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Brown, B. (Host). (2021, May 12). Brené with Justina Blakeney on Creating Space to Reflect Our Stories. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Parcast Network. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-justina-blakeney-on-creating-space-to-reflect-our-stories/
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: In this episode, I am talking to… I’m actually talking to someone I discovered on Instagram, and just fell in love with her work. Her name is Justina Blakeney. She’s a designer, an artist, a New York Times best-selling author, and I am a huge fan. She has a new book out called Jungalow: Decorate Wild. And I had no idea where this conversation was going to go, but it ended up being a conversation about using our spaces to tell our stories. And y’all know I love stories, and you know I love story-telling.
BB: And it’s so funny because I moved last summer during COVID, which is a whole nother podcast on why never to do that, but something came over me when I moved and I said, “This house is going to tell my story,” and it’s about the time I discovered Justina. And we just talk about colors and patterns and plants and how I kill them all, and it turns out, I think I’m overwatering. And we talk about how discovering what is meaningful to us in our spaces tells us a lot about what’s meaningful to us in our lives. I’m so glad you’re here for this conversation. It is a conversation about wanderlust, about exploring not just the world, but ourselves, it’s just… What a treat to be able to talk to Justina.
BB: Before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about Justina. So Justina Blakeney is a designer, artist, she’s a New York Times best-selling author. She’s got a huge passion for color, pattern, and plants. Justina and her award-winning design blog and shop, Jungalow, have quickly become the go-to resources for Bohemian design inspiration around the world. For Justina, decorating is about feeling free, having fun, and getting a little bit wild. As one of the leading design personalities on the web, Justina has over two million followers online and has been named a top designer to follow on Instagram by Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, and Lonny magazine. She has an incredible line of products. She’s has lifestyle brand called Justina Blakeney. It’s got all kinds of home products including furniture, rugs, pillows, wallpaper, bedding, stationary. You know me, I’m like the more patterns and textures I can layer in one 5 x 5 foot space, the happier I am.
BB: Justina lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Jason, her young daughter, Ida, and her Kitty, Couscous, and gird your loins, 52 houseplants. Let’s jump into the conversation. Okay, let me start by saying, in one breath, welcome, and I’m such a big fan.
Justina Blakeney: [laughter] I don’t even know what to say. Likewise.
BB: I am such a big fan. I’m just going to say it like five times, and you can say something really smart back, that I can move this from my…
JB: Now you’re going to make me start crying right at the very beginning of this. [laughter]
BB: Oh, those are always the best, okay. So one of the things that I want to tell everyone, and I love how the people are with us today because they are in their cars, they are walking, they’re out for a run, they’re waiting in carpool lines, and so I just want to say that if you don’t know Justina Blakeney’s work, if you’ve never seen photos, we’re going to add some photos to the episode page, but you just have to get this book. And normally I mark up my books, when guests come on the podcast, and I’m like, “No one touch that book. That book is going on my coffee table in pole position, do not touch that book.” So let’s start it with this question, tell us your story from the very beginning.
JB: So I was born in Santa Rosa, California. I’m the second child. So my sister Faith is two and a half years older than me. And when I was just a couple of weeks old, we moved to Oakland. And my parents were starting a treatment center for mentally disabled teenage girls. They’re in your field. In fact, when I told my mom about this, she was like, “Oh my God, she’s in our field.” [laughter] She was really excited. So I grew up in this environment of my parents both being developmental psychologists and growing up around people who oftentimes had a lot of trauma, and in a family that really encouraged creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, tapping into your emotions, et cetera, et cetera. So I grew up in a very creative household, and my younger brother was born a couple of years after me, so it was the three of us and my parents, and we moved to Berkeley when I started the first grade.
JB: And so I grew up in the Bay Area, and I was always sort of a creative kid and just loved to draw and paint, and I took carpentry. And I had a lot of different ways of expressing myself creatively. I’ve also always loved music and loved to sing and learn to play on the guitar. And at a very young age, my parents started taking us on these international travels, and traveling has impacted me so so much and my work. And the first big adventure that we went on for a longer period of time was living in Switzerland for a year when I was in the eighth grade with my family, and that was just such a wild experience.
BB: Yeah, I mean what a shift from Berkeley to Switzerland. You’ve got two psychologists parents. What was that like?
JB: Oh my gosh. So first, I’ll say, we studied as a family, we studied French for a year before leaving. So we had a private tutor, and I was listening to the tapes and doing all the stuff. And we got there and I was put on the German-speaking side of the public school that I went to… [laughter]
BB: Oh my God.
JB: Because the French side was full. And so I was sort of thrown into this classroom at 12, 13 years old, and I looked completely different from all the other kids in the class. I was the only person of color in the room. I was a foot above all of the kids, tall, and I just felt like I was just so different and stood out so much. And there was obviously a very serious adjustment period that went on, but it was ultimately such an incredible experience for me at that age. And I picked up the language really quickly and felt a sense of freedom that I never felt before as a child. I think just growing up in an urban environment, there was just so many rules: You have to get home at this time and take the bus straight home from school and all of that stuff. And in Switzerland, it was like safe. [laughter] So me and my brother and sister could be out late, and it was a sense of freedom that I had never experienced before. So that was a very life-changing year for me, and when we got back, my whole world just had opened up so much from that experience.
BB: Is that where your wanderlust begins?
JB: Yeah. We had traveled before that, so I remember there was a really poignant trip to Indonesia when I was 10 that I remember very vividly. We traveled frequently to Mexico and to places around the US as well, so I think I had just always really loved traveling. And every time we went somewhere, my world got so much bigger, and I got really excited to continue to enlarge my world in that way. And I ended up going back to Switzerland in my junior year of high school and spent a year there with a host family, going to school again and traveling. And some of my more vivid memories are traveling with a classical choir there, where we got to sing in churches all over Northern Europe and cathedrals and traveling with a band of kids.
