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Simply Katie Brown: Michigan’s decor diva reveals her secrets

Local Detroit

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Susan R. Pollack, Detroit News Design Writer

Katie Brown grew up in northern Michigan in a large, extended family whose idea of fun was comparing tomatoes from their gardens and bragging about how many people they cooked for that day.

For her 11th birthday, she got to decorate her own room, a task that introduced her to browsing wallpaper books and choosing favorite colors for paint.

"A lot of families go skiing or sailing together — ours, we redecorate together," says Brown, whose home-centered childhood in Petoskey and on Mackinac Island was an ideal launch pad for her career as domestic diva.

With her tagline "Keep it Simple" (even more important now that she's a working mother of two, she says), Brown is hosting her sixth season of the "Katie Brown Workshop" on PBS with segments on cooking, gardening and crafting.

She also has written five books on entertaining and decorating and last year launched a line of home and gardening products, Katie Brown Simply at Meijer, for the Grand Rapids-based chain.

Brown's debut 15 years ago as a lifestyle expert is a veritable Cinderella story. She was a struggling young actress in Los Angeles for a decade, making bath bubbles and catering food in her funky vintage boutique called Goat to get by. Around the time she got homesick and returned to Mackinac Island, Lifetime was casting about in artsy communities for "the next Martha Stewart." Next thing you know, the network launched Brown's long-running TV show, "Next Door with Katie Brown."

Over the years, she has become known for her trademark "you-can-do-it!" enthusiasm combined with her smart, simple, embrace-your-mistakes approach.

Homestyle caught up with Brown recently by telephone:

Homestyle: Was it intimidating to be called "the next Martha Stewart"?

Brown: Yes, it was. But I never took it that seriously. I think she's so great, and what she did was so great — she brought domesticity out of the '50s and brought artistry into the home.

I don't think I do what Martha does. My approach is very Michigan and very Midwest. It's exceedingly practical with a whimsical project here and there. Everything at "Katie Brown Workshop" has to be quick, easy and inexpensive but it still has to have an element of beauty or artistry.

I think there was a youthfulness to my approach that wasn't happening back then. With Martha, everything was so perfect, and then there were people making things out of Popsicle sticks. There was nobody in-between for people who didn't have a ton of money to redecorate or wanted to do a dinner party but weren't sure how. I was the first generation who grew up with working moms and there was a lot of (knowledge) that needed to be filled in.

Does Michigan figure in your design esthetic?

Northern Michigan is such a beautiful place. It's hard for me to do a segment without pulling in some design element from nature — the use of color, light, pattern. Whether it's making a gift with cedar bough wrapping or creating an arrangement with twigs, it's just the way I think. I joke that I rearrange pine cones for a living.

Tell us about your Michigan family.

My family (years ago) owned the Arnold (ferry) Line. I have 32 first cousins and 14 aunts and uncles who all live in Petoskey or St. Ignace. We all go to the cottage in Les Cheneaux Islands that my grandfather (former state senator Prentiss Brown, the force behind the Mackinac Bridge) built. They're all great cooks and great gardeners. I learned just by watching them — it's the way we grew up.

What should we know about your product line at Meijer?

It's a neat thing. I had other companies approach me about licensing my name but I was afraid — they license your name and you don't have much say. But Meijer made a promise that we could collaborate and come up with a look and feel for this line that combines style with value.

The spring products speak to that. We have some great planters and dishes with beautiful florals and some great throw pillows, too. The whole line has a youthfulness and a colorful modern feel. It pops. It's kind of design-forward but it's accessible.

What about the Crypton apron? Isn't that typically used for furniture?

I am crazy for that apron! I'm a sloppy cook, not cautious, so I always get stuff all over my clothes. I never found an apron that's thick enough unless it's oilcloth, which doesn't move. I'm not embarrassed to wear this one — it's super-thick yet it's really cool-looking. It's made in Michigan, a female-run business (based in West Bloomfield), and it's good value.

What decorating mistakes do people make?

They don't buy and surround themselves with what they love. They go to a store and get picture-perfect, something that all goes together. I'm a big believer that if you buy what you love it will all work together.

My mom says the first time you decorate a house you do it all in beige because it's safe. They didn't take the time to say "Do I really love it?" If you love it, there are going to be similarities between the pieces. It's almost like a party with all the different people you like. There's a certain chemistry and it works.

Any others?

I think people are afraid of color. I love color, especially in a place like Michigan with long bleak winters. Try painting the ceiling or a wall first to get used to it. Or change that lampshade into bright orange or yellow. Even if you just start with throw pillows, introduce color into your life.

Any garden advice ?

The fun thing is the surprises that happen. You think you've planted a seed that's going to come up one way and you feel so defeated when it doesn't. I wish people could be a little more forgiving and enjoy the sporadicness of nature.

What can you tell us about your family?

We have two girls. Prentiss — I waited until I was 40 to have her — is 6 now. We adopted our second baby, Meredith — she's half African-American. And she's a (Ohio) Buckeye but I don't hold that against her. She's two. I met my husband, William, when I had a show on A&E, after Lifetime. He was an executive there. Our dog is named Hazel.

What's your advice for Michigan mothers?

Enjoy the day. Put your feet up for sure. One day of the year give up the house to your family. Sit on your hands and watch how much they know that you don't think they know. I have a bad habit of saying, "Oh, nothing, nothing." So my husband doesn't do anything. So I say, speak your mind and pick something fun you want your family to do for you.

What can we expect from you in the future?

I'm writing a new book that I'm really proud of, my sixth — "Home Sense: Life Lessons Learned by a Domestic Diva." It's more philosophy-based and there's a lot of Michigan in there. It's two years late — it takes a lot to be a mom.

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