single state in the United States before we die, we need to set a goal. In order to achieve that goal, you need to understand what’s driving you to try to achieve that.
I love that because I’m a big why person. Anytime I’m asked why I get excited. I love other people that ask why. I’m fascinated by the responses. I love this approach because it does feel not only personalized but it feels deep versus almost a superficial idea. A lot of us gather all these surface-level concepts of what we want. We’re preoccupied with looking at what other people are doing and how they live without often thinking about, “Is this what suits me? Is this what I want? Am I just trying to fit in?”
This is especially important or has been at least during 2020 when so many people are spending time in their homes. It’s probably been an amazing time for you with people thinking about how they want to live, what makes them feel comfortable, safe, secure and how can they thrive in that environment. Many people starting to work from home like never before because they are forced to but during the pandemic, now a lot of people are saying, “I want to continue working from home. My space is incredibly important.”Home is everything YOU need and nothing more. Click To Tweet
We’ve seen the rise of home plants, for example, and it looked like from the trends, people were investing a lot more money and time caring for their home which I imagine has been good for your business. I also want to go back to this point of being a lawyer. One thing that was a big part of my life that I’ve noticed through TikTok and has been a big part of other people’s lives and still is the game, The Sims. I remember growing up and loving creating virtual homes. When we’re thinking about money, “What am I going to spend all this extra money on?” As children, you fantasize. I remember fantasizing about what my home was going to be like.
For me, one of the most important things that I’ve wanted is a guest room. I’ve fantasized about having a place where I can invite other people into my home. We didn’t have that growing up. Sometimes as children, what you don’t have is what you desire. Every time people came to visit, it was always like, “Where are we going to put them? Where are they going to sleep?” I have always loved going to people’s homes and having my own room. Jason, I have this one story in particular that makes me laugh so much.
Of all the traveling that we’ve done and there’s this one time, we were invited into someone’s home who was so courteous and saved us a ton of money. It was New York. We could have spent a ton of money at a hotel or an Airbnb. Fortunately, this acquaintance said, “Come on into our home.” When we got there, we’re not in the most comfortable situation and most people have been there. You end up being put on the couch.
You’re grateful for these experiences but it’s uncomfortable when you’re staying at someone’s home and that’s part of this conversation too. It’s not just the time that we spend but anyone who comes into our home especially as things start to open up again and maybe people start traveling and visiting each other. This is a big consideration. I don’t want to be someone that throws somebody on the couch and is like, “You’re not going to sleep well but at least you have a place to sleep,” or putting them on an uncomfortable pullout couch or an inflatable air mattress that doesn’t stay inflated all night. Most of us have had those horrific stories.
One last thing that reminds me of another meme that’s gone around TikTok. If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably not that funny as I describe it but it’s funny visually. It is the cliché things that people have to do and they spend the night at someone else’s house and how it’s such a cliché experience to not be comfortable. People end up sleeping on the floor with the rug or blinds wrapped around them because they don’t even have enough blankets and they don’t have a pillow.
You’re huddled up in the fetal position. I had enough of those experiences that I’m like, “This is my mission. Every guest that stays with me is going to have their own room and bathroom. They’re going to have a comfortable place to sleep and privacy.” That’s my dream home. That answers the question. I probably don’t want to live in a van because there wouldn’t be that extra space for them unless there is some special thing that you can do.
One more thing on that note. Sherri and John, I do love to travel on the road. I sleep out in my car, in my sedan and travel around from time to time. In 2020, I did that with a friend. She camped in a tent and it went okay. It was like our own separate rooms in a hotel or something but we were camping. I discovered there’s this whole new trend of people sleeping on top of their cars and they have these tents. They’re called birds’ nests.
I take back that idea. If you had a van, you could technically get one of those birds’ nest-style camp tents and put them on top and there’s your guest room. Where there’s a will there’s away. There is so much you can input on, Sherri and John. I’m curious. First of all, how has the pandemic shifted things, if any? Has it emphasized things in people’s lives that you’re able to step in and in a stronger way than before because people are more aware of it?
