Nicole Gibbons needs no introduction. The designer and founder/CEO of paint start-up, Clare, has been making waves in the design industry since she started her decorating blog in 2008. As part of our new series, My Design Journey, we sat down with Gibbons to chat about what's next for Clare, her experience in the design industry, and why we'll all be painting arches in our homes this year.
On Getting Her Start in Design
Gibbons grew up the daughter of a decorator, but didn't initially follow that path herself—even though it was always a passion—and intended on becoming a doctor instead. When she didn't enjoy the science classes that came along with a pre-med major, she pivoted to her other interests, which included fashion, beauty, and the music industry.
"I ultimately got a job, working in fashion PR out of school and, all while I was working in fashion, especially in the early days as a young twenty-something, I spent a lot of free time still immersing myself in all things design," Gibbons tells MyDomaine. "So watching all the design shows on HGTV back when they actually had real design shows and not just real estate and renovation and reading all of the magazines and just kind of consuming all forms of design-focused content, because I just found it really inspiring, and I've always loved living in a beautiful space.
In 2008, she created a decorating-focused blog, called So Haute, as a creative outlet while trying to upgrade her own space, and then requests to help friends and family redecorate came flooding in, and a design star was born.
On Inclusivity in the Design Industry
As multiple industries in this country are pledging diversity initiatives and calling for change, the design industry is no exception.
"There's not a lot of Black designers or Black faces that you see on the pages of design magazines," Gibbons says. "There were never any Black personalities on television. It's not that there are no Black designers or whatever existed. It's just the people that were chosen to be celebrated over and over were just not diverse. They didn't reflect the vast world that was out there."
Part of that problem is the lack of diversity in media and home magazines, Gibbons says.
"I think that's really the problem when you have these people who are scouting for the talent to be featured in the magazines, and they're just not in an inner circle where their world is diverse enough to consider other types of people," Gibbons says. "I do think a lot of other Black people, again, and while maybe they're not having like experiences of racism in the design industry, they do feel like their work is under-appreciated and never acknowledged in the way that maybe it should be."
Though