Class of 2020: How Medina Grillo is De-Stigmatizing Renting in the UK Through Unique, Resourceful, and Quirky Designs

Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.

Why Medina is part of the class of 2020: When we were thinking about who should be in our class of design changemakers, we knew the list wouldn’t be complete without a contribution from you, Apartment Therapy’s readers. We put out a call for nominations on our website and on Instagram, and we were amazed at how many incredible people in the design community you brought to our attention. After much deliberation, we chose Medina Grillo as the Reader Pick nominee. Her blog, Grillo Designs, is full of fun projects, gorgeous photography, and lots of IKEA—perfect for Apartment Therapy. Plus, her book “Home Sweet Rented Home” is proof of what fresh, brilliant ideas she’s had already, and how many more she has in store. We’re so excited for you to learn more about her!

Medina Grillo began her blog, Grillo Designs, in 2015 as a way to exercise her creativity and de-stress after working long hours as a midwife and nurse. “It’s a rewarding job, but the hours are quite long and you feel quite drained and, obviously, when you come back home, you want to come back to a place that is calming and relaxing,” she says. Years of building up Grillo Designs on top of her regular job has led to where she is now—she (as of three months ago) quit her job in healthcare to run Grillo Designs full time, was a runner up in the Pinterest UK Awards Best of 2019 (for a clever, small-space friendly overbed table), has written a book, and started a successful YouTube series called “How I Rent” about—you guessed it—creative ways people transform their rentals.

The blog itself centers mainly around showcasing beautiful design done resourcefully (one of the taglines of the blog is “upcycle your home”), in small spaces, and in homes that are rented. Living in the UK, Medina says there’s quite a stigma around renting versus owning, and she wanted to show her readers that they could inexpensively and temporarily (or longer-term!) make their rented space really feel like home—without losing their security deposits. “You should be able to make your space feel like yours—make it reflect your style and personality, even though it’s not technically yours. I feel like in England, there’s a lot of stigma towards renting. Everybody is always aiming to buy a house, but not everybody can afford it,” she says. “Some people might be renting all their life, so why live in a place that you don’t like just because you’re possibly maybe up to buy a house in the future?”

Aside from showing her readers that rented spaces can indeed be beautiful and creative spaces, she has another, bigger drive in doing the work she does. “Showing up as my authentic self online every day keeps me going. And for me, that means showing up as Medina, a black Muslim hijab-wearing woman in spaces that aren’t always catered to me,” she says. “It can often be a little difficult to navigate these spaces, but representation is so important, and creativity should be accessible to everyone. Maybe if I had seen someone who looked like me in the interior design world, maybe I would have chosen a different path at uni.”

Emphasizing the lack of diversity in the design community in England, Medina says that showing her community the face behind the brand has proven heartening and encouraging. “I’ve had loads of messages from people saying, ‘It’s so good to see somebody different in this community,’” she says. “So, I think just me working with different brands and going to different events and just putting my face there and talking openly about myself and living as a Muslim woman in England and trying to find my place in this design community is how I’m making a change.” We sat down with the designer and blogger to talk about where she finds her inspiration, transforming her own rental, and her penchant for pops of yellow.

Apartment Therapy: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up? What is your inspiration now?

Medina Grillo: When I was younger, my dad had a job where we moved around quite a lot, so we lived as an ex-pat in different countries, in the Middle East mainly, like Dubai. So, we were always moving from different houses, different sorts of locations and we embraced a lot of different cultures. Whenever we used to move to different houses, my mom would always decorate and make sure everything was homely because I guess she was trying to make things as stable as possible. For that reason, my mom was my biggest design inspiration growing up. Then, when I got older and I got married and my own home, things like magazines or movies that I would watch, I would be looking at the decoration and thinking, “I wonder if I could try that.” So, I get inspiration from everywhere, but mainly TV shows or if I go to a restaurant or a hotel and I like what I see, I might try and think of a way that I could incorporate that in my home.

AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2019 so far? (and why?)

MG: My DIY tolling table in my studio which has just won runner up in the Pinterest UK Awards 2019. It was one of the first times I had styled a room set outside of the familiarity of my own home. It was super fun, and I really felt like it opened my eyes to lots of possibilities. 

AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

MG: Many parts of my own home, I would say, are indicative of who I am as a designer. I’ve got a space under my stairs, which I’ve turned into an office station, I’ve got a renter-friendly, built-in bookcase on one wall to maximize storage and I’ve also got a stairway that I’ve given a statement look. I don’t know why, but so many people tend not to decorate their staircases, but it’s the first thing you see when you come into my home so I wanted to make them special. Then, I’ve also applied renter-friendly wallpaper. It’s my favorite kind of pattern: abstract, black and white, and I feel like that just kind of demonstrates me. I love pattern, I love black and white, I love pops of yellow in my design, as well as raw woods. I’m not really a huge fan of painting wood—it’s already beautiful, so why cover it up?

AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?

MG: Quirky, fun, and unexpected.

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?

MG: My family, a good selection of books on the shelf, a coffee mug—usually with half-drunk coffee in it, monochrome cushions—they are a must! And something with a little yellow in it—as yellow is my happy color!

AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond you can share with us?

MG: So, I recently did a project with a rental company in London and they asked me to come and style one of the showrooms for their apartments for renters and just show the residents how they could actually work with a furnished rental and make it feel more homely, more to their personality, and that was quite fun. So, I’m thinking that maybe next year, I might actually consider helping other renters design their properties in a way that, obviously, makes them not lose their deposit. So, doing these spaces in a rental-friendly way because I really enjoyed it and just working outside of my own space and going to other people’s homes. So, that’s my plan, I think, for next year. Less of me and more of helping other people.

AT: What three words would you use to describe where you see the design world going in 2020?

MG: Minimal, more intentional, conscious shopping, and texture.

AT: What legacy do you hope to leave?

MG: I want people who look like me to have the confidence to go out into spaces that I’m going out into, have the confidence to go into the spaces of interior design that are majority white, and have the confidence to transform their homes into places that they love, even if they don’t own them. I just feel like we just need to stop being so hard on ourselves about not being able to buy a house and kind of just go with it.

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