Turning a house into a home tends to go well beyond a curated collection of chic throw pillows or pretty paint choices. It’s all about telling a story and infusing a space with pieces that tell of a life fully lived—an art form in which lifestyle consultant Whitney Leigh Morris is an expert! A cottage dweller (among many other fab titles) in the heart of Venice, California, Whitney relishes playing hostess to friends and family, and has become a bona fide authority in the entertaining scene. Read on to see how she pulls together the perfect event and juggles life as a California creative and wife-to-be.
Photography by Monica Wang
What is the common thread running through your roles in advertising, graphic design, museum exhibition design, interior décor and styling?
As diverse as my professional responsibilities are, there is a clear, overarching goal, which is to tell a story. Whether I’m designing elements of an exhibition of artwork and/or artifacts, managing the creation of a book or styling products on set, I aim to convey a client’s message as simply and beautifully as possible. The primary challenge is to provide audiences with a unique and comprehensive experience that enhances the subject matter.
How do you incorporate your philosophy of all things “beautiful, thoughtful and meaningful” into the different facets of your life?
Living in the Tiny Canal Cottage has unified and solidified my philosophy. It is such a small space, yet each day it functions as a home for our small family, accommodates house guests and the demands of a thriving business, welcomes crew members and collaborators, stores client product and serves as a set for video and photo shoots. The only way I can possibly make all these things work on top of one another (almost literally) is to mindfully and selectively choose my belongings and relationships. I feel like my brand, although widespread, is cohesive and stronger as a result.
Describe your style in three words.
Simple, natural and functional.
What are some of the most important things to keep in mind when planning or hosting a gathering in a small space?
It’s important to consider the basics: Where will guests put their belongings? Where will used dishware go? Where will attendees charge their devices?
In this case, I painted and repurposed two shepherd’s hooks and set a sanded branch across them to create a simple closet outside on which my guests could hang their coats. Next to that, I placed a picnic bench (covered with a table runner) on a rug to create a temporary drop area for purses and gift bags. This allows the cottage to stay clean and uncluttered, and keeps seating space available for guests.
Similarly, I repurposed a rolling metal laundry cart as a basket for collecting used food and beverage items. This helped me avoid an unsightly, surface-stealing mess in the kitchen during the event.
How do you avoid using disposable items when hosting in a small space?
I always aim to keep the environment in mind when hosting, and I try to avoid using disposable party supplies. I think people who rent or live in small quarters assume that they have no other choice but to use disposable items when hosting—but that’s just not true! If I can manage to store enough reusable items in my tiny kitchen to host up to 50 guests for cocktails and 20 guests for meals, I bet you can, too.
I purchased most of my reusable pieces from CB2 at prices that were comparable to plastic or paper party goods. And dozens of my cocktail tumblers were once candle holders. Glass serving bottles and a SodaStream help me avoid wasteful and harmful plastic-bottled water. I use various baskets and hanging methods to keep these items organized during events and for daily life.
What are some tips for creating a bar for small-space entertaining?
When designing a bar for a small gathering, I love partnering with Rachel Mae Furman of Smoke & Honey, a blog that celebrates the art of leisure. She ingeniously pre-batches cocktails in mini bottles and mason jars, which is a brilliant way to save space and valuable hostess time. Sealed jars can easily be stacked vertically, and guests simply add their own ice to serve themselves. It feels fun and interactive, and doesn’t require a bartender.
Try using farmers’ market ingredients and organic spirits, like Art in the Age SAGE Gin or Breckenridge Whiskey. This keeps cocktails delicious and environmentally conscious.
What are your guilty pleasures?
For someone who values and recommends simplicity and downsizing, I have to admit to collecting random items with which I’m bizarrely obsessed, such as trays, tablecloths and recycled glass bottles.
As for the more common guilty pleasures, I will admit to appreciating a relaxing ‘Sunday Funday’ along the beach once a month or so to decompress.
Can you paint us a picture of a typical day in your life?
Six days a week, I am up at 5:30 a.m., on the bike at the beach with my camera and coffee by 6 a.m., back with my guys at the cottage for breakfast and a stroll by 7 a.m., on Skype with European and East Coast museum design clients and artists by 8 a.m. and on the Pilates reformer by 9 a.m. Then I’m in the cottage shower by 10 a.m., and styling and collaborating on products, interiors, events or photo shoots by 11 a.m. The remainder of the afternoon is spent editing photos and tackling office tasks. After that, I’m attending blogger and personal events for happy hour, enjoying family time at home by 8 p.m. and following up with work and tying up loose ends from my home office by 9:30 p.m. Finally, I switch off the twinkle lights and hopefully collapse into bed by 11 p.m.
What were your goals and inspirations when designing your home?
To leave as small of a footprint as possible. I’ve seen so many people emotionally and physically tied to excessive items gifted or passed on to them by loved ones. While heirlooms are precious, I never want to bog myself or anyone else down with material clutter in the present or future. I prefer to keep my home and office small and practical, outfitted with carefully selected pieces. I also aim to be comfortable with letting go of the majority of those belongings if ever necessary.
Where would your dream vacation take you?
I want to travel to so many places—I don’t know how to choose! But in the South of France, there is a tiny medieval village called Belcastel, which is my home away from home. I am just as emotionally tied to Belcastel as I am to Venice. I love being there with my family and friends.
When you’re styling on a set or at an event, what supplies do you always have within arm’s reach? What’s in your emergency kit?
For the job: several kinds of adhesive, floral wire and clippers, Goo Gone, screen-cleaning pads, throws (pillows, blankets, rugs), eucalyptus of all types, Monstera deliciosa, recycled glass candle holders and bottles for simple vases, extension chords, spare Edison bulbs and pins of all sorts.
For those of us doing the job: an Urban Decay ‘Naked on the Run’ palette, ballet flats, raw almonds, backup battery packs and the almighty Advil.
You live in Venice, California. What unique opportunities does the area offer you as an avid entertainer? Where do you shop for must-have home/hostess pieces?
I love Venice the way I love my friends. This town is a living, breathing, imperfect, incredible and ever-changing organism. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. I enjoy entertaining at the cottage, and I prefer to do so on the weekends so visitors can pair their trips with a stop at the beach, a sail in the marina or a stroll on the canals (all within one to four short blocks of the cottage).
Venice is a mix of wild creatives and affluent business folk. The shops here tend to reflect that mix, which I appreciate. I love visiting Ilan Dei Venice for outdoor items and The Piece Collective for unique homewares and gift bag goodies. Most often I try to buy from vendors who are located within a few miles of the cottage so I can shop specific, local handmade goods and meet the makers in person.
What are the three items you always have in your fridge?
Lemon-infused bubbly water, green juices and Nohmad Snack Co. chocolate bars.
What is your favorite way to unwind after a long day?
I love taking long walks on the canals with my fiancé and our dog. When solo, I prefer to ride down the Venice Beach bike path with my music and camera.
What one item in your home puts a ‘flash of delight’ in your life, and why?
I most enjoy our wooden hanging trays, which merge function with beauty inside the cottage and throughout the garden. They support commonly used books and candles, along with freshly cut branches and florals. These suspended shelves are easily mobile, and waste absolutely no precious square footage. They aren’t just pretty to look at—they’re also simple, natural and functional.