Serena Crawford is one of my favorite people because her curiosity and interests knows no bounds. I could tell you she’s an award-winning, international interior designer, but she’s more than a designer. There’s no part of a home she’s not involved in researching and creating from the bare bones of the architecture to the landscape and the interiors. Her travels take her around the world; she’s lived in several countries, and she shares all of it with her almost 48,000 Instagram followers.
Serena is a philosopher and a teacher who’s engaged with the people and life around her.
One of Serena’s homes
Serena Crawford’s elegant designs have an effortless, timeless feel to them, and her attention to detail is as much inspired by the land as it is by the local workers and their craftsmanship. I love the way Serena mixes antiques with new pieces covered in gorgeous textiles, African reeded ceilings, thatched roofs and floors of reclaimed wood and the way she makes the outdoors a seamless part of the indoors. Whether she’s in London, Venice or living at the southern most tip of South Africa, her appreciation of the history, people and the land is contagious. Her design work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Vogue Living Australia, Belle Magazine Australia, Conde Nast House and Garden, South Africa, House and Garden UK, Conde Nast USA Traveller and Conde Nast Traveller UK.
The same room lit at night.
Serena and I spoke for over an hour—about everything—via WhatsApp. Serena was in South Africa, working on building her new home, and I was in San Antonio. Don’t you love technology? Although this is a very long piece, believe it or not, I’ve condensed it.
For those who are already Serena Crawford admirers, you’ll love every word, and for those who don’t know Serena, follow her on Instagram. With short videos she takes us on her evening walks where we might see a troop of 30 juvenile baboons; her dogs frolicking in the ocean, or an opera singer wearing a white hat, selfie stick in hand, singing as her boat glides down the Grand Canal in Venice at sunset. Serena gives us a glimpse of a life most of us will never know.
“So I have taken to walking with my head phones and my Spotify dancing list. Murray walks ahead with the dogs to warn puzzled people on their evening hike that the woman on the path below, flinging her hair, jumping around with her colourful shawl and singing loudly “I’m so excited I just can’t hide it ..” is not dangerous.” @serenacrawford Instagram
And as you read, imagine Serena’s English accent. It’s bloody fabulous!
Serena and one of her dogs at home.
BRENDA: The thing I love most about you is your appreciation for everything whether it’s good design, the thoughtful way someone sets their dining table, the way elephants love and nurture one another, or the rhythm and the way the men working on your home throw plaster mud on your walls. You notice and appreciate everything, and that is so rare.
SERENA: Is it? I’m touched you say that. I find life interesting, so thank you, God. I’ve always been what I call a dilettante with a very diverse set of knowledge and interests, but I never thought I’d find a medium (Instagram) where it would become useful. I’ve always thought I’m the perfect girl to have to a dinner party because there’s almost no subject where I wouldn’t have something to say.
BRENDA: I love the connections we make on Instagram. Some of them are so unexpected although I should work harder at Instagram.
SERENA: But you’ve got your blog—your audience—and I thought it was so interesting the blog you wrote about somebody witnessing your life. But the real truth is you can witness your own life. I always wanted to be an editor of a magazine and be a filmmaker. I did write for a lot of magazines, but I was never the editor. So basically what I’ve got (on Instagram) is my own little magazine. My own little video clips. At the same time you can cast yourself in your own movies, so you can be your own witness to your own life.
“In England everyone with a country house that invites guests to stay for the weekend has a visitors book. They are usually made by Smythson and they have completely empty pages. No names, date or comments columns. Just the plain page. When I was young it was not done to write anything in a visitors book but your name, the date and your briefest address… and absolutely NO comments. Simply not done. So for instance you would write, “1st of December 1955, Elizabeth R, Buckingham Palace.“ Thats it. Though things have changed dramatically since then.. ” @serenacrawford Instagram
BRENDA: On your Instagram page you’ve repeatedly said you have a desire to downsize and declutter your life. Is that part of why you’re building a new house?
SERENA: Yes it is. I meditate, every day, and I spend a lot of time thinking about exactly what I’m doing… how I use my time. When you get older the one thing you can’t buy—it doesn’t matter how rich, intelligent or funny you are—you just can’t get more time. It’s the one un-expandable thing in your entire life. So the only way to get more time… is to really look at how you spend it.
