A candidate for HGTV Creator of the year 2022, Mel Bean made a name for himself in all places, Tulsa Oklahoma. Perhaps best known for the design The Pioneer Woman’s Lodgethe founder of Interiors Mel Bean discovered his passion two years after earning a psychology/pre-med degree. When Bean realized that her future plans didn’t leave much room to explore her inner creativity, she took the plunge and changed her specialty.
I recently spoke with Bean about designing in the Midwest, her personal style, where she likes to source furniture, and her collaboration with Ree Drummond, among others.
Amanda Lawrence: How did you get started in the industry?
Mel Bean: After changing majors, I called every architecture and design firm in Tulsa listed in the phone book. I was hungry to learn, and a design company with a furniture showroom tried my luck as an intern and general helper in the showroom. They helped me become a designer. After working in interior design and architecture for a decade, I started Austin Bean Design Studio with my friend, Bailey Austin, and started Mel Bean Interiors in 2018. One of the things about Tulsa being the “ biggest small town” is that my work was noticed immediately, and referrals have always been important to my business.
Lauren: What makes design in the Midwest unique?
Bean: The Midwest is largely misunderstood, or worse completely ignored. With a little exploration, you’ll discover unique stylistic personalities in each region, informed by the history, natural environment, and diversity of people who inhabit these regions. You may be surprised to learn of the creative renaissance that is hitting many cities.
Example: Tulsa. For many people, the only thing they know about Tulsa is that Chandler Bing was going to move here in a dramatic twist in Friends. Tulsa is home to important historical works such as art deco architectural masterpieces including the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, historic Route 66, and magnificent mansions reflecting Tulsa’s history as the “oil capital of the world “.
Add to that the Gathering Place (the largest private donation to a community park in US history), world-class museums such as the Philbrook and Gilcrease, our thriving food scene, and a diverse landscape. The result is an unexpected blend of historical influences alongside a new kind of energy that I find so inspiring.
And as designers without nearby design centers, we have to work a little harder to source products and develop partnerships. Rather than seeing this as a flaw, I think it challenges Midwestern designers to push the envelope and find gems we might not have discovered if not out of necessity. Our central location also has an advantage in terms of ease of movement.
Lauren: Describe your style.
Bean: As a designer who rejects the idea of reproducing a narrow vision of style in all projects, this is difficult for me. The word insatiable comes to mind. My designs are influenced by the architecture of a home, its natural surroundings, the lives of our clients, and my own sense of exploration and curiosity. I crave originality in creation, so my style is constantly evolving. That being said, there is a thread of accessibility and order that runs through all of my projects, regardless of style.
Lauren: What’s your secret design sauce?
Bean: My secret design sauce is curiosity. I am a constant learner. I want to know and understand who my clients are and what matters to them. I love the puzzle of a thousand choices leading to a balanced and original design that is also deeply personal to the people who inhabit it. And each project satisfying a certain curiosity, I find something new to explore in the next one.
Lauren: What’s the first thing you do when you start working with a new client?
Bean: Our first meeting is to really get to know our customers, to understand their programming needs, but also to explore what motivates, inspires and excites them. I leave these meetings so energized that I begin to gather inspiration before the design process officially begins. But the most important thing we do is guide them through our budget estimation and planning process to ensure a realistic goal and set clear expectations.
Lauren: Where do you see the modern farmhouse trend?
Bean: As a Kansas girl, I loved the modern farmhouse aesthetic before it was a trend. In its current version (white house with black windows), I think the time for this trend is over and people are yearning for something new.
Lauren: You are known to mix up and down. Can you share some tips on the best ways to do this?
Bean: Invest in the pieces that mean the most to you but are also practical. As a mother of twins who are now teenagers, I’ve invested in case items I’ll love for many years to come in finishes that won’t be destroyed when a glass of water is inevitably left without a coaster .
As for the upholstery, I kept the overall cost of the sofas affordable, but with super cleanable/durable fabric. I used pillows, wall coverings and window treatments in a way that enhances the aesthetic.
Side tables, accessories, accent chairs, and rugs can all be found at decent prices and add lots of character that can be swapped out over time. You can mix and match unique finds from antique stores and estate sales with new items from retailers. Unfortunately, there is no formula for achieving this balance. It’s intuitive.
Lauren: What are your least favorite trends or looks?
Bean: I love modern design but can’t relate to a space that feels harsh and cold. Whole houses of new shiny white marble floors with white walls and shiny white cabinets are uncomfortable to me. I need more texture and depth to make the space feel alive and welcoming.
Lauren: What are the biggest design challenges you’ve faced recently?
Bean: The reality is that interior design isn’t always glamorous and dreamy. It is so disheartening to inform our customers of another delay due to supply chain issues, even though we are blessed with understanding customers. I face challenges every day. Some are creative puzzles which I love (solving a floor plan or other design element that seemed impossible is so satisfying) and others are heartbreaking.
We once had a beautiful, fully custom acrylic bed for a client’s second floor master bedroom. We were in constant communication with the manufacturer, worked out every detail, measured to make sure we could fit the bed into the space, and anticipated every detail. However, we didn’t realize until delivery that the bed was obscenely heavy. It was one of the only times I had to walk away rather than watch the ten men it took to navigate the bed down the stairs and into space. They pulled it off without damage or injury and the customers loved it, but it was a stressful experience.
Lauren: What is the project you worked on that you are incredibly proud of?
Bean: I’m really proud of every project I’ve worked on, it’s the joy of creation for me. It was really special to work with Ree Drummond on The Pioneer Woman Lodge. I have so much admiration and respect for the business she built so authentically and the way she used it to benefit and impact her community. The Pioneer Woman Mercantile draws visitors from around the world to the quiet town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The lodge is located on the stunning plains of nearby Drummond Ranch and is also the production location for his cooking show for the Food Network. Thousands of people visit the lodge, so in designing for Ree and Ladd, I have also designed for their many guests in a way that reflects the pioneering woman’s style and open arms.
Lauren: Is there one piece that a lot of people overlook in terms of design?
Bean: Many people overlook the creative opportunity of a closet, even the smallest variety. Opening a broom cupboard to discover a colorful lacquer finish can be a fun surprise. Wallpaper in a dressing room, special fixtures – it’s all in the details when working in a limited space.
Lauren: What are some of your favorite places to find furniture and decor?
Bean: I love browsing Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration, and it often leads to discovering new vendors and brands. Our most frequently used sources are the trade, but I also like First Dibs, Chairish and CB2. Don’t forget to visit your local boutiques and antique stores.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.