Episode 151 – Design, creativity and joy with Niki Schafer

Niki SchaferDesigners look at life differently, and writers can learn a lot from their approach. Niki Schafer’s aim as an interior designer is to design happiness into her clients’ homes.

And while she was writing her book on ‘dwellbeing’, she discovered how to capture the joyful state of creative flow kinaesthetically, so that she could bypass ‘procrastination and head-scratching’ and put herself immediately into the writing zone. 

A conversation for any writer who needs a dose of practical inspiration and a shot of playfulness to get their happy back. 

And here, as we promised, are a couple of Schafer shelfies… 


Niki’s site: https://www.nikischaferinteriordesign.co.uk/

Niki on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NikiSchafer

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Apply for the This Book Means Business Mentorship Programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/

Alison Jones:                        Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And it’s such a joy to be here today with Niki Schafer, who is the founder of Niki Schafer Interior Design, a professional interior designer, and also an engaging writer and speaker on interior and lifestyle design. This could not be further from my own life, by the way. She is the chair of the Henley Business Partnership, the Director of the Henley House and Garden Show, and also the author of Creating Space: How To Design Your Calm, Sane, Outrageously Gorgeous Home and Family Life, which is an awesome title. Hello, Niki, welcome to the show.

Niki Schafer:                         It’s a long title, that’s for sure.

Alison Jones:                        You can pack a lot into a subtitle, can’t you?

Niki Schafer:                         You certainly can, yes. Great to meet you, hi.

Alison Jones:                        It’s really good to have you. And I love that idea you’ve created this lovely nomenclature, neologisms, new words. You talk about ‘dwellbeing’ in your book. So just tell us a little bit about what does that mean? And also how did that phrase come about?

Niki Schafer:                         It was originally the title of my business, I was called Dwellbeing Ltd, and I thought I was terribly clever. I came up with it in Dubai, I was relaxing on a sun lounger with my husband and having, you know, for ages and ages trying to come up with a very clever business idea and a business title. We came up with designing wellbeing into your home, which kind of shortened down to dwellbeing, which was a bit too clever I have to tell you. So I within a couple of years changed it back to a much more easy to understand Niki Schafer Interior Design, but I still liked the words and I still liked the concept of designing well-being into your home and understanding how your environment can impact you and your emotions and how you think and things like that. So that was the essence of dwellbeing means.

Alison Jones:                        And why did you think it was … why did you change from it? Were people just not getting its or?

Niki Schafer:                         Yes there was a little bit of confusion. ‘Are you a yoga studio?’ It just wasn’t as clear as clear can be and I think in business, when there’s so much out there, there’s so much noise, at the end of the day your business title or the other name of your business has to speak very clearly to what you do. And so I used my name and my profession, which is a little easier to understand.

Alison Jones:                        So it’s a good lesson about getting too clever with the concepts isn’t it? By all means have the clever concepts but you need people to be engaged with what you’re saying before you introduce them to those names, otherwise they just go, “Huh?”

Niki Schafer:                         Yes, the home is really important, and also the lessons. You know, I’ve been in business now for 10 years and have made innumerable mistakes, as have we all, and have learnt from them and have adapted and changed my business over those years. So it’s quite interesting to see … to look back on the book actually, because the book’s now five years old, kind of re-look at things and see how I might have written it now or changed it to how I think now, which is quite interesting.

Alison Jones:                        Well just talk us through the book. When did you decide and why did you decide to write a book? Just tell us about how that came about.

Niki Schafer:                         I was studying interior design and I was at the same time going through a personal development journey, and I know that you’ve interviewed lots of people who are coaches and therapists and kind of on that journey, and you end up consuming books, like one a week. Everything just goes in. And learning about how we behave and how we think at the same time as I was learning about interior design, and so my brain kind of merged the two concepts really quite effectively. So they kind of became one and I became really fascinated with: how do you create a happy home?

                                                      And when I spoke to people in the happiness world, the personal development world, they talk about how to be happy and how to think about happiness, but if I said, “Well can you design happiness?” Then that became a little bit … Well it just wasn’t their territory. But if I was speaking to interior designers and said, “Well how do you create a happy home?” they had no answer at all.

                                                      And so I merged both of these worlds quite naturally because that was the journey that I was on. And then at the end of it my brain was full and I think that’s what happens with lots of authors, they literally want to give birth to the ideas that are going on in their heads, and they literally have to, one does, I did, have to get these ideas out otherwise I probably couldn’t move on to the next phase.