I was spending my entire time running my houses. I’ve done it my entire life, and I’m an incredible housekeeper… but when I’m 90, and I’m dying and God says, “What did you do?” I don’t want to say, “The flowers in my house were fabulous and I laid a table beautifully.” I just don’t want that to be the story of my life… I’m 63… and I’ve simplified my life enormously.
I’ve sold everything, and yes, I’ve bought two properties. (The smaller home I’m building) and a small flat in London, deliberately small, because I’m so hospitable I won’t be able to say no if friends want to stay, but I just don’t think I can do that anymore. I have a one bedroom flat, and I’m thrilled. It’s the perfect little precious place. It’s just for me and my husband.
South Africa is a troubled country, so I want to have a light footprint here. I’m building a cottage… just for the summer holidays because I don’t think we can live in Europe all the time. It’s just too cold, and I love to be in Africa for some of the year. I’ve done a huge amount of throwing away. It’s taken me five years, and I’m still not done… but I’m happy about it.
BRENDA: I understand. I’ve been doing that for the last three years…
SERENA: Why does it take so bloody long?
BRENDA: …I realized they’re just things. Out of sight. Out of mind. They’re beautiful and they served me well, but it’s time to let them go, so I don’t have that same emotional attachment.
SERENA: Isn’t it funny? I’m the same way… We called our daughters in last year and said, “Take whatever you want, and we’ll send it to you.” It was really an extraordinary thing. We just gave away everything…
For a long time my house really mattered to me, and now, like so many people, I want to lead a more experiential life.
I find it very interesting living in a small space in my flat in London… I found I had so much time. Everything was so easy, and I had so much time in the day… I keep meeting people who just can’t get rid of stuff. They’re stuck in a house they don’t want to sell because they’ve got all this stuff. I want to move quickly. I’d rather have a few beautiful clothes and a very comfortable bed and a wonderful sofa. It’s a new experiment, but I’m definitely ready for it.
BRENDA: I think that happens to a lot of us when we get to be a certain age, but… people get frozen, and they can’t throw things away. Or I’ve met women who are widows, and they’d like to start over and throw some of those old pieces he liked out, but they feel they’d be disloyal to their late husband if they got rid of them. That makes me sad for them.
SERENA: Me, too. People say, “Well my mother gave it to me,” but I think take a photograph of it. You don’t have to have the actual thing…
“Today I’m going to Knysna. It’s a lovely town half an hours drive from Plettenberg Bay. On the way we are going to a Saturdays farmers market where you can buy cheese, flowers, fresh eggs and vegetables… Last time I went I swam in my clothes in this crystal clear beauty as I had forgotten a swimming costume. I’m taking one with me the entire holiday in my straw basket so I’m prepared! I’m so excited you’d think I was going to spend the day in Paris!” @serenacrawford Instagram
BRENDA: Talk to me about design. Not everyone can start over and design a house from scratch, so what are some of the key things to remember when decorating a room?
SERENA: If you’re talking about women our age, and they’re starting again or just doing a redecorate, I think there are only two really important things you should spend your money on. One is your bed and the other is your sofa. Those are the two things you interface with every day, and if they’re uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter if you’re living in a twenty million dollar apartment. And I think lovely sheets on your bed, down pillows and down pillows on your sprung sofa are really important… Cover your bed in something beautiful. Not too cluttered. A really edited space then you can have the most extraordinary flower arrangement and that can be your art. You don’t have to have anything else. Maybe some some beautiful textiles on cushions.
BRENDA: I love that you use lots of light colors and texture in the homes you do, but when you look at your Instagram page… again this goes back to one of the reasons I love you… You appreciate everything. You’re always giving us a glimpse into the way someone else lives like a fabulous English home. I look at them and say that’s not necessarily Serena’s taste but she appreciates it.
“@christopherhodsoll I love your Instagram. .. I love the mix of fabrics and the use of antiques in your interiors. I’m so excited to see the sophisticated young becoming interested in a mix of antiques with contemporary. It’s the best way to have soul, interest and depth in a room… ” @serenacrawford Instagram
SERENA: That grand English style only works in England. Because I’m now spending more of my time in England—and I do love grand English houses for what they are—but I’m not living in one. My London house will definitely be English… but it will be more my kind of look. The English version of me. If you’re living in Mexico you’ve got to have an understanding of the light and the color, so you wouldn’t do an English room in Mexico…
I believe in a sense of place. I’m building a house in South Africa that’s very much a vernacular of this area, so I’m trying to fit in with the zeitgeist of where I am.
