Tara Mangini
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Home Sweet Home

"Nomadic" Blue Hen designer shares her tips

Before starring in her own reality TV series about renovating an old home, Tara Mangini, AS06, had never seen a reality TV series about renovating an old home. This may sound odd, but Mangini has never been your typical designer. 

Shortly after graduating with a degree in graphic design, the Blue Hen quit an advertising job that was making her miserable and, while waiting tables in Philadelphia, she met Percy Bright. Their early courtship consisted of renovating a property owned by Bright. And that project sparked an idea for the couple’s own interior design business. The Jersey Ice Cream Company—named after an antique embosser they discovered at a flea market—was born. 

The duo adopted an unusual MO: moving into client’s homes for months at a time, from demolition through decoration. This extreme approach affords Mangini an intimate perspective on a given space, and it’s earned her the affectionate nickname of “nomadic designer.” But it’s not the process that has earned her a fanatical following (six-figures strong on Instagram)—it’s the product.

“I have a difficult time labeling our style,” Mangini says. “One journalist called us the first designers associated with ‘modern farmhouse,’ which is cool, but I don't want to feel pigeonholed. I can say we get most excited by one-of-a-kind details. That’s the current obsession.” 

Four years ago, Mangini and Bright put down roots by purchasing a farmhouse in upstate New York. Their journey to renovate their own living space (think temporary kitchen with a bucket for a sink) is made for TV—literally. The Magnolia Network chronicled the adventure, and “The Story of Home” is now streaming on Discovery+.  

“We entered the world of interior design without knowing how a ‘real’ firm works,” Mangini says. “And this was the same. When the show came along, we thought: We don’t know what anyone else is doing; we’re just going to do what feels right to us and be ourselves.”

All of this—launching a business without any formal training, putting her life on display for all the world to see—has taken guts. And some of that courage, Mangini says, is attributable to her time at UD, where professors buoyed her with feedback and nurtured her creative instincts. Of course, her loyalty to the institution has aesthetic limits. If a client ever wanted to deck their halls in blue and gold, she laughs, “I might have to push back.”

Below, the nomadic designer shares more hard-won wisdom for amateurs staring down an intimidating renovation project of their own.

Hear the house: If you find yourself lusting after porcelain farmhouse sinks or that one down-filled loveseat with a cerulean patina frame, you may have already decorated your dream home in your head. But wait. “So many people plan the whole house before they even move in,” Mangini says. “Slow down and listen to what that house is telling you. Let yourself be inspired.” In other words, take the time to see what a space looks and feels like in different weather or at different hours of day. It’s possible your vision may change.

 

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Pause before you purge: As a designer, Mangini could likely bill more hours with an everything-must-go attitude. But she prefers her clients see potential in their weird tiles and wonky floors. Off-trend or not, these are the pieces that lend personality and an all-important sense of residential character. “Sometimes, you need the courage to ask: It’s not cool now, but… could it be?”

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Find a feeling: Pinning down a color scheme is not as helpful as you may think. Neither is landing on some nebulous design style (Mid-century modern? Bohemian? You can’t sink your teeth into a general category.) Instead, Mangini recommends choosing a guidepost that sparks emotion—like a favorite city or movie. “A client once told me he wanted his space to feel like a Wes Anderson film,” the Blue Hen says. “Any time we couldn’t decide on a piece of art or furniture, we asked ourselves: ‘Would it make sense on set?’ This becomes a super easy thing to return to.” 

 

Power down: Yes, social media can provide great inspo on everything from built-ins to balusters. But too much time scrolling can also leave you insecure and overwhelmed. “Log off for a bit,” Mangini says. “Tap into what you actually want, versus what Instagram tells you to want.” Bonus: Offscreen, you’ll discover unlikely sources of inspiration—like the molding Mangini and her partner once repurposed from an abandoned high school. 

 

Tiny art adorns the walls of the dollhouse.

Break the rules: Go ahead and paint that room lavender or cover your original hardwood with a chunky shag rug. It’s your home, and “at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live there,” Mangini says. Still feel pressure to do things the—quote-unquote—right way? Remember: “No one is giving you a grade.

Be kind to yourself: Sconce versus pendant. Glossy versus matte. Maple versus rosewood. The options are paralyzing—even, sometimes, for pros. Mangini, who cops to feeling overwhelmed, finds the secret to successful design comes not from avoiding these angsty moments of self doubt, but embracing them. “It’s all part of the process,” she says. “Give yourself some grace.”

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