First, I want to make sure we don’t miss it because it was a couple of conversations ago but Jason asked about trends. We would probably tell you, “The hell with trends.” Home is what it means to you. Whitney, to your point, there’s a core part of you that views the home as an opportunity to host people or have people gather with you. Easily inside of our conversation, we’ve already started to discover what makes Jason vibe about home versus what makes you. Somewhat nomadic as you are, Whitney, you still have a part of you that’s rooted and entrenched in what you view as home and what home means to you. I’ll let Sherri answer your question.
Your question was around the pandemic and how it’s changed perspective. I’m excited that we’re going here because certainly the home industry is on fire because people are spending so much time in their homes more so than we would like to admit pre-pandemic. We’re spending time looking around at the stuff that we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed, a crack in the wall, a paint that’s chipping, fraying fabric on the edge of the sofa or a rug that feels a little worn. There are many things that you don’t even realize because pre-pandemic we go and are distracted by many other things.
In our world, what we’ve seen shift is our willingness to reprioritize the things that are important to us. As John and I reflect and look from a 30,000-foot view on to the home industry and home, the industry is broken both the organizing and the design industry. It’s fraying around the edges. I know from magazines that we talked about, finding inspiration in magazines to HGTV or Netflix. We’ve got all sorts of organizing and design shows. It’s all about layering on the pretty and it skips over the intentionality. It’s all about the big reveal.
We’ve spent 2020 saying, “How can we do things differently because this isn’t right?” It’s certainly not wrong. It works for some people but for us, it doesn’t resonate in a way that’s true to who we are and how we define home. We spent 2020 retooling the way that we work with clients and helping them get raw and true to themselves. You, Whitney, have one version of what home is. Jason, you have another version. How do you blend those things in blended families? If there are more people in the mix, it’s not easy.
You are going to spend and waste a lot of time, money and energy going out and buying a showroom full of beautiful furniture if it doesn’t meet or live up to that every day the way everyday life unfolds, it’s wasted money and time. It’s a ticking time bomb. It’s a matter of time before you’re unhappy, dissatisfied and wanting something new. It’s this crazy cycle that creates overwhelming anxiety and puts us in a state where we can’t be present. John and I work with our clients for a minimum of twelve months. It is completely unlike anything else in the industry.
I know it’s not something that a lot of people like to know because we’re in this society of instant gratification. We want it now, done, perfect and we want it our way. We’ve shifted the way that we work with clients, organizing is the foundation to creating any home. You have to understand the purpose, the why and your value. Once you have that functional foundation established and you understand your purpose and why things matter then you can start to dig into your style preferences and the way things look because you’re able to layer them into your home, create furniture layouts and choose between fabrics and different options. The choices resonate with you, not option A, B and C because they look pretty.
This is fascinating and important because the aim of our show is to go deep and talk about things that aren’t superficial. I’m reflecting a lot on this because unlike Jason, I don’t spend as much time thinking about a future home. I feel fine with the way things have been. Similar to you, Sherri. Travel is important to me and I think about it, to your point in different ways. Your talk is fascinating in getting me to reflect on what it means to have a home and thinking about all these different future scenarios.
Going back to the beginning of our conversation, another important element of this for me as a planner is maybe I should set aside some more money so I can have more financial flexibility to do some of these things. That’s a big barrier and something important to touch upon when you’re talking about spending twelve months with people. The first thing that comes up for me is, “Will that be financially feasible for most people?” You’re not always going to want to reach most people. In terms of the finances, I wonder if that’s a barrier if people are thinking, “I want to do this but I don’t want to spend that much money so I’m not going to do it.”
Perhaps somebody says, “I want to do that. I don’t have the money now. I’m going to save up and I’ll have the money to do this.” Money is a big element when it comes to the home. I’m curious if you can touch upon that and how that plays out with your clients, potential clients or do people not do things because of money? How do you address that when money comes up as an obstacle for others?
We are educators at our soul. We’re teachers. We love to help people make educated decisions. We’ve dug into educating people through our blog, social media and podcasts because there are a lot of people who aren’t in a position where they can afford to work with us. That doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have a home that reflects them and have all these wonderful things that make up a home. Certainly, money is a barrier but that when we talk with people through all these different outlets and help them realize that the fun part isn’t where you’re supposed to begin, that’s the middle.
