Drinking Wine, Talking DIY with Blogger/Baker Alana Jones-Mann
Alana Jones-Mann is beautiful.
She's of a particular breed of striking: China-doll skin, jet-black hair, tall and waif-like, and her signature style blends California hippie with hipster thrifter. With such a unique aesthetic, she's the kind of cool girl that, at first glance one might wonder "Why'd she wanna hang out with me?"
She doesn’t think of herself that way--at all. Alana’s one of the goofiest, most down-to-earth women I’ve ever met. Her snorting laugh alone tumbles into stoner territory at times and she’s surprisingly uncomfortable in the spotlight, even though she has 30.6k followers on Pinterest, 19.5K followers on Instagram, and DIYers from all over flock to Alana’s blog to see her latest what-the-hell-worthy projects.
Alana and I sit down with a bottle of red wine and talk about her 4th-grade obsession with Martha Stewart, how baking is a great remedy for heartbreak, and the business of blogging. Plus, we did this super-fun photo shoot with Brett Moen--a shimmering, glimmering holiday set up.
I’ve always been obsessed with Martha Stewart. When I was a kid, probably about Fourth grade, I would sprint home from school to stop the VHS recorder and watch the full Martha episode from that day.
What kind of guests did she feature? “So and So from North Dakota makes origami”?
Yeah! Because, before the Internet, it was whoever was popular in the craft world, and you already knew who they were.
Did you talk about crafting with your friends?
I don’t think so? I think I just did it with my mom. I had the mom that, when you’re younger, everyone is like, ‘Your mom is so cool!” And then you get older you’re like, “Oh my God, Mom...” She’s super crafty.
Once I had a Lion King birthday party and she made these enormous trees from bunched-up craft paper. We have 12-foot ceilings in our living room and they reached the ceiling. The branches turned into vines that went all throughout the house, so that it looked like a jungle. Each kid had a branch, and they had to follow the vine to see where it went, and at the end of the vine was their goody bag. That’s how they entered the party.
She wanted to make everything so exciting for us. We’d wake up on Valentine’s Day and the entire table would be covered with candy and everything was pink. On St. Patrick’s Day everything was green, from green apple juice to green eggs.
Wow! Did she have a day job also?
She’s a first grade teacher, but yeah...I guess she just never slept? My mom has more energy than anyone I’ve ever met. I definitely didn’t get that from her.
Was she the kind of mom that made puffy paint sweatshirts for Christmas?
No, she’s always had really amazing style. Her kitchen was super retro and yellow, very late 60s.
Ah, you have a bit of that aesthetic. Is there where you get it from?
Probably. But at the time, I wanted a suburban San Diego upper-middle-class mom kitchen. She had an amazing 70s BMW and I just wanted her to have like, a Ford Windstar or something. I just didn’t appreciate her style at the time!
Did your mom pick themes for birthdays?
Yeah, one year I had an American Girl-themed birthday party. I was obsessed with Samantha, 1904, Victorian Age! I thought that I should be her. I even wrote a letter to the president of The American Doll company saying that if they ever made a TV show, I should play Samantha, because I look like her. And I sent a picture of myself!
So for this birthday, my mom sewed me the classic Samantha doll outfit. I invited all my friends, who were wearing their cool, like, Bongo shirts or whatever they wore back then, and then there’s me...in my Samantha outfit with my hair in a bow with my Samantha doll.
Did this enthusiasm for crafting continue through your teenage years and into college [in Oregon and then The New School]?
No, high school was more about music and going to shows. I worked at a record store, so my life was pretty much all about that.
Was there a moment, as an adult, that reignited your interest in crafting?
I’d throw dog birthday parties [for Dylan and Riley, Alana’s two pugs]. People were suggesting that I start a blog to show off my party décor and such. So about a year after we’d been in our current apartment, I started the blog. My first post was a recap of the dog’s birthday. It just looks like a kid’s birthday party.
Was there ever a moment when you thought, “I want to be a professional crafter”?
No, no. I love doing it and everyone in my family has always done it, but I never thought I was artistic. I felt like the black sheep. I could never do the classic stuff that you learn in school, so I assumed that side of my brain must not work like the rest of my family’s does.
That’s interesting that you can be so good with numbers and also be so creative.
Yeah, I love math so much. Getting down with some equations is like, the best Sunday activity. I’ll look up problems online, write them down, and solve them, with about 30 pieces of paper on the ground.
That’s insane to me. Do you feel like that part of your brain informs the business side of your work?
Yeah. I like working until I solve a problem. I have to figure it out. If I can’t figure out how to make something, I’ll give it a rest and try it again. I’m never going to say, “Eh, not for me, I couldn’t do it.” For example, I was never a baker, but I was going through something and I had an urge to bake a cake.
You never went to culinary school?
Nope. YouTube. The baking sort of all started when Chad [Alana’s boyfriend] and I moved into our current apartment, about 6 years ago, we started making cheesecakes and we’d sell them to Sel de Mer [a since closed restaurant in Brooklyn]. Chad was working there at the time. They were really popular.
Do you have go-to You Tube channels?
