Home Work: Interior designer Shea McGee inspires millions with Target line and the Insta

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Shea McGee spent years designing homes for other families before building her dream home in Utah County. The two sides of this archway include hidden doors ­­— to a closet and to the basement. | PHOTO BY DAVE BLACKHURST

Shea and Syd McGee had been working with Target for months on a multi-year partnership to design a line of everyday home furniture. Target had previously been keeping an eye on their brand, and Shea is a long-time Target fan. So the collaboration was a home run and an opportunity of a lifetime — with a big marketing splash planned for the exciting reveal that the million-plus Studio McGee followers had been eagerly anticipating.

But in the world of 2020, nothing is normal and big things have become small and vice versa. When the long-awaited line was launched, Shea masked up her two young daughters and took them to the American Fork Target to see if they could find “mommy’s picture.” After they scoured the store, they found her cardboard cutout near the Studio McGee line of products.

“That moment felt amazing, but also much different than I had envisioned before COVID-19 changed shopping and connection,” Shea says.

Then again, most of Shea’s journey hasn’t had a predictable storyline.

Home Girl

Shea came to BYU from Texas and found a home in the public relations program. She was always interested in design, but her mom’s words of “but you can’t draw” rang in her ears. And so she designed words for marketing campaigns and press releases. While in Provo, she met her opposite — aka her perfect match.

“My brother had asked me to come help him move, so I drove over there in my Ford ‘Exploder,’” Shea says.

In the McGees’ book “Make Life Beautiful” which will be released this fall, Shea writes about this candid moment.

“When he invited me over, my brother said, ‘My buddy Syd will be there and you’re going to like him, but don’t, because he’s my friend.’ As I pulled into the lot, I knew I was in trouble. There Syd was on a skateboard, wearing the skinniest skinny jeans I had ever seen. We went on our first date the next night.”

Syd and Shea’s relationship was on again, off again, but mostly on again while Shea figured out whether her structured plans could include a California surfer boy who seemed more interested in having fun than following a predictable career path. Shea had grown up with a daily, weekly, lifely plan, thanks in part to her organized and ambitious stay-at-home mother.

But balance is more than a design principle — it’s a life must. And Syd and Shea brought their differences together, said yes to the dress and to their stylized wedding in Utah. Shea’s creativity once again took a new form.

When in Home

Shea describes herself as a bit reserved and maybe even shy — but also creative and extremely loyal to her family. This homegrown combination of traits has walked Shea through her career path, which included a one-year headband business with her mom (turns out sewing products for days on end wasn’t her lifelong passion). She also took interior design classes at a community college in California to round out her degree in public relations. Her husband, Syd, was always encouraging her from the side of the room.

“He always knew my passion was home design, and I knew it, too,” she says. “But it was hard for me to cross that threshold of charging for my skills.”

Her first paid gig was styling white bookshelves in a home inside a gated community in Orange County. She spent hours sketching what the shelves could look like and shopping for the right combination of items, textures and heights. She knew a full-time designer could charge $150 an hour, so she naturally cut that in half since she was a “half designer.” And then she only charged the homeowner for the three hours she spent actually placing the items (and re-placing the items).

She knew she had sold herself short. But she was just starting. And learning. And that process has been a repeated pattern.

In the middle of launching a Target line, living through a pandemic, raising a business and two children at the same time, Syd and Shea McGee also sat down at their designer table to share their life story and design principles. All 15 chapters are written with sections of “he said/she said,” which provides a fascinating look at each of their perspectives as they built the foundation of their relationship and their business. The book officially launches in October.

Home Sweet Utah County

For a handful of years, the McGees rented a home so they could put all their money back into the business. It also gave them time to look for land and design their dream home.

“We had a year of Saturday and Sunday drives scoping out different areas of the state. When we found our land, we knew this is where we wanted to be,” Shea says. “I’m still in awe of the mountains, and I love that we’re in a quiet area away from the chaos of work and life.”

As Shea went through the process of picking her floor coverings, window coverings and exterior materials, it gave her more empathy for her clients who often want to see dozens of options.

“My builder was so patient with me as I was a bit indecisive at times,” she says. “Sometimes as a designer, you get tired of looks and styles. I wanted something I could love for a long time, and I also wanted to push myself as a designer at the same time.”

The result is a stunningly bright and white home that provides a backdrop for many of her Instagram posts and videos. Her home walk-throughs have been some of her most popular posts, with common questions being about paint color.

“I always say that paint is the quickest and cheapest way to brighten up a space,” she says. “The home I grew up in had layers and layers of paint, so I learned this trick from my frugal mom who was always making things beautiful even on my dad’s FBI salary.”

Home Grown

Studio McGee and McGee & Co. were seeing incredible momentum coming into 2020. Like many entrepreneurs, the architectural plans had to pivot.

“It’s been a challenge for us to grow together as a team and be mindful as we’re trading off with our spouses for Zoom calls and regularly communing over FaceTime rather than RealTime,” Shea says.

