Kate Watson-Smyth is a journalist with over 15 years experience writing about interiors for publications including the Financial Times, The Independent, and the Daily Mail.
However it is her interiors blog ‘Mad about the House’ that has turned her into a very well known interiors expert. She was awarded the Vuelio number-one UK interiors blog award in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
Have you always been a journalist? Or did you have a different career previously?
I have been a journalist since I started working – but it took me a long time to start working. I dropped out of university – I was doing French at Nottingham – and had to spend the third year in a French-speaking country. I went to Senegal and never went back for my finals. I moved instead to Paris where I stayed for three years. On returning my mother said I needed some training and insisted I go to secretarial college. While I was there someone came from the regional Oxfam office looking for volunteers to stuff envelopes and help out during its 50th anniversary year. I ended up running the press office and styling fashion shows and it was then I decided I wanted to be a journalist.
Did you study journalism or design originally and if so where and what did you study?
I went to Darlington to train on the NCTJ course for a year – it was one of the best years of my life and we recently all met up again for our 25th reunion. Then I returned to Birmingham, where I had done my newspaper work experience and they offered me a traineeship if I went to journalism college. Again. They sent me to the Westminster press training course in St Leonards on Sea, near Hastings.
I have never studied design.
Do you work as a journalist both on-line as well as for newsprint?
I started in print – because online didn’t exist – and have always been commissioned for print which is now shared online as well. Since I became so busy with the blog I tend to write only for myself online rather than newsprint any more although I often give quotes and contribute to articles.
Have you always been passionate about interiors or do you also write on other topics?
I began as a general news reporter but I always wanted to write features. I have always loved the writing part of the information gathering. When I had my first son I went freelance and it so happened they needed someone in the property section at The Independent – in the days when it was a 24 page weekly pull out… As soon as I started writing about houses and property I knew I had found my thing.
I have always loved decorating and styling. It began with my bedroom as a child and I graduated to other people’s houses – not always when they asked me to. I have been known to move and restyle a coffee table while someone nips to the loo!
Did you embrace social media from the start? If so which platforms were you using to start with and why?
I took to Twitter fairly fast as words are my thing. I loved it for ages and I think it’s brilliant for people who work from home as it gives you that chatting round the water cooler thing that you miss in office life. But it has changed over the years and can be a nasty place as well as a wonderful one. I’m on there less now as I have found Instagram. I was late to that particular party but I love it. I have found the interiors community to be very supportive and who doesn’t love looking at gorgeous pictures? I have also really enjoyed improving my photography skills, which I wasn’t expecting. Last year I bought my first camera although I still tend to use my phone more.
How and why did you start the web site ‘Mad About The House’?
In desperation! Newspapers were struggling and my freelance career was dwindling. At the time it seemed like everyone had, or was starting, a blog and I thought I would have a go to see if it would generate any work as a journalist. I thought it would work as a kind of online CV and portfolio. I had no idea it would go this far.
Did winning the Vuelio awards have a major impact on your work?
Winning recognition for your work is always lovely. I think perhaps it makes brands take you more seriously and widens your audience. Certainly the Vuelio awards, which selects a shortlist based on reach and engagement and content – tracking stats – and then calls in a panel of judges who are all experts in their fields. That definitely gives weight to the results as there is no campaigning for votes which can skew the results.
When did you set up your design consultancy?
When I started the blog in 2012 I began a new notebook so I could keep a record of what I was writing and doing. I wrote on the first page: Blog, Book, Business. I have done all three now – the books twice! The business came in about 2014 when people kept asking me for help with their houses.
Did you go on any courses when you set up your blog?
No! I figured as a trained journalist who had been writing for the national press for over 20 years I knew as much about writing as a course would teach me. I still don’t know about the tech side but I pay someone to do that for me. My brain is too full for that side of things and I can’t read an SEO document without falling asleep. My growth has been completely organic. I could probably grow more if I knew how to work the backroom details but I don’t.
I love the look of your blog/web site. Did you have it professionally designed?
Yes. It was done by Odysseas Constantine of Art & Hue. I saw his work on the beautiful Copperline site and then met him at the Amara Blog Awards in 2015. I asked him to do my site then.
Have you found Pinterest of use to your business? If so in what way?
I was a featured user on Pinterest when they first came to the UK. As a result I have 190K followers and it does bring traffic to the site but I have to say that I don’t go there very often. It’s partly a time thing and partly that I don’t need to use it for my own schemes so I have been ignoring it for a while. I wrote a chapter in my book about Pinterest being your frenemy. It’s so vast that I think it can be unwieldy and also unhelpful if you don’t use it in a very disciplined way. You fall down a rabbit hole of pretty pictures and completely forget what you went in for. I also think there’s a real tendency to pin pictures you like rather than ideas for things that will actually work in your own home.
I tend to do only do one platform at a time and at the moment that’s Instagram.
Have you found Instagram a useful platform?
Yes. It’s inspirational. I love looking at great images, the community is lovely and I have enjoyed developing my own photography skills.
What do you think that the courses being offered to bloggers?
I don’t know about them so it wouldn’t be fair to offer an opinion. I’m sure, as with everything, that there are good ones and bad ones.