JB: And again, the sense of freedom that I felt out there was just so different from the way things were back here in the States, and I was really able to, I think, start understanding a little bit about who I was and the kinds of things that I love to do and what lit me up. And so, that sort of brought me then back to the US. And when I started college, I went to UCLA and studied World Arts and Cultures. I knew I wanted to travel, I knew I wanted to learn more about the people in the world, and Art and History and Art History and Anthropology. And so I studied all this, and after college, I moved to Italy and lived there for seven years. [laughter]
BB: Do you know at this point, or even coming out of UCLA or at UCLA, “I am going to be a designer, and all of these what seemingly disparate parts of my life are going to be expressed creatively this way.” Do you know this yet?
JB: I know nothing. [laughter]
BB: Okay, you know nothing yet. Anyone who listens to the podcast knows, this is my favorite kind of story. I also have a windy path. What did you do in Italy? Did you work?
JB: Yeah. I worked, I went to school. So when I first got there, I had spent my junior year abroad there at UCLA, and ultimately, it was a boy that brought me back. And sort of a not knowing what I was going to do or… I was in that exploration mode.
BB: Are you disclosing now it was a good looking Italian guy?
JB: Yes, very good looking, very sweet guy.
BB: Oh, y’all know I like her already.
JB: You know. So yeah, it was amazing.
BB: Wait, wait… What was your parents’ reaction to this? “Hey, I’m going to go move to Italy now.”
JB: Actually, at the time, my parents had moved back to Switzerland, so they were close by. And my sister Faith…
BB: Oh, yeah.
JB: My sister Faith, who is also a designer, came with me, so we were there together. And ultimately, the first year we were there, we signed up for a fashion design school. I thought I wanted to go into fashion. And so that was an amazing experience. I got to meet so many incredible Italian designers and get better at speaking Italian, learn the culture, classes were all in Italian and stuff like that, so it was just a steep learning curve. And then it also allowed my sister and I to stay there legally, because we were there on a student visa. And basically, after that year of studying, we tried to figure out how we could stay because we wanted to stay. And so we found a little loophole in the system where we started our own Italian business and then hired ourselves as the CEOs of said business in order to… [laughter]
JB: And it was this weird backwards thing that we figured out, but we ended up staying for seven years and opening up a little boutique in the historical center of Florence. And we were so different from everybody [laughter] who was there. It was…
BB: What do you mean that you were different than people there?
JB: I didn’t know any entrepreneurs at all, let alone female entrepreneurs who are also women of color, who were also Jewish, who were also… There were just so many things that made us stand out. Florence is a really touristy city, and it’s very heavy on foreign students, so what started to happen in the first year or two that we opened this boutique is we became a landing hub for a lot of foreign students who would come and know that we had the inside scoop of the best places to go and visit or places to stay and things like that. So we had to a steady influx of a lot of American students coming through, and at the boutique, we had vintage stuff that we would travel all around Europe scouring and things we would make. I had my little sewing machine in the upstairs area of the store, and I would just make stuff, buy stuff on eBay, get it sent out. It was just this disorganized hustle that was super fun, never profitable, and really every day, a new adventure and a new thing to figure out.
BB: This is your 20s basically, right?
JB: Yeah, yeah. I was there from the time I was 20 until I was about 27 or 28.
BB: I just want to be there just for one day. If I could just get in my time machine and just kind of wonder in your… What was your shop called?
JB: It was called Compie.
BB: What does that mean?
JB: It was a riff on an Italian word that comes from the root “compadre” or companion, it comes from that word, so it was kind of a made-up word, but the idea of it was friends or togetherness or companion.
BB: I just want to be like a weary 20-year-old Eurorail traveler that stops in to figure out what’s the safest hostile and hangs out with y’all for a little bit and buys some cool cut offs and then I’m on my way.
JB: You totally got the vibe. That was exactly…
BB: Oh yeah, no, I did my tour. I did my Europe tour. Unfortunately at 17, but yeah, I did it. That sounds amazing. Then what happens? I’m riveted. I’m already seeing the movie.
JB: Yeah, great movie. [chuckle] So been there for a while. Three Italian boyfriends later, I was in a…
BB: 7,624 espressos and three Italian boyfriends later.
JB: Yes. I was there for seven years, it was my 20s.
BB: Fair enough.
JB: I was in a bad relationship, and it was a relationship that I understood that I was going to have to leave Florence in order to leave this unhealthy situation behind me. And so, I moved to New York, and it was a very tough couple of years, those last couple of years in Italy, definitely trauma and a difficult time. And when I left, I was really ready to get to know myself better. I had sort of gotten lost in that relationship, and I needed a way out. So I moved to New York, which was a place I’d always sort of wanted to spend some time, and I figured I’m in my late 20s, if I don’t do it now, when will I be able to do it?
JB: So I found an apartment in Brooklyn with some girlfriends of mine and hated it. [laughter]
BB: Did you?
JB: Yes, I hated it. It was so hard.
BB: Was it the residual trauma and heartbreak from the bad relationship or did you just hate that whole vibe there?
JB: No. It had been over a year that I had gotten over the relationship and I was ready for a scene change, but New York, I just found to be really hard. And I think the transition of going from a place like Italy, where the quality of life is just so high and you can get by with not that much money and everything is gorgeous and it’s easy life, to what I think is one of the hardest cities in the world. Yes. And I’m a really hard worker, so I could get behind the idea of a hustle and making it work, but I think a combination of being lonely there, that was really hard. I didn’t know so many people and because I was working as a creative Jill of all trades for hire, I didn’t have an office I was going to, I didn’t have an easy way to plug in and find my community. And this is in the early 2000s, and so there wasn’t a ton of social media, there wasn’t a ton of ways to find your people. And I sort of never found that in New York.
