Ask Design Mom: Seating for Thanksgiving Dinner

Question: Dear Design Mom, We recently renovated a 100 year old dentist’s office in a small Indiana town for use as a second/weekend home. The house has a fabulous porch that is glass on three sides and brick on the fourth. We are planning to use this area as a room to host large dinner parties. For Thanksgiving, we need to seat around 23 people. My husband made two large tables using metal sawhorses and wooden boards. They look great! My problem is seating!! Every chair I see that has a style I love is way too expensive to purchase in such large numbers. Do you have any ideas of creative affordable seating?  I’d love to keep it around $20 – $30 dollars per person. The style is sort of eclectic industrial — if there is such a thing. Thanks! — Amy V. Answer: Wow, Amy! Sounds like Thanksgiving is going to fantastic. When I need a large number of chairs, I love renting them. In fact, the last time I arranged seating for Thanksgiving, I asked the rental place to show me their most vintage looking option and they brought out some beautifully aged wood and metal folding chairs (that they were sort of embarrassed about, but that I loved!), and I rented them for $2 each. They were even delivered and picked up for free. I know you’re looking for something to own, not to rent, but until you find those perfect chairs, renting might be a great option. As far as hunting down those perfect chairs go, I would suggest 3 things: 1) Call the oldest schools and churches in town and find out if they ever have surplus sales. 2) Watch ebay and craigslist like a hawk. 3) Speak with a couple of your favorite antique shops. Tell them what you’re looking for and the price range and quantity you’d like. When they’re on buying trips, they might spot the perfect chairs. Lastly, maybe you can take some inspiration from the haybale seating at this lovely backyard wedding. What about you, Dear Readers? Where would you hunt for “eclectic industrial” chairs?

Ask Design Mom: Coordinating Halloween Costumes

Question: What do you (and your readers) think of coordinating costumes? I have 9 month old boy-girl twins, and I am having trouble deciding on whether they should have coordinating/matching costumes or totally separate.  Also, any ideas for costumes would be helpful as well! Thanks — Erika Answer: Thanks for your question, Erika! Can you believe it’s already time to start thinking Halloween costumes? Crazy. This is a fun topic, and I’m sure it all comes down to personal preference. At our house, we’ve had lots of fun coordinating costumes — especially when the kids were all teeny tiny. One year, Ralph and Maude were the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. I hired a seamstress to make the costumes because they were beyond my sewing skill level. The wolf was made of smoky grey faux fur. Little Red’s dress and hood were made from red silk — and lined with the same grey fur! It was the cutest thing ever. Another year, Ralph, Maude & Olive were The Three Bears (or Three Blairs). Ralph was Papa Bear. Maude was Mama Bear. Little baby Olive was Baby Bear. All 3 wore matching bear costumes I picked up online, but I altered them slightly. I added a necktie for Papa Bear and a hair bow for Mama Bear. It was a particularly chilly Halloween and I remember being grateful for cozy bear costumes. More recently, my kids coordinated costumes around a theme: Classic Halloween. Ralph was a mummy. Maude was Mrs. Frankenstein. Olive was a witch. Oscar was a werewolf (the Big Bad Wolf costume repurposed). And Betty was a Jack O’ Lantern. You can see photos here. On other years, we’ve had no coordination at all. What about you, Festive Readers? Do you like to coordinate Halloween costumes for your kids? Have you had any particular successes?

Ask Design Mom: Bed Rest Gifts

Question: I have a friend who is 25 weeks pregnant and stuck in a hospital on bed-rest until her babies are born. I was able to visit her in the hospital last week and she had all of the magazines, books and snacks a girl could ask for. I won’t be able to visit her again but I’d like to send her something that would make her feel at home or help her pass the time, or both!  Do you have an ideas for great bed-rest gifts? Thank you — Jill Answer: You’re a sweetheart to be thinking of your friend, Jill — bed rest can be so frustrating! Since she’s all stocked up on magazines and books, how about something to keep her hands busy? I like these Knifty Knitter Circle Looms (you can find the wood versions pictured above here). They’re easy peasy which makes them good for crafty or non-crafty people and you can use them to make really great scarves and winter hats. She could make some delicate little knit hats for the new babies! (I promise, they really are easy. Here’s a scarf my daughter Maude made with a circle loom when she was 8.) What about you, Brilliant Readers? What do you suggest for good bed rest gifts?