                                                      And so I wrote it all out, I wrote it all together and thought, right, just start. And there were so many pads of notes everywhere. And I thought well this is it, I’ve just got to pull it all together. And I started, and then … I’ll tell you, then I met Lynne Copp, who wrote Dancing Round the Handbags.

Alison Jones:                        What a great title.

Niki Schafer:                         Yeah great. And she’s got a fantastic story. But she’d put her book into the Brit Writers Awards. She said, “Oh Niki, you’ve got a fantastic concept there, it’s really interesting and original, why don’t you submit your book proposal to the Brit Writers Awards?” And I thought okay fine, nothing like a deadline to get one going. So I did, and lo and behold I was nominated for an award.

                                                      So I’d submitted maybe four chapters, and then they wanted to obviously have the finished book. The deadline was upon me, and so I wrote it.

Alison Jones:                        So did you actually enjoy the process? I mean what did it do for you kind of personally and professionally?

Niki Schafer:                         The process was one of a necessity. I really wanted to get this book out. There wasn’t a question of when or how, I didn’t procrastinate at all. There was no blank pages. I’ve had those moments since, don’t get me wrong, because I’m quite intrigued about the idea of writing another book and haven’t got round to it. But the first one, it had to come, and I literally just had to find the time. I got up early. I got up super early, before the kids were awake. And so at five o’clock in the morning I dragged myself down into my office and I wrote. And I just got out as much as possible. And then I had breakfast with everybody and took the kids to school and then I came back and edited a lot of the rubbish out of what I’d written first thing in the morning.

                                                      But it’s a good creative time for me, is first thing, and I think then a good walk clears the head, clarifies things, enables you to go back and sort the wheat from the chaff. So it was an enjoyable process, I love writing, and it’s wonderful, it’s very cathartic and it’s wonderful to be in your head thinking about words. I love words. And just how to communicate well to people, how to represent my thinking was a fascinating process which I genuinely enjoyed.

Alison Jones:                        And did you find that it impacted how other people saw you and how you saw yourself? I mean how did it impact professionally?

Niki Schafer:                         Well I definitely wrote the book as part of a package of how to be an expert. So in all of my kind of personal development thinking I was also doing business development, and was following people who were very much encouraging this kind of go to expert field. And in order to be an expert you needed to have a certain level of kudos, kind of a voice of authority, and a book was a really useful tool on that front. And so for me I had to write it but equally once it was written…

                                                      I didn’t write it for sales, let me be very clear, I wasn’t trying to get book sales. I wanted it there and I wanted it to represent my knowledge, and I wanted people to be able to look and say, “She knows a lot about interior design and she’s got an interesting view on it.” And that’s what happened. I was able to talk a lot about the process of writing a book within networking circles, which was fun, and I was able to sell books off that. And can travel with that, I actually spoke in Singapore about the book. So that was fun and great, and just having the word author next to your name is lovely. And people did respond to it, and wanted me to speak, which was something else that I was really fascinated by and was part of my kind of expert package of what I was capable of doing and how I could share my knowledge and skills with people.

                                                      So it definitely helped as a business to get out there as a promotional tool, as a marketing tool. So I would highly recommend it on that front.

Alison Jones:                        It’s funny, the speaking and the book do go together so beautifully don’t they? The book helps you feed into what you’re going to say and then when you’re giving the talk, having the book there gives it more kind of heft and permanence for people, they can take away a little bit of you as well, it’s a really lovely synergy.

                                                      I just want to take you back into the writing for a minute, because you and I met years ago, we were just, what was it about six, seven years ago, something like that? In Longbridge Mill, when you were giving a talk. And I’ll never forget you were telling me about you started every day bouncing on the trampoline with your children before school. Do you still do that by the way? They a bit old now?

Niki Schafer:                         My children are teenagers now, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a trampoline.

Alison Jones:                        Do you still do it?

Niki Schafer:                         No I don’t actually, but you said that you were going to talk about this and I remember it so clearly. We used to do it … We did it for maybe two years. It was a real thing. We did it to two pieces of music, and if I play those pieces of music the kids cheer up instantly. You can see them suddenly kind of … there’s part of their brain that kind of livens up and remembers all of those positive messages I was giving them every day. And that’s what I did it for, it was-

Alison Jones:                        Even in their worst teenage funk. Oh that’s so lovely.

