Behind the Design: Ellen Nystrom on Balancing Life as an Interior Designer, Mother, and Entrepreneur

San Francisco-based designer Ellen Nystrom’s love for design was sparked by her love for travel. A year spent in Aix-en-Provence as an undergrad at UC San Diego and a summer in Copenhagen while earning her Masters of Interior Architecture, exposed Nystrom to the wonders of international architecture that continue to inspire the way she designs. Between acting as principal designer at her own firm, Nystrom Design, managing a growing business, and raising two children, she makes sure to value “me” time- whether it’s brewing a cup of coffee each morning, swimming laps to clear her head, or reading a chapter from a book before bed. And for Nystrom, when it comes to design, it’s all about the creative process. “Running a successful business is about finding ways to maximize the time I spend on the parts of the business that I am most passionate about.”

Today, we’re thrilled to share more about Ellen Nystrom’s interior design business, her lifestyle, and how she plans to #maketimefordesign.


Why do you design?

I’ve always had a creative impulse and I’m a visual person.  Interior design complements the way I naturally interact with the world.

What is the most memorable space you’ve ever been in?  What did it look like, how did it smell, how did it feel?

At the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain, the interior and exterior spaces are extensions of each other with framed views of beautiful landscapes, and reflecting pools that enhance the intricate carvings and tile work covering almost every surface.  The overall effect is both tranquil and awe-inspiring. 

Can you talk about your favorite project to date?  What made it the best?

I’m in the final stages of a full renovation and modernization of an Edwardian home in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco that has been a true collaboration with the owners and the architect.  We’ve worked hard to develop a thoughtful concept that embraces modern design while respecting the traditional details of the home.  This attitude extends to the furniture and finish selections, and I’m so excited about how it’s all coming together. 


What are your favorite cities for design?  What shops or museums do you visit in each?

I spent a summer studying in Copenhagen, Denmark.  My favorite museum, maybe of all time, was the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which is about 20 miles north of Copenhagen.  

Closer to home, a favorite weekend getaway is Palm Springs.  I love to drive around and see all of the swanky mid-century homes (maps are available at the tourist center).  North Palm Canyon Drive has great vintage shopping.  A few favorite shops are Boulevard and Christopher Anthony. 

And of course, I’ll go to Manhattan any time I have the chance.  The Design Center at 200 Lexington has an entire floor devoted to 1st Dibs vendors, and it’s such a treat to be able to see and touch all those unique items in one place.  I love the Frick Collection and the Solomon R. Gugenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright. 

“The first meaningful thing I bought for my own home was a Danish teak credenza.  When I bought it, I knew it was a piece that would stay with me for many years.”unspecified

Share your favorite Pinterest board

My favorite Pinterest board is my board called “Colorful”.

Complete the sentence “When I design I feel…..”

…like I’m solving a puzzle with many moving parts.  I love the process, and it’s very gratifying when all of the pieces come together.

What is your morning routine?

Mornings can be hectic with school-aged kids, so once they are off to school I make a cup of coffee in the French press.  It takes a little time to boil the water and let the coffee brew.  I like the ritual and the aroma, and I think of it as my transition time.  Then, with warm beverage in hand, I start my workday.

How do you relieve stress and stay calm?

Swimming laps clears my head and allows me to tune everything out.  I love the rhythm, and always feel energized afterwards. 

“Cooking is my creative outlet when I want instant gratification.  Design projects can take months or even years to complete, but I can make dinner in 30 minutes.”

What is one thing you do every day, for YOU?

Every night before bed I disconnect from all devices and wind down by reading a chapter or two from a book. 

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What tips to you have for staying organized at home?

When something new comes in, donate or sell something old.  Be deliberate about making sure everything has a place, and schedule time in your week to put things away where they belong.

How would you describe your personal style?   

My personal style is casual but tailored.  Blue jeans and classic-fitting pieces are my staples, but I love to mix in a few things that are a little edgy or have an unusual detail.  Neutrals dominate my closet, but there are definitely some vivid colors too.  When I’m “off duty” I’m often attending my kids’ sports events and other activities so I switch out my nice shoes for Sketchers, and pile on the layers in case the San Francisco fog rolls in.

What’s always in your bag?