JB: So at the time… I’m making this sound like all my decisions are boy-driven, but that’s not totally true. But I was dating a man who lived in Los Angeles, who I knew from my time at UCLA, and starting to fly really regularly back and forth between Los Angeles and New York, to be with him and see him.
BB: That’s a horrible flight.
JB: Horrible flight. I was also pretty broke at the time, so it was expensive. And after two years in New York, I decided to move back to Los Angeles. And when I came back, that’s the first time that I’ve ever lived on my own, in my own space.
BB: That’s a big deal.
JB: Was a really big deal for me, a very big deal. And I was for the first time really able to create a space for myself where I felt I could totally unleash my creativity in my own way without compromise, without having to have discussions about what we’re going to do with this room or that room, where I was going to do this activity or that activity, and all those negotiations that go on with people when you’re cohabitating. And so that was a really important time for me, and it was short-lived because Jason, my boyfriend, who at the time I was dating and we were getting more serious, moved in after about a year. And now Jason and I are married, and that was the end of my escapades.
BB: You don’t have any more espressos or good boyfriends? Damn it.
JB: No, but luckily, Jason was the really good one, and it stuck. And we’ve been together 15 years now and have a beautiful daughter. But that year though, when I moved back to Los Angeles and was finding myself again after the seven years in Italy and the two years in New York, and that was the year that I started my blog as well, and that was really the start of what is now Jungalow and my career as it is now.
BB: You write a lot about home as a safe space to practice self-expression.
BB: Was that that first year in LA for you?
JB: I think in parts it was always true for me. It was maybe just my room or a corner of a room or expressed in these different ways. I think home has always been a creative laboratory for me, whether it was for things like redecorating my space, but also practicing music or I remember being a kid and recording harmonies with mixtapes, recording over my voice and just creating, doing all different kinds of creative activities, keeping myself busy in my room with all my little art projects, but…
BB: So always a maker.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s just been something that is just inside of me.
BB: How would you describe, for those listening that have never seen… This is an interesting format to talk about design, right?
BB: But it’s actually my favorite, because design is not always about aesthetic force, it’s something more meaningful, for me anyway, and something deeper. You talk about fearless self-expression, and if y’all could see Justina’s work, I just want to dive into it. Laura Mayes, who produces the podcast for us, we were like, “We’re going to talk to Justina about opening up a hotel in Austin that’s just… Everything’s designed by you, so we could go stay in one of your spaces.”
JB: Oh my gosh.
BB: What do you think?
JB: That is my dream. My Jungalow-tel. My Jungalow-tel, it’s finally happening.
BB: Oh my God, yes. Yes.
JB: I would love that.
BB: By the way, where are you staying this weekend? I’m at the Jungalow, and I’m in the Justina room. Where are you?
JB: Oh my gosh.
BB: You’re fearless with color, with pattern, about mixing things together that… I know a lot of my friends were like, “Oh my God, am I allowed to do this? Is this the rules?” Tell me where this started. Your home was a shelter for mixed-ness. Comfortable and beautiful when the world was not. This is from your book. Tell me about this.
JB: My dad is black and my mom is Jewish, and we grew up in this mixed household that was a convergence of so many different things. It was a convergence of culture, religion, socio-economic backgrounds, it just was sort of this mix. And so, mixing is how I was raised and putting unusual things together, even in food and the way we celebrate holidays and all of that, all of those sort of cultural expressions and traditions in our family were an amalgamation of so many different stories and families and cultures and things like that. So I think this idea of putting unusual things together is just something that is so ingrained in how I was raised and the family that I grew up with, that I can’t separate that from my design work or my art. It’s so much a part of my own identity. And so I’m not scared to try things with color because I think there are things that are a lot more scary than painting a wall or… [laughter] Not to minimize people’s apprehensions or fears or things like that, but I think that there aren’t so many places in life where you are allowed to totally unleash sort of yourself and feel really wild and free, and I feel like design and the way you create space or the way you dress or these kinds of things are a place where we are allowed to have fun and express our individuality, and so I like to lean into that freedom and play and experiment.
BB: Yeah, I want to read this piece again, “A shelter for mixed-ness, comfortable and beautiful when the world wasn’t, when the world demanded compartmentalization instead of mixing.”
JB: Yes, I always felt like society at large was trying to funnel me into choosing a specific lane, I still feel that way in so many ways, whether it’s about my own racial identity or picking a major in college or even in the interior design world, because I’m not a traditional interior designer that takes on residential interior clients and stuff, people get really confused, they want me to be slotted into a specific box that they can understand, and I think I enjoy and actively try to crush that box.
BB: Yeah, yeah, and then stand on it and say, “Look over here, doesn’t this look great together?”
JB: Right or maybe turning that box into something else and hang it on my wall, exactly.
BB: Yeah, yeah. An ottoman. And now go back to the story. So Jason moves in. Tell me about the birth of your design career and you’re blogging, so a lot of us from that blogging world know you. Was that a big part of amplifying your work to the public, blogging?