Niki Schafer:                         Yeah, just something I’d learnt to do, kind of positive affirmations with them and how to get your brain moving and just kind of jolting around. It’s actually in the book, the Dwellbeing System is about understanding how you think, how your family thinks, and then being able to style and bring design to be able to help and coordinate the different thinking styles. And one of the thinking styles is kinaesthetic, and kinaesthetic people appreciate movement. They also appreciate texture, which is quite easy to solve on a design front, you give them a nice cuddly throw.

                                                      But the movement is something that’s quite interesting. Just as a complete aside there are lots of children who are kinaesthetic who struggle quite a lot at school because they can’t move, they’re told to sit still and be quiet and look and read, but what they want to do is move. And so putting them on a trampoline and jumping up and down with them enables them to kind of live and think positively and put all of those messages in their heads. So that’s the kind of thing that the book is about, is kind of introducing that way of thinking into the home and making sure that your kids are happy. And I’m pleased to report the kids are happy, but they don’t trampoline so much anymore.

Alison Jones:                        That is brilliant. And also the thing that really struck me about it was just the joy, the sheer joy of it, and the playfulness. Sitting and writing can be quite a sedentary, quite a … it’s not much of a spectator sport is it? Did you manage to bring any kind of playfulness into writing the book?

Niki Schafer:                         No it’s not, it’s not for viewing. Did I manage playfulness? Again going back to my kind of personal development journey, I’d done quite a lot of anchoring, and anchoring is when you can embed an emotion inside of you. So we do it naturally, certainly was smells for example. If you smell a hairspray or apple pie you can be taken back to a period in time. But you can actually anchor certain feelings into yourself purposefully, and I did this with creativity. And whenever I felt creative … and it’s quite difficult because it does block the flow, because when you’re in flow and you recognise you’re in flow you’re actually just coming out of flow. But I try and capture it and anchor it into me, and it’s enabled me to turn on creativity quite quickly, so that I didn’t go through that process of feeling kind of stagnation or procrastination, and was able to feel the joys of what it feels like when you’re in flow.

                                                      So I wouldn’t describe that necessarily as playful, it’s actually more helpful, but it was joyful to not have to go through procrastination and head scratching and all of that kind of difficult stuff.

Alison Jones:                        So how did you do that, what was your specific anchor?

Niki Schafer:                         I have a little part on my hand that I pinch.

Alison Jones:                        And you’ve taught yourself to associate that with a particular state?

Niki Schafer:                         Yes.

Alison Jones:                        That’s so cool.

Niki Schafer:                         Yes.

Alison Jones:                        That’s very very cool.

Niki Schafer:                         My ears do different things. My ears will naturally just bring me joy. So if I’m doing something like I’m on a roller coaster, I will grab my right earlobe and embed the joy of being on a rollercoaster and watching my kids howling with laughter. That kind of thing. I will embed that into my ear. So if ever I’m feeling low I’ll grab my right earlobe and I’ll get an instant rush. It’s quite amazing.

Alison Jones:                        That’s lovely. That whole thing about I wish I could bottle this feeling, that’s exactly what you’re doing, you’re trapping it, you’re capturing it. That’s lovely.

Niki Schafer:                         Nothing to do with interior design but there you go.

Alison Jones:                        But I love the way that you embrace the whole person in interior design, it’s not just about the visual, it’s the kinaesthetic, it’s how you feel, it’s your hopes and your dreams and all that stuff. I do love that about the way that you approach it.

                                                      And when Dr. Lynda Shaw recommended you as a guest, I’ve actually written down what she said because I thought it was so lovely. She said, “Niki is an extremely clear thinking, practical, no nonsense woman. Whatever she says has been well researched and thoroughly thought about and practical.” So which is why I believe you with the whole ear thing and the joy. But do you think that’s a side effect of design thinking? Because I’m always very … I’ve had quite a few designers on the podcast and they a have slightly different way of thinking and it really appeals to me.

Niki Schafer:                         Oh I think there were so many different designers out there and we all kind of approach things in a different way. I think a good designer is able to balance function and form. It’s an absolute prerequisite. Something has to work before it starts to just look beautiful, from my perspective. But I see an awful lot of design out there that is … it’s not exactly impractical, it’s perhaps not something we see everyday.

                                                      I think if you look in magazines there’s so many beautiful images and they have a backdrop of kind of a Californian beach or the New York skyline or something. And you think well that’s very nice and it’s liked by a lot of people, but most people don’t live with a Californian beach backdrop or the New York skyline. So you’ve got to be able to have the reality of designing the spaces that you live in, and if that happens to be semi detached house in Wantage or a glorious house on the river in Henley, you’ve got to be able to balance the context of who you’re dealing with, their budgets, their lifestyles, how they think, what they want.