Ask Design Mom: Books Without Words

Question: We discovered a fun book called Chalk by Bill Thomson — it’s a picture book with no words. Do you or your readers have suggestions for other picture books that require the reader to invent the story? Thanks for your great site! — Andrea Answer: That’s such a fun question, Andrea! Books without words are great for all ages. One of the recent wordless favorites at our house is The Lion & the Mouse which I posted about a few weeks ago. We also love Zoom. What about you Dear Readers? What are your favorite wordless picture books?

A Few Things

Hello Friends! I really enjoyed this week. Ben Blair and I started each workday with a planning meeting and I felt like I was much more on top of my tasklist. A great feeling! Although. We also concluded that there is more work to be done than I can do, so I’m going to hire an assistant. Do you live in South Denver? Are you super organized? Do you love things like blogging and Twitter and Facebook? Send me an email at and let’s chat. [Update: Thanks for all the assistant-related emails — you guys are the best! I will try to respond this week.] While I ponder what it will be like to have an assistant, here are a few things I’ve been wanting to share with you: -Love this camera illustration. -A quirky and charming nursery — yellow shutters! –First salon visit — her expression is priceless. –That tent! -What do you think of this umbrella case? -Have you ever donated breastmilk? –Uncovering the path. –Miles away from everything. I write a daily post for Babble’s Family Style blog. Here are this week’s posts: -Would you rather receive flowers or an elephant? –Foxes are the new hedgehog. -Will this sweet wallet inspire your kids to save? –Shakespeare at your fingertips. –Sandwich puzzles? How cute! I hope you have a wonderful weekend. I’ll meet you back here on Monday. I miss you already. Oh! I forgot to tell you. Next week is Ask Design Mom Week. I’ll be posting great reader questions every day. Put on your thinking caps, because I’ll need your brilliant answers!

More Thoughts on France

Did I show you the bowl where we keep June’s pacifiers? It was a gift for June from our friend, David. It was accompanied by a charming letter that made me long to be a better writer. It’s a pretty bowl and I love the French menu that’s wrapped around it. In fact, it reminds me: On Saturday, we took care of the kids passport photos! I realize that is a tiny step toward possibly moving to France (it’s just the photos, my friends, not the actual passports), but hey, it’s something. Taking any small concrete action is my favorite way to kickstart a project. What about you? What do you do when you find a project on pause? What’s your favorite way to get things started again?

DIY: Skinny Ties

One of Ralph’s requests for his birthday was skinny ties. They are surprisingly hard to find — either too long or too expensive for a 13-year-old’s wardrobe. So a few weeks ago, I had an idea: I would buy some old fat ties at a thrift shop and take them to a tailor to have them altered. Brilliant, right? But then, of course, I forgot about the idea till 3 days before his birthday. At which point, I tried to rush and make it happen. I found 5 great ties at Goodwill and sped them to the tailor. There, I was told it would take 10 days and cost $37 each to skinny them up. Blech. But since I had the ties in hand, and since they only cost $1 each, I figured I’d try it myself. If I failed, oh well, a $5 failed project is not the end of the world. As it turns out, the first one ended up great (it’s the silvery striped one above)! So I took pictures while I remade tie number two — and now I can share the instructions with you, in case you’re curious. …

