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.

6 Dreamy Bedrooms You’ll Want to Zen Out In

When it comes to designing a bedroom, the goal is to create a sanctuary where one can rest, relax, and renew. The actual placement of the bed, side table, and other elements in the room don’t just affect how aesthetically pleasing the space is. These layouts can actually affect sleep patterns and energy, according to Jayme Barrett, author of Feng Shui Your Life, which is why she recommends keeping Feng Shui tips in mind when it comes to design. Let’s start with clutter. It’s simple. Clutter = anxiety. A messy stack of papers reminds you of everything you didn’t get done that day and clothes piled on the floor conjures thoughts of doing the laundry. Rather than shove everything into the closet (out of sight, out of mind, right?) utilize covered boxes and baskets, or don’t make space for it at all. Another thing, the bedroom is not a place to be loud- with volume OR color. Try sticking to neutral color palettes and warm earth tones like cream and peach, or gray and light blue. And lastly, make this tranquil space a no tech zone. Lose the wall-mounted flat screen and replace it with a calming painting or photograph. (landscapes and nature scenes work well here).

Ok, now it’s time to get zen. Here, our favorite relaxing bedrooms.


Photo: François Halard/Vogue

Custom de Gournay wallpaper paired with a low, raw wood bed. This is where Sleeping Beauty would rest if it was 2016 and she lived in Brooklyn.

88db3773799da1cfef329b622035f321 Crisp white linens, and a Moroccan shag rug. Time to zen out.


Photo: Reid Rolls

Airy white floor-to-ceiling curtains paired with a minimal wooden accent wall. This design makes it clear: NO CLUTTER WELCOME HERE.


Photo: Pinterest/Studio KO

Talk about room with a view. Bedroom designed by Studio KO.


Photo: Pinterest

Natural light + natural tones. Just grab the morning paper and hit snooze.


Photo: Douglas Friedman/Architectural Digest

Mixed textures and a modern fireplace (with selenite logs) make this Nantucket bedroom seriously dreamy.