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Creative stylist Nancy Straughan on forging a soulful path in life and work

Nancy talks creativity, following your gut, and shares her favourite North East haunts…

By Jenny Brownlees

Nancy Straughan specialises in masterfully styling products, interiors and events — curating and photographing her stunning work for clients including designers, brands and makers, right through to homeowners looking to fashion gorgeous living spaces. Nancy has turned her magic touch to ensuring product shoots, weddings, brand events and interior projects look fabulous and photo-ready, right down to the details of designing place cards, invites, menus and more. She can forge soulful, calming spaces with ease — her expertise called on by world-renowned brands and start-ups alike. Nancy’s warmth and authenticity shine through all she makes, leading her to create an engaged Instagram community of over sixteen thousand. There she shares her life, work, inspiration, craft projects and more, including the ups and downs of life in an honest and open way. Here, she talks to HLN about living and working in the North East, balancing work and motherhood, and tips for creating the calming, inspiring spaces she’s known for.

Can you tell us about yourself and the work you do? How did you get into creative styling?

I’m Nancy, I’m a stylist and creative soul living in the North East. I grew up in a creative household, and attribute many of my skills to my art-filled upbringing. My father was the creative director of an advertising firm and filled his spare time with painting, photography and furniture design and my mother worked as a photographic and interior stylist. I lived here in the North East until I was 19 when I moved away to attend University in Leeds. My course was connected to Textiles and Surface Pattern, and I loved the creativity it offered. After graduating I moved to London, but definitely missed the friendliness and picturesque nature of the North East. I was working at this time alongside trying to establish my own creative work, in many different roles — at first in retail and then in creative roles, including working in design studios and in event planning. This was around the time blogging was really taking off, in 2011. I was lucky that my work was featured in some world-renowned international design blogs such as Apartment Therapy. Because of the huge response and positive feedback to my work from these features, I realised I could set up my own homeware company, as that’s what I’d specialised in at University. I always knew I wanted to work for myself, and my homeware company was very successful. I did that until around 2017, but despite enjoying the creative aspect, I knew it wasn’t fulfilling me anymore and I also wasn’t enjoying living and working in London. I had a discussion with my husband, and we were both aware we wanted a real change of lifestyle. I wanted to focus on creative styling, and when I became pregnant in 2019, we decided to move back to my hometown in the North East. I have now been freelance as a creative stylist for two and a half years and I love it. I thoroughly enjoy creating imagery and spaces that inspire. I offer full-service styling, so can take an idea from an initial concept, style and photograph it, and offer any on the day support to a client, if it’s needed. This has seen me work with everyone from large brands to small independent companies, magazines and individuals wishing to style their event, wedding or home.                 

You also offer a mentoring service for creatives, how did this begin?

I really enjoy teaching, so I began a mentoring program for people who want to start their own creative business. I also organise meet-up events and seminars for anyone who is interested in leading a more creative life. I think I’m the type of person that people feel comfortable enough to ask me things and share their ideas with me, which I’m so flattered by. Many people were leaving comments with questions on my blog or Instagram, but it was difficult to reply to everyone and give a comprehensive insight into the aspects of building a brand or styling, so I wanted to offer a space that people could access this information. I offer a six-week personalised course, mainly for people setting up their own brand. As I’ve done that twice successfully, I wanted to share all that I’ve learnt. I have also written two e-books on the subject, for readers to download and enjoy — ‘Interior Styling and Decoration’ and ‘Starting a Brand: A Comprehensive Guide‘.  I did this as I realised not everyone would be able to afford the mentoring programme, and I wanted to give back to the creative community. These remain free to download, but there is also an optional donation button. I have found people to be so kind in response to this, and the feedback has been very positive. This actually really helped me as at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my husband lost his job, which was so challenging. Luckily now we are getting back on track, but this has been a tough time for so many people, across a number of industries.

We love that you have based your business in the North East, after working in London. What is it you enjoy about living and working here?

I didn’t realise this until recently, but I honestly feel that in coming back to the North East I’ve almost become a different person. I’m so much more relaxed and have softened quite a lot. London makes you quite tough since you’re rushing around all the time — it sounds like a cliche, but you do become different when that’s your life 24/7. Even though Newcastle is still a city and there’s so much going on, the people are so friendly. For me, it’s a completely different way of life. Moving back to the North East has been pared with a big mental shift for me, I feel much more relaxed. I used to suffer severe anxiety and that has been so much better since living and working here for the past year and a half. It does make me sad that many people I’ve worked with in London either don’t know where Newcastle is or don’t know a lot about this wonderful place. I know some people believe you must be in the capital, but I work remotely and in London would regularly commute for over two hours a day — I don’t think people realise the North East is less than a three-hour train ride away, so you can easily get to London if needed. Hopefully, with more people working from home due to Covid, there will be a realisation that if you’re doing great quality work, being based in a certain location doesn’t hold you back.

