Gray & Her Home
Living in a newly constructed home definitely has its perks—everything is new and works properly, for example. What these houses lack, though, is history, and that’s a deal-breaker for some people, including photographer, Gray Benko. Prior to finding her charming and historical home in South Carolina, she lived in a house built in 2007, and while she appreciated the perks the house offered, she felt a strong desire to have a home with “creaky floorboards and doors that won’t shut properly.” She found that and more in her current home that she shares with her husband and two children—and couldn’t be happier. The house is full of colorful accent pieces and items that were all carefully chosen based on Gray’s love for them. In fact, one of Gray’s decorating tips is “don’t buy things just to fill space and get rid of things that you don’t love.” Get more valuable insight from Gray and check out the fabulous items found throughout her home below. Get ready to swoon!
You’ve had quite the career—first a model and now a photographer! Tell us about living and working in Japan! Did you carry over any of your experience there to building your home in Charleston?
That’s sort of an embarrassing question for me because I have never considered myself a model. I did, however, have the opportunity to model with an agency in Tokyo for a while, right after high school. The experience was life-changing. I lived there for 8 months and met so many incredible people and had so many amazing experiences. Being able to immerse myself in the Japanese culture probably changed me forever. I still have an intense love for Japanese style and culture.
Your house is 130 years old! What drew you to picking a historical home to renovate?
I have always had a great love for old homes. Before this, we lived in a home that was built in 2007. As nice as it was to have everything work the way it was supposed to, there was always something missing for me with that home. Turns out, I need creaky floorboards and doors that won’t shut properly, in order to function. There is something about a home that is steeped in history that you can’t replicate. We actually stumbled across our home completely by accident. I was visiting our favorite children’s book store (which has since closed down and broken my heart), when I mentioned my love of old homes to the owner, Natalie. She mentioned that she had seen the cutest little gingerbread house on the way to work that morning, listed as a for sale by owner. I drove by on the way home, called immediately and the rest is history.
If you had to pick just one, what would you say is your favorite piece of décor in your home?
That’s a hard one! It would probably be our breakfast table. My parents bought it when I was a child during a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We ate every family meal over it while my sister and I were growing up. It was the scene of so many memories, laughs and family meetings (which inevitably included many lectures, directed at yours truly, which I’d probably rather forget). It definitely means more to me than any other piece of furniture that I own.
Do you have any secret spots around Charleston to find great art or furniture?
Celadon is one of my favorite spots for furniture, for sure! So many great finds there. Charleston Artist Collective is a great spot to find art from a large number of wonderful artists, and Heart of Gold Gallery is right next door, which houses some amazing music and portrait photography, spanning from the 1950s to present, by some really incredible photographers. Because they are right next door to each other, it’s a great one-stop shop if you are looking for art. Aside from that, I LOVE antique shopping. It’s how I find some of my most unique pieces. If you are ever in town and can branch out a little bit farther, make a stop by the little town of Walterboro in South Carolina. The streets are littered with antique malls. I try to get out there a couple of times a year and always come home with something fun!
You’ve worked for some major kids brands. What drew you to your love of photography and photographing kids?
I really have been so lucky to work with some super incredible brands. I became interested in photography in high school. I had such a fun and encouraging photography teacher; I pretty much just picked up a camera and never looked back (thanks Miss Oxford). As far as what drew me to photographing kids, I honestly think that, in the beginning, I was just afraid of photographing grown-ups (I have since, thankfully, gotten over that). However, after I started doing it, I realized that there was something about photographing kids that was just so special. Something about the innocence and the impermanence of it all. I’m just very drawn to it.
What’s been the most exciting opportunity for you so far as a business owner?
I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and I have been so grateful for every single one. If I had to choose one though, I would have to pick our Zara “brother’s and sister’s” campaign. That was a project that I had, for so long, followed and admired. I don’t know if I have ever been more excited than I was the day I got that email.
Since you’re no stranger to photo shoots, what are some beauty tips you’ve learned along the way?
Well, one thing that I stumbled upon very recently (and that I’ve been dying for an opportunity to share and scream from the mountain tops) is True Botanicals. No joke, it changed my skin’s life forever. Like forever, forever. I started using the basics line over the summer and have been astonished at the shape of my skin ever since. Run, don’t walk, because I don’t know what they put in that stuff, but it’s magic. I couldn’t even have a break out if I tried.
You’re also a mama with two kiddos! How has becoming a mom influenced you creatively?
