How teacher-turned-designer Erin Kern of Cotton Stem lives life well.

Hop on the rug with us - and get to know more about Cotton Stem's Erin Kern.

Picture it: a giddy young girl in elementary school, given free reign by her parents to redecorate her bedroom. 

The chance to do anything she wants with the space. 

The chance to let her budding mind run free with all the whims and delights she desires. 

“I remember saving up, and it was the highlight of my year,” says Erin Kern, designer and mom of four, who was that young girl, presented with that very opportunity. She decided to go for a textured wall with a fan pattern. “Baby blue and silver were my colors, and everything was very matchy-matchy!” 

It was the first time she ever felt the thrill of breathing new life into four walls. While her style may have changed quite a bit since then — she’s more in favor of subtler shades these days — Kern hasn’t lost her touch for infusing magic into every space she walks into.  

From Austen to Good Morning America

Kern, who grew up in Oklahoma and still lives in Tulsa with her husband, their four daughters, furry sidekick, Harvey, and three cats, Tilly, June and Faye, hasn’t always been channeling her talents into interior design. Before she became one of social media’s most popular home décor bloggers, she taught high school senior British Literature for five years. “That love of teaching is what prompted me to want to try and teach or explain projects on Instagram,” she says. 

And so she did, starting with small projects here and there, spurred more out of need at first. “My passion for DIY came from wanting to feather my nest but not having much money at the time,” she explains. “I also really like a challenge, so to see all these cool DIYs on Pinterest back when it first was a thing was so inspiring to me, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it!”

It became something she added her own flair to, relishing the chance, once again, to relive her elementary school-dreams of making a space truly her own. In 2015, she created a vintage book wall installation using old books and a hand-lettered wooden sign with a quote on it from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It took off as a trend that others soon started following, with even Good Morning America wanting to know more about her inspiration.  

Kern went on to decorate homes for others, and started her Instagram account in August 2016, as a marketing tool, hoping to grow her design business. It was the success of her Instagram, which itself grew four months later to 20K, that let her know she could perhaps change her way of working. 

“While it was a creative challenge, I found that I didn't love being away from home so much,” she says. “After watching the Cotton Stem Instagram take off, I realized that perhaps I could work from home and get to still be creative. What a blessing!” 

Soon, Kern was tackling bigger at-home DIY projects with her husband, sharing her methods online. “When doing DIY with my husband, we have learned to talk through the process more than once so we're on the same page,” she says. Along the way, she’s learned to “just let him fly when it comes to the bigger tools and things since he has knowledge there,” and he's learned to “just follow my lead on style and design choices and that it'll all come together in the end.” 

Sharing herself with the world

It makes for a winning balance one that’s mirrored in the way Kern shares her knowledge with just enough personal experience to draw us into her world. Not one to shy away from talking about difficult subjects, Kern’s presence online has also come to include her sharing make-up-less Instagram stories about her mental health and dealing with her daughters’ Celiac disease diagnosis. 

When she fell pregnant with her daughters, Kern took some time off. Returning to a creative space was like coming up for air, she says. “I loved the baby years with our girls, but I also felt that a creative part of me was missing. So it felt wonderful to start to flex that muscle and find a community who shared my interests, too!”

She’s been learning as she goes, and of course, sharing what she knows along the way. One of the biggest challenges has been creating boundaries around a job that has none. “Not even work hours,” she adds. “[It] has been such a struggle for so many, and I felt that, too.” 

About three years ago, she decided to start taking weekends away from social media. “I knew it might negatively impact my business since the model wants you to be on and active 24/7, but for me, my mental health was way more important.” But it wasn’t enough. ​​In the summer of 2020, she made an announcement to her some 600,000 Instagram followers. Sitting on the floor and dressed casually in glasses and a sweatshirt, she spoke about how she’d been privately dealing with a health issue: Kern had been losing her hair and the doctors connected it to stress. She decided to take a longer break.  

“Now, I not only take weekends away but also one full week per quarter to reset and focus on what's truly important. Those breaks always refresh my mind and make me more creative when I return, actually!” Her reinvigorated creativity has resulted in new collaborations, like the Jane Austen-inspired rug series she created for Well Woven.

While Kern doesn’t think the Instagram platform has changed much, she’s content with the approach she’s decided to take. “It’s becoming harder and harder for one's content to be seen in a saturated environment like Instagram, and so I choose to ‘do me’ and stick with what I love. Stats and analytics be damned.” 

In spite of it all, she still knows how to reach us, with her infectious love of reading and her passion for figuring out how to make something work. “I try to stick with what I know, even if I think maybe no one will care. I'm always surprised by how much of a reaction comes back after I just share from the heart and not shy away from vulnerability. I see that play out even with products or décor I choose to share. People are smart. They can tell, even through a screen, when someone's heart is or isn't behind what they are sharing. Stick to what you know and love!”  

It’s advice that’s well worth heeding along with something else Kern heard when she was pregnant with her first child and still likes to implement today. “Start like you mean to go on. [It was] in regards to how I wanted to parent, but it really rings true for all the things!”