JB: Yeah, I just remember at the time, blogs in general and design blogs were starting to gain in popularity, so there were a few bloggers who were sort of the design bloggers at the time. And I just remember reading their blogs, and I had worked when I was in New York and Italy, actually with a lot of art and culture publications as a writer and an editor. And so I’d always loved that medium, sort of being able to combine images and art and words and sort of share that with the world. And so, once I decided to create my own blog, I didn’t put any sort of guard rails around it for myself. It was just like, “This is just a place for me to express myself creatively.” And the only thing that I sort of committed to was doing it five days a week. So I was just like, “I’m just going to say something five days a week.” And I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t have big plans, nor did I think like, “Oh, this will be the start of my big design career.” I was just trying to carve out a little space to be creative and to share my creativity, and for so, so many years, it was really just for me, there was no conversation, there was no comments, there were no numbers.
JB: But what I found through blogging and what did start to happen after a couple of years was that I started to find my community, and that was so important because I had had that in Italy. And then when I left Italy, I hadn’t really had that in New York, and I was kind of struggling to find that for myself in LA. And it was like all of a sudden I was starting to meet all these creatives and people who were also interested in design and art and having these kinds of discussions, and so that was really exciting to me because all of a sudden it was like, “Oh my gosh, okay, I’m finding my people.” And so while I was doing this for work, I was working as art director, stylist, designer for hire, mostly with small female-owned businesses. So I was helping design logos or designing websites, and then those clients would find my blog or discover that I was doing this other thing. And they’d say, “Oh well, you’ve actually got a great eye for interior design, do you want to decorate my home?” And I was like oh… [laughter] Oh, okay, I guess this is something I could try. And then I just started doing that. So much of my story is happenstance and just getting an opportunity, and instead of passing, just trying it and seeing where it takes me.
BB: I would also say the discipline of blogging five times a week and the discipline of staying true to your creativity, right?
JB: Yes, one thing I do sort of pride myself on is that I do set goals for myself, and not always, but a lot of the time I reach them. At least I everyday reach towards them, and some days that really works. [laughter]
BB: When would you say, if you looked back, if you had a portfolio of everything you did, even back to the early days where you were doing logo design and someone said, “Hey, can you design our shop or my house.” For the untrained eye, let’s say me, for example, when would I first see a picture where I’d be like, Oh, is that Justina Blakeney? Do you understand what I’m asking? Like when did that…
JB: When did my shit start to take off?
BB: Well. Not only when did your shit start to take off, but when did your look come to… If someone showed me 20 pictures, I could pick your rooms probably out because I’m like, there’s a fearlessness to it. There’s a beauty to it, there’s a… I’ve been places and seen things and appreciate what’s different than me. There’s always plants. When did you get a look?
JB: I think that first apartment that I moved into when I moved back to LA, that was really the first time I felt I could really express myself fully in my home, and so I would say if you see pictures of that apartment, you would say, “Oh yeah, this is Justina Blakeney’s work.”
BB: Oh, no way. Really?
JB: [laughter] Yeah, yeah, for sure. I collected botanical wallpapers, so I had botanical wallpapers on the wall. I had galleries of my art mixed with flea market finds, thrifted sofas, layered rugs, plants everywhere. And actually, I think that was one of the things that helped me gain confidence in design, which is that I submitted photos of that place to Apartment Therapy when I was… Again, this is in the…
BB: The website.
JB: Yeah, the website. So Apartment Therapy is this big home decor blog, and it was one of the big ones back in the day. And my home ended up getting featured in a book of theirs, which was The Apartment Therapy Big Book of Small Cool Spaces. And so once that happened, I was like, “Oh wow, maybe this is something that I’m good at and that I enjoy doing and that is resonating with other people.” That gave me the confidence that I needed to kind of just continue putting my stuff out there and continuing to try and just be creative. Unleash my creativity.
BB: And so when would you say you hit one of those big amplification moments when your shit took off?
JB: I took a full-time job as an art director at a garden company when I was a few years into blogging and a little bit tired of that hustle of having 14 different clients, and I was kind of like, “Oh, I just want a paycheck.” So I took the full-time job, and I had never really had a full-time job before. So it was like a real crazy transition for me, and it was hard, but during that time, was working my butt off for that company, coming home at 9 and 10 o’clock in the evenings and still maintaining my blog. And behind the scenes, I didn’t even realize it while it was happening, and that’s how sort of crazy this whole thing was, is that my Pinterest audience at the time was just exploding. And I had no idea that that was happening because I wasn’t checking my Pinterest every single day. I was using it for work, but I wasn’t like paying attention to growing my following there. And I remember looking at my Pinterest feed and saying, “Oh my gosh. Wait, that can’t be right. I have a million followers?” It was something that happened so quickly, and it turns out I had become a suggested user on the platform, right when Pinterest started to take off and go more mass. It sort of started with this design blogger kind of niche and then it sort of ballooned out.
JB: And I was like, “Oh my gosh, is this real?” I thought it was a glitch, I actually thought it was a glitch because Pinterest is still very glitchy, this is in the very early days. And I was like, “This is not correct.” But then I started to see that there were so many comments on all the images that I was repinning, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, are there really a million people following me here?” And then all of a sudden I started getting contacted from brands and things like that, they wanted to do partnerships. And I was like, “Oh… Oh, whoa, okay, well, this is like real, and these are real people who are looking at my images and commenting and resonating and that I can connect with through this platform.” and so that was the moment when I said, “Okay, this is real, and this is actually really powerful. So I’m going to lean into this and see what I can make from it.” And that was really the turning point.
BB: Wow, so no more art director at the garden center?
BB: Yeah, that went the way of some espressos and a couple of Italian boyfriends.
JB: It did. [laughter]
BB: Yeah, okay, this would be a great task: For the people listening and who can’t see right now, how would you describe your style?
JB: I love color. I love old things and things with stories. I love the juxtapositions between unusual objects and the stories that unusual objects create in an ensemble. So I think the way I decorate is very narrative, so I like telling stories through my decor. And I love patterns and things like pom-poms and tassel trims. I love…
BB: Oh God. Me too, keep going, keep going.