Being a mom has influenced me a ton! It’s like having two little muses following you around 24/7. I get to play around with new ideas and experiment with them constantly…or for as long as they will let me…or for as long as they can be bribed with ice cream.
All-time favorite mommy brand? All-time favorite kid’s brand?
For me, definitely Madewell. It’s 99 percent of my closet. It’s just so easy and effortlessly cool. For my kids, I love Zara and Finger in the Nose. There are also some great online boutiques that I couldn’t live without: Luibelle Kids, Ladida and Fawn Shoppe are some of my favorites.
Your home has a lot of personality! How do you inject personality into a home? What are a few ways people can start?
Buy what you love! My décor is basically a collection of all of the things that I love, mashed together. I learned somewhere along the way not to buy it if I don’t LOVE it. Don’t buy things just to fill space and, on the same token, get rid of things that you don’t love. Empty space is OK. Wait until you find the perfect piece. It’s OK if your home isn’t 100 percent finished; that takes time. Just make sure that your space reflects who you are and what you love, and that is enough!
You love decorating with color. What’s your favorite color to decorate with right now? How do you go about mixing colors?
When we purchased our home, all of the walls were painted a buttery brown. One of the first things I did was come in and paint almost everything white. I had always envisioned clean white walls (which of course never stay clean for long with two kids, a dog, a cat and five chickens—clearly the chickens don’t live inside, but they needed to be included for dramatic effect), with bright pops of color brought in via the furniture, art, rugs and textiles. I don’t know that I have a favorite color to decorate with, as I really wanted each room to have its own, unique feel. Jewel tones in the living room, dark walls, corals, lime greens and yellows in the family room, softer pops of color in the bedroom. If you asked any of my friends how I go about mixing color, they would tell you that I do it by driving them certifiably crazy. I obsess over it way too much, never initially trust my own instincts and call all of my friends for advice in succession until one of them finally says what I want them to say. If you value your free time, don’t give me your number.
What’s your process when styling a shelf? Do you have key items you always use?
I would not, by any means, say that I am an expert at shelf styling (in fact, I made my friend Allie style the bookshelf in our playroom because I just couldn’t deal). I think that it’s great to start with something personal and work from there. In our dining room, we have these really tall shelves that extend to the ceiling. I couldn’t figure out where to start but then I remembered that I had this huge collection of my dad’s old records taking up space in one of our closets and voila! That was my starting point. I am all about utilizing items in your home that have history and personal meaning to you.
Yellow Boxes (same but different color)
We are obsessed with your collection of oil paintings. How did you find them? What draws you to them? If someone wanted to find one for their home, where should they look?
Thank you! I love staring at all of the portraits. There is something so mysterious about them to me. Who are these people? What happened to them? Are they still alive? Why did no one want to keep their portraits? I have made up storylines for each and every one of them. I buy most of my portraits in different antique malls and on Etsy!
Top places to shop for your home?
Some of my favorite Etsy shops:
One vintage piece every home should have?
So this is probably not what you are expecting me to say, but if you don’t have a vintage set of salt and pepper shakers, go get you some. I have two little green froggies that kiss each other and there is probably nothing that makes me happier.
What are some easy ways people can decorate rooms with wallpaper? Do you have any go-to sources for wallpaper designs?
You’re a pro at capturing your kids in a way that feels very candid and authentic. What are your tips for photographing kids without it being a total pain for everyone?
Don’t let me fool you, 50 percent of the time, it is still a total pain for everyone involved. I think that the key though is to lower your expectations. You can’t make kids look happy doing something they don’t want to do, and you don’t want to force them into doing something that they don’t feel like doing anyway, so be flexible. I try to just go with it when my kids decide to take my idea in a different direction and, nine times out of ten, I end up much happier with the end result anyway.
We love your giant picture of your daughter above your desk. Where did you have that printed?
Thanks! I am obsessed with it. When I decided what I wanted to do, I reached out to Sydney over at Anewalldecor (they print a lot of great wall murals and large poster prints). I asked her if she would be able to print my photo and she was all over it. I was so pleased with the way it turned out and it’s a pretty affordable option for large-scale printing.
What’s the next thing you want to purchase for your home?
I think I am finally at a point where I can say that I am pretty happy with our home! No big purchases in my future (unless of course I randomly stumble across something that I can’t live without, which has been known to happen). Last year, we built into the attic to give our kids their own bedrooms, so I think we are done with house projects for a while, but if we can save up some money (and energy), I’d love to remodel our bathroom.