Home Ground design How a home renovation turned into a retail empire

How a home renovation turned into a retail empire

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Not everyone can turn their home improvement blog into a mini empire. But that’s exactly what the husband-and-wife team of creative director Susan Brinson and photographer William Brinson did with House of Brinson.

What began as musings on their Manhattan lifestyle morphed into a detailed account of their hands-on renovation of Stony Ford, a historic and once Dilapidated Greek Revival mansion on 17 acres between Goshen and Newburgh. Over time, the House of Brinson brand expanded to include an Instagram page and an e-commerce site featuring products bearing the Brinson seal of approval. The couple’s commercial photography website echoes the Brinson brand.

But let’s go back to where it all began, in Waldorf, Maryland. Susan Orvis attended public school in the city, and one day a friend invited her to a 16-year-old birthday party for a private school kid named William. Susan and William have been a couple ever since, even going to college together at Savannah College of Art and Design.

For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD. “Our whole house was built before there was electricity,” says Susan. What’s wrong with a manual renovation? We have resources like electricity and YouTube.


William and Susan Brinon/House of Brinson
For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD.

For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD. “Our whole house was built before there was electricity,” says Susan. What’s wrong with a manual renovation? We have resources like electricity and YouTube.


William and Susan Brinon/House of Brinson


Stony Ford is a cash-only renovation, so they work at their own pace. “We never took out a loan to do work on the house,” says William. (Photos: William and Susan Brinson/House of Brinson)

The Brinsons had already started looking for a home in the country in 2013 when their landlord sold their building in Manhattan and asked them to leave. For years, Susan had watched Stony Ford’s prices drop – which had been on the market for seven years – when they decided to pounce. The Brinsons believe they are the seventh or eighth owners since the house was built around 1850.

“We looked at other houses, but when we saw the Stony Ford front hall, we said, ‘This is us,'” says Susan.

After more than a decade in advertising, Susan joined William’s commercial photography business as creative director and photographer, and the two considered securing an apartment in the city to maintain a presence in Manhattan for their business. “But to move [of the city] created more opportunities to travel,” says Susan, because people didn’t associate them with the physical studio in New York. They traveled to Milan, Italy to shoot commercials for Martini & Rossi, Chicago to shoot for Crate & Barrel, and Colorado to shoot for Target, among other projects.

In the meantime, their home design and renovation blog, House of Brinson, was taking off. Launching in 2009, the first posts they wrote were about their apartment, their food, and their travels. It caught the eye of interior designer Nate Berkus, who guest-starred them on his TV show, and led to an appearance on a Design*Sponge podcast. By the time they moved north, “the blog had already buzzed about it,” says Susan. This buzz was about to get stronger.

Renovations by hand, by hand

When they bought Stony Ford, “everything was broken, but it was livable”. said William. “The walls were cracked, the ceilings were cracked.” However, the original hand-hewn beams and moldings were in place and the Brinsons saw the possibilities.

They spent the first two years on necessities like reinforcing the structural beams in the basement and replacing the water heater. “It allowed us to live in the house and see how it could reflect us,” says Susan.

Since then, they’ve refinished the floors, updated the electrical and plumbing, removed aging wallpaper and refreshed the walls, remodeled the bathrooms, and installed a vegetable garden.

They did 90% of the renovations themselves by watching videos, researching online and reading books. “Usually we’re just do-it-yourself people,” says Susan. “Our whole house was built before there was electricity. What’s wrong with a manual renovation? We have resources like electricity and YouTube.

For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD.

For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD. “Our whole house was built before there was electricity,” says Susan. What’s wrong with a manual renovation? We have resources like electricity and YouTube.


William and Susan Brinon/House of Brinson
For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD.

For the Brinsons, a DIY renovation is NBD. “Our whole house was built before there was electricity,” says Susan. What’s wrong with a manual renovation? We have resources like electricity and YouTube.


William and Susan Brinon/House of Brinson


“Our whole house was built before there was electricity,” says Susan. (Photos: William and Susan Brinson/House of Brinson)


Stony Ford is a cash-only renovation, so they work at their own pace. “We never took out a loan to do work on the house,” says William.

“When we’re done, we’re done,” adds Susan, even though the pace of work means they still haven’t started cooking.

Their followers grew exponentially when they started blogging on Stony Ford, and soon 2,000 Instagram followers grew to 122,000. Their blog receives tens of thousands of page views per month.

This came in handy when COVID hit and photography jobs dried up. “We went through an upheaval,” says Susan. “We had to pivot and come up with a plan B.”

Plan B was the House of Brinson shopping site, a curated selection of recommended products like barware, table linens and gardening tools. Susan and William say they insist on keeping the site authentic and won’t add anything they don’t approve of. “If there’s something we say we like and use, then we really like it and use it,” says William.

They’re trying to open a retail store, maybe in Newburgh. “It would be a huge draw for our region,” says William. “We see a synergy with what’s happening in Newburgh and what we’re doing.” Last December, they dipped their toes into the world of window displays with a pop-up shop at Tuxedo Park Junk Shop, an antique and art gallery.

The Brinsons say they were approached to do a TV show, but didn’t like the ground rules, which included disagreeing and arguing on camera to create dramatic tension.

“We don’t fight in real life, so we’re not going to do it for TV,” William says.

“No fabricated drama,” Susan says. “We try to be very thoughtful about our process so that our relationship stays in a good place.”

As the Brinsons know, a good life takes more than a well-renovated home.

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