Time Magazine Top 50

What a morning. It’s Olive’s 9th birthday today (and Ralph’s 13th birthday tomorrow). We have a tradition of breakfast in bed on birthdays, so I got up extra early to cook some bacon at Olive’s request. The house still smells bacon-y wonderful. Then it was time to get cupcakes ready for Olive’s class. Once the big kids were off to school, the little ones helped me wrap Olive’s presents. She’s obsessed with lime green right now, so we picked out lots of green things and wrapped them like this: After the presents were wrapped, I started on a project for Ralph’s birthday. (It turned out super cool. I’ll share photos and DIY after Ralph opens the present.) Around 11:15 this morning, I stopped at my computer to check in and the first thing I saw was an email with some very fun news: Design Mom made Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2010. (!!!) Holy moly. I can’t even believe it. I’m completely honored to be listed with sites like Etsy and Babble (who I write for). Of course, Oscar and Betty are impressed that I was listed with Sesame Street. And frankly, I’m not-a-little-stunned to be on any list with sites and services I love and frequent, like The Onion, LinkedIn, Tumblr and TED. Three big thank yous: 1) thank you to Leap Design for working so hard to make my site awesome, 2) thank you to Time Magazine for the acknowledgment, and 3) thank YOU for reading — your comments and emails always make my day. kisses, Gabrielle P.S. — I shared the news with Ben Blair and he immediately wanted to celebrate. Happily, cake and ice cream are already on the schedule today.

Ask Design Mom: Housewarming Gift

Ask Design Mom Question: Hi Gabrielle. My best friend just bought a house and I’m looking for a housewarming gift idea. Any suggestions would be great. Thanks! — Isabelle Design Mom Answer: How thoughtful of you, Isabelle! One of my favorite housewarming gifts to give is actually very small, but very practical. I like to find a good-looking tape measure that can be kept in a purse. (The tape measure and tools pictured here, by Cynthia Rowley, would be perfect.) When you move into a home — whether it’s a fixer upper or brand new — a tape measure will come in handy over and over again as you figure out what furniture fits where and how long the blinds or drapes should be. What about you, Dear Readers? What do you like to give as a house warming gift?

Ask Design Mom: Granola

Ask Design Mom Question: Hi Design Mom! A few months back you mentioned your husband made homemade granola every Sunday. I would love a good granola recipe. Would you mind sharing? Thanks! — Angie Potter Design Mom Answer: I’d love to share, Angie. Thanks for asking. Here’s Ben Blair’s recipe. (It can be halved.) Ingredients: -4 cups rolled oats (not quick) -1/2 cup slivered almonds -1/2 cup sunflower seeds (no shells) -1/2 cup chopped walnuts -1/2 cup chopped pecans -1/2 cup pumpkin seeds -1/2 cup pepitas Note: Ben uses any combination of the listed seeds and nuts (depending what we have in our cupboard) to equal approx. 3 cups. -1 cup honey (sometimes a honey/maple syrup combo if we’re low on honey) -1/2 cup canola oil -1 cup raisins Directions: Put all the ingredients except the honey, oil and raisins in a big bowl and stir them together. In a separate bowl, stir together the oil and honey. Then add the oil-honey mixture to the rest of the ingredients (except the raisins) and stir till everything is coated. Spread mixture onto two greased cookie sheets and bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir the mixture after 20 minutes of cooking. After it’s done cooking, spread the granola onto two pieces of tin foil, then mix in the raisins while it’s hot. Let it cool and then break it into clumps. We store ours in a big rubbermaid container, but you can also store it in freezer bags and save it for later. Here’s another great granola recipe from Stephmodo (pictured above). What about you, Dear Readers? Do you like granola? Do you have a favorite recipe?