When we open their eyes and help them start to reflect on the things that they need, the things that matter when you realize that for us home is a place that nourishes us. We turn to an organization called The Hunger Project. We wanted to start contributing something as small as $5 a month. In our opinion, in the way that we live, it’s not going to change life dramatically for us but we realized that home is where we nourish our souls. The way for us to give back is as small as it is, it’s going to make a huge impact. It’s that ripple effect that we were talking about.
There is this natural barrier to what things cost around the home, which is why we launched a free resource library where we break it down. We’ve been doing this since 2009. We have a lot of experience of what it looks like to furnish and style a space like a living room. Truly to create that with the things that you value. Jason, let’s say you value sustainability and durability. You want the things that you bring into your home to have a great impact on the environment but yours. I’m going to also want them to live up to say your life.
You’re hard on your stuff. There’s no doubt about it. There’s a process to that. We’ve done enough work in educating and giving that freely to say, “This is what you can anticipate a living room costing if you’re working with an interior designer to find those pieces.” Can you find ways to make it less and do it on your own? Absolutely, which is why we’re so committed to educating. We’re committed to educating not just about our process, our values, the things that make us tick, the trends of the year and color of the year. That’s not all right. We’re interested in educating truly about the cost and being as transparent as possible about what helps Whitney in eliminating those barriers because then people can say, “I’m not ready yet but in two years, I’m going to be ready.” “I’m ready. I want to do this. What does it cost to work with you? How does that happen?”
Ultimately, Sherri hit the nail on the head a little bit when she said that we work with our clients for a twelve-month basis minimum. We have a design and organizing membership. The reason we have a membership is that we believe that home is continuous. There’s no beginning to home and there’s no end to home. You’re creating. You’re living, your existing and life changes. Jason’s looking to move to the Pacific Northwest. Life is going to be drastically different for him in that space. I don’t want to derail the conversation too much but I love this story. We planted our first vegetable garden and we had a two-year-old then. He’s starting to put together some sentences and doing a good job. We planted all our spinach and romaine. Organic produce is going to be growing and we’re super excited. We hooked up irrigation and we’re feeling like, “Yeah. Here we go.”
Fast forward a couple of weeks, every day we would have gone out to see if the broccoli had started to sprout. “Can you see a little baby broccoli in there? Is it time to cut the spinach? Is it time to cut the lettuce?” The point in saying this is that, midway through the growing season, our son Brooklyn, was outside and grabs the head of broccoli and yanks it out. Sherri and I were like, “What are you doing?” We had to explain to him. He thought that if he pulled on it, it would grow faster. The point of the story is that home is a lot like growing a vegetable garden. It takes time and that timeline is going to be different for everybody but we know in our experience that whether we’re designing or organizing your home, home is continuous.
It doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s going to change. As we’re working together it’s going to continue to evolve. A home that’s continuous, that philosophy and that method shouldn’t be a detractor. It should be something you embrace because you go, “The decisions that I’m making, I’m not chasing a trend on Instagram. I’m not chasing maximalism or minimalism. I’m me. I’m creating a home for myself.” It’s an important part of our process to allow time to get to know one another in the same fashion that you guys do with your show.Layering on the pretty skips over the intentionality. Click To Tweet
The cool part of this philosophy of you framing this as a journey with no end is the continuing evolution of one’s relationship to their home space. I love it because it goes against the grain of what I think has been the prevailing theme of the pandemic. It’s interesting because, on the one hand, you’re seeing people reframe their relationship and asking better, higher quality questions about, “How do I want to live?” The why. “What does this represent? Why bring a new piece in?”
The counter to that is I’m reading a ton of real estate articles all the time and what the markets doing. How many people in the mad housing rush since the start of the pandemic have been in these bidding wars for going inspections, touring the house, buying it sight unseen? How many people move into these houses they bought on spec with no inspection, not physically even visiting the home and then finding out they don’t even like the vibe, aesthetic of the house, that the foundation is cracked, the entire plumbing is shot or it needs all new electrical and they’re faced with a $150,000 remodel bill?