                                                      And that’s my key, I don’t have kind of an aesthetic style that’s just me. I love mostly understanding what clients like and what they’re about. And I think that is an amalgamation of that thinking. And there is a lot of no nonsense in me, but equally there’s great joy in the fact that people love certain materials, certain fabrics, and literally I can watch them light up. There’s nothing like a male client literally patting his heart with joy at something that you’ve shown him and going, “I love it, I love it, I must have it.” So it’s great to be able to combine all of those things.

Alison Jones:                        And from a writing perspective, I think that’s so interesting, because obviously you’re talking purely about design and what you do in people’s lives, but I can immediately draw the parallel there between that idea of really effective writing is useful, first of all, it’s telling you something you hadn’t understood before, it’s you can apply it in your life, you see how it works. But it does it in a way that pleases your aesthetic sense. And pulling those two together is where you get the really powerful writing.

Niki Schafer:                         That’s so true. Communication is first and foremost practical, but there’s nothing nicer than receiving a well formed turned and tuned email from somebody, even if it’s a practical matter, you can sense somebody who’s a wordsmith, who loves putting together words, who loves their language. Or a lovely newsletter. So many businesses are told you need to write blogs, you need to write emails … not emails, e-letters. And they churn stuff out, and it’s so dull. Whereas somebody who’s got a way with words, you enjoy reading their newsletters, even if the subject matter isn’t particularly yours. It’s fascinating and a skill that I probably need to do more at actually. I’d like to do more with.

Alison Jones:                        Because that’s of course how you develop it isn’t it? You do it by doing it, and you develop your writing muscle and you find your voice and find your tone of voice. I think people are putting it out there regularly and getting feedback on it as well, and trusting … Writing as they speak, you never have a … [inaudible 00:18:51] brilliant thing, he never had a writing block because he never had a talking block. So what he does, he stands up and talks and finds out what it is he has to say.

                                                      So if you’re using your own voice and you’re saying something of interest to people, you just keep doing that until you hit on your way of doing it and you hit gold.

Niki Schafer:                         Yes, quite.

Alison Jones:                        Makes it sound really easy doesn’t it? I do think it’s really important. But I think writing, putting content out there into the world is such a key part of … it’s a kind of needed to play for almost any business so you might as well have fun doing it and do it well and do it distinctively and do it like you and not try and copy all the kind of templates that are out there, all of which are rubbish by the way.


Niki Schafer:                         Authenticity is key. I mean I know it’s a highly overused word, but originality. Whatever you’re saying, however you say it, in the way that you speak genuinely to clients when you’re feeling your most relaxed. If you can capture that in a bottle, which you can by anchoring, but if you can capture that in your communications then I think you’re doing okay.

Alison Jones:                        Actually that’s not a bad point, I mean we’ve talked about catching yourself in flow, and of course by the time you’ve done that the moment’s gone, but actually you can do that. You know when you are in flow, when you’re saying something and you realise oh that was really good, what did I just say? You can go back and capture it. Or if you know that you’re going to have a conversation with somebody who lights you up, record it and then get the transcript and use that. So there are ways that you can capture that energy and sense of who you are when you’re talking at your most fluent. It doesn’t have to just disappear.

                                                      If somebody’s listening to the show and they are trying to do their first book and they’re a bit mired, what would you say to them? What tip would you give them Nikki?

Niki Schafer:                         Reading others, definitely, and submerging yourself in things that inspire you and it doesn’t need to be at all about your chosen subject or anything about how you work and what you do. In fact going and seeing other things … this is probably more from a design perspective, but equally in writing, is going to an unusual conference that you wouldn’t normally go to and just standing back and just thinking this is not my world and what are my observations? Reading things that you wouldn’t normally read. If you don’t read poetry for example then just listening to something that’s beautiful. Just kind of stepping out from your world and having a look and reshaping things and looking at it from a completely different angle is what I do I think on a daily basis. Definitely it’s my first trick.

Alison Jones:                        That’s such a great tip, partly because you can’t produce good stuff unless you’ve got good input and I think that is really important. And also when you absorb good content in a variety of things then it becomes more naturally easy for you to produce good content on the way out. But also because actually being creative often consists in bringing things together from different fields doesn’t it? Or having one way of thinking or mode of thinking giving you insight into another.