June’s Birth Announcement

Oh. I’m so excited! I get to share June’s Birth Announcement with you today. It was illustrated by the tremendously talented Apryl Stott and continues the birth announcement series we started with baby Ralph. I love that it shows June in a mountain-y Colorado backdrop. And the fox and bunny? We’ve actually seen them both in our backyard here. What do you think? Adorable, right? Apryl sent the finished artwork in a mat, ready to be framed. I can’t wait to frame it and add it to our collection in the nursery. We adore having all the original artwork in our home! Apryl also included a disk with a high-resolution scan so we can easily print these announcements at a smaller size and mail them to friends and family. June is clearly delighted with how it turned out: If you’re curious what the process is like working with an illustrator, here’s a brief description. 1) I contacted Apryl and asked her to illustrate the birth announcement. We discussed a few ideas, but really, I knew Apryl would come up with something wonderful. 2) Apryl sent back a sketch in black and white: 3) I loved it! I showed the sketch to the kids and we decided to switch out the stuffed animals for a fox and rabbit. We sent our feedback to Apryl and she sent us an updated sketch. 4) We gave the updated sketch two thumbs up, at which point, Apryl made the final drawing and mailed it to us. Yay! Apryl is the best kind of person to work with. If you’re interested in something like this for your birth announcements, I can’t recommend her enough.


Since both Ben Blair and I can work from anywhere, we are dreaming of living abroad for a year (and even making some tentative plans!). Ben Blair has been looking into housing and found this Master’s House. It’s located in a small French village, 2 hours from Paris and 2 miles from the beach. It sits on 4 landscaped acres and shockingly, it’s in our budget. In fact, it’s less than the rent we paid in New York. A dining room for 30, 8 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and 6 fireplaces. Oh. And a tennis court. More space than we need. Maybe you will come to visit us and help fill it up. : ) I’m sure it will be taken between now and when we’re actually ready to move, but it’s fun to think about. What do you think? Would you like living abroad with your family? If you could work from anywhere, where would you pick?

Double A

Have I told you about my crazy breasts? They are vastly different sizes. I am so lopsided that when I catch a glimpse of myself just out of the shower, I have to call Ben Blair to come witness the insanity (Ben! Come see! You will not believe this!!). …


On Saturday, I was sitting in the living room — folding laundry, catching up on email and generally recovering from our trip. I looked up and Maude was standing in front of me dressed as a mime. Why? Not sure. I guess inspiration struck and she went with it. Olive saw Maude and joined in. I love these girls. Do your kids ever surprise you with funny things like this? P.S. — Speaking of our trip, you can find my photo set of our vacation here — including more photos of the pool tilework (for those of you who requested them).

Father’s Day

Hello, Friends! Did you have a wonderful Father’s Day? We had such a fun, traditional weekend. During church, I led the primary children while they sang Father’s Day songs. They were adorable. And we had a big BBQ yesterday afternoon with Ben Blair at the grill. I was thinking of my dad yesterday and looked up some photos of him. I really like these two. The snowmobile one is when my family lived in a little fishing village in Alaska. My parents taught in the local school. At the time there were only 3 kids: my brother Jake, my sisters Rachel and Sara. We still have the giant orange parka my dad is wearing. The other one is the baptism day of my brother Jared (you may know Jared’s wife if you read Say Yes To Hoboken). Mormon kids get baptized when they’re 8 years old and often, the child’s father performs the baptism. Here, my dad is holding two rolled towels under his arm so they can dry off after my brother gets dunked. I like Jared’s little madras tie. Is it just me, or do you find Father’s Day more emotionally charged than Mother’s Day?