No, I just search for whatever it is I’m trying to learn. Sometimes it's better that way. You see the weirdest stuff, which is entertaining.
Do you fall into YouTube rabbit holes?
Oh My God, Yes. When people get a thumbs down, it makes me so sad. There is this little old man who made a video demonstrating how to use a steam vac. He does this for free! He’s just trying to help you and you give him a thumbs down?! It’s freakin’ mean! So I always Like the videos and leave a comment.
Wait really?! On how to use a steam vac?
Yeah. And then I bought one because I loved his video so much.
So back to your own career: It all began with cheesecakes? Why cheesecake?
I have no idea. I wasn’t even a big fan of cheesecake. But we found a good recipe, we altered it a bit, and it was great. It was only chocolate cheesecake. I have no idea how that happened.
I had the urge to make a cake; I needed to put all my energy into something, so I decided to make this cake with a heart in the middle. It’s a two-part process and I did it, and when I was finished I thought, “I can’t believe I did that.” Now I look back and think, “Aw, that cake looked so bad!” But at the time I was really proud. I taught myself how to do that.
So this “urge”--where did that come from?
It’s a really sad story. My best friend died. You probably don’t want to include that, though.
Oh that’s terrible. But I get it. I think a lot of people use outlets like that when they’re coping with something difficult. But why baking?
I really don’t know?
It was a sudden death?
Yeah, the kind of thing where he’d just called and I was supposed to call him back the day before. There were so many strange things that happened, I questioned whether or not I could have prevented it.
So you felt personally tormented by the loss?
Yes. I’ve never had a whole lot of friends. I’ve had a few friends, and then I had one best friend since I was a kid, and that was him. Since we were young, he was the the one person I’d go to for everything, the bestest friend.
When he died, I’d never experienced anything like that, and I don’t think I ever will again, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was anxious in a way I’d never felt, anxious to go out in public, afraid I’d think of him and burst into tears. I didn’t want to be on the subway crying, so I’d have terrible anxiety about getting on the subway or even out of the house.
My boss allowed me to take some time off, and during that time I just cried for days. There were all these little things that added up, and one day I was just thought, “I want to bake a cake.” I’d never had that urge before, but it was the only time I could think about him and be happy.
Did the two of you have any memories baking?
No, no. We were never into baking cakes together. We drank a lot of Slurpees.
I’m not sure why I felt so calm. When I was making and decorating the cake, I was just thinking about him in a happy, positive way. We had an insane connection that was completely platonic. He was like a brother, but close on a different level because we could talk to each other about anything.
He died probably only a week or two after I saw him in San Diego over the holidays.
Once I figured out that baking was the thing that put my mind at ease, that’s all I did. I was too sad to do anything else. That probably lasted for six months, because I became obsessed with it. I loved that it made me happy.
Did you also eat a lot of cake during that time period?
Yeah. Especially because I was testing out a lot a new recipes.
Is that around the time you decided to leave your day job?
Yeah, kind of. My whole life was reevaluated after my friend’s death and I thought, “Life is too short, I just want to be happy.” I wanted to do something that I loved. I didn’t have a bad job or experience. I loved, and still love, my former coworkers. But I wasn’t particularly happy in PR and Marketing. I was there for six or seven years. Towards the end, it was clear that I was ready to go. I’d be sewing and crafting in my office and my boss would come in and say, “Can you come into my office for a call? And yes, you can bring your needle and thread.”
Did that experience help with the entrepreneurial elements of your blog?
For sure, the marketing side has helped me a lot. I wish I had small-business experience to see how things like payroll, insurance, and accounting are done. I’m doing these things on my own now, and because I worked for a big company, I never had to deal with that stuff.
Do you have plans to expand and hire people?
I don’t know. I’m not sure where it’s going to end up. I have some ideas for projects I want to tackle and potentially turn into businesses.
How time consuming are your crafts?
I don’t like to do obvious crafts, so before I make anything, I research it to make sure it hasn’t been done before. Sometimes that takes up a lot of time. Then I try the process first, which, because it hasn’t been done, I have to figure it out. There’s a lot of experimentation on my end to see what makes sense and what is going to be easy for my readers to pick up.
So if I called you Sunday and was like, “Hey Alana, let’s go grab some brunch!” would you be like, “No, I’m baking, sorry”?
Yeah...I mean, that’s probably why I don’t do anything social. Some DIY bloggers can post six things a week, but for me, I spend four days working on one post, so my process is a little bit slower.
How long does it typically take to make the more advanced cakes, like the Otomi Embroidery Cake?
What?! How is that possible? And where did you find that design?
I made it. Well, I researched Otomi embroidery, which comes from a small village in Mexico, outside of Mexico City. It’s like Mexican folk art, and now that it's becoming popular, you can still buy textiles, but to them it’s still very traditional. What’s interesting is that every pattern is different.
Where do you begin?
I chose the animals I wanted to make and I kept the print next to me. Then I outlined it with a toothpick in buttercream. You can do a lot with stiff, homemade buttercream. Store-bought is not the same.
Do you always make your own icing?
