Maxwell Ryan started Apartment Therapy as a blog in 2004 as a way to help others make their homes better. Little did he know how crucial of a resource his site would be 16 years later when all of us have been tasked with the responsibility of staying in our homes to keep ourselves and one another safe. We talked with Maxwell about how he and his team choose what to feature on Apartment Therapy, the power of peering into the homes of others, and the daily home routine he practices to stay grounded.
How did Apartment Therapy get started, and how has it changed and adapted over the years?
I was a school teacher for seven years, and during that time I was in a Waldorf school, and part of my job was to visit the kids I taught in their homes, and visit life inside and outside of the classroom. I found that visiting kids at home, the kids with the best homes, not necessarily the fanciest homes, did the best in school.
After seven years, I really wanted to go into something else. I loved teaching but found that the politics of school was not for me.
Initially, I started Apartment Therapy as a design service in New York, but my brother told me that Apartment Therapy would be a great blog. He said, “you have all of this information, and you're a teacher, so it’s a natural, sort of, soapbox for you to teach all of the things you believe, in terms of making your home better, all of the products you’re finding, etc.” So we started. He was between jobs, and he helped me set up Apartment Therapy New York, as it was called in 2004, and long story short, the website grew to five sites in six cities at one point. That was sort of way too big a spread, so I brought it down to just Kitchn and Apartment Therapy. Home cooking and home design. We’ve been growing those two projects for over 15 years.
We got in early, back then no one thought this would be a big business. I thought it would be a side business, and I stayed focused on the core of the mission; to help people make their homes better. We’re problem solvers, and we’re service driven, and I feel like that has kept us focused and on course, and it turns out to be a good business, because if you’re solving people’s problems they keep coming back. Nowadays, everything is available through the web (it wasn’t quite like that when we started), so now people purchase through Apartment Therapy, and through the Kitchn. Affiliate marketing is a big deal, and advertising of course has just skyrocketed. It’s become a much bigger, and also wilder animal, than I expected.
Do you ever miss teaching?
I always thought I would go back and do it again, and I don’t know if that will turn out to be true. But I do feel that, now that I work with about 100 people in our company, I feel like in a strange way I have become a teacher all over again. In the beginning, when it was just one, two, three, or four of us, you do all the work yourselves, and I did all the writing. Everything. And now, I am an organizer, not of space, but an organizer of people. I’ve become really fascinated with how we work as an organization, and how I can help that along and lead that, and learn from that. So, in a funny way, I feel like my teaching skills are needed every day.
Why do you think people connect so deeply with home design, and a “behind the scenes” look into the homes of others?
I think people have always loved home. It’s a very intimate space, it’s your retreat, and it’s where you recharge. It’s like clothing, it’s like a skin that you live inside of that protects you. I think people are fascinated with home, because ultimately it’s a voyeuristic view into someone’s life, but also the inspiration is there for making changes to your own, and I think that is a big part of what we do.
Apartment Therapy seems to run the gamut from home tours, to gadget reviews, to pairing music with your decor. How do you choose what to feature, and how does this ebb and flow with what else is happening in the world?
Over the years, we’ve developed an approach to how we organize our editorial calendar. I’ve been influenced by a lot of sources, but what I try to make sure we’re doing is always starting with inspiration, and then it moves into teaching, and then it moves into connecting people to resources. What happens is, you see something you like, say it’s a house tour, and you go “Oh! I want to do that.” Then you need a how-to, or a recipe to actually do it, get it done. Then, after that, as you’re going through the recipe or the how-to, you probably need a thing, or a product, or a something, and so we connect people to products. That’s the shortest way of saying that there’s a wheel of experience, and we try to hit that every single day. So the house tours, are the inspiration piece, and certainly a big part of what we do, how-to’s and recipes are a big part of taking people into action, and frankly, commerce and the whole affiliate side has become a big part of what we do in terms of connecting people to products they need to get it all done.
The last step, which is also very important to us, is that people then, after they have completed that whole journey, they share it back with us and they share it back with others because that’s the full circle. And all of our house tours are submissions from our readers, so we’re constantly trying to inspire, connect, teach, and then suck them back in.
That’s really what the web does well, which is why we’re different from shelter magazines in a way. All of our homes are sourced from readers, they’re real homes of real people. The most popular house tours on Apartment Therapy are the ones you wouldn’t expect. They’re the ones in a way that are the most normal. They don’t necessarily stand out, they’re not stunners like the front of Architectural Digest. They are incredibly accessible and comfortable homes.
