If you don’t know who Katie Brown is yet, you will. Very soon.
This past Tuesday night in Northern Michigan, she was surrounded by a gaggle of not only die-hard fans from her PBS show The Katie Brown Workshop, her Lifetime Show, and her five books, but family and friends and even classmates from kindergarten and elementary school.
You see, Katie Brown is a Northern Michigan native. Petoskey born and bred. Even her former ski team coach came to cheer her on and say hello.
She calls herself a “lifestylist” and “home solutions advisor.” She swept into her hometown to debut her new line of kitchen textiles, tabletop items, and patio and outdoor gardening tools at the new Meijer Store in Petoskey. The noise level was deafening at certain points after her demonstrations of low-cost décor and recipes. There were long lines of people wanting to meet her and have her sign their books. It’s clear: this is a woman who loves her work, loves people, and is determined to convey her philosophy: that everyone has the right—and the means—to be surrounded by beauty.
MyNorth sat down with Katie after her product unveiling, demonstration and book signing at Meijer’s to find out more about what makes this vivacious woman tick, and whether her Northern Michigan roots still hold strong.
MyNorth: First of all, why are your hands bright green?
Katie Brown: Good question! Really classy, don’t you think? It shows I’m in the trenches! I got here for the demonstration—and do you see those lovely green vases with green water and flowers over there?— here’s what we’ve been doing: filling up the vases with water about half way up with a little drip-drop of green food coloring. And the food coloring came up on my hands instead of in the vases, because I was in a hurry! Needless to say, in my scurry and hurry, I got green food coloring all over me as opposed to in the vase. Martha Stewart wouldn’t have let that happen!
MyNorth: So … what do you call those things?
Katie Brown: I call them ponds of color, because they look like little ponds that you put on your tabletop. And what we try to do at the Katie Brown Workshop is everything that’s quick and fairly easy and fairly inexpensive, but still with a touch of style and hopefully, pretty. The great thing about this arrangement is that it’s just water, food coloring, and you could even get away with just one flower head in each one of those vases, instead of three flower heads the way I’ve show it. It’s a great “pop” of beauty for a buffet table or coffee table or for a party—totally! And the great thing is that you can pick your color: pink if you’re doing a baby shower, or bright yellow for a springtime party. It’s pretty quick and easy and a really versatile thing to throw on your table.
MyNorth: This is a good example of what you’re trying to show busy homemakers: that you can bring beauty in to your home for a small amount of money.
Katie Brown:I’m a really busy working mom. It’s not just the expense that I try to cut down on, but it’s the time. You know, I don’t want to have to make a big bouquet or an arrangement of flowers that will take me 45 minutes to get perfect. That one I just created: you just pop off a flower head, and put it in the vase! But it also does have to do with the pocketbook, for sure. We always want to cut costs in half and that’s part of why I partnered with Meijer, because they also like to deliver things at a low price, but that still have a bit of style. So I think our products here really do that, and the projects and recipes we create mirror that, too.
MyNorth: I read that Meijer approached you about this line?
Katie Brown: Yeah, and you know: you like it when YOU get asked out, and not the other way around! I was courted by Meijer. And lucky me! Because it turns out they are really fun to work for. First of all, they’re in Michigan. So I always have an excuse to come home! And there’s a similar spirit we share: hard working, inventive, determined to get it right. They came to me and said, “We wanted to offer something from your line, something unique and a little more stylish and incredibly affordable.” They came and visited me in New York several times. We went on several shopping trips. I submitted many, many designs, and we worked back and forth for about a year. These are the first products you’re seeing right now.
In the fall, we’ll be doing bedding, towels, candles, and then a whole Christmas line is coming out.
MyNorth: You are getting to design all these things?
Katie Brown: Yes. I get to daydream! The amazing thing is I didn’t think it was going to happen, and when I put in my designs, and you give it to them, you think “Oh, this one is going to be too expensive,” but here we have this great really thick wooden salad bowl that is only 24 dollars! I really don’t understand how they did it. It’s heavy and great, and even our glass ware— it’s a really thick glass —I really like it when you hold a glass and it feels weighty in your hand, and it’s really inexpensive.
MyNorth: I’ve looked at the price list. For instance, Northern Shores Glassware is just $1.49 to $3.99 per glass. The Orchard Wrought Iron Lantern is $9.99 to $19.99. Definitely affordable.
Katie Brown: Yes, this is what we’re after. The other thing we tried to do with the Northern Shore Line and the Orchard Line: The Northern Shore is obviously based on Northern Michigan. When you look at it, I hope you’ll feel that. I grew up in Petoskey on the shores of Lake Michigan. There’s all that canvas and crisp whiteness, and everything’s kind of nautical. That’s what that line is all about. I love our square plates. They’re really modern, but with an air of hipness to them. And it’s delivered at a crazy good price.