I love what you’re saying because it’s not this desperate urge to like, “We got to find a house. We got to move out of the city. We don’t care. We got to outbid everyone. We offer him $100,000 more. We don’t even need to see it.” That’s becoming more and more common but what you’re saying is, “Let’s be methodical. Let’s engage in self-inquiry. Let’s get a deeper level of self-awareness about what this means to us.” Instead of just, “We need to buy something. We don’t care. Let’s just buy something.”
I got caught up in that energy a little bit. I was like, “I’ve got this nest egg. I’m looking at Portland and Bellingham. I could buy this.” I was like, “You’re not going to go buy a house you haven’t been in.” For me, that’s crazy. Do not do this. I love that your approach is antithetical to that desperate urge to get something without even realizing if it’s appropriate for you or not.
It ties into the big trend that we saw here in Southern California of people moving out of California and to places like Austin. It became a cliché. Jason, you were obsessed with this trend of people moving to Austin, Portland or wherever else. I was fascinated with that too. Jason, you’re talking about moving as well so maybe that’s why it was something you’re paying extra attention to. It does tie back around to money because people thought, “I can’t buy much in Southern California. I’ll move somewhere else.” A big question there is do you even want to live there? Going back to this whole money conversation, you might be able to save money by moving elsewhere. If you want to be in Southern California then why are you moving somewhere that you don’t want to be just because it’s more financially affordable?
There’s nothing wrong with that but I wonder how many people move elsewhere and get the dream house, save all this money and then once it’s all done, they sit there and think, “Do I even want to live here now that it’s all said and done? Is this homemaking me happy enough to justify living somewhere that I don’t even enjoy when I step outside of my home?” There was this mad dash too, I know for friends that did move to Austin. They noticed the energy was so intense there. The whole city was changing so by the time you settle in Austin, it is not even what it was like before because the community is like Southern California. If you’re trying to get away from the LA vibe, it’s there now in Austin, Texas as far as I’m aware because of how many people moved there.
To your point, people were desperate to move there that the prices went up. Suddenly, moving to Austin is not quite as affordable. Granted, there are all sorts of tax benefits and whatever else is involved. It’s a complicated subject matter. I was fascinated watching that because it’s appealing to hear how little people pay for homeownership or even rent. LA is expensive but I love living in LA so it’s been worth it to me. My apartment is insanely affordable because I’ve been living there for so long. You couldn’t get that now if I tried to look for a new place to live.
There is something to be said about staying put sometimes as part of my point. Staying put either because some things change and where you’re living and staying put in the sense that maybe you’re there because you love it and the cons might even outweigh the pros or it balances out. I imagine that you, John and Sherri probably helped people through some of this process of weighing out pros and cons. I don’t know if it says much about your location but the whole experience. Is that something that you help people with, determining where they’re going to live?
We’ve got a handful of clients that bring us in while they’re looking for homes. They will not buy a home until that we’ve got our eyeballs on the property because we’ve spent so much time and we’re speaking the same language that they know that home is rooted beyond the four walls, that you need to look past the stuff that’s in the home. A lot of times, most people jump right into piling in the pretty that they’d bring us in after and then they’ll have buyer’s remorse.
What we’re talking about people who will rush in and flood to relocating to different cities in different towns. It reminds me of the modern-day Keeping Up With The Joneses. Also, the whole toilet paper rush of trying to get toilet paper and the shortage of toilet paper during the pandemic. We feel this need for change but as humans, we resist diversity and change in our lives a lot of time. When we panic, we try to change our situation. When it comes to home, clients bring us in as early as possible. It allows us to begin an even greater transformation and growth because we’re laying the seeds or the foundation that that is going to grow a full garden.
Even to that point, sometimes it’s not just a remodel. Sometimes it’s a new build. A client brings us to the architectural phase. Now we’re working hand in hand with the architect and the custom home builder but we’re serving the client. We’re helping them organize their existing space where they’re currently living and design their new space. That’s going to take longer than twelve months. You want that relationship to be strong and intuitive. You want that foundation together to have meaning and that home that you’re creating to have purpose and intentionality. It’s not abnormal. We’ve had clients bring us in and say, “What do you think of this space? I haven’t put in an offer yet.”