BRENDA: Will this be a Cape Dutch?
SERENA: Yes, because this is very much a Cape Dutch area, but it’s like a Cape Dutch cottage with the gables, but it’s very simple because it’s a cottage.
“Gosh what a difference a few weeks make.. This fully made up, maintained, present, calm woman wearing sparkling brooches is apparently me in a previous life … for alarmingly two weeks ago this version was kidnapped, and in her place a very unkempt rather frenetic woman has taken her place. She has only worn black leggings and a Uniqlo jacket covered in dust everyday. No make up, bitten nails, hair looking like an artichoke that’s been electrified and whipped up with an egg beater. This uncool and tricky imposter… “ @serenacrawford Instagram
BRENDA: What do you think the difference is in the woman you are today versus the one you were 10, even 20 years ago?
SERENA: I’m so different it’s actually frightening… I think about 10 years ago I did a major, major change in my life. I started to do a lot of spiritual reading, and I think it profoundly changed me. I became a very different person… I examined my life from what I ate to the people I spent my time with.
I think it came from reading books that said you’re the sum total of the five people you hang around with.
I really decided I didn’t want to hang around with gossipy or unkind people… I only wanted to have people who energetically made me feel happy. I edited the darker elements out of my life, people, food, anything that wasn’t for my highest good.
BRENDA: I like that you use the term “for your highest good.” My mother was very metaphysical I guess you might say, but she believed in God, as do I.
SERENA: As do I. Yes.
BRENDA: I’ve become a woman of faith, and that plays a huge part in my life. Mother would always say, “Is this something that will manifest itself for your highest good?” So I like that you use that term. It comes through in your Instagram posts that you’ve been consciously building on things you’ve learned, that you’re refining and seeking, deliberately zeroing in on those areas that either are missing—for lack of a better word—or taking you in the direction that brings you to your highest good. That takes a lot of introspection. A lot of people I think are afraid of that.
SERENA: I think that’s why I do this in a very subtle way because sometimes I can see it’s a surprise to people. What’s interesting is when I got about 11,000 followers I thought you know what, I must never, ever forget that if I say something, it’s going to resound out 11,000 times… so it should once again be for everybody’s highest good and should be the most positive…
…I have a very very clear intention about what my Instagram’s about. It’s not to cover the angst of the world. I think that if I look at my story, my life, when I think of what God’s will is for me today, I think it’s me living out the highest version of myself. I think in God’s mind, He has the perfect day and the perfect response to my life so everything I say, do and wear has to be the most loving response to my life… and that’s not to be fighting with anybody. It’s to be honest, kind, patient, eat healthily, to look after my body, not to over stress myself, and the one thing I constantly have to work about is not overdoing it…
Serena’s outdoor bathtub.
…I’m trying to… live in the band of balance and that’s something I have to work on every day. I think my change was so profoundly serious, 10 years ago. I think the person I was before was very frenetic, and I took on a lot… I never knew when to stop, so the last 10 years has been waking up. I’ve done a lot of work on that.
BRENDA: What was that turning point 10 years ago?
SERENA: I think we had a series of things that happened in our lives, and I felt like I was walking through concrete. I now know that struggle—and when you’re struggling—it is resistance. It’s not letting go and letting God. You’ve just got to let go, and you’ve got to step out of the way and what flows is what works.
BRENDA: I’ve been there.
SERENA: It was a very brutal time. I was not making the best choices for my life. I was in a state of terror and fear, and I couldn’t cope with it, and I started to read spiritual books then, and I got it! I thought this makes sense to me. It changed me overnight. My first book was a Wayne Dyer book, and it set me on the path, and it changed my life…
BRENDA: …Because I am on that same path, when I would read one of your snippets here and there, I just knew this about you. I remember you went on a 31-day retreat and you read one book three times, and I said that is a woman who understands the importance of finding perspective and clarity and time alone.