Many people would love to pursue a creative job, do you have any advice for those looking to start a creative business, or work in creative styling and photography?

The main thing I tell people is it’s so important to be passionate about whatever business you’re starting, or the work you’re looking to do creatively. If you do something because you feel you have to, or you’re only fifty per cent invested in it, it probably isn’t the right thing or the right time to begin. I say this because although there are perks to running your own business and working in a creative role, it is very difficult and I’ve found it’s the passion and enjoyment that carries you through when times are tough.

In your interior styling, you have such a knack for creating beautifully calming spaces, do you have any tips and tricks for readers wanting to emulate this in their own homes?

Thank you! Interiors are such a personal thing, and I think problems arise when you read ‘you have to do this to achieve a calming or on-trend space.’ My advice is actually to think about what makes you feel calm and happy, as we’re all different. Perhaps bright colour makes you feel great, whereas for me that’s not the case. My suggestion is to make a list of things that make you feel calm, relaxed and happy then work to incorporate those things into your living spaces. For me, that’s things like sunshine, so spaces with a lot of natural light, being in nature, so I like light wooden furniture and using soft colours like green and pale blues or earthy tones and white. I think plants help everyone to feel calm, as does that act of looking after something — it’s very mindful. I also think looking after your space, however large or small is important — respecting it, keeping it tidy and as clean as possible really helps centre people make their home environment much more enjoyable to be in.

Many people look to your styling creations to get inspiration. Where get your inspiration from, both in your work and in styling your own home?

It’s a real mix, every couple of months I buy interiors magazines and they are always very inspirational — but the problem is that after reading them, I feel that I’d love to buy a Tuscan villa, which whilst amazingly aspirational, also isn’t possible for most! I look to Pinterest and Instagram and search for similar spaces to my own, as I think these offer more accessible inspiration and ideas. Many of my styling ideas simply come from feeling confident in knowing what I like, and that’s evolved over the years by paying attention to things I have liked for more than a season or six months. I have things in my home I’ve had for many, many years, so when I buy anything new, I look to find items that I know I’ll like for a long time, rather than them being trend-based. I let my gut guide me more now, I have the confidence in my own tastes rather than feeling too influenced by others. I do have some lovely interiors books, but I’m more inspired by the things around me.      

What do you like about being self-employed and running your own business, and what are the challenges?

We definitely all have days when we’re not in the right mind-set, and I’ve found the problem is when we try to push through that, rather than letting it be. Of course, often you have deadlines and things that must be done, but what I’ve learnt when I’m feeling stressed, is just to have a little break from what I’m doing — even for a short time. It can be as simple as moving away from the situation and getting some fresh air. Often I listen to a podcast just to take my mind off the work. Although having a baby does make it difficult to strike a work-life balance, I have actually found my daughter Peggy’s routine helps me in terms of work. It often means I have a certain amount of time to do work in the day, around her naps and feeds, and we tend to try and get outside if it’s not raining, meaning my mind is switched off from work as I’m engaged with her. When it was just me, I was really bad at taking breaks. I always thought, no I can keep pushing through!  When really I’d be more productive if I gave myself five minutes rest. I have learnt a lot from Peggy — she is so interested in little details, and can spend five minutes mindfully looking at a flower — in that way children can really show you how to slow down and enjoy the little moments in between the busyness of everyday life.

A lot of your work, through blogging and Instagram is online, how do you strike a balance and – what do you do to switch off?

You definitely have to be super-organised when you’re a working parent, and I don’t like to be on my phone when spending quality time with my family. I’ve had to learn the times of day I can do work best, for example, I do a lot of my creative work early in the morning when I perhaps have more energy, then in the evening, I may be doing more admin-like work, replying to emails etc. I think the more you work for yourself, the more you learn how best you work. We’ve been so used to this rigid idea that everyone works 9-5 every day, you have an hour lunch break at the same time and don’t work weekends. But in many cases now, people don’t work that way — so it’s learning when you’re most energetic and work best. Now I listen to myself as much as possible and this is particularly important when I don’t have a crazy busy week — if I don’t have as much on, I’ll now embrace that rather than finding random time-consuming things to do to fill all the hours in the day. I’ll try to just enjoy the pace as it ebbs and flows, because I know I’ll be very busy again soon. Everything I do work-wise involves striking a balance and following my gut.

We love how you’ve shared your journey to motherhood with your followers, and have been really honest about juggling life working full time, sharing days when things haven’t been easy as well as the good. Was this a conscious decision?