This is a pre-bidding war. We’re talking 2015, 2016. Jason, to your point, we’re seeing a ton of the same stuff up here where people are buying homes, sight unseen, while they’re out of the country, waiving inspection. It is scary for some people and for others, they are budgeting that risk. They are completely conscientious of the risks that they’re taking and they’re not just doing it to get in a home. For some people, they’re doing it because that’s the home. That’s the one they want. That’s the space they want to change. Be at the location because it’s close to the family, a view and centrally located to where they potentially will return to work or maybe they’ll work part-time from work. They’ll go half and half. Some days at the office, some days at home.
Our perspective on home and the way in which we’re working with clients is taken off throughout the pandemic. There certainly are those clients out there who are looking for a quick fix and that’s okay because that’s not they’re not for us. We’re comfortable in saying that and in being different. We’re comfortable in saying that not because we don’t want to serve them but because we can’t serve them. What they want is something different than what we are? That’s good clarity. That’s immense clarity.
If you had, we call it a clarity call but let’s say you had an intake call with Sherri and you came away from that call like, “Absolutely not. I’m not down with what they’re talking about.” That would be okay because what did you come away with? You came away with, “I’m not down with that. I need this.” That’s why we call it a clarity call because the goal of the call is to give you clarity. Our framework around the home is built to understand your why and give you clarity on what home means to you.
Let’s talk about clarity because I think that’s a great jump-off point. The question I have is about communication, clients and people that want to work with you. The different ways that they try and convey what’s in their mind’s eye or in their heart in a way that you understand. Human communication in general is tricky. I believe that language is our best attempt as humans to describe the reality we perceive but so often because the words that are coming out of my mouth can be misinterpreted based on the movie in your head of how you’re interpreting the words that I’m saying.
As maybe a roleplay, when I dream of the home that I want, it’s this mishmash of old, beautiful, well-kept craftsman houses but I love traditional Japanese-style tatami houses that have sliding doors and the sunken living space and low tables. I also like modernism, clean design, very Teutonic and a little bit German, not cold. There’s like, “You love old craftsman. You love traditional Japanese. You love modernism. Where the hell is the intersection of those things?” No idea.
As a potential client, I sit down with you guys, I’m trying to discover is it just through words that you try and envision or do you say, “Jason, we want you to sketch out what your vision is.” How do you try and as accurately as possible, surmise and interpret through words, visuals, drawings, whatever it may be? What do you encourage your clients or potential clients to do to accurately convey to you in a way that you closely understand what they want? What’s that like? I feel so much can get lost in translation.Home is where we nourish our souls. Click To Tweet
You’re describing all of these different things that you are in tune with and that you like. We’ve talked a lot about the why. We would ask you, “Why?” That’s what we would start with. “Why do you like the sunken living room?” “Why do you like low tables?”
The first phase of our design organizing process is what we call a home strategy day. We break it into two different days because they’re completely immersive and comprehensive. On the first day, we dig into the foundation and the organizational piece of it. Once we traverse over into design, we understand how your life unfolds and routines, we dig into the design home strategy day. A lot like this starts with a conversation where we have to let our guards down. We have to be comfortable knowing that in the end, we’re all pushing to achieve and accomplish the same end goal. In order for us to get from where we are now to where it is that you want to be, we need to start dissecting.
You’ve got three different styles that you’re hip on and you like. It’s starting a conversation around each of those. The craftsman home, the craftsmanship. You started to talk about the attributes, quality and structure. What does it remind you of? Let’s dig into your childhood. What are some of your favorite childhood memories? Not everything about your childhood do we need to know but it’s thinking about, what are the happy things around your childhood that you remember when it relates to home? Why are you looking at certain areas? Is it just the architecture of the homes? Is it the surrounding areas? Are you an outdoor guy? Do you love to be one with nature and go out and explore?
The discovery of where design intersects with our true passions or our true wants and our visions that are up here because most people honestly can’t articulate what it is that they see up here. That’s why we default to pictures on Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok because as humans we default to the path of least resistance. It’s about having true meaningful conversation and understanding why we gravitate towards these things through curiosity.