June’s Baby Portraits

Two weeks ago, between photoshoots in New York and Australia, Wendy from Blue Lily flew in from California for a photoshoot with June. Wendy is all about color. And I’m a color addict too. So it was a good fit. Wendy came in with armloads of props and equipment, assessed the light in the house and got right to work. She picked up June and rocked her to sleep. She kept a white-noise app at the ready in case the baby woke. She was super speedy. And clearly a master. We have never had newborn portraits taken before so I was fascinated with the process. Plus Wendy herself is super-interesting so I kept chatting her up. Finally, I had to hole-up in the office because I was afraid of distracting her while she worked. While I was keeping busy in the office, Wendy finished up the backdrop shots and tried snapping June in various colorful places around the house. She kept these shots a surprise and it was so fun to see them when she sent the finished photos. This bookshelf shot is terrific. What do you think about this image? June is so embryo-like. And that bowl was a gift from Ben Blair. It’s my favorite bowl. Just as Wendy finished clearing up all the photo-shoot-accessories-and-equipment, the rest of my kids came home from their various schools. Although it was really just a Baby June shoot, Wendy graciously snapped some photos of all the kids together at my request. The all-kid shots are so full of energy. Ben Blair and I can’t stop grinning at them. This last one is perfection — I think it totally captures the craziness-but-happiness that is our household: What do you think? Will June survive this big family? Have you ever had a newborn photoshoot? P.S. — If you’re hoping to have a newborn photo session, try to get it scheduled before the baby actually arrives (I highly recommend Blue Lily). I hear the shots are best if taken within the first two weeks of the birth. And don’t worry if it seems too overwhelming to have a photographer at your house when the baby is so young. I was totally in my pjs during the whole shoot. Wendy didn’t mind at all.

Long Distance: Keeping Connected to the Cousins

Do you live near your parents? Near your brother or sister? Your favorite cousins? Your grandparents? I (mostly) do not. Things like graduate school and work have taken us far from home. And who knows where home is anyway? My parents are no longer in my hometown of St. George, Utah. Two out of 8 siblings live there, but before recently settling down, they moved around too. Here in Denver, we have some cousins — and we can’t believe how lucky we are to live near (a tiny fraction of) our family. Ben Blair and I both love the families we come from, and I would expect that living away from them would be pretty darn emotional. Every once in awhile it is. But for us, technology mostly solves the geography problem. Cheap long-distance service and the world wide web have allowed us to figure out our careers, while moving across the country and back again, without sacrificing our relationships. It’s incredibly easy, and incredibly inexpensive, to stay in touch. Some of my favorite examples: -A dozen years ago, we were living in Greece and I announced the fact that we were having a baby boy via email. I remember being delighted that I could tell all those people at once (we have BIG families) without paying more than a small internet café fee. -More recently, Ben Blair texted the safe arrival of June to our siblings and parents in an instant. -I like feeling connected to my teenage nieces and nephews on Facebook (and really, why would they have reason to communicate with their stay-at-home aunt otherwise?). -My kids share a group blog with their cousins — they take turns updating it whenever the mood strikes — no grownup contributors allowed. -We loved Skypeing with my mom when she was recently living in Russia — I talked to her as often as if she still lived in the states. And it was free. Which continues to blow my mind. -I love using Flickr to share lots of images from birthday parties or other events so Grandma and Grandpa don’t feel like they’re missing out. Technology has advanced quickly enough in my adult life that I still find it pretty miraculous. I wonder if I would have had a harder time leaving my home and family if writing letters and an occasional long-distance phone call was the only way to stay in touch? What about you? Do you use technology to stay connected to your family and friends? What are your favorites for staying in touch — Facebook? Texting? Skype? Also. Do you remember typewriters? I think the last time I used one was to type up my college applications. Now I want a vintage red one, just because they’re so charming. Also. Do you remember futuristic movies when you were a kid where people could talk to others on a screen?  