“I know that time has a totally different quality in every place I’ve lived. South Africa is perfection, it moves at my pace .. the sun sets and rises perfectly on time as far as Im concerned. I even manage to kiss 4 dogs, 4 x a day plus hold deep and meaningful conversations in a high pitched tone with all of them individually. In NYC time moves at the speed of light and so much happens in a day that I aged overnight… ” @serenacrawford Instagram
BRENDA: You and I both reach out to women and give them kernels to think about. I think that’s so important.
SERENA: If you’ve learned something and it’s really profound, it’s lovely to try and pass it on. I’m so grateful when I read things that are credible, like what I read on your blog… I love the inspiration I get from so many people. I just love it. I think we’re so lucky.
I’ve been reading a very interesting book you may like. It’s called The Examined Life by James Hollis. It’s about the second stage of life. He’s also a Jungian psychologist. It’s quite intense. Quite heavy. He says the resistance to what is is a disaster. Everything changes all the time, and there are no promises, and I think one of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that we’re just powerless over people, places and things. When you really understand that… you don’t know when you’re going to die, you really just have to look at your life in a very different way. You can’t simply hold anger over something you’re powerless over. It’s just pointless.
BRENDA: That was a big ah-ha moment for me, going through breast cancer. That I’m not as in control as I think I am.
SERENA: Yes. None of us are… When you profoundly except what is, and go through the process and let go, and once you’ve done your best to find the best doctors and actually sort it out, what more can you do?
BRENDA: There isn’t anything other than to ask for strength and guidance.
BRENDA: Groups invite me to speak about these things a lot. Survivorship is my topic.
SERENA: A fabulous topic, survivorship, because the real truth is all of us only have today. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. We only have today.
BRENDA: And maybe not even all of today.
“On my way back to South Africa today .. I have always wanted to buy a pair of locally made Cape Town shoes by @coast_and_koi by amazing designer Carolyn Wilensky-Sherwin .. They are super cool and highly amusing… ” @serenacrawford Instagram
SERENA: Exactly. So I’m bloody sure I’m going to have fun. LOL! I’m struggling at the moment because… I’ve got to decide… Is (a particular event) really going to enrich my life, or is it just me being crazy and wanting to do everything? I feel at this age I want to grab every opportunity that comes my way. I just don’t want to let them go.
BRENDA: That’s where I’m at. I’m saying yes to more things than I’m saying no to.
SERENA: Well that I love! Okay, this is something that’s really what I love to talk about. I read this book by… Marianne Williamson, who’s running for President. I love her. I think she wrote an extraordinary book about getting older.
And in that book there was one sentence that made me stand up and say, I totally get it!
She’d noticed that she had started to say no. Someone would say, “Would you like to come to the Metropolitan Museum?” No, I’ve already been there. I’ve already seen it many times. But afterwards she thought, the person who went to see the Metropolitan Museum five years ago… I’m not the same person…. What she was saying was that so many people start saying no. It’s such a sign of negativity and old age. It’s so much better to say yes. To have an open heart. If someone says come to a concert; let’s go for a walk across that mountain, don’t be so bloody lazy! Just go! LOL! Ever since then I’ve basically said yes.
BRENDA: I so agree. Women email me and leave comments on my blog and express their fears. On my post, You Were Meant to Stand in the Light, so many said they’re afraid to say yes and embrace life so they stand in the shadows for fear of being noticed. I know women like that. I want to take their hand and dance with them in the middle of the room and just when I see that faint glint in their eyes… the recognition of the woman they’d like to be, I would step away and let them dance in their own light.
SERENA: Oh… That’s so sad.
BRENDA: I hear from women all the time, “Oh I wish I could do that. I’m so glad you do that. I live vicariously through you.” I just hope in some way I can inspire them to do things by themselves.
SERENA: Yes! I once wrote a whole thing about dancing. How I went to a party and I danced with myself, and had I not danced with myself, I wouldn’t have been dancing… I don’t want to wakeup when I’m 90 and say I didn’t do all these things because I was waiting for somebody to come with me.
BRENDA: …Our conversation has been delightful. Thank you so much.
SERENA: It’s been so lovely and anytime we can have a chat I would love to chat with you, again. It’s been divine!