I have an uncomfortable question and it may or may not. I have a couple of friends in my life. He and his husband are landscape architects here in Los Angeles. The other is a home builder for a lot of celebrities in town. Through these friends, I hear a lot of interesting stories about incredible kinship, connection and stories about difficult clients. Some of the horror stories I have heard are interesting.
I’ll give you a direct example then I want to know some either stories or perspectives. You can be as general or specific as you want. A dear friend of mine who has the landscaping business is doing a job in the Pacific Palisades between Malibu and Santa Monica here in LA. It’s a wealthy part of town. They brought in 25 Ficus trees, about 8.5 feet. They wanted a privacy fence made out of trees. They bring the trees and the client is like, “The trees aren’t tall enough.” “What do you mean the trees aren’t tall enough? They’re 8.5 feet.” They said, “We asked for 9 feet.” They said, “You know that Ficus trees grow and if the issue is that they’re 8.5 feet and they’re not 9 feet, they’re going to get to it.” “Take them back.”There's neither beginning nor end to home. Home is continuous. It doesn't happen overnight. It's going to change. Click To Tweet
The nursery where they got them from was going to charge them thousands of dollars to restock these trees. Now the trees are on my property. I have 25 8.5-foot Ficus trees, I’m watering them and they look great. I don’t want them to leave because now I have a privacy barrier. Apparently, the client was not too kind in their refusal of this. They said, “It’s a $100,000 gig for us. If they want us to take back the Ficus trees, we’re going to take back the damn Ficus trees.” That’s the mild version. I’ve heard a lot worse more crazy stories of dealing with clients on big jobs. How do you energetically, emotionally and communicatively deal with someone you perceive as difficult? How do you guys handle that?
Getting back to the process that unfolds for us. At each section of our work together, we have what we call benchmarks. We’re getting benchmark approvals so that the 8.5-feet versus the 9-feet Ficus tree doesn’t happen because we’ve theoretically hit every single benchmark. If we get there, we would say, “How did this occur? How did this happen?” In the previous stage, we were in approval. Everything was green-lighted. Let’s say we start with that design strategy day. From that, we create what we call a design playbook. This playbook is amazing. It’s every single thing that we’ve discussed together. It’s the guiding beacon for creating your home from a design perspective. There’s a sign-off. There’s an approval of that. All of the baseline structures, the foundation have been approved. From there, we go on to the next stage and that stage is approved. If we were ever to get somewhere, we would simply default back to, “Where did this happen?”
Where was the breakdown in the communication? Everything successful in life is systematized from finding our recipe online to ordering coffee at Starbucks. If I were to order an iced tea and then I got to the end of the counter, the barista called my name. It ends up being a hot chocolate or a hot mocha. I would be royally disappointed. That doesn’t mean that Starbucks needs to go back and had to rework their entire process of taking an order and delivering a coffee. They’ve got a system in place.
It means that we need to work backward and look for the gap. Where was the breakdown in communication? It’s the same thing with doing landscape architecture, building a home, designing and organizing your space. Everything that’s successful in life is systematized. For instance, the Starbucks and the coffee story, who knows, maybe I would have placed my order using the app and I punched in the wrong button. Maybe I grabbed someone else’s drink by accident?
When it goes through the process of creating a home, there are so many decisions. Hundreds, if not thousands of decisions are being made over a relatively short window of time. Communication is imperative that we’re comfortable and we are asking questions. We come at it through the lens of being curious and wanting to know why. “Why 9-foot trees? Why not 8 feet?” It’s going back to the why. Understanding and wanting to know more.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any great stories like that but I would always be down for you to text us a couple more because those are great. I talked about the benchmarks. You could call them milestones but that’s how we ensure that we don’t get somewhere we shouldn’t be.
The closest we can to come to answer your question is a lot of times, spouses fight and we’ll find ourselves in the dead center of their confrontation. They are so comfortable with us that if something doesn’t make sense or the other opposes a decision or a desire, they’re not afraid to say, “Absolutely not because it reminds me of this, that or the other.” They’re not afraid to peel back their protective shell, be truthful and expose their relationship to us because that’s how we’re going to get to a space that embodies both people. Everybody in the family.
