Designed to Thrive: Wit & Delight Founder Kate Arends
Of English poet John Donne, the so-called “monarch of wit,” T.S. Eliot said he should be praised for more than cleverness: for “a direct sensuous apprehension of thought … a recreation of thought into feeling.” Fast forward 400 years, and “sensuous apprehension” well suits the experience of scrolling through the annals of Wit & Delight, the website and style blog “dedicated to designing a life well lived.” Rose-gold flatware shines beside a supple chenille rug. A sunlit master bedroom glows a soft white. A colored pencil troupe peeks from its brass container. Throw pillows abound.
But lest this seem another online lifestyle haven supplying mere escapism, the Queen of Wit herself—founder Kate Arends—lends a grounded tongue-in-cheekiness that hangs the Goop set out to dry (over a stunning lawn, of course).
With a background in brand strategy, Arends got her professional start in graphic design before setting off on her own. “I went out to the middle of nowhere and got a really good design education that taught me how to think,” says the designer, who left the Chicago suburbs to pursue a degree at Iowa State University. “But the economic downturn of 2008 left me a bit bored, working with all men on a lot of liquor brands. I loved my job, and I was at the point in my career where I felt I knew what I was doing. When I decided to try blogging, it was already a world that had blossomed into an opportunity for business-building, but it was a world of bright pink, glitter and flowers. I couldn’t find myself in there.”
So Arends set out to change that, with a blend of wry humor and good taste setting Wit & Delight apart, with a social media following of nearly 3 million, a signature line at Target and a new consulting studio out of her St. Paul, Minnesota, headquarters. “I started by figuring out how to do things better, but also simpler—by which I mean, it has to fit into your lifestyle. It can’t be some complicated thing that you’re not going to do every day.”
What has evolved into the Wit & Delight namesake is a medley of rich visuals, product recommendations and snappy columns on everything from summer date nights to how to sanely baby-proof one’s kitchen. “Admittedly, we were incredibly lazy with making our home safe for our child,” Arends confesses in a piece on cordless window treatments. “Joe and I wanted to strike a balance between wrapping August in bubble wrap and a ‘Walk it off, kid’ mentality.”
In place of pouty models lounging around, Wit & Delight features Arends herself enjoying her elegant home, the family’s yellow retriever, Winnie, making frequent cameos on the couch and bed (despite a high duvet thread count, the pup is definitely welcome). And just when things get a bit fluffy, an article appears with some serious heft, “I Didn’t Understand My Dad Until I Became a Dad” published near Father’s Day. Other posts divulge the struggles of early motherhood sleep deprivation, or the conversational phrases women use that dilute their own authority.
Throughout a discussion of careers, travel and relationships, Arends makes clear that the process of growing up doesn’t stop at 27. “I had gone through my own scares and discoveries about who I was,” Arends shares about her twenties. “And I thought, ‘Maybe that’s also what this site is about.’ It’s that juxtaposition of being honest with yourself and taking that knowledge to build the life that you really want—emotionally, physically, mentally. Everything.” This candor about her own personal trials is what further sets her site apart from competing lifestyle brands. “Can our readers relate to this piece? Can they find a bit of themselves in it? Does it leave them a little bit less alone?” she asks. “How can I provide a voice that I’d want to hear in my twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and on?”
Key for Wit & Delight is a team of women who seem to genuinely like and learn from each other—the masthead reads like a group of old friends who’ve happy-houred for years. “The people you bring in are just as important as the work that you do yourself,” Arends stresses. “I try to be overly transparent with my intentions, my vision and hope for the future—a lot of that has to do with knowing where my weaknesses are. I sat down my first hire and told her, ‘I am terrible with timing. I can’t seem to manage all these deliverables. I need someone who really loves to organize.’ My transparency and directness resulted in her being the same way to me, which fostered a really great back and forth, where we could speak honestly about what we thought and wanted.”
Such humility plays a vital role in her overall business ethos. “As a leader, I’m invested in being supportive when people have a better idea than me. There have been so many times when a coworker brings something up and I realize, ‘I didn’t think of that.’ And then I make a point to say that—to not keep that to myself.”
On the blessings—and challenges—of steering a rapidly expanding company while also parenting children—an infant son and one more on the way—Arends doesn’t mince words. “I am well aware of how lucky I am, that I’m in a position to afford childcare and have a nanny we trust. In a way, part of being successful is letting other people help me, to fill in on roles that I tend to feel guilty for not being present to fill. As a breadwinner, sometimes I have to make sacrifices. I’ll never feel I am where I’m supposed to be. Accepting that is part of making progress.”
Meeting Arends, her ease and unguarded nature speak both to the energy of youth and a graceful confidence, hard-won over the years. “There will be times when things will just be chaotic,” she says of her bustling home. “And that has to be OK. We have a lot of laughs about how the house has changed since having children. There are times it seems like the living room has exploded—but it gets cleaned up eventually, and there’s no point in stressing over it when we have so few years on this planet.”
No matter one’s stance on “swoon-worthy bathroom tile,” it’s hard not to be moved by a person so genuinely invested in building a female-forward company centered on leading a more honest, mindful and beautiful life. “In the end, integrity is the only currency we have,” says Arends. And to recreate that thought into feeling—that is something delightful.
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 5, 2017. Purchase Issue 5 and become an ALIVE subscriber.
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.