JB: I love plants so much. And I think one of the things that I try to do in all of my designs is connect nature and the outdoors into the indoors, and it could be very literally, like trying to get more sunlight into a space, bringing plants in. It could be figuratively through things like botanical wallpapers. It could be kind of a more ephemeral thing where the colors that I’m channeling and using are swatched from a photo of the grasslands. So it really, to me, is about creating a space that you walk into and feel limitless potential and opportunity to tap into who you really want to be.
BB: Okay, I want to go to the Jungalow. I want to go. Okay, I have some hard questions. Some tactical hard questions. Jesus, why is compromise so hard when it comes to designing your space, with your partner or just somebody, somebody just help me with this question.
JB: It is, it’s so hard, but I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. And this is something that my husband and I, and even also our daughter, who’s eight years old and has opinions, lots of opinions, the way our home functions, it has to function for all of us. And finding the common ground and the things that you all agree on, you all love, and finding the things that are must-haves for every one of you, and then coming together, knowing that baseline, I think is so important and sometimes easier to find than you think. So one of the things I like to recommend is taking a few minutes, everybody in your household to jot down some of the places that you’ve been in your life, where you feel inspired, where you feel safe, where you feel relaxed, where you feel all the things that you want to feel in your home or in the different spaces of your home. And write down what those places are, and any memories of those places that you have; the colors, the textures, the sounds, the sense, anything that can bring you back to that place.
JB: And once you’ve done that, even if it’s just sort of a page of different adjectives, just going around and kind of circling ones that are similar, so “We all have blue in here” or “Oh, all of these places were by the beach,” or whatever those common threads are that connect your experiences in a positive way. And use that as a jumping off place to find…
BB: That’s so smart.
JB: A palette, a way to connect the dots between everyone in the home.
BB: That’s so smart.
JB: Thank you. [laughter]
BB: Alright, my second practical question, this is about mixing, this is about plants. Can I read something to you from your book?
JB: Please, I would love to hear you read from my book. [laughter]
BB: “In the wild, plants send pollen grains to ride the water or wind or develop flowers with the colors, fragrances, or nectar’s necessary to attract pollinators, all in order to send their genes far a field to mix with one another. All sexually reproducing species go to great lands to mix their genes as a way to survive shifting environmental conditions. Over time, new species evolve and the result is the vast array of living organisms we encounter on our planet. We humans are part of this story, of course, and there is a deep sense that our very existence as individuals and as a species is the result of putting a very high value on genetic mixture and diversity. Mixing is magic.” I loved it so much.
JB: Thank you.
BB: Mixing is magic.
JB: Yeah, I’m getting emotional now because I wrote this book with my husband. And it’s so close to me and it reminds me so much of our mix and the convergence of each of us in our home and our daughter, and it’s very personal to me.
BB: It is the beauty of your work, really. It is really the beauty of your work. I’m looking at this picture, I can’t stop, I’m obsessed with this picture, I’m going to show it to you. When y’all get the book, you have to buy the book, on page 190-191, it’s a spread in the book, let me show it to you. I just want to be swallowed whole in that. What am I seeing in this room? I’m seeing a kind of brown, burnt orange and cream rug, what kind of rug is that?
JB: It’s a shaggy rug, that is part of one of my designs for Loloi Rugs. And for me, I also love the ’70s. [chuckle]
BB: Yeah. You got the vibe.
JB: I got the vibe. I was born in 1979, so I feel like I just made the cut. [laughter] So talking a little bit about connecting the indoors with the outdoors, that room, that space for me is about the spirit of the jungle and the feelings that you get when you’re in a space as dense and as wild and as exhilarating as kind of a jungle environment, so I oftentimes will think about different locations that I’ve traveled to or spent time in, and try and channel what it felt like to be in that space and then bring it together with comfort and sort of matching function to the way it feels to be in that exhilarating environment or that calming environment or these different spaces.
BB: Incredible. Alright, let’s talk about… There are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven plants in this room. Alright, one, every time I put plants in my house, I get bugs. What’s the key here?
JB: So bugs are tough, and it just depends a lot on the location and the levels of moisture. I think a lot of times bugs are really attracted to the moisture in the plants, so sometimes over-watering can lead to bugs and so…
BB: Got it.
JB: It’s important… It depends a little bit on each plant, each one’s different, but making sure to let the plant soil fully dry before you water it again. Also, making sure your plants have good drainage and that there’s no standing water.
BB: Oh No, ma’am. I’m watering this thing four times a day, I’m like…
JB: Oh my, no girl, no pull it back.
BB: Pull it back, she’s saying. No, I’m watering, I’m like “Live plant. Warning, coming in with water. Live plant, coming with water.” I’m like, “You will not die of thirst on my watch in my house.” I’m like, “I am drowning these suckers.”
JB: I get it. I’ve heard the statistics that most house plants die of over-watering, and I believe it.
BB: That’s me.
JB: The drainage thing is so important. When you think about plants in the wild, unless they’re water plants, like water lilies or these type of things, they have drainage. They’re in the soil, they’re in the ground, so the roots are never sitting in a saturation situation.
BB: But I’m seeing plants in this room that I’m looking at in really cute…
JB: Rattan baskets or…
BB: Rattan baskets, yeah. Where is the drainage? Where is the sophisticatedly engineered draining?
JB: Oh, got so many secrets.
BB: Okay, oh my God, right here.
JB: Okay, so you should always have a cachepot, so you can have the regular plastic pot, for example, that plants come in, and then underneath you put a saucer.
JB: And then you can also put little chunks of charcoal at the bottom that help absorb any additional water or stones on top of your cachepot.
BB: What’s a cachepot?