Niki Schafer:                         Definitely, and it also helps you identify who you are, so you can go back to being authentic, because you might get there and just go, “I’m so pleased that this isn’t me.” But it also helps you think … Sometimes when you’re writing you just think, “Oh everybody does this, everybody can do this as well as I can, everybody’s got this point of view, everybody knows this already.” And that’s so not true, it’s just a little part of your brain that’s feeding some fear. And you going out there and exploring and seeing what else is out there, you can understand no, other people have different worlds, they have different ways of seeing things and I’ve got my tribe and my group of people who are interested in what I have to say and therefore I’m going to go and say it.

Alison Jones:                        Yes it’s nothing like … And I think anchoring your book as part of a conversation rather than feeling that you’re isolated in a room and trying to produce the last word on something is also a really healthy way to see it isn’t it? So it’s part of this ongoing-

Niki Schafer:                         Oh no, that’s so much pressure.

Alison Jones:                        I feel like that’s why so many manuscripts remain unfinished.

Niki Schafer:                         Yeah. Yes that pressure’s an awful thing. Go and jump on the trampoline if that kicks in.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely, I don’t care if you haven’t got small children, just go and do it, yes.

Niki Schafer:                         Put some music on.

Alison Jones:                        And is there a business book or a self development book … I tend to use business book fairly loosely because you know what, business people are humans too. What business book would you recommend the people listening to this should read? What’s made a huge impact on you?

Niki Schafer:                         Well several, and I think Tony Robbins has been a big kind of influence for me, and he talks a lot about that kind of 80% inspiration and 20% I think he calls it perspiration. But I think it’s kind of more of the practical side. So I think most of the books that I read, the 80% of the books that I read are mindset books, they’re about changing how I think, what I think of leadership, and then 20% are practical.

                                                      So Dan Priestley’s Key Person of Influence is fantastic, Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, brilliant book. Mike Michalowicz, I hope I pronounced that correctly, his Profit First is a brilliant insight into how to approach accounting, who’d have thought? Anything by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve just read Get Rich Lucky Bitch by Denise Duffield-Thomas, it’s fantastic.

Alison Jones:                        You know what, I had her on this podcast. I feel like that London taxi driver, I had that Denise Duffield Thomas in my cab! Yes, she was ace, she’s really hilarious. Yeah you’ll have to go back and listen to that one.

Niki Schafer:                         Just brilliant, what a hilarious woman. And you know of course the title makes you think that it’s all about making money, but it’s not, it’s all about forgiveness. I mean she’s managed to sneak in spirituality like you wouldn’t believe, so hats off to her, she’s fantastic.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah we had that conversation, because I said, “I was really put off by your title, I just hadn’t read your book, and now I’ve spoken to you, now I’ve read the book I’m like oh this is brilliant.” It’s really interesting.

Niki Schafer:                         She should have called it forgive yourself bitch or something like that.

Alison Jones:                        But then it wouldn’t have had the impact that it had. She’s very smart.

Niki Schafer:                         No.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. In fact, Nikki, I’m going to ask you to do something because I just know it’s going to be so beautiful I spoke to Ayse Birsel aon the show a few weeks back and she sent me a shelfie of her business book to read pile, and it was just beautiful, because she’s a designer, it’s lovely. So could you design us up your most beautiful business book shelfie? Your to read pile or books that you really love, and you can style it up and we’ll put it on the show notes, and we can all have a kind of aspirational shelfie moment.

Niki Schafer:                         Fantastic, I can definitely do that.

Alison Jones:                        Excellent. I mean I think you might be setting the bar here for everybody else, that might be the end of the whole shelfie meme, it might just … nobody’s prepared to step up after that but we’ll see.

Niki Schafer:                         I have quite an impressive shelving unit. Yeah. I’m thinking now, you’ve got my brain going. I’ve got lots of work to do but I might just spend the rest of the day redesigning my shelf.

Alison Jones:                        My work here is done, excellent. Right, if you send that over I shall put that up on the show notes. But Nicki if people want to find out more about you, more about the book Creating Space, more about you interior design stuff, where should they go?

Niki Schafer:                         So NikiSchaferInteriorDesign.co.uk is my website, and my name’s horrendously difficult to spell so I’m sure you’ll help people there.

Alison Jones:                        I’ll put it in the show notes yeah.

Niki Schafer:                         And Creating Space is on Amazon.

Alison Jones:                        Awesome. Thank you so much Niki, that was an absolute joy to talk to you, and I feel like going and bouncing on a trampoline now.

Niki Schafer:                         You’re very welcome, lovely to speak to you.


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