Friday Five with Karen John

Working in an office can be either really great or dreadful with one of the main contributing factors to that being the workspace itself. Luckily more companies are dialing into aesthetics and not just function, making employees much happier. One of those people aiming to change that is Karen John, who founded New York City based Heartwork in 2012. Studying industrial design at Domus Academy and working in Milan for a prominent furniture design studio led John to Stanford University where she earned a masters in Manufacturing Systems Engineering. She jumped into the tech world and helped launch a startup where it became clear that there was a strong need for creative workspaces. She then earned an MBA at Insead before starting at Design Within Reach to launch its product development team. A promotion to VP of Merchandising followed, as did consulting on design and product strategy for startups and Fortune 500 companies. Each gig leading to where she is today – filling a beige void with great colorful design. Today’s Friday Five goes deeper with this entrepreneur, learning what keeps her creative energy at maximum capacity.

Photo by Leslie Williamson

1. “Fino in Fondo” Neon
“Fino in Fondo” is a phrase I first heard from Anna Castelli Ferrieri, while I was interviewing her for research for a Fulbright scholarship in the 90’s. It translates to “Go all the way”. While I didn’t get the Fulbright, I did meet a lot of very cool Italian women who were (and still are) owning design. As an entrepreneur, those women inspired me and this motto still deeply resonates with me. Running your own business is a marathon – with ups, downs and ups.

Photo by Karen John

2. The Italian Language
After spending my 20s in Italy, I have a deep connection to all things Italian: great design (Salone del Mobile), un aperitivo, la primavera… The Italian language has descriptive words beyond what English is able to offer, and terms that allow you to fully express yourself in different ways, bringing a richer, broader perspective to your experience. Speaking Italian in NYC with my spaghetti friends or in Italy when visiting, connects me immediately to my Italian alter ego. She is a lot of fun.

Photo by Trevor Dixon

3. Color
I heart color. Strong, soft, light, dark, matte, glossy – really, any which way. In my mind, color is the optimal vehicle for expression. I am inspired by the designers I work with everyday who have been challenging the outdated stereotype of the beige and grey office to bring new life and character to the spaces where we spend the majority of our days.

Photo via

4. Manufacturing and Innovation
I’ve always been inspired by how things are made. Seeing the process fuels my curiosity – I believe understanding how things are made is a fundamental ingredient in creating good design. Plus, the art of making anything is no small feat. I have enormous respect for the makers and those committed to driving innovation. I think we’re in a really interesting intersection in time where craft, technology and innovation are weighed equally.

5. Physics
I’ve always been drawn to physics. The idea that everything is so completely not as it seems, and much more. Physics is about the “potential” and that concept scratches my optimistic itch. To me, the human body and the universe are some of the best designs out there. You can find me near the science section of the book store, looking to learn and discover a new perspective.

Caroline Williamson is Editorial Director of Design Milk. She has a BFA in photography from SCAD and can usually be found searching for vintage wares, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in pen, or reworking playlists on Spotify.