What have been some of your favorite Apartment Therapy stories or features over the years? Are there any particular coffee-centric stories?
One of the most popular posts right now, that’s spiking on the site, is how to grocery shop during this time of Coronavirus, and what you need to know if you’re going into the store and touching products that were put by someone else onto those shelves. Or what about vegetables, what do you do when you get them home. I have to say that although this time is a super challenging and weird time, I love these stories that are answering these questions.
As far as coffee goes specifically, I used to review and write up the coffee maker reviews. Now the editors do it. So I feel like I have a personal love for all sorts of new coffee gadgets, which is why, although I don’t generally test things anymore, when I saw an email [about Ratio], I said I’d love to try it.
We love how Apartment Therapy captures the inner lives and daily routines of others. Can you share with us what your daily routine looks like, and of course, how coffee fits into your day?
So I am a yogi, and I do yoga every morning, and it was about five years ago [that] I learned a trick. I used to jump up in the morning and go right to yoga, and then go to work and have my first cup of coffee at work. But about five years ago, I started to get up earlier, and make a cup of coffee and sit and read for about 45 minutes in the morning. Then go to yoga. And, this is going to sound funny, but a few things; one, is that getting up earlier is a lovely quiet time to have in the morning before you start your day, two; your body is a little warmer and ready to move, but three; a good cup of coffee keeps you regular, and after you go to the bathroom, when you’re doing all those twists and turns in yoga, you are empty, and that is much better yogically. You should really be empty when you’re doing yoga because the whole body wants to move, and there’s nothing getting in the way.
I actually have coffee after as well, but that first cup, now I make it at home, for years I didn’t make coffee at home because I was so used to always having it out, but now it’s an important part of the morning again.
It’s clear to see from Apartment Therapy’s recent posts that you are adapting quickly to the reality that many of us will be staying home for the foreseeable future. How have you made sure to do this mindfully, and what do you think Apartment Therapy’s role is in helping us all get through this weird and unpredictable time?
Well, over the years, we’ve evolved and we’re a bigger crew, and we have an editorial calendar, and we plan what we’re going to write months in advance. For the Kitchn site we plan two or three months in advance. It didn’t start that way, when we would just get up in the morning and we would write, and you would respond to whatever the day was bringing to you, and in a funny way this time has brought us right back to that. And it’s been a great process of being much more in the moment and responsive to what’s going on. Things are changing really quickly now, this week is already feeling different from last week, and our core mission is always to make homes better. So with that in mind we are just trying to figure out “what are the questions?”, “what are the problems?”, and come up with answers.
Like I said, related to the post that I mentioned earlier, I had a delivery this morning and I went out and I was like, “can I touch the box?” I didn’t know, I’ve been here a week so all of the surfaces are clean. Then I went into a meeting, and I saw that that post was spiking, and I read it, and I got an answer to my question, and I feel like that’s the best thing we can do.
What do you like most about being at home, and how do you embrace home when you’d rather be someplace else?
Being home is lovely because I don’t spend enough time here, and it’s been giving me much more time to do things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, like clean up the basement, and go through my papers I wanted to file. My mother passed a year and a half ago, and when my brother and I cleaned out the house, we had to take back all of our collections of photographs, and papers from elementary school and college, and high school, and I hadn’t gone through any of that stuff. It was just sort of sitting piling up, so it’s been great to dig in to home and make it better. It’s deeply satisfying.
The downside is, I love getting out and commuting to work, I love the activity of going in and out of the city, and it's been hard to just be active enough.
What else should we know about Apartment Therapy, and home, and routine?
That morning routine I mentioned has really become very specific. I set my clock for six a.m., and I get up and I go boil the water to get the coffee going. Then I will go put on a bathrobe, and I will brush my teeth, and wash my face. Then I will go get my book, and make my cup of coffee, and I will sit on the sofa, and I will just go into this little sweet bubble of a world, which is reading and having a cup of coffee, and not worrying about the cares of the day. In particular for the last year and half, two years, I’ve been really carefully choosing what I’ve been reading, and a lot of it has been history. Last year I read all of the Roman history, and this year it's been about WWII, and a lot of books by Winston Churchill. So my morning routine, it’s really quite specific; I’m not reading a novel, I’m sort of visiting the past every morning for 30 or 45 minutes with my coffee. It’s something I look forward to so much that I actually, even though I’m a night owl, I will go to bed.