JB: Just a saucer. A saucer.
BB: A saucer. Okay.
JB: Something that basically, once the water seeps through the soil and nourishes the plant, it can come out.
BB: Got it. Okay, the saucer. Cachepot.
JB: Yes, into the saucer. So with big plants, it’s sometimes cumbersome to lift them out in order to dump the excess water out, so using little pieces of charcoal help absorb the excess water, but don’t go bananas with watering the plant. Oftentimes, especially with tropical plants, misting can go a long way. You don’t have to be dumping cups and cups and cups of water.
BB: Oh my God I dump cups, I mean tumblers. Huge tumblers of water go into this plant twice a day.
JB: You’re overwatering. Oh, you’re really overwatering your plant. Again, it depends on the plant, different plants require different amounts of water, but the general gist is give the plant a good soak and let it dry completely before watering again. So you stick your finger in the soil and see how wet it is or you can get one of those little meters that tells you when you stick it in how wet your soil is.
BB: I want to have these. They remind me of growing up in the ’70s, my mom always had… Is it scheffleras or something? Is that the name of something? I don’t know if she’d always be in her caftan, with her Merit cigarette in one hand and her Tab to drink…
JB: I love your mom.
BB: And then watering the scheffleras, I think that was the name of the…
JB: Oh schefflera, yes, and they’re beautiful. I love them so much. Their little umbrella leaves that splay out like this.
BB: Yes, yes, yes.
JB: Yes, yes yes. One of my favorite plants and actually not a fussy plant either.
BB: Not a fussy plant?
JB: Not a fussy plant. They’re pretty hardy. They’re pretty hardy.
BB: I’m going to buy two this week.
JB: Yes, okay two plants?
BB: I’m going to name them Justina and Blakeney. Yes.
JB: Oh my God.
BB: I am. I’m going to talk to them, and I’m not going to drown them and overwater them. Tell me two plants to get that are really hardy.
JB: Okay, so the schefflera is one of my favorites, and they also grow in different varieties. Some of them have the larger leaves and that kind of splay out like an umbrella, then there’s smaller varieties too. I would start with the smaller varieties. Then my other pick is a Zee Zee plant. It’s an indestructible plant.
BB: Are you spelling that, like ZZ as in ZZ Top?
JB: Yeah, like Z-E-E-Z-E-E.
BB: Got it. Okay.
JB: That’s like it’s colloquial term. It’s scientific term is something like Zamioculcas Zamioculcas, I don’t remember it.
BB: Oh Lord, okay, Zee Zee.
JB: Zee Zee just… If you type in Zee Zee you’ll find it. They thrive in low light, they thrive on just a tiny bit of water. And then another thing to keep in mind when you’re plant shopping or if you’re looking for plants that are easy care, there’s certain things that you can start to learn off the bat to identify plants that are easier to care for. So for example, the Zee Zee plant has kind of a waxy, fleshy leaf.
BB: I love that look.
JB: Yeah, so do I. And what’s also great about that is that when you see leaves that are a little bit fleshier, they’re storing water in their leaves, so they don’t need to be watered as frequently. So oftentimes, if a plant looks really like wispy and delicate, it is. And if it looks a little more hardy or it’s got some fat on the bone, if you will, it tends to just be a little bit more hardy.
BB: I’m going to buy plants that look like me.
JB: That’s what I’m talking about.
BB: I’ve been called a lot of things. Wispy has not been one of them.
BB: Alright, so I’m going to buy a Zee Zee and maybe… It’s not schefflera, but however you say that the right way.
JB: You said it, I think it’s pronounced schefflera…
BB: Schefflera, okay.
JB: But I will also say that I think most of my plant knowledge is from reading and not hearing people talk about it, so I might be pronouncing it wrong too.
BB: One more practical question for you, these throw pillows that are in this book, where are these coming from?
JB: Oh my gosh, I have a problem. I have a throw pillow problem.
BB: We need a 12-step group for you.
JB: I need a 12-foot truck is what I need. [chuckle]
BB: I know. Look I said, “We need a 12-step program,” she says, “We need a 12-foot truck.” You need to drive your truck to the throw pillows anonymous meeting.
BB: Okay, if I can’t go to Marrakesh.
JB: You can go to the Jungalow. [chuckle] I hate to be self-promotional, but…
BB: No don’t… Don’t be…
JB: Designing throw pillows is my jam, so…
BB: Is that your jam? Your favorite thing?
JB: It’s really high up there on my favorite thing, because I think each one is like a little piece of art, a little painting.
JB: That’s kind of how I think about it. And then I love textiles, and trims, and tassels, and pom-poms, and all that kind of stuff. So for me it’s like I get to marry my favorite things. And then, I also think that textiles are just the easiest thing to use to completely transform the look of a room. It’s a perfect little toe dip into, “Okay, I want to change this, but I’m scared to paint my walls,” or “I can’t afford to buy any new furniture right now.” Throw pillows, blankets, just textiles you can hang on the wall or drape over your sofa is such an instant way to transform the look of a space. And just try dipping your toes into the wild, wild world of Jungalow [chuckle] and making your space more dynamic, and more colorful, more vibrant, bringing out some of those creative juices.
BB: I’m going to get Jungalowed, okay. The throw pillow thing is my obsession, and of course, my husband’s like, “There’s a lot of pillows to move.”
JB: Same, but…
BB: Really? Jason?
JB: We were talking a… [chuckle] Yes, Jason. Remember how we were talking about the lists of things that are really, really important to us?
JB: Yeah. Throw pillows is on the top of mine.
BB: Okay, I love that. I love that. When you said it’s at the top. What are the top three? Throw pillows, give me two more that you love.