As a journalist how do you feel about ‘influencers’?
It’s one of those terms that everyone seems to hate but then again, I’m not that keen on the word blogger either! It is what it is – there are people who influence others rightly or wrongly. I wouldn’t use it of myself but then I have other words to choose from journalist/author/writer/whatever…. Makes a change from model/actress/whatever although I’d take it!
I love your ‘365 Objects of Design’. Has this been a popular section on your blog?
I began it when I launched the blog as a way of making sure I blogged every single day. I had read pieces about about how many people give up between three and six months in and I was determined that wouldn’t happen to me. I came up with that idea and numbered them to make sure I didn’t miss a day. For three years I blogged seven days a week, now it’s five and while I don’t number them anymore it’s still a popular post. I think of it like a postcard among the letters. I write about design events and trends and advice and every now and then I drop in a short piece about a cool thing I have found.
Here comes my how long is a piece of string question. What is a typical working day like for you?
As long as string…. It’s enormously varied and I’m very lucky as I love it all. No two days are ever the same. Yesterday I spent the morning with a client helping her choose colours and furniture for her flat and talking about the layout, then I went to a book signing at Clerkenwell Design week. Today I am writing, doing a photoshoot with you and taking my son to his piano lesson. Tomorrow another book signing and a talk to prepare for in the evening as well as gathering ideas for my next book. Between that I try to find time to go to the gym, wrangle my teenage children and see my husband over dinner.
How much time do you spend on your blog and how much writing features for papers and magazines?
I don’t really write for papers and magazines any more as I don’t have time. As I post five times a week I either spend a couple of hours a day on the blog or blitz it for two days straight. The rest of the time is meetings, clients, book writing or dealing with email and working on styling and brand jobs.
One of the reasons I am interviewing successful women who are over forty is that they have often had to take a career break, or had to slow down to deal with child care and/or aged parents or illness or had to follow a spouse abroad for work reasons. Have you ever had to deal with any of these issues and did it impact on your working life?
Before I had children I always assumed I would go back to work full time after one and stop after two. In the event I went freelance after the first and never stopped working. It was hard at the start. One year I spent nearly everything I earned on childcare and couldn’t really afford the tax bill. As they spent more time at school I could work more and I regarded it as an investment in my future. I basically worked solidly from 9-3 every day and only left the house to go on the school run – no meetings, lunches or events – or very rarely. I was glued to the phone and the computer during the school day. As they got older it got easier and now they are nearly 15 and 17 I have much more time. I’m still around to cook their tea most days and it’s fine when I’m not. I can go on press trips and they can get their own breakfast.
We have also had those episodes of life that get in the way of best laid plans. My younger son, now 15, was born at 25 weeks (three months premature). He was in hospital for three months and fragile for the first couple of years after that. He is completely fine now – we were very lucky. In 2014 I was diagnosed with cancer of the saliva gland. My type was chemo-resistant and I had surgery followed by 35 sessions of daily radiotherapy – about six-and-a-half weeks of five sessions a week. I carried on blogging for the first few weeks and then uploaded archive posts so that the blog never missed a beat while I was in treatment. I finished on 23 December 2014 and went back to work on 4 January when the boys went back to school after the Christmas holiday. I was approached about writing my first book the following day when I had just stopping taking Morphine and was still a bit high I think.
I didn’t carry on for any macho reasons but rather that it gave me something to focus on while I was well enough to do so. By the end of the treatment I was lying on the sofa under a blanket watching episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Do you run any workshops or give talks other than when promoting your books?
I have a plan for workshops but haven’t had time to work out how to do it yet. I think online will be the answer as I already tend to work on Sunday afternoons – the week invariably ends before I’ve had time to write Monday’s post so I’m not keen to add Saturdays into the working week as well. I’m currently developing an online course which will be a mix of written advice and video. I have taken part in panel discussions which aren’t book-related but recently that has tended to be the focus.
What is the best part of your work and what is the worst part?
When I get an email from someone who says the blog or the book has really helped them make their home how they truly wanted it that is wonderful and makes it all worthwhile.
The admin and the invoicing – always have to spend time chasing those – it’s irritating.
Who or what inspires you?
Always a tough one. What? Restaurant loos and hotel rooms – often. Good design in a small space with clever ideas and bold colours. Who? The person who finds their passion, and follows their dream to make it work without compromising their ideals. My Instagram account is full of women like that and I admire them all. The woman with the disabled kids who decorates her home so beautifully, the dentist who started her own interiors events business, the mothers who get on with it all every day without complaining. They inspire me.
What advice would you give to any journalist starting out today?
Find your passion and write about it. Spellcheck. Oh and think laterally. You need to be a problem solver when you’re a journalist. On my first day at The Independent at Canary Wharf I was told to go to Kew Gardens to monitor a plant that only flowers every ten years. There was a tube strike and I was told I couldn’t take a taxi that far as the company wouldn’t pay. And there was a deadline to meet. I got there (bus, overland train, walking). You have to be able to think around problems.
What is next for your work?
I have just launched A directory that lists companies who reduce their impact on the planet called DO LESS HARM
Many thanks Juliet Bawden