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A Moment With: Jen From the Haystack Needle

October 22, 2009

Recently, I was lucky enough to have Jen Jafarzadeh L’Italien take time out of her busy (newlywed!) schedule to answer a couple of questions. Jen was the home editor of Real simple and the lifestyle editor at Redbook, as well as the writer of a lovely decorating blog called The Haystack Needle. The Haystack Needle focuses on finding creative, unique and environmentally friendly ways to spice up your decorating and entertaining. Below, Jen gives us some advice on how to satisfy our cravings to decorate and entertain within the confines of a student’s space and budget, as well as some insight on the magazine industry.

1. I would love to hear some more about your life at Real Simple and Redbook. How did you get your start in magazines? What does a typical day consist of?

I majored in journalism at Northwestern, so I knew that I wanted to go into magazines early on. I had a few internships throughout college, but they were all at super small publications (most of them have since folded.) The downside of interning at small name magazines was it was definitely harder to get a look from the big p

ublishers when I got to New York. The benefit was I actually worked at every internship and learned so much — and the magazines were all totally different in topics (from finance to parenting.) I wasn’t running errands or filing — I was actually reporting and writing. And by the time I graduated, interviewing people was one of my strongest skills. For one internship, I was interviewing top players in the finance world yet I didn’t even know the definition of a mutual fund. So I learned how to research and ask questions in an interview to find out about a topic I knew nothing about. I didn’t know much about decorating or home design when I started at Real Simple, either.

I came to New York during another recession (not as bad as now, thankfully) so there were few jobs and a zillion graduates trying to get that entry break. I finally got fed up with not getting through to anyone and I made up a few creatively packaged portfolios. I then hand-delivered my portfolio to the Real Simple home editor. She called me the next day for an interview and I got the job. It’s not easy to break into the magazine industry, and it’s ten times harder now with the way the economy is. You’re never going to get a magazine job handed to you on a platter. If your passion doesn’t drive you to go after a job and put yourself out there, then you’re going to have a hard time getting that first break. There is no formula to magazines. I moved my way up quickly to be a home editor, and I don’t have a master’s degree nor do I have a background in interior design. There were editorial assistants I worked with who had master’s degrees and are still stuck as EAs after three years of working. But it’s easy to get stuck at a magazine, and for the most part, you need to move around in order to

move up.

2. What does a typical day as editor consist of?
There’s no typical day as a magazine editor. That’s part of the beauty of it. But most days toss in a mix of the following: an ungodly number of meetings (both in-house with your art team and top editors) and with companies doing desksides to show you their lines, press events and lunches to preview new lines (often at really nice hotels and restaurants – total perk), talking to stylists about upcoming shoots, scouting product for shoots online and in the market, organizing and presenting run-through meetings to get your ideas products approved for stories, attending photos shoots, writing and editing stories, moving your stories through the shipping process, handling a million phone calls from publicists pitching you products and an email inbox that’s always overwhelming and the onslaught of mail you get each day. Then there are

a slew of trade shows that you attend through the year depending on the market you cover. I loved the market editing — finding amazing products for my stories and I loved photo shoot days. You often have help with you but there are many unglamorous parts of being an editor. I know how to use a tape gun better than most, and I’ve been on the phone with Fed Ex praying that a super important box of samples is going to arrive in time for a shoot. You’re definitely never sitting around. I felt like a sponge, and I just absorbed as much of the creativity around me.

3. Where are your favorite places to find that proverbial needle in the haystack?
Too many to list! A few which I’ve blogged about are Parcel, Jamali Garden, and Global Table. There are so many incredible shops in New York — I stumble upon new ones all the time. I love to check out the shops with some history and the smaller businesses that have their own personality. Especially in these times, I think it’s really important to support small businesses so that they survive. It’s the small boutiques and shops that give New York its flavor. I’m also an Etsy addict and find so many gems through Etsy sellers.

4. What is your latest decorating obsession?
I’m currently crushing the idea of big and small makeovers using wallpaper or paint. I’m really interested in working with painting stencils and creating textures and patterns with paint. I did a big wallpaper feature at Redbook last year and I learned all these ways to play with wallpaper besides making a wallpaper accent wall. We made a wallpaper folding screen and wallpapered magazine files among others. There’s a new book by Chronicle Books out on wallpaper projects, Wallpaper Projects: More Than 50 Craft and Design Ideas For Your Home that I’m definitely excited to check out for inspiration.
5. Our blog is mostly targeted at the college student and recent grad making their first home on their own. What are your tips on decorating with our limited space and budget?

Paint is actually one of the cheapest makeovers. Paint your awful hand-me-down furniture or paint your wall (or ceiling — love that look!) and it’s as good as new.

6. How do you recommend going green with our limited space and budget?

In my series Green Swap, I covered a ton of green topics from dry cleaning to non-toxic paint. There are so many everyday ways you can be greener — and not spend any more money. Green cleaners for your home are now not any more expensive than standard cleaners with brands like Method and Seventh Generation. If you’re using toxic cleaners, you’re basically breathing in toxic fumes and polluting the water systems. I think the concept of Slow Food is an easy, important way you can make a green change. By making your own simple meals, rather than ordering take-out every night, you can help the planet and help your wallet.

7. You just completed your Green Swap series. What is the most interesting thing you learned through these interviews?
I think the idea of eating local food and eating home-cooked meals stuck with me the most. Finding time to cook at home is definitely something I struggle with, but you can really make a statement in how you eat and the choices you make with your food. I also can’t get over the organic dry cleaning scam.

8. Facing an empty apartment waiting to be decorated can be awfully intimidating. Where do you suggest to begin?
Think about the room’s main function (I personally think a stimulating color like red is a bad choice for a bedroom where sleep is the main purpose.) Think about a style or mood you’d like to create. Pull a lot of tears from magazines that inspire you. Decide on a color palette. And then go for it! Nowadays, there is so much inspiration on the DIY realm. You can really create any look from glam to cottage style with a little effort.

9. What are your views on the rise of DIY culture? Where do you think the movement is heading?
I’m such a fan of how DIY and craft are evolving and moving into a modern light and moving away from the idea of crafts being pompoms and Popsicle sticks. I don’t know what’s going to be the next big thing but there’s definitely going to be more innovation with patterns, textures, papers, paints, and fabrics. I think making the utilitarian objects in our homes be more personalized is going to continue to take shape through DIY projects. Your hook rack doesn’t have to be generic anymore. I love how DIY is allowing people to put their personal style stamp on something. And decorating at its core is really about making a space be filled with what you love.

10. One of the joys of having your own place is entertaining guests. Not all of us will settle for keggers and would like to plan a nice, adult evening for our friends. But, again, we’re working with very small spaces (often without even a living room). Do you have any suggestions to work around this?

If you’re working with a small space, opt out of a dinner party and go for appetizers and drinks or host a dessert party. Who wouldn’t love cupcakes and cocktails? I always make one signature drink that I can make ahead — like sangria – rather than a drink that requires you to play bartender. Take advantage of the space you do have. Plan to have a party in the spring or summer and have everyone meet you in the park for a picnic. Or open up your bedroom and toss some cushions and folding chairs inside so it invites conversation circles. The key to hosting is to keep it simple but make it pretty. You can serve a pie you bought at your farmer’s market (rather than made at home) but put it on a platter and serve with some homemade whipped cream as a special touch.

Thanks again to Jen Jafarzadeh L’Italien for the interview!

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