JB: I love designing wallpaper, like wall-coverings is so fun for me because it’s just such a complete transformation of a space.
JB: And I love designing surface patterns. It’s just a really fun exercise for me. So I think wall-coverings. And after that, I think, ceramics, and vessels, things like that because…
BB: Oh, yes.
JB: Yeah, I love designing that kind of stuff because I enjoy things that also have a function. And so, for example, one of the first things that I released once I started doing my own production and manufacturing were cool, fun, and funky indoor planters that had drainage, because there are so many decorative planters that are sold on the market that have no drainage. And I’m like, “All these pots are killing plants all over the world, and people don’t understand why.”
BB: Wait, but that’s true. That’s true. It’s hard to find ones that are really cute and decorative, that are functional.
JB: Very, very difficult to find, so I enjoy sort of the puzzle of figuring out how to design items that have that sort of make you smile sensibility, but at the same time, have a functional quality to them, that makes you live better in your home.
BB: You make me so happy, I just want to say.
JB: Oh, thanks.
BB: I just want to say you make me very happy.
JB: My gosh.
BB: Okay, you ready for our rapid fire?
JB: Oh, I’m scared. Brené, what are you going to ask me?
BB: Come on.
JB: Alright, let’s do this. [chuckle]
BB: Hey, you don’t kill plants, this cannot be hard. This is not hard for you.
BB: I’ve killed plants before. I have to step into my authenticity here with you, and say that I have killed plants. It’s part of the learning curve, and I have a compost.
BB: Okay. You do?
JB: I do, so turn them back into soil and try again.
BB: Try again. Yeah.
JB: Yeah, don’t beat yourself up.
BB: Like it’s a great grandparent of that thing you killed, yeah.
JB: Yeah, it’s okay.
BB: Okay, fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
JB: Vulnerability is being honest with myself.
BB: Mm, yikes. Okay. I agree, hard one. Okay, you, Justina, are called to be very brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it in your throat, what’s the very first thing you do?
JB: Find my breath.
BB: What is something people often get wrong about you?
JB: I think this was something that I got wrong about myself for a long time, so I don’t blame anybody for getting this wrong about me. But… And I actually think it was just in this past year with being home so much that I really realized this for the first time, and that is that I think I’m an introvert. And I’m very outgoing, and so I thought that, that meant for a long time that I was an extrovert, but I’m not. I definitely sort of find I recharge more and have an easier time when I have time alone with myself. And I didn’t really know that about myself for a really long time.
BB: Have you read Susan Cain’s book Quiet?
JB: No, but I’m writing that down right now.
BB: Yeah, write it down because I’m an outgoing introvert too. And I think people can get that wrong about me, and I think because they took my lead on it because I thought I got it wrong about myself. But understanding that about myself was really life changing, like hugely life changing.
JB: I’m kind of noticing that. It’s new, this is a new thing for me.
BB: Read Quiet.
JB: I’ll read it.
BB: And then send me an email. I want to know what you think. And then I’m going to give you a report on my plants.
JB: I love homework, thank you. [chuckle]
BB: You can always count on me for homework and gold stars.
JB: I love it, I love most of those things. [chuckle]
BB: Me too, I’m always like… Every week I ask my therapist, “What’s the homework?” She’s like, “No homework, no gold stars. Feel free to assign yourself or reward yourself.” I’m like, “Shit.”
BB: Okay, last TV show that you binged and loved?
JB: Oh, I have to admit. I listen to this podcast, I was thinking you were going to ask me this question.
JB: And I was trying to think of an answer that would make me sound smart, but decided in your honor…
JB: To tell the truth. And the truth is, I love Outlanders. [chuckle]
BB: [laughter] Oh, this is why I love you. This is why I love you.
JB: [laughter] A so naughty pleasure.
BB: But people keep telling me I need to watch it, and I’m just like…
JB: I love it so much.
BB: Okay, alright.
BB: We’re going to check back in plants, Outlander, Quiet.
JB: Alright, you got homework.
BB: Oh, yeah. I can’t wait. This has been… That was the best homework I’ve ever been assigned. [chuckle] Ever. Okay, favorite movie?
JB: Princess Bride.
JB: Yeah, it’s just…
BB: Inconceivable, okay.
JB: Inconceivable. [laughter]
BB: Inconceivable. Okay, a concert that you’ll never forget?
JB: Junior year of High School, Prince.
JB: I was sick as a dog. Actually very sick, but I was not going to miss that show. [chuckle] So my sister and I together, my face is green, I had been vomiting all day. But I was like, “No, I’m going to go see Prince.” And I just sat there in the terrible seats, and I was sick. And I just stared at him toggling 100 different instruments and just being his incredible, wild, wonderful self. And I just was forever changed [chuckle] after that.
BB: Completely worth going.
JB: He was one of the people who made me realize I could shatter that box. I didn’t have to stay inside the box that society kept telling me…
JB: I needed to stay inside. So grateful to him for that.
BB: Yeah, he did not do boxes or lanes.
JB: No, not at all.
BB: He said, “Wherever I’m standing, that’s my lane. Get used to it.”
BB: Okay, favorite meal?
JB: Gosh. I spent that seven years in Italy, and it had something to do with the Italian boys, but it also had [chuckle] something to do to with the Italian food. Oh, my God. I love anything having to do with any kind of pasta, plus any kind of sauce, plus any kind of cheese is life itself to me. So I…
BB: So if we went somewhere and an Italian chef could make you any pasta with any sauce, with any kind of cheese… I know, I’m going to pressure you here.