Yes, and you always should. It's much simpler to make than you think and it tastes a million times better. Then you frost the cake and let it set, put it in the refrigerator for an hour, and it becomes hard enough to work on, as opposed to store-bought frosting, which never hardens.
Then I just made a bunch of buttercream and dyed it 15 different colors. Then I freestyle. When you look at the patterns, there is no order. It’s random.
So let me get this straight: You made a ton of homemade buttercream, created 15 different bags of the stuff, dyed each bag of frosting a different color, and hand-piped each design?
Yeah. But it really wasn’t that difficult.
[At this point in the interview, I’m starting to get wine drunk, and I ask Alana if she’s ever iced a person’s face into a cake, sort of like a bad tattoo of a face? Then I request that she do so for her boyfriend, Chad. She said that would be kind of creepy, but kind of awesome, too.]
Do you ever feel precious about your cakes? That you don’t want anyone to eat them?
No, I want people to eat them. Sometimes when people ask me to drop off one of my cakes, I want to stay and watch people eat it.
You never feel like people are destroying your work of art?
No, because I’m always so happy with my recipe and my product. The way the cake tastes is always my #1 priority. That’s why I don’t use fondant, except to make something look a particular way.
Like when you have to make a pizza cake.
Your cakes ARE so good. How do you keep them from drying out?
Well adding certain ingredients will make them moist. I don’t really like that word, but that’s the only way to describe it. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of pudding or sour cream. It depends on the flavor.
Making the cake dense is really important. When you take it out of the oven, it’s important to keep it hot so the moisture doesn’t escape.
Do your preferences change during the seasons?
Absolutely. Vanilla stays more moist in the summer months, when it’s warm, and chocolate is usually better in the winter.
What are some of your favorite projects?
My cactus cupcakes, the gemstone cupcakes, and the agate slice cookies--there is so much detail involved because you have to paint them yourself. It’s hard to believe they are edible, but it’s actually really easy. It’s just white icing and food coloring, but you’re breaking it down by color with a little bit of vodka.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Getting to think of new ideas and execute them. I love that I can be creative while making money. I don’t need a lot of money. As long as I can take care of myself, I’m good. I just want to make awesome shit.
I also love that when I’m inspired by something, I’m able to follow that inspiration and turn it into something else. My inspiration for desserts never comes from other desserts.
What have been some of your biggest struggles as a professional blogger?
Probably the fact that I am completely self-funded, so it can be tricky to balance paid jobs vs. the crafts I do on my own. I never want my blog to be all sponsored posts. So I need to take on work, of course, so I can pay my rent. I may make a bit of money off the blog, but essentially, I do it for free. And because it’s well known, I still get criticism. If something is wrong, I get lots of emails about it, so it can be a lot of work.
So it’s all the effort of a full-time job without the money?
Yeah. But that said, I do it because it’s fun and I enjoy it. It makes my day when someone recreates my DIY projects or cakes and tags me on Instagram. I love it. Especially when they put their own take on it.
What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you first started blogging?
Mmm, taking good photos? It took me a while to learn what worked and what didn’t. When I first started the blog, I was so focused on posting frequently that, even when we were going on vacation in Italy, I felt all this pressure to have 12 posts ready by the time we left, when in reality the only people looking at my blog were my mom and my co-workers.
Ok, so let’s talk about your beauty and fashion inspirations. You have a very particular look about you.
Yeah. Do you feel like your sense of style has changed since you’ve been in New York?
Yeah. I’d say I didn’t have a sense of style, really. In high school, it was just about dressing like my friends dressed.
I’m really into vintage shopping. I’ve always loved being able to get something for super cheap, to feel like I’ve scored. A $100 vintage dress is not a score to me. But a $5 vintage dress? That’s a score. You can’t do it in New York City, but you can do it on the outskirts. Aside from my jeans and basic tops, all my jackets, coats, hats, and dresses are vintage.
What’s the last new thing you bought?
A bunch of stuff from Topshop. They have such good basics. A high-waisted denim skirt, some amazing bellbottom pants. The Topshop near Rock Center is so great, and they’re so nice!
Do you window shop a lot?
Yes. Miu Miu, Prada, all those shops on Fifth and Madison Avenues. I love looking at the color palettes and pulling inspiration from say, a Prada coat, or the Bergdorf windows. I don’t actually go into the stores, but I love the designs, the colors, and the textures.
What is your beauty routine?
I wash my face with Neutrogena Oil-Free Face wash. Since I was in highschool, if I didn’t have that orange face wash, I don’t know what I’d do. My skin would feel greasy; I’d be in a bad mood.
Then I use a moisturizer, usually Aesop. Their serum is amazing. Sometimes I use Aesop cleanser. Then sometimes I’ll use one with Retin-A. And Mario Badescu Drying lotion if I have a zit.
What kind of makeup do you wear?
I don’t really wear makeup. I wear sunscreen. Occasionally I’ll wear a little eyeliner, and I wear mascara. I’d like to wear more makeup, but I don’t because I’ve never worn it, so I don’t know how to apply it. I’d probably look really weird.
[Final note: Alana couldn't look weird if she wore a garbage bag as a dress.]
Alana weighs in on her Holiday Gift picks. Read it here!
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