Some artists are born artists, and some artists are created. For the duo at Aspen Bay’s flagship retail store in Starkville, it was a series of experiences and opportunities that cultivated their creative eyes, and made them into accidental design mavens.
For Claire Johnston, visual coordinator, it was two relevant internships that solidified her love — and talent — for merchandising. The first at Anthropologie in Memphis and the second at DPM Fragrance, Aspen Bay’s parent company, located in Starkville. At the time, she was studying marketing and fashion merchandising at Mississippi State University, hoping she could find a practical way to channel her creativity into a career.
Store manager Anne Ward had a very different experience. She planned to be an educator, but when a friend suggested she apply for a sales associate position at Aspen Bay, she found a company she wanted to build a career with.
“I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and came here for school. I studied education, so my experience isn’t very formal. I never thought of fashion or design as a practical career path, but I was very interested in it,” Anne said.
In May 2014, when both Claire and Anne were planning to graduate, the store manager position came open, and the visual coordinator position was created.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go for it,’” Anne said. “I was getting out of school, and I wanted to continue with the company. I really loved DPM, so anything here would have been awesome.”
Claire and Anne were hired within weeks of one another. Since visual merchandising was the responsibility of the store manager before Claire’s position was created, the two would be required to work very closely. No one could have guessed how compatible the duo would be.
Technically, Claire is responsible for displays inside the store (including its famed windows), showrooms and product merchandising, while Anne handles the day-to-day of the store, buying and managing employees. Most tasks, they tackle together, or at least they collaborate.
Even as adults and professionals, both Anne and Claire still recall experiences from their childhoods that inspire them as they envision and create. Claire, a native of Byhalia, Mississippi, learned how to sew in high school, following in the footsteps of her grandmother, who was an avid quilter. She also made hair accessories and sold them on Etsy.
“I had always enjoyed the hobby side — making jewelry and clothes. And then, I had my internship at Anthropologie, and it was like arts and crafts on steroids,” said Claire.
Anne was inspired from a young age by her aunt, who is an artist, and her stylish mother. She also volunteered at a historic site in Arkansas by making her own period dresses with a friend, and sporting them at community events.
“What we both share is a passion for finding things, like antiques, and drawing inspiration from flea markets and estate sales,” said Anne. “Estate sales are one of the things that my mother and I love to do together. When I was growing up, she always had such a great eye for design, style and fashion. We are always studying Vogue and discussing what’s trending and what’s coming back.”
How they stay inspired? Traveling. When the team visits cities for market, they make it a point to find local shops with unique finds and ideas — little pieces they can bring back to Starkville, assemble and create a concept. Sometimes, in their adventures, they stumble upon an Aspen Bay candle, a little piece of Starkville out in the world, inspiring other makers.
“We even get merchandising tips from stores that carry our candles. Sometimes, it’s nice to get a fresh perspective. We are always on the lookout,” said Anne. “It’s part of who we are.”
They also spend a vast amount of time on social media, staying in the loop on current trends and following a rabbit hole of aesthetically stimulating tagged accounts. Both Claire and Anne suggest creating mood boards on Pinterest for keeping design ideas for projects in one place.
The Aspen Bay dream team shared with us their top tips for creating a living space that is beautiful and unique, but still practical.
The first tip, understandably, is incorporating candles, especially candles that come in gorgeous containers like Aspen Bay’s.
“They become a focal point of your room. Lighting my candles when I get home is part of my afternoon routine,” said Anne. We always use mercury glass when displaying our candles, but we like to change up the filler with the season. For summer, we did sand. For fall, we are using dried corn.”
Claire and Anne also love gallery walls. According to Claire, a home isn’t finished until you have things hanging on the walls.
“We like to mix up not just framed artwork and pictures, but wreaths, mirrors and sconces, too” said Anne.
To liven up a home, they recommend living plants. Claire’s home alone boasts a collection of approximately 20 potted plants. A couple of their favorites are Fiddly Fig Trees and Split Leaf Philodendrons.
Personal items are another must for Claire and Anne.
“Instead of redoing an entire room in a weekend, for us it’s more about creating a collection,” said Anne. We are always acquiring things. We each have a lot of passed down items. We like having items that have a story, that we have a connection to.”
For Anne, some of those items include pieces of art from her aunt. Claire was excited to inherit her grandmother’s dining table, and reunite it with the tablecloths that covered it when she was a child.
One of their favorite storied finds is an oriental rug they found while cleaning out a warehouse for the tent sale that is now a staple in Anne’s house.
If you’re feeling stuck, they suggest you call a friend for a fresh perspective. According to Anne and Claire, the key is finding someone who isn’t attached to your belongings to help you decide where things should go. It also helps if their style is different from yours, too, so that you can create variety.
“When I moved, it was a new place and I wanted a fresh look. I didn’t put anything on my walls. I waited. That’s when you get an artsy friend to come over and look at it and arrange it so that you aren’t always putting the same things together,” said Anne. “We laid everything in the floor and began by creating a gallery wall with similar frames. We grouped things together from there.”
Their last tip: Pick a color story. Basically, you create a monochromatic area by grouping everything together of a similar color. Since it’s trending, they suggest displaying copper pieces together.
The final takeaway is that designing a space you love is a process, and often a slow one.
“Be patient. Wait to find stuff. You will find it, and when you do, you will have a cool story. Continuously be looking,” Claire said. “Don’t worry too much about being super trendy. It’s your house; you will probably have it a lot longer than a shirt.”
The process might not ever be complete, and that’s OK. That leaves you room to grow and change and develop your own style. A truly living beautiful space is one that tells your story from where you are.
Photos by Lauren Wood // Story by Carmen Cristo