A blue Pilot rolling ball pen with an extra fine tip.  Even in the age of smart phones, sometimes I still need to capture something on paper. 

Who are your role models?

I have always followed designers whose work spans multiple disciplines, like Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, and Kelly Wearstler. 

I’m also grateful to past bosses who have shared their wisdom and insight.  When I’m stuck on something, it’s not uncommon that I ask myself how a former boss might handle the situation. 

“I like to remember that business is about building relationships.”

How would you define “running a successful business”?

For me, running a successful business is about finding ways to maximize the time I spend on the parts of the business that I am most passionate about.


What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Take one step more than you think you can.  I was on a high element of a ropes course, but I think this applies to life too. 

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned working in the interior design business?

I’ve learned the importance of a strong concept.  There are so many decisions to be made over the course of a project, and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t have a strong concept to help you stay focused, and to ensure that the end result feels cohesive.

5 Places to De-Stress in the San Francisco Bay Area

It can be hard to unplug and make space in your mind for things that fall outside the “work” category, but the clarity that comes from taking time to be mindful can have a real impact on your success. Ethan Nichtern, of the Shambala Meditation Center in New York, makes the case that in a crazy world, one needs to be clearheaded because “crazy with crazy is never good.” So whether you’re vowing to step up your meditation game in the new year or just need a place to go to close your eyes and say “om”, consider these 5 San Francisco/Bay Area spots to get your zen on.

1. Earthship

4609 Shattuck Avenue (near 46th Avenue), Oakland

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This lifestyle shop, from the creators of all natural, plant-based beauty brand Earth Tu Face, can be your happy place if you let it be. We’re not sure if it’s the dried herbs hanging from the ceiling or the happy hour champagne they serve on Fridays, but this place has definitely got stress-free vibes going on.

(Photo: @earthtuface)

2. Laughing Lotus

3271 16th Street (at Dolores), San Francisco


This could be you. Blissfully stress-free in a yoga studio known for its boldly colored rooms and joyful, free-flowing practice. The instructors here put their own spin on traditional Lotus Flow vinyasa kickstarted by inspiring chants and mantras. You know we love a good mantra.

(Photo: Laughing Lotus)

3. International Orange 

2044 Fillmore Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco


This Japanese-inspired day spa meets skin-care emporium is the epitome of zen. Who doesn’t want to take a yoga class, receive an acupuncture treatment, and chill out in a bamboo garden….all in one place?!

(Photo: International Orange)

4. Yoga Flow SF Union

1892 Union Street at Laguna, San Francisco

Yoga Flow SF_Patricia Chang

I know we’re all about making time for design, but you should also consider making time for vinyasa yoga in a heated room surrounded by treetops. That’s basically what goes on at Yoga Flow.

(Photo: Patricia Chang)

5.  San Francisco Zen Center

300 Page Street, San Francisco

San Francisco Zen Center

If you’re on a path towards decluttering your mind, chances are that path will take you to the San Francisco Zen Center. As one of the oldest Buddhist communities outside of Asia, its name pretty much speaks for itself. A large selection of their dharma talks are also available on iTunes for free. If you’re not quite sure what a dharma talk is yet, the first step is being willing to find out! 

(Photo: San Francisco Zen Center)


How to Choose the Perfect Meeting Spot For Your Client

Imagine each of your clients as if they were their own trendy coffee shop. Now choose wisely..

1. The Client: Young Brooklyn transplant who appreciates a good slice of fancy toast

Photo: Victor Goods Photography

The Meeting Spot: The Mill 

Instagram (to location tag, of course): @themillsf

2. The Client: The one who likes things clean, white, and minimal

Photo: Patricia Chang

Photo: Patricia Chang

The Meeting Spot: Saint Frank Coffee

Instagram (to location tag, of course): @saintfrankcoffee

3. The Client: The outdoorsy type whose Instagram feed is populated with pictures of succulents

Photo: Courtesy of

Photo: Courtesy of

The Meeting Spot: Stable Cafe

Instagram (to location tag, of course): @stablecafe

4. The Client: The couple who insists on black, white, and polished silver finishes

Photo: Aubrie Pick

Photo: Aubrie Pick

The Meeting Spot: Jane

Instagram (to location tag, of course): @janeonfilmore


6 San Francisco Florists to Follow on Instagram

These 6 San Francisco based florists are serving up some major fleurspiration.