Studio McGee (the design company) and McGee & Co. (the home furnishings company) both had to be agile and accommodating through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But the start of our business was a result of a challenge, and so I try to see the opportunities during a difficulty,” she says. “We had to close our brick and mortar store in California. It has become abundantly clear that we need to keep on the path to diversify our business. You can either be defeated by a challenge or look for adjustments that you’ve been needing to make anyway.”

Studio McGee designs homes in Utah (40 percent) and outside the state (60 percent). Designers worldwide are watching which colors, textures and finishes she is highlighting on the company’s Instagram account. | PHOTO COURTESY SHEA MCGEE

Socially Not-Distanced

Studio McGee’s meteoric rise to interior design fame happened largely because of Instagram, where Shea shares snippets of her life and the design principles behind it.

“I am a private person, so I keep some of it just for us,” she says. “Studio McGee started out as me, but it’s not a person anymore. It’s a brand, so I aim to be professional in what I share with the world about our home and our lives.”

Even though social media is a business game-changer, it’s also exhausting — especially to a quasi-introvert like Shea.

“Syd and I always joke that if I’m not on social media, then I must be having a really good time,” she laughs. “When I’m not on my phone, I’m fully present. And I need that in my life. I don’t want to ruin family vacations by being too focused on getting pictures so I can create content.”

Trend Friends

Shea’s style has become the go-to “look” that Parade of Homes entries emulate and homeowners salivate over — in Utah and far beyond.

“We’re seeing a big shift back to traditional design,” she says. “For a while, all of our clients wanted modern, but we’re now back to seeing more texture and old world material — materials that age and wear instead of everything needing to be so clean and perfect. Our goal is to have each project reflect the homeowner — with a Studio McGee “look” to it as well.

Studio McGee is still in its “childhood,” but Syd and Shea can already look back and smile at the milestones. The multi-year Target partnership. The book deal. Hitting a million followers on Instagram. Launching their e-commerce business. But one of Shea’s favorite milestones is realizing when she can say no. “I said yes to everything for a very long time, and I had to build a team and allow them to run with things. This was a huge milestone for me personally.”

The McGees employ 100+ within Studio McGee (design side) and McGee & Co. (products). About 40 percent of the design jobs are within Utah, while 60 percent of the homes are located outside of the Beehive State. Another homely stat? About 85 percent of the design jobs are for new homes, while 15 percent are remodels around the country.

Insta-perfect

“On Instagram, every space is styled and there is no laundry in baskets,” she says. “But that’s not my life all the time. Yes, sometimes everything is clean, but it’s also just as likely that someone spills juice on the floor or that laundry is spilling out. There are real people behind every interior — including ours. But I do love our beautiful life.”

Shae at Home

Shea McGee shares her faves at home and beyond.

  • Favorite podcast “How I Built This” — especially the episode with Sara Blakey who started Spanx.
  • Favorite Utah restaurant Communal in Provo.
  • Favorite New York restaurant Jacob’s Pickles. That’s our favorite place!
  • Favorite smell Anything with sandalwood in it.
  • Favorite sound Ocean.
  • Favorite foods “Syd is into the barbecue and the Traeger, while I love fresh salads and roasted vegetables. We love our garden and plucking herbs for our meals. We cook at home a lot.”
  • Most common closet item “Shoes! I have heels, flats, wingtips, pointed flats. I am definitely a shoe person.”
  • Most common person in your text thread “My sister-in-law who helps us with our girls. She is an angel to our family!”

Trends in interior design are moving from modern to traditional, with old world materials that age and wear. | PHOTO COURTESY SHEA MCGEE

Girl Power

Shea takes a walk down the well-lit hallway of her life

Childhood

Shea grew up on hardwood — but as a dancer not as a designer. “Now I can see that dance was my creative outlet growing up,” she says. “But dance was just dance to me at the time. I didn’t think of myself as creative. But now I can see that creativity comes in many forms.” She encourages all forms of creativity with her daughters, as she watches them wake up and play without any worries in the back of their minds. They are free and living in the present moment.

High School

“I don’t miss high school — there is so much pressure to fit in,” she says. “I have always been a perfectionist, and it has served me well in a lot of ways, but it definitely hasn’t served me well in everything. I was very driven in high school, and yet I was still trying to figure out what to stand for and who I was.”

Young Adult Years

“College was a big change coming from Texas to BYU, but I met so many friends in the same stage of life. I picked a major fairly quickly — public relations — and having that background has proved very useful. But I soon learned that I didn’t love promoting companies I didn’t believe in.”

Newlyweds

“We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and I became engrossed in decorating it. We repainted walls, cabinets, furniture. I pieced together free or low-cost items to create our home. Syd kept encouraging me to take interior design classes and to take on design jobs for friends. I was scared to be bad at design, but there was a natural progression to my design career and to building my confidence.”

Today

“I love this chapter of our lives because I feel like we are finally past the first couple years of grinding and not knowing if the business was going to work. We’re now in a growth period as we work through challenges and overcome mistakes. I love setting my own hours and taking Fridays off.”

Future

“My mom has done the empty nester stage really well, and I’ve watched her explore new hobbies and passions in her 50s,” Shea says. “I’m excited to continue splitting time between family and business each decade as we all grow together.”

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