A nominee for HGTV’s 2022 Designer Of The Year, Mel Bean has made a name for herself in of all places, Tulsa Oklahoma. Perhaps best known for designing The Pioneer Woman Lodge, the founder of Mel Bean Interiors discovered her passion two years into getting a degree in psychology/pre-med. When Bean realized that her future plans didn’t leave much room to explore her inner creativity, she took the plunge and switched majors.
I recently spoke with Bean about designing in the Midwest, her personal style, where she likes to source furniture, and working with Ree Drummond among other things.
Amanda Lauren: How did you get your start in the industry?
Mel Bean: Upon changing my major, I called every Tulsa architecture and design firm listed in the phone book. I was eager to learn, and one design firm with a furniture showroom took a chance on me as an intern and general helper in the showroom. They helped me grow into a designer. After working in interior design and architecture for a decade, I launched Austin Bean Design Studio with my friend, Bailey Austin, and launched Mel Bean Interiors in 2018. One of the advantages of Tulsa being the “Largest Small Town” is that my work was noticed immediately, and referrals have always been important to my business.
Lauren: What makes designing in the Midwest unique?
Bean: The Midwest is largely misunderstood, or worse overlooked completely. With a little exploration, you’ll discover unique stylistic personalities in each region, informed by history, the natural environment, and the diversity of the people who call these regions home. You may be surprised to learn of the creative renaissance hitting many cities.
Case in point: Tulsa. For a lot of 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 historic 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 this the Gathering Place (the largest private gift to a community park in US history), world-class museums such as the Philbrook and the Gilcrease, our thriving food scene, and varied landscape. The result is an unexpected blend of historic influences alongside a new kind of energy that I find so inspiring.
And as designers without nearby design centers, we do have to work a bit harder to source products and develop partnerships. Rather than seeing this as a fault, I think it challenges midwestern designers to push the envelope and find gems we may not have discovered if not by necessity. There is also an advantage to our central location in terms of ease of travel.
Lauren: Describe your style.
Bean: As a designer who rejects the idea of replicating a narrow view of style to all projects, this is hard 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 approachability and order that comes through in all of my projects, regardless of style.
Lauren: What’s your secret design sauce?
Bean: My secret design sauce is curiosity. I’m a constant learner. I want to know and understand who my clients are, and what is meaningful 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 call it home. And with each project satisfying some curiosity, I find something new to explore in the next.
Lauren: What’s the first thing you do when you start working with a new client?
Bean: Our first meeting is about really getting to know our clients, understanding their programming needs but also exploring what motivates, inspires, and excites them. I leave these meetings so energized that I begin collecting inspiration before the design process officially begins. But the most important thing we do is guide them through our budget estimating and scheduling process to ensure a realistic target and establish clear expectations.
Lauren: Where do you see the modern farmhouse trend going?
Bean: As a Kansas girl, I loved a modern farmhouse aesthetic before it was a trend. In its current iteration (white house with black windows), I think this trend’s time has passed and people are yearning for something new.
Lauren: You are known for mixing high and low. Can you share a few tips on the best ways to do this?
Bean: Invest in the pieces that are most meaningful to you but are also practical. As a mother of twin boys who are now teenagers, I’ve invested in case goods that I will love for many years in finishes that will not be destroyed when a glass of water is inevitably left without a coaster.
When it comes to upholstery, I’ve kept the overall cost of the sofas to an affordable price point but with a super cleanable/durable fabric. I’ve used pillows, wall coverings, and window treatments in a manner that elevates the aesthetic.
Accent tables, accessories, side chairs, and rugs can all be found at decent price points and add a lot of character that can be swapped out over time. You can blend unique finds from antique shops and estate sales with new items from retailers. Unfortunately, there is no formula for achieving this balance. That is intuitive.
Lauren: What trends or looks are your least favorite?
Bean: I love modern design but cannot relate to a space that feels harsh and cold. Entire homes of bright new white marble floors with white walls, and white glossy cabinets are uncomfortable to me. I need more texture and depth for the space to feel alive and welcoming.
Lauren: What are some of the biggest design challenges you’ve faced recently?
Bean: The reality is interior design is not always glamorous and dreamy. It’s so discouraging to update our clients on yet another delay due to supply chain issues, although we’re fortunate to have understanding clients. I face challenges every day. Some are creative puzzles that I love (resolving a floorplan or another design element that seemed impossible is so satisfying) and others are gut-wrenching.
We once had a stunning and completely custom acrylic bed made for a client’s second-floor primary bedroom. We were in constant communication with the manufacturer, worked through every detail, measured to ensure we could get the bed into the space, and anticipated every detail. However, we didn’t know until delivery that the bed was obscenely heavy. That’s one of the only times I had to walk away rather than watch the ten men it took to navigate the bed up the stairs and into the space. They managed it without damage or injury and the clients loved it, but it was a stressful experience.
Lauren: What’s a project you’ve worked on that you’re incredibly proud of?
Bean: I’m truly proud of every project I’ve worked on, that’s the joy of creation for me. It was really special working with Ree Drummond on The Pioneer Woman Lodge. I have so much admiration and respect for the business she’s built in such an authentic way and how she has 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 the Drummond Ranch nearby and is also the production location for her cooking show for the Food Network. Thousands of people tour the lodge, so in designing for Ree and Ladd I also designed for their many guests in a way that reflected the style and open arms of the Pioneer Woman.
Lauren: Is there a room that many people overlook in terms of design?
Bean: Many people overlook the creative opportunity of a closet, even the tiniest variety. Opening a broom closet to discover a colorful lacquered finish can be such a fun surprise. Wallpaper in a coat closet, special light fixtures— it’s all in the details when working in limited space.
Lauren: What are some of your favorite places to source furniture and decor?
Bean: I love to scour Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration, and it often leads to discovering new vendors and brands. Our most frequently used sources are to the trade, but I also love 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.