1. Ampersand // @ampersand_sf


You can easily spot an Ampersand post in your feed by their signature turquoise barn that houses an insane selection of local-grown blooms. The founders, Emerson and Benjamin, are as adorable as their arrangements.

3. Bloom That //  @bloomthat

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Bloom That isn’t a florist in the most traditional sense, but they certainly know how to deliver a killer bouquet. The app allows you to easily schedule flower deliveries on demand in both the Bay Area and NYC. Their feed will quickly inspire you to send flowers to everyone you know. (Talk about the perfect client gift…)

4. Farmgirl Flowers // @farmgirlflowers

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Farmgirl Flowers is one of the champions of the “locally grown” flower movement, and also happens to be one of the fastest growing private companies in the Bay Area. From its inception in 2010, founder Christina Stembel vowed to use solely American grown flowers in her arrangements and has kept that promise ever since, inspiring others to follow suit. Go girl.

2. Tulipina // @tulipinadesigns

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Tulipina’s Kiana Underwood is clearly doing something right. Beautiful photographs of her colorful, cheery arrangements have garnered over 111k Instagram followers. That’s a lot of flower fans.

5. Flora Grubb Gardens // @floragrubbgardens

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What’s better than a planter full of beautiful succulents? A CALIFORNIA-SHAPED planter full of beautiful succulents. These are the kinds of treasures you can find at Flora Grubb, a San Francisco staple for sourcing inspiration for outdoor spaces.

6. Studio Choo // @studiochoo


Studio Choo has the kind of Instagram feed that just makes you happy. The founders are best friends, Alethea Harampolis and Jill Rizzo, and the pair’s authenticity comes across in every post.

Source 6 Standout Pieces From This Inspiring San Francisco Home

Get inspired by this Homepolish-designed San Francisco home, whose airy vibe and muted color palette serve as a backdrop for the homeowners’ own unique treasures. Source 6 of our favorite standout pieces for your next project, below.

1. Pillows that pop


Source: Vintage embroidered Jira pillow, $295;


2. Mid-century modern cabinet


Source: Organic Modernism Mariposa-3 White cabinet, $1,785;


3. Watercolor wallpaper


Source: Eskayel Dynasty wallpaper, $612 per roll;


4. Glass jug pendants


Source: ABC Home glass jug pendant, $585;


5. Conversation-starting art


Source: Anne Menke African Woman Portrait, $4,500;


6. Tiles with style


Source: Clé Geo cement tile, price upon request;


7. Safari chairs


Source: Arne Norell Rosewood and Leather Safari Chair, $1,700;


*Photos: Homepolish/Aubrie Pick

5 Interior Designers With Impeccable Personal Style

The wise Diane Von Furstenberg once said that decorating an apartment was like dressing a woman. So here’s a question- if you don’t like the way a designer dresses themselves, should they really be dressing your room? It’s clearly not an issue for these five interior designers whose personal style is as impeccable as their portfolio.


Photo: Cultured

Who: Meg Sharpe

Where: New York, NY

Words of Wisdom: “I’m not a huge color person,” says Meg Sharpe, knowing it’s a dangerous admission for an interior designer. “I keep outfits simple, so the work speaks for itself.”


Photo: One Kings Lane

Who: Patrick Mele

Where: New York, NY

Words of Wisdom: “I’m restless when it comes to my surroundings,” he says. “They’re always in motion.”


Who: Kelly Wearstler

Where: Los Angeles, CA

Words of Wisdom: “My biggest mistake was once doing a striped entry hall in six colors. It turns out you can go overboard.”


Photo: The Coveteur

Who: Sara Ruffin Costello

Where: New Orleans, LA

Words of Wisdom: “My go-to outfit everyday is literally pajamas. Thank god they came into fashion because now I can wear little silky patterned numbers and they go together and it looks like I actually got dressed. But I didn’t.”

Photo_House Beautiful

Photo: House Beautiful

Who: Celerie Kemble

Where: Palm Beach/New York

Words of Wisdom: “Celerie throws together a crazy combination of new and old and high and low,” her husband [Boykin Curry] observes, “but rather than looking like a cluttered mess, it all feels right, as if the objects had been looking for each other.”

