Grace Bonney’s ‘Collective Wisdom’ Rejects Ageism and Explores Older Womanhood

"It shows just how deeply we receive these messages about what age means and how much it limits us."

Grace Bonney natalie chitwood

Grace Bonney founded the legendary blog Design*Sponge in 2004. DIY makers and interior designers alike took to the daily design blog for its joyful embrace of home décor, creativity, and community. For fifteen years, Bonney curated, edited, and wrote for the blog. What started as a personal blog dedicated to chronicling style in Brooklyn grew into a much larger project, as influential as the shelter magazines that Bonney once worked for. 

Only 23 when she launched Design*Sponge, Bonney’s interests and concerns evolved over time. As her curiosity expanded beyond design, social media shifted the nature of reader engagement. Design*Sponge’s audience branched out as did Bonney’s vision of community. That sense of openness lead to her 2016 book, In the Company of Women, a visually beautiful and inviting book that examined the lives of women who defied odds to realize their goals. The original hardcover was a large scale handbook for inspiration presented in the binding of a coffee table book. Auspiciously, the book was published shortly before the 2016 presidential election. 

After three initial energizing and empowering events for the book, the election took place. The subsequent book events were overshadowed by grief and shock. Bonney recalls they took the tone of a group crying session. In that wake, Bonney drew from her own intergenerational friendships and feedback that caused her to explore her own internalized ageism to imagine her new book Collective Wisdom (Artisan). While it shares a similar layout and open spirit as In the Company of Women, this book enjoys a more expansive look at social engagement, shared responsibility, and the capacity for joy from the perspective of age and a diversity of backgrounds and experience. 

Over one hundred women from 27 states (urban, rural, Native reservations) were interviewed for the book. The interviewees include disabled women, women of color, LGBTQIA+ women, artists, mothers, childfree women, artists, academics, park rangers, entrepreneurs and more. The vast majority of women, with the exception of those interviewed as part of an intergenerational friendship, are over 50. It was Bonney’s intention to spotlight women who may not ordinarily enjoy the spotlight and celebrate their life’s achievements, endurance, and pride. Grace Bonney spoke with Observer over the telephone from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley. 

Observer: What really stood out for me about this book was its energy as well as the dynamic between the generations. You could have easily written a book that focused exclusively on women over 50, but exploring the interplay that exists between the generations distinguished the book from what could have been a passive tribute to elders. That engagement seems critical to societal progress. 

Grace Bonney: That really was kind of the crux of the book for me. And I think people are always drawn to like individual profiles, but the friendships and mentorships that were profiled in the book meant the most to me because I think in that dialogue there was something really special and particular. For example, there are several stories about people who met their older friend through their parents. There’s a tipping point that occurs where you’re the kid in the relationship and then you become an adult or when someone shifts from a friend of your parents to an actual friend independent of that relationship. I really enjoyed getting to hear how that happens for people, because I think sometimes the way we actually create adult friendships is mystifying. So much of this book, for me, is about seeking out adult friendship and what that what it takes to make that happen.

You were inspired, in part, by specific intergenerational friendships. Could you speak about that?

After my wife [the food writer Julia Turshen] and I moved to the Hudson Valley in 2014, I believe, we started volunteering at a group that’s like a Meals on Wheels operation. Our co-volunteers were two women who were, at that time, in their late 80s. Immediately, we thought one of them, Georgine, was the coolest and we got to know her a little bit better by driving her to volunteering every week. She was a very interesting person with a really long life. During the last two years of her life, I got to know her quite well. We celebrated her 90th birthday and I would help her with her plants and her cat. The friendship I had with her gave me a perspective that I just didn’t even know I was missing in my life. 

I knew that I wanted to do a book that not only celebrated women like Georgine, but also celebrated what was so special and what I found in that friendship. So I knew that I wanted to include stories of intergenerational connection, whether those were friendships or family connections, or business mentorship because I know that those are so crucial. 

I don’t think that intergenerational friendships are encouraged enough these days. If you only hang out with people who are your exact same age, you’re really not benefiting from just how much experience other people have to bring to the equation. And that goes both ways. They’re mutually beneficial and too often portrayed as a young person kind of sitting at the foot of someone with a lot of wisdom, which does exist. People who live a long time definitely have learned a lot, but I think people have a lot more to offer than just wisdom. It’s a type of perspective that is really important for younger people to have.