MyNorth: Your father, Paul Brown, is standing a few feet away from us right now. I heard he inspired this line?
Katie Brown: Yes, my dad owns and operates the Arnold Transit line, which goes back and forth to Mackinac Island. And if you go to the Northern Shores line, you’ll see placemats that are reminiscent of boat lines, with thick rope and big grommets. The napkin rings in the Northern Shore lines are woven braided rope. We even have buoys and anchors in this line. So, much of it was inspired by the Arnold line.
MyNorth: How does it feel to be talking about all of this with your dad and the friends you’ve grown up with all around you?
Katie Brown: You don’t understand. I have a huge lump in my throat, and I think I have since I landed! So you’re going to be like Barbara Walters and make me cry! My old ski coach even came! My old baby sitter was here ! It’s almost … mortifying! Can you believe it???
MyNorth: When you were a kid growing up in Petoskey, did you know you were going to do something like this some day?
Katie Brown: Petoskey was just a unique place to get to grow up. I think if you see all the things I do, they are all heavily inspired by Mother Nature. I always say I arrange pinecones for a living. I think that comes from growing up in such a beautiful area. You don’t have to look far for such inspiration. If you look at my Orchard Collection, we have pinecone markers for the garden. There’s such a reverence here for the great outdoors. That, combined with coming from a place where everybody works hard, and a community like this. They say it takes a village. Petoskey and Northern Michigan is like that … everyone here helped raise me!
MyNorth: Your sister Marlee is a painter and gallery owner on Mackinac Island. You both seemed to have an artistic influence early on.
Katie Brown: I think that I really lucked out not only growing up in Northern Michigan, but I had a mother and a father who loved art and loved painters. We saw creativity as a viable way to make a living. My parents were really encouraging. Though, I must admit, at one point, when I was a starving artist, when I was trying to be an actor in New York and waiting on tables, they were, like, “Don’t you want to work for a pension?” and I said, “But you didn’t raise me that way!”
MyNorth: It’s amazing, when you think of it: your love of design and your stint as an actor were a great combination for what you’re doing right now.
Katie Brown: It was a crazy perfect storm. I grew up in Northern Michigan with 32 first cousins and 14 aunts and uncles who all live in and around here. All the aunts were great cooks. All the uncles were great gardeners. And then I had a father who was a bit of politician, so I got to see him speaking in front of people all the time. When I was 11, the gift we got was to redecorate our rooms. That started something. My mom would do crafting, especially at Christmas time. And we would send homemade gifts to friends and family. Homemade was super important and was celebrated in our house. Then I had this crazy desire to become an actress after I graduated from Cornell. It all came together. It was the universe conspiring, for sure. I couldn’t have invented a job that was this good for me!
MyNorth: I have heard several versions of how you came to be the replacement for Martha Stewart on Lifetime TV.
Katie Brown: I was living in L.A. I had a store. I was homesick. I thought, Wouldn’t it be a great life if I could be in L.A. during the winter and then come to Mackinac Island in the summer? So I opened another little store on Mackinac. I had been there only two weeks. Martha Stewart was leaving Lifetime TV to go to CBS, and they were looking for a replacement. They were calling places around the country they thought were artsy—the timing is CRAZY!! So, Lifetime happened to call the Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce, and here I’d been in LA for 10 years at a store that was written up in Vogue in Vanity Fair … but here I am, just two weeks on Mackinac Island, and the guy who runs the Chamber of Commerce says, “You should call Paul Brown’s daughter.” So that’s how it all started. So now it’s 12 years and 200 episodes later. I went from Lifetime to A and E and now I’m on PBS. That’s where I wanted to be. And now we are about to film our sixth season on PBS, and we’re filming in Michigan! We filmed season five in Michigan too. Before that, we shot in my apple orchard in Massachusetts. People make fun of me and say if you opened my veins, Lake Michigan flows out. Well, I just felt like Michigan has fallen on hard times, Michigan has given me so much, I gotta spread some money around. Meijer turned me on to this company in Michigan, JohnsonRauhoff in Benton Harbor, who did the visuals for my line here—I thought, “This is my chance”, plus I can feature farmers and chefs from Michigan. I felt it was time to do this here, to come back. We edit it in Grand Rapids. I am so proud we are doing the filming and editing here in Michigan. It’s awesome.
MyNorth: Which brings me to a question I’ve been wanting to ask you: Why do you live in New York?
Katie Brown: That’s a good question. I keep asking my husband that! My husband says, “When palm trees grow in Michigan.” He hates the cold. But the truth is: I do the Today Show, Good Morning America, my publishers are there, and all the big companies I work with are there. I kind of have to be there right now, but the fact that I filmed the last two PBS seasons here, and the fact that I’m now with Meijer, and they’re based here in Michigan: that’s no mistake. It’s a first step! I’m fighting for it. These are my people.