What’s in Your Kitchen? A Brooklyn Baker Shares Her Tips For Keeping Things Tidy and Tasty

For Brittany Bennett, a Brooklyn-based baker and food writer, the kitchen is a place to be inspired and organized. Between running her own pie business (Taartwork) and writing recipe roundups for BuzzFeed (like 17 weird pizza crusts that are actually brilliant), she needs a kitchen to come home to at the end of the day that is welcoming, open, and has its shit together. We sat down with Brittany to talk kitchen storage, sink etiquette, and of course apple pie.

Describe your dream kitchen.

My dream kitchen is an open space where three people can cook comfortably with each other while five more friends can sit on stools around us as taste testers. I like a social kitchen where family can gather and throw more salt into a sauce. Design wise, it has a minimalistic take on a country kitchen. Rustic wood notes but simple and clean organization.

How do you keep your ingredients organized?

I am all about clasp jars. They’re great for buying ingredients in bulk. Go crazy with a label maker and your kitchen will appear to have its shit together.


Photo Courtesy of Pinterest

How do you store kitchen items that you aren’t using (plates, pots, pans, mixing bowls etc.)?

An open pantry aesthetic is my favorite. I like stacking my plates and bowls on floating shelves. It’s easier to grab and go that way, especially when you’re in the groove of cooking. I hang pots from hooks I installed over my sink and gather cooking utensils (wooden spoons, spatulas, tongs, whisks) in ceramic vases on the counter top.

What three things make a successful kitchen?

1. A stocked spice rack- if you watch any cooking competitions, everything can always use a little more seasoning.
2. A blender or food processor- a home cook can conquer soups, sauces, smoothies and purees with this versatile tool
3. A clean, inspiring workspace- keeping counters clear and fresh flowers on the table lures me to the kitchen like a mosquito to a light.

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Photo Courtesy of Instagram/@brittay

What’s the last thing you baked/cooked in your kitchen?

Predictably, apple pies!

What is your favorite item in your kitchen? Why?

My knife! It provides neat, efficient slicing and dicing on the regular. And nothing is more satisfying to me than a clean, pretty dice. True story, keep your knives sharp and the onion you’re chopping will make you cry a little less.

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Photo Courtesy of Instagram/@brittay

How do you liven up white kitchen walls?

Get plates from a local antique shop or second-hand store. Apparently lots of people consider their Fine China junk. But one person’s garbage is another person’s plate wall. Chalkboard paint is also a neat way to transform a plain wall into an artistic space for creative expression or tonight’s menu.

What is the magic number of chairs at a kitchen table?

I like to have six chairs around the table. But hosting weekly family dinners is one of my top 2016 resolutions, so I keep a bench lounging around as a sign to the universe that I am open to welcoming new friends and extra guests.


Photo Courtesy of Pinterest

Any tips for cleanup after cooking?

Clean as you go! Doing dishes and wiping down countertops as you cook keeps the process zen. After roasting a beautiful chicken, you do not want to turn around to the Leaning Tower of Dishes.

Let’s talk sink etiquette- what to leave and what to wash?

If you’ve thickened a sauce in a pot or scrambled eggs in a pan, soak it immediately under hot water for the sticky stuff to loosen up in order to get a glistening clean. If it’s really stuck on there, for instance if you prepared a stew, soak it for a few minutes with soap. Never leave a cast iron skillet in the sink! Give it a quick rinse, salt rub down and towel dry it immediately to avoid rusting.

Inside 3 Mountain Homes With Stunning Views

These three mountain homes are not your average vintage-snow-shoes-over-the-fireplace, hot-cocoa-stocked ski houses.

Peter Marino’s Rocky Mountain Retreat

The “sporty ski chalet” that architect Peter Marino designed for himself and his wife, recently featured on Architectural Digest’s site, has the elements of a true mountain home- plenty of cedar wood, touches of wintery flair, and giant windows for insane mountain views.

Fun fact: The exterior was inspired by a trip Marino took to the Galápagos Islands where he observed the flight patterns of the indigenous birds. Take another look at the house, do you see its beak?