I have heard many people say they worry that if they share details about their children on a platform they also use for work, it may be seen as unprofessional to potential clients or employers, who perhaps may think they’re not as focussed on work. That’s definitely something I thought about, how much of my life to share — it’s always changing and shifting. Because I had quite a large following on Instagram before I was pregnant, and I had always shared things about how I was feeling and things I was thinking, I guess I just continued doing that as I went through pregnancy and motherhood. I’ve found that engaging with people on Instagram can be so positive, something as simple as a lovely comment can really brighten your day. I did find the beginning stages with a new-born very challenging, and I actually had some followers who I hadn’t even met reach out a few times and check in on me, and that felt so wonderful and supportive. It made me think, as that helped me so much, perhaps me sharing my experiences will help someone else. It has really connected me with my followers. I’ve never been someone who posts hoping for lots of likes, or uses Instagram as a highlight reel of my life — I love the community and connective aspect of social media. I’m that sort of person that I like to really engage with people. But I equally don’t think everyone has to share details of their lives if that doesn’t suit them or feel right.

Your blog and Instagram features so many crafty products and DIY tutorials. Do you have any tips for readers wanting to embrace their creativity?

I have found the craft projects I’ve been doing really relaxing in this strange time we’re in. I think my advice would be to really utilise what’s around you, for example experimenting with photography on your phone’s camera. A key aspect of any creative endeavour is to enjoy the process rather than worrying about the end result. I have always been a perfectionist, but another wonderful thing Peggy has taught me is not to worry too much about the final result when trying something new. She doesn’t care what something looks like when she’s playing or building something, she’s just enjoying the experience and having fun. I think we lose that as adults — we’ll try something new, like painting, but only enjoy it if the end result looks really good, rather than focussing on the materials, the process, learning, finding out what happens if I mix this colour and so on. We can be very hard on ourselves, though we’d never expect a child to be able to do something the first time around. I think giving ourselves a break is very freeing. Practise is great, and equally, if you don’t like one specific hobby or craft, you don’t have to do it anymore — there are so many other creative outlets to try. Instagram and Pinterest have an abundance of free creativity challenges, which can be a great way to get started for fun. There are also so many online workshops available, I actually tried one from 91 Magazine and really enjoyed it. It was more business-based, but you can usually find an online class for most creative practises nowadays. Equally, YouTube is a wonderful free resource and can offer so much information, especially when it comes to photography — that’s basically how I learnt to use my own camera!

We have been experiencing such a strange time lately, in lockdown and now in a state of ‘new normal’. What have you been doing other than work that’s helped get you through?

I really prioritise spending twenty minutes in the evening reading a book. Just recently, since he is working from home and doesn’t have to factor in commuting time, my husband Simon does breakfast with Peggy, so I usually go for a run in the morning which I love. I remember how I felt when I had no time to myself at the beginning of motherhood, and often you don’t have the energy in the evenings to do something for yourself, which can be so tough. At the beginning of lockdown when we could only go out once a day, we made sure to do a little walk as a family. We’re so lucky in that where we live is very green — as it was spring all the flowers began to bloom and although it was such a worrying time as my husband had lost his job, without realising we ended up really enjoying observing the surroundings and being immersed in nature. I remembered I had a vintage book about wildflowers, so I started looking them up and actually loved learning about local flowers that surrounded where we live. I guess I developed a hobby without realising, as at the beginning of the year I knew nothing about the subject. Falling into this hobby meant it wasn’t forced, I didn’t feel I had to learn anything, so that was very mindful and calming. At the moment, if I’ve had a really unsettled night with Peggy I may not feel like going for a run every morning, so I am trying to embrace any time off, rather than making myself feel bad for not doing things!

Post-Covid, do you have any set plans for your work and business? I know you arranged a successful creative meetup in the North East, are there more in store?

I would love to do more workshops, my last meet up was in February just before lockdown and it was so enjoyable. I would love to do more of these in the North East and in York, Edinburgh and beyond. Due to Covid, this has been put slightly on the back burner but I will be planning these as soon as it’s possible again. The workshops have always been great, as a lot of networking events can feel daunting and very formal — I wanted mine to be really organic and welcoming, you leave feeling wonderful as you’ve made new friends. It’s lovely if you’re just starting out, want to meet like-minded creatives, or are perhaps introverted and put off by large corporate meet-ups, which can be quite overwhelming. I never wanted my meetups to be in a boring hotel room with no soul to the event, I wanted them to feel like a lovely brunch with mates where everyone is welcome!

Finally, could you share the favourite spots you love to visit in the region?

I love visiting RE in Corbridge. So many people know about their amazing products as they’re stocked in Liberty and other high-end stores, but don’t realise the shop is in the North East! I am actually planning to go there for a family day out for my birthday in September, we’ll have a pub lunch in Corbridge, look around the beautiful independent shops like Forum Books, and walk along the river. I love going to the coast, particularly when Tynemouth Market is on, and always visit Riley’s Fish Shack at King Edward’s Bay. I also enjoy going to Whitley Bay for a day out or visiting Durham on the train. It’s such a short and picturesque journey, and you feel like you’re so far away. I love a cafe there, Flat White — we went recently and just wandered the gorgeous streets and walked alongside the river, which was wonderful. The North East is so unique, in that you can drive for half an hour and be at the coast or countryside, and feel like you’re in a completely different place despite not travelling far.

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