Napoleon Dynamite

I keep meaning to tell you about the awesome mural we painted on Ralph’s bedroom wall. I’m so pleased with how it turned out. The idea actually started as a wall-size poster of a movie still. But when I priced out the poster, it was coming in around $500. More than I wanted to spend. So I started thinking about other possibilities. At some point, I recalled helping my mother decorate bulletin boards in my dad’s classroom when I was a child. We would project images with an overhead projector and then trace them. I thought I could try the same technique with wall paint. So I recruited my mom to do this project with me when she came to visit a few weeks ago. Why Napoleon Dynamite? Well. Ralph is deeply into all-things-film. He likes making movies, writing scripts, editing footage, directing, watching movies, studying movies, etc. But he’s 12. And many of the movie images out there are highly sexualized or hyper-violent — not something we want on the wall of Ralph’s room. We wanted something fairly asexual, but still iconic and kid-approved. Our first thought was the professor from Back to the Future, but then Ralph found this image of Napoleon Dynamite and we knew it was perfect. The best thing is, there is absolutely no art skill involved in this project. I mean it. You could take virtually any photo (What? You don’t want a giant Jon Heder in your house? Weird.) and paint it on your wall with this technique. It’s almost like paint by number. For reals. Want to give it a try? This is how it went down: 1) We found an image we liked: 2) We used Photoshop to reduce the image to flat shapes. Basic steps in Photoshop: make the image grayscale, increase the contrast, then make the image bitmap, with a 50% threshhold: 3) Use a projector to shine the image onto the wall. Trace the image with a pencil: 4) Fill in the shapes you traced with wall paint. We used a variety of paint brush sizes. Cheap foam ones to fill in large fields and small, better quality brushes for the details: And that’s it. Instead of $500, the cost was under $20. Below are a few more pics of the finished room (and there are even more pics here): Notes: -The bed we painted in metallic silver (it used to look like this). The paint was super-fume-y. So my mother wouldn’t let my very pregnant self anywhere near it. -Bedding is from Target. -We covered the closet doors with chalkboard paint. -The little metal cube to the left of the bed opens up. It’s a little cubby. Ralph keeps his wallet and watch and ipod in there. -The nightstand is a metal table with wheels. It has expandable sides. We’ve had it for ages. We freshened it up with a coat of green paint. Ralph’s iPod speaker is on the table. -The lamp is from HomeGoods. -Over the window we used Jenny’s technique to build an inexpensive pelmet box. What do you think? Did we hit the right balance between cool and kid friendly? Would your tween approve? (Ralph gives it two thumbs up.) Would you ever try something like this? What image would you want on your wall? More images of the room here.

Ask Design Mom: Teacher Gift

Ask Design Mom Question: Hello Design Mom. I’m looking for inexpensive but useful teacher gift ideas. Got anything up your sleeve? Thanks in advance. Courtney C. Design Mom Answer: Great question, Courtney. And you’re in luck. Just yesterday, Jill Means sent me a terrific idea for a teacher gift. It’s something every school teacher uses in their classroom. She sent photos, a full tutorial, and a free pdf template. Take a look at what Jill created. “This upcoming week is the last week of school for my kids. We usually do a little appreciation gift for each of their teachers. This year they wanted to give something to ALL their teachers, not just their homeroom teacher. And my daughter Sydney is now in middle school with 7 teachers. That’s 15 teacher gifts! I saw this idea of putting a personal message inside a soap bottle at my mother-in-law’s house and decided to see if it would work. (I’m not sure where the original idea came from.) Teachers do lots of hand washing in their classrooms, so at least it’s useful. -I bought the soap at Target… on sale for $1 per bottle. -We removed the labels with “Goo Gone”. -I created the new label template using my kids’ personal silhouettes, but you could also have each child draw a little picture with pencil in that space and trace it with black marker. -Take your print to a copy shop and have them print it on transparency. Mine was $1 per sheet that included 8 labels. -Next, cut the squares — cut INSIDE the black guide lines of each label so you don’t see the edges of the transparency in the soap. -Open the soap, slightly roll the square and put it in. Use the tube of the spout to guide it into place. -Screw the top back on and it’s done.” Click here to download the free label template — just add the name and a simple illustration. Also. If you want a custom silhouette, Jill can create one for you for a small design fee — you’ll find lot’s of uses for them. Contact Jill here. What about you, Clever Readers? What are you doing for the teachers in your life this spring?
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