Photo: Roger Davies/Architectural Digest


Photo: Roger Davies/Architectural Digest


Photo: Roger Davies/Architectural Digest


Photo: Roger Davies/Architectural Digest

Aerin Lauder’s Aspen Home

Built by interior designer Daniel Romualdez, Lauder’s home is an example of simplified luxury. Sofas and chairs upholstered in white mimic snowy Aspen Mountaintops, laying the base for a neutral color palette accented with Hans Wegner hoop chairs and George Nakashima tables. “It’s cozy, very casual, very family. Skiing is a great holiday for everyone. It’s nice to come in after a long day, make dinner, and sit by the fire,” Lauder said of her home, originally featured in Vogue.


Photos: François Halard/Vogue Magazine


Photos: François Halard/Vogue Magazine


Photos: François Halard/Vogue Magazine


Photos: François Halard/Vogue Magazine

An Australian Couple’s Big Sky Paradise

“Mountain zen” is the way architect Reid Smith describes this home in Big Sky, Montana. In terms of design direction from the client, “They told me, ‘We just want to float in the trees,’” recalled Smith in a Mountain Living feature. The interior was designed by Len Cotsovolos of LC2 Design Services in a palette of woodsy tones to warm up the steel and glass used in the structure.


Photo: Gibeon Photography/Mountain Living


Photo: Gibeon Photography/Mountain Living


Photo: Gibeon Photography/Mountain Living


Photo: Gibeon Photography/Mountain Living


A Kitchen Renovation That’s Out of This World Amazing

A Venice Beach house was given the full Amber Interiors treatment when a newly engaged California couple enlisted designer Amber Lewis to transform their place into a “zen den”. “They wanted a laid back, California eclectic, boho beach pad and I think we gave them just that,” Lewis said of the space, which she recently revealed on her blog. Check out the before and after photos of the kitchen, which got a complete carrara marble makeover. The industrial light fixtures and dark green cabinetry paired with dreamy vintage rugs and light wood accents has us humming the Beach Boys like “I wish we all could be Californian girls”.


AFTER Amber-Interiors-Before-and-After-ClientZtotheEtotheN-Neustadt-Photo-61Amber-Interiors-Before-and-After-ClientZtotheEtotheN-Neustadt-Photo-171 Amber-Interiors-Before-and-After-ClientZtotheEtotheN-Neustadt-Photo-71 Amber-Interiors-Before-and-After-ClientZtotheEtotheN-Neustadt-Photo-110 Amber-Interiors-Before-and-After-ClientZtotheEtotheN-Neustadt-Photo-81


Photographer: Tessa Neustadt

6 Ways to Take Control of Your Day

1. Actually USE your Calendar

Make your calendar a place where you schedule EVERYTHING. Be that crazy person that schedules what time you’re going to brush your teeth, when to have lunch, when you’re going out for a walk (do people still do that?). This will help block out chunks of time so that you don’t end up underestimating how long you’re going to spend doing a task…or not doing a task. That feeling that you get when you feel like you can’t keep up with yourself during the day and it’s already 7:30PM?— it’s because you didn’t put everything in your calendar.

2. Give Yourself Time Between Tasks (But Not Too Much Time)

If you have a meeting from 10:30 to 11:30, don’t assume that the next task begins at 11:30. Schedule tasks with a 10 minute window in between to let your mind adjust or to physically get yourself from one situation (or web browser) to another. Suddenly switching from one task to another can confuse your brain and actually make you less productive.

3. Build Good Habits

If there’s something you want to make a habit, put it in your calendar at the same time every day. Want to be that person who drinks 8 cups of a water a day? Schedule it. It will become a habit.

4. Be on Time

Being late is unacceptable. Your ability to be on time says a lot about you, and you don’t want to turn off a potential client by showing them you don’t respect them enough to be simply arrive on time. It doesn’t matter what you were doing pre-meeting, there is no such thing as fashionably late. 15 minutes early is the new “on time”.

5. Change Up Your Environment

Try taking a walking meeting. Getting up from your desk to “walk and talk” can be that unplugged moment that inspires you to think freely and more outside of the box. Seriously, recent research shows that walking leads to increases in creative thinking. Do you need a better reason than that?

6. Start The Morning With Your Most Difficult Task

I know it sounds terrible, but take the morning to tackle the daunting tasks that you won’t have the energy for later. It feels great to have the hard stuff behind you, and that feeling of success will propel you through the rest of the day.