It also helps that Sherri and I play devil’s advocate with one another. Whether we’re doing it in the back office and we’re designing a space or whether we’re in front of a client, we’re constantly friendly but challenging each other and why. To think differently and to push our understanding of that client’s family, their space and situation. That creates that platform where a husband and wife feel comfortable or an older couple feels comfortable talking about the next season of life and what we’re designing for in the future and what that looks like.
We often talk about how there’re different seasons of life that we work with clients in and are always very different. Sometimes you’re getting married and merging households. Sometimes you’re bringing a new baby into the world or a dog and then from there you are maybe getting emptiness, sending kids off to school. From there, you’re maybe downsizing. Maybe you’re getting a divorce. There’re all these different seasons of life that we are working through. The process to ensure that we’re always speaking the same love language, same jargon, and pushing the ball forward is those benchmarks or those milestones.
As you were describing being in these situations with spouses having heated conversations about what they’re doing, it did make me flash on different HGTV shows where it’s manufactured drama. It’s like, “I told you I wanted periwinkle, John. This isn’t periwinkle.” It’s like this manufactured tension but you’re talking about there are moments of actual tension. It brings up something for me that’s interesting that it’s a challenge for me in thinking about cohabitating with my girlfriend. This fear is completely unfounded because she’s never told me that she wants to do this but it’s the idea that I like my stuff. I like my couch, my bed, side table and lamp. I have a cool vintage lamp on the desk.
It’s this idea that if I cohabitate with a partner that they’re going to somehow be like, “I don’t like that lamp. I don’t like that couch.” I’m an open person but I’m also stubborn. I like what I like. One of my fears is exactly what you’re describing that I go into this next chapter of my life where the way that I can describe it is I feel a deeper desire to nest. I feel a nesting vibe but there’s a fear in like, “I like my stuff and I’m not getting rid of my stuff.” It’s a process of uncovering my own resistances or perhaps the barriers to change I’ve set up because on the other side of that resistance, there might be something even better. There might be an even cooler couch. I need to acknowledge my own stubbornness to change in this process.Home is rooted beyond the four walls. Click To Tweet
You’re exactly correct but you aren’t wrong for having that fear or apprehension because that’s natural. It resonates well with the misconception that people have when it comes to hiring an organizer or someone to come in and help you organize your stuff is that you’re going to hire someone, they’re just going to pack it all up in a garbage bag and make you get rid of everything. At least when it comes to working with our team, it’s the furthest from the truth. What I see and what I define as a need and valuable is going to be completely different than how you view a need. What I think is clutter and what you think is clutter is going to be completely different. When it comes to our home, it’s understanding where that’s coming from.
You can start to see how when we work with clients for the old way of doing things. It’s room by room. You skim right over all of the good stuff. The time that it takes to truly dig in and understand, “Where is that fear coming from?” It’s not just about creating a home but it’s a transformational journey that needs to be embraced by allowing yourself and stepping into a place of vulnerability. Knowing that, “This is going to take me to a better place. I’m going to grow into a better person where I’m the best version of myself for my family, girlfriend, coworkers, all of the above.” We work with clients to dig in and understand, “Where is that fear coming from?”
Also, feeling like she’s going to make you get rid of something. Where’s the fear of coming from in terms of your unwillingness to even have that conversation? I’m not saying you haven’t but I’m simply saying that we oftentimes create barriers and limit ourselves. When we’re working with a client and it’s organizing or design, we’re talking about internal, external or physical limitations. The physical limitation would be space. An external limitation would be they are struggling or constrained with time. They’re an executive, they don’t have a ton of time. An internal limitation would be something like yourself. What you’re grappling with is, “How do I handle this? What do I do? How do I approach this conversation? I’m scared to even start this conversation because I am already creating a barrier that I need to build up.” Maybe she’ll love the lamp.
My point is simply that when you start to do this self-discovery in working with us, we’re doing it with you. When you start to do this self-discovery of where that’s coming from, now you’re opening and creating a door for true growth in that relationship and with yourself. It’s fascinating to think about our stuff and how much it’s connected to our own self-worth, growth, how we value ourselves and relationships.