JB: Okay, okay. No, I like this, I like this. I need to get more specific. So first of all, I’ll say that pasta fatta in casa, which is just homemade pasta, fresh, is the jam. So pasta fatta in casa. And then for sauce, I don’t eat meat, so that sort of… slots a lot of stuff out. But I’m going to say, I want the chef to cook, woo, Pasta al Limone, which is a lemon cream sauce, which is kind of hard to find here in the States.
JB: And it’s simple, but it is so rich and just delicious. [laughter]
BB: Okay. Is there anything on top of it? Parmesan cheese or just the lemon sauce?
JB: Yeah. A little bit of shredded parmesan on top, just a little. I feel like here in the States, we’re like, “Oh, parmesan.” But in Italy, like, tu, tu, just a little sprinkle. [chuckle]
BB: Tu, tu, tu. And then bread?
JB: Of course, I mean…
BB: Okay, come one.
JB: If the chef… We’re going to do some bread, we’re going to do a salad, we’re going to do fruit at the end. Italian style, they do fruit at the end. I’ve adopted that, I love that. Delicious. And vino. Don’t forget the vino.
BB: The vino. Yes. Okay, what’s on your nightstand?
JB: So I have a collection of stones on my night stand that I’ve painted on and it’s different faces with different stones. And why do I have them on my nightstand? I don’t know. They ended up there and I just liked it, so I kept them there. But sometimes I just like the tactile thing of kind of holding the stones in my hand, so I’ve got the stones there. I have my magazines because I’m a magazine freak and it’s also the way that I keep up with the foreign languages that I speak. I’ll buy design magazines in Italian, in French, in Spanish, and sort of practice my languages, and look at all the pretty pictures. And gosh, a glass of water because I get real thirsty at night, [chuckle] and I have my little carafe. And then a bunch of books that honestly don’t get opened that often, that I’m working on making more time for.
BB: First of all, are the rocks private? Are the rocks something you could send us a picture of?
JB: Yeah, I can totally send you a picture of them, yeah.
BB: We want to see your rocks, we’ll put it on the episode page.
JB: Yeah, for sure.
BB: So French, Italian, Spanish. Did you keep up your German?
JB: Oh, yeah.
BB: Wow, so you speak five languages?
JB: I do, with sort of varying degrees of fluency. My French is pretty shabby.
BB: Yeah, and you know they’re picky about that. I’m just saying.
JB: They are. I have a good accent though, so I feel like I can kind of get by.
BB: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, yeah.
JB: But my vocabulary is terrible and my grammar is a joke.
BB: Impressive. Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you real joy.
JB: My studio is a block away from my home. And I sort of designed that, my life that way on purpose, because when I lived in Italy, the store that we had was just a half a block from where we lived. And I just love the proximity and a little walk and being able to kinda toggle back and forth between my home and my studio. So I have that here, and it’s been a little different during the pandemic, but in normal times when I’m working at my studio every day when I walk home or take my bike home, and look over the little fence and see my daughter and Jason out in the yard, and then Ida just running out to greet me and jumping up and giving me a hug. That’s just everything to me, that moment.
BB: That is such a beautiful moment, isn’t it?
JB: It is. I just feel really, really lucky.
BB: Work you love, people you love. Yeah.
BB: No small thing. It’s everything, I think. What’s one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now?
JB: I guess, I just have to say my health, because this year has been really stressful for everybody I know, not just me, but just having got vaccinated, I feel grateful that I made it through this thing. I have asthma, and my mom also has severe breathing issues, and so I’ve been really scared this year. And so I just have to say I’m grateful for my health and the health of my family.
BB: Yeah, me too. Alright, we asked you for five songs that you cannot live without, so we made a mini mixtape to put on Spotify with your picture on it. Let me tell you the songs: “Summertime,” by Sam Cooke, “Adore,” by Prince, “Modeh Ani,” which is a Jewish morning blessing, “Greatest Love of All,” by Whitney Houston, and “Black Girl,” by Lenny Kravitz. In one sentence, what does this mini mixtape say about you, Justina?
JB: This mini mixtape shares moments of belonging throughout my life.
BB: God, that’s everything, isn’t it?
BB: Well, I have to say that I was so excited to sit with you, even we’re on Zoom, but to sit with you, learn about you, learn about your story, how this incredible thinking came about. Thank you.
JB: Thank you.
BB: Just incredible.
BB: Now, y’all know why I’m in love with Justina. And you can go to brenebrown.com, and you can check out some photos of her work that we put on our website. You can find her on, and this is probably the best place to go, find her online at Instagram, at @justinablakeney. And it’s J-U-S-T-I-N-A B-L-A-K-E-N-E-Y. And at @theJungalow on Twitter and Facebook. She is also there at @justinablakeney. Her websites are jungalow.com and justinablakeney.com. Also, check out her online shop, which is so much fun. We’ll link to that and everything on our episode pages. As you know, every episode of Unlocking Us has an episode page on brenebrown.com where we have resources, downloads, transcripts. You can also sign up for our newsletters, which I think are really fun. They’re like little… They’re monthly newsletters, I finally got my shit together enough to send them every month. So for those of y’all who had been on the newsletter list for a decade and usually they come twice a year. We’re really… Thanks to my team doing it monthly, and it’s fun.
BB: I’m talking about what I’m watching on TV, what I’m binging, what I love, what movies, albums I’m listening to, podcasts that I learned a lot from. So you can sign up for the newsletter. We promise we will not harangue or harass you. But we also promise that we’ll actually send you something interesting. Again, thanks to the team. We’re always happy to be right here on Spotify, there’s a whole Brené Brown hub that you can find with all of our episodes, my picks, my mini mixtapes, playlists everything in one spot. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll just end with this quote by Justina that I love, “When it comes to color, I’m a maximalist.” That would be me too. See y’all next time.
Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits. And music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.