Yeah, I think it also involves energy. The negative thing about associating exclusively within a certain age group is that there’s a tendency to fall into a rut with others who share your same life experiences. By turn, it’s also easy to romanticize the past. Friendships with people significantly older or younger than you help shake the sense that you’re stuck and also help you see beyond your immediate lot in life. 

Older people also get something out of being friends with somebody who’s a different age. There’s a certain level of curiosity and vibrancy that our culture takes away from older people or assumes that they don’t have anymore. And that’s absolutely not true. That’s one of the many myths sold by dominant culture about age. I spent a lot of time with women from their 70s, 80s, and 90s. These are people who still have an incredible amount of vibrancy and curiosity and desire to learn, do and try completely different things. When we stop asking questions of those people, we stop acknowledging that reality. I think I really wanted to create a book that would counter that kind of flattening that happens to older women through the media and I hope this book would provide a counter narrative.

Collective Wisdom by Grace Bonney Workman Publishing

Do you feel that people were very aware of that flattening or was it something that surfaced through conversation? How much are people aware of what the patriarchal society imposes upon them, as opposed to assuming that this is the way things are? 

Everyone is aware of it. It is very clear. I think it’s something that whether or not you really realize it, you’ve internalized it. Something that people talked about a lot was kind of the awareness of how much they had taken on a lot of that inside themselves, and that they were self-censoring themselves at a point. It shows just how deeply we receive these messages about what age means and how much it limits us. At a certain point, almost everyone pointed out that whether or not you choose to actively fight against ageism, in a very public setting, the very act of existing, surviving, and adapting is inherently [an act] that is alive, thriving, and creative. We don’t look at those stories close enough, but people are very, very aware of it. Young people, who were on the younger end of an intergenerational friendship, became aware of it much more quickly than I anticipated, because I would say that ageism goes both ways. A lot of us get passed up or not taken seriously because of our age which is also ageism. 

It makes a strong effect when you realize that that’s just yet another tool that dominant culture uses to kind of keep us apart from each other. I don’t think people had necessarily connected that in the same way that, like a lot of the other “isms” such as patriarchy and capitalism that we deal with, ageism is another one that divides groups of people. 

While I think that we all benefit from community, women in particular benefit from community. Women are uniquely isolated in this way that we don’t need to be. Everything that I do is about trying to shine a light on how we can build community in even the smallest way. My hope was that people reading this, if they were under 40, wouldn’t come away from the book saying, “Oh, I have no connection to women in this age group,” or “I don’t see myself reflected here,” but instead would be reminded that this will be you if you are fortunate enough to live as long as these women and here’s how you start connecting with them, here are some questions you can ask them, here are ways to stay curious about friendships that don’t look the way that you’ve been taught that maybe they should look. 

You’ve you’re taking on a different career transition as well, aren’t you? Would you feel comfortable talking about it a little bit?

This book pushed me over the edge in terms of feeling ready to leave the art and design world. I’m now in grad school, studying to become a marriage and family therapist. Therapy has been a very big part of my life for the past ten years and I think it’s what kept me somewhat balanced as a business owner. When I did all the interviews for In the Company of Women, I realized how much I enjoyed sitting one-on-one with people, but we were still primarily talking about work. 

This book felt completely different because we were talking about bigger life issues, not just entrepreneurship. Also, I was interviewing people during a pandemic. Everyone was terrified! It was a really unique time to be having these very vulnerable conversations. The amount of time and checking back and forth and coordinating times with people’s children to help them set up the technological requirements of doing these interviews really helped me get to know my subjects’ families so that by the time we sat down and had these talks, they were incredibly emotional, personal, and meaningful. 

It really hit me that this is what I love doing. I’ve always been far more curious about people than the things they make—even though I love art and things that are handmade. I just became far more fascinated and curious about the people and the stories behind them and what makes somebody want to go into those fields. That curiosity has been a thread through most of the work that I’ve done. Some invisible thing clicked during this project, where I realized I’ve done so much talking for the past 15 years that I just want to do a lot more listening. It became really clear that that therapy was a place I wanted to do that. 

I’m not sure what the end version of that will look like. There are so many places where mental health support is needed. I didn’t see how I could use skills from what I saw as blogging in the world, but I think that curiosity and learning to be a more active and present listener really have translated quite seamlessly into therapy work. I’m really happy and grateful to be doing something completely different that makes me feel like a beginner all over again. That’s a really amazing feeling to have at 40. 

Grace Bonney’s ‘Collective Wisdom’ Rejects Ageism and Explores Older Womanhood