This is all part of the larger journey. I had no idea that our conversation was going to take such a deep introspective, spiritual turn. What you’re saying makes a lot of sense because if I look around at the physical objects in my space, some of them have stories. Some of them I keep around because I’ve attached meaning to a phase in my life for a moment when I obtained this thing or there’s a sentimental value attached to it. It’s interesting because I know that in the process of moving whenever that’s going to be, there’s an opportunity to deeply take an emotional inventory, not only the relationship to the new space. Whenever I’ve moved and packed stuff up, that’s another moment of, “What does this mean to me? Do I want to take this thing into the new space? Does it reflect who I am? Is there meaning? Is it just I’m keeping it to have this thing because it’s an ego prop?”
On the one hand, I’m looking forward to that moving process and the beginning of that next chapter. I don’t want to use the word dread but I know that it’s going to bring up a lot of emotions for me. I’m probably going to be packing boxes, crying and being like, “I got this thing,” and it’s like, “Jason, let it go.” It is a deep, emotional, spiritual process of evolution of what you’re describing. For me, a home is a place of refuge. That’s an accurate description of I view my home as a respite from the chaos of the outside world. I view it as a place to recharge. I view it as a place similar to what Whitney said of I love having people over. One of the things that I’ve expressed to her is a little bit of loneliness because I love it when people come over, hang out, make music or a meal together.
As we get closer to the end of this episode, I’m leaving this conversation with you two having a lot of not food for thought but food for feeling. It legitimately is how I feel. It’s interesting that I’m looking at potentially the Pacific Northwest because I did an Astrocartography reading, Whitney. I did a whole episode on this where I had an astrologer map out the power centers on the globe that was the most advantageous to me. Community, creativity, relationship, money, opportunity.
Sure enough, Southern Oregon and Northern Washington were to have the power center. It could be that this is a very serendipitous episode with you two because if I do end up in the Pacific Northwest, I was going to say you might be getting a knock on your door like, “It’s Jason. I’m ready. Let’s have some doughnuts and kick it. Let’s do it.” It’s been such an absolute pleasure. Not only getting to see more of who you are as individuals because you’ve been willing to show us part of who you are and your personalities. Sharing this deep introspective approach to what you do professionally to help people design the home of their dreams and interpret that for them. It’s so much more to it than I had ever imagined. I’m deeply grateful for you guys sharing what you’re doing in your process because I’m hoping that if everything lines up. Maybe I’ll get to work with you all.
We’d love that. We appreciate being on with you guys having a great conversation. There’s nothing better in life than connecting with one another and having a meaningful interaction that you can then take and build upon. You guys have made a huge impression on us as well.
For you, dear reader, if you’re vibing, as much as we are with John and Sherri’s approach, you can check out their brand. It’s Elegant Simplicity. Their website is ElegantSi.com and that’s all on our website. Their contact information is all at Wellevatr.com. You can get in touch and work with them there and book a clarity call if you’re interested in hiring them and finding out how they can support you in creating and envisioning the home of your dreams. We’re so appreciative of you guys. Definitely, high vibes. I want to stay in touch because if I move up the coast, I’m feeling some synergy here. Thanks for being on the show. Thanks for getting uncomfortable with us. We will see you again, dear reader, with another episode soon!
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- John and Sherri Monte – Elegant Simplicity
- Kate Faust on Untethering from Whiteness and Honing Creativity – Previous episode
- Elegant Simplicity Blog
- The Hunger Project
- Jason Wrobel’s Thoughts On Relocation Astrology – Previous episode
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About Sherri and John Monte
John & Sherri Monte are the co-founders of the award-winning interior design and professional organizing firm, Elegant Simplicity. By blending education, organization, and design, they’ve created a proven methodology that empowers families to live a more purposeful life by creating a home that’s everything they need and nothing more.
Over the last decade, John & Sherri have worked with professional athletes, Fortune 100 Executives, and hundreds of other clients to live a more purposeful life through designing and organizing their homes. Their work and results speak for themselves. They have been featured in highly-renowned international and national publications such as Architectural Digest, Southern Living, NBC News, Yahoo Lifestyle, and Reader’s Digest.
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