HLN Meets: Karen and Katie from Beautiful Homes In The North
The writer-and-photographer duo chat to HLN about setting up their own business to represent the North on the national stage, as well as sharing decorating tips and how to create an Insta-worthy home.
By Jenny Brownlees
Seeing little representation of North-based properties in the national press, photographer Katie Lee and writer Karen Wilson decided to change the narrative and combined their expert skillsets to establish Beautiful Homes In The North. Now they spend their time showcasing the real, stylish homes they knew the region had to offer in world-renowned interiors magazines.
Tell us about the beginnings of BHITN?
Karen: I first met Katie in the mid-2000s, when I worked at the Newcastle Journal as a features writer. We’d launched a free lifestyle magazine called City Living and needed freelance photographers. Katie always seemed to put people at ease; she was a good laugh and, of course, a great photographer. I took voluntary redundancy in 2013. Although I used to write about a variety of subjects, I’d always enjoyed homes and interiors the most, so I thought I could use the contacts I’d built up over the years to move into freelancing for national interiors magazines. I approached Katie and we met up at Kafeneon in the Bigg Market to hatch our plan! At the time she was working on weddings and freelance press photography, but seemed up for the challenge of trying something new.
Katie: Of course I said yes! It’s always been the case that magazines tend to be south-centric in general, and we really wanted to see the North represented. Our partnership works well as magazines need both photographic and written content for their interiors features, and this way they can get both from one business.
What’s a typical day for you both at BHITN?
Karen: A typical day for me might involve phone interviews, searching Instagram for potential homes to shoot, pitching features to magazines, answering queries via email, writing up features and checking websites to make sure all our product information is correct. I find shoot days the most fun, while keeping accounts up to date is probably my least favourite part!
Katie: I suppose there are two types of days for me. The shoot days, where we go to people’s houses and take photographs of their gorgeous homes, then the editing and admin days. Once I’ve complete a shoot, I need to edit the images before sending them onto the magazine. On those days I’m also speaking to magazines, sorting invoices, contacting homeowners and doing BHITN’s social media. I tend to think I don’t work full time, but I probably work more than I realise. It’s amazing how much time is taken up by contacting people to organise shoots and running our Instagram.
In your opinion, what makes a home magazine-worthy?
Karen: There’s always more to talk about if it’s been a big renovation project, and magazines like Real Homes and Grand Designs prefer featuring those kinds of homes. A big extension or remodel isn’t always a prerequisite to be featured in a magazine, though. Many publications are looking for homes that their readers can relate to, so it could just be redecoration or a new kitchen and bathroom. However, they do like to see lots of creative ideas their readers can copy, which also gives us more scope for photography. Homes need to have plenty of accessories and artwork dotted around – homes that are too sparse with bare walls aren’t really going to work. Magazines also prefer homes with a cohesive feel so that the images will work well together on the page, so a home where each room has a very distinct style might not get chosen, even though it may well look amazing. But even if you’re just renovating one room – perhaps a bathroom or kitchen – it could still make a transformation feature if you have good ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures.
Has championing the region always been close to your heart?
Karen: Absolutely. I honestly think people in the North East are just as creative as those in the South. Perhaps we’re thriftier though. In some parts of London, people will think nothing of spending hundreds of pounds on a cushion or use wallpaper that’s £300 per roll. Up North we love a good bargain and the less we’ve paid for something, the prouder we are to shout about it. If anyone thinks they need to have a big posh house in London full of designer furniture to be featured in a magazine, they’re totally wrong!
What happens on a shoot day?
Katie: Usually both Karen and I will go on the shoot. Karen styles the shoots, which sometimes means taking extra cushions and other home accessories – flowers, food props, other decorative items that help with the overall styling of the shoot. If we’re doing a full-house shoot, it usually takes the best part of the day. People are always amazed at how long it takes to get a shot, especially in the main rooms like the living room, kitchen and dining room. It’s not just a case of rocking up and taking a quick photo – we really consider what we keep in and out of the image. It could be that a vase just needs to move two inches to the left, it can be that precise. Probably 80% of the photos I take are of the interior alone, then the homeowner is usually in a few shots downstairs. Magazines also love pets, so if we can get a dog or cat to pose then that’s amazing. Pets always give an image more life and usually make the homeowner feel more comfortable. We always have a giggle on shoots, so if someone is feeling nervous about having their photo taken, they soon relax and get into it. We also need to consider the season the feature will come out too. If it’s an autumn/winter edition, we might think about lighting fires and making sure the homeowner’s outfit isn’t too summery. Magazines work quite far ahead so it can be tricky – Christmas is usually shot in July/August, so it can feel very strange to shoot a wintery scene on one of the hottest days of the year!
Are there any items that you think instantly brighten up a room?
Karen: A bit of greenery will always lift a room, whether it’s herbs in the kitchen or flowers in the living room. If you’re going to get faux flowers, it’s worth spending a bit more. Abigail Ahern does some fantastic and very realistic flowers, as well as lovely ferns and eucalyptus. I often bring things like belly baskets, stylish coffee table books and throws too. For a budget update, it’s amazing how much cushions, throws and new lamps can change the whole feel of a room.
Has starting BHITN inspired your own interiors?
Katie: Yeah, it definitely has. I always wanted to be brave but didn’t really know how or where to start. Then I met interior designer Cathy Dean through work and I worked with her on the renovation of my ground floor. Cathy was amazing and really helped me to add some personality into my home. Once I’d worked with her, it gave me confidence. My home definitely wouldn’t look like it does now if it wasn’t for my work and who I’ve met through it, as well as all the amazing homes I’ve discovered on Instagram. There’s so much inspiration!
Do you have a favourite home you’ve featured?
Karen: I loved artist Leanne Pearce’s Victorian house in Gateshead. It just shows how you can get creative on a budget. In terms of favourite features, there are lots of design elements I’ve made a mental note to copy in the future. A beautifully organised walk-in pantry full of labelled Kilner jars was one. I also loved the double-sided fireplace that one homeowner had between two reception rooms. A great kitchen idea I’d like to copy, which is apparently quite common in Spain, is a wall cabinet above the sink with a plate rack inside. It’s open at the bottom so you can put plates away without having to dry them. For my partner, I know it would be a pool table with a removable top that doubles as a dining table!
Where do you find inspiration?
Katie: I don’t have one magazine or Instagram account that I would pinpoint, there’s so many. I love interiors that really show a homeowner’s personality. Homes that have original art or art that means something to them, family heirlooms, vintage pieces or charity shop finds – objects and things that are personal, mixed in with contemporary pieces. I’m also a sucker for plants and plywood!
Has anything surprised you since starting BHITN?
Karen: The people we meet do all sorts of different jobs, from police officers and teachers to financial analysts and librarians. Not all of them have creative or interiors-related jobs and some of them are renters, but they’re all really passionate about creating a beautiful home. One homeowner we met said that having a tight budget forces you to be creative, and she’s absolutely right. I’m always amazed at people’s ingenuity and I’ve picked up lots of tips over the years. Some have managed to revamp their kitchen for £500 just by painting, replacing handles and adding shelves. Others have made use of free art downloads to print out or even wallpaper samples to frame. You can also create a designer look for a fraction of the price. I’ve seen an amazing built-in window seat that was just painted MDF, and a fab dining table made from old scaffold boards. There’s usually a new idea to take away from every home we shoot.
What are your hopes for the future of BHITN?
Katie: To keep photographing beautiful homes and showcasing what these creative northern homeowners are doing. The one thing we’d both love to do is a coffee table book. I love producing content for interior magazines, but I do have to shoot in a certain way; I’d love the freedom to do exactly what I wanted with the imagery at some point in the future.
Finally, we’d love it if you could share some of your favourite places in the North East.
Katie: I love Riley’s Fish Shack and the entire coastline from Tynemouth to Whitley Bay. I love walking and have recently got into sea swimming, so the beaches there are just perfect. I love all the little independent shops and cafés around there too: For the Love of the North, bakery Pure Knead, The Jam Jar cinema and ladies clothing shop Ruby and Frank. If I was to leave my local area then I’d go into the wilds of Northumberland – to the beautiful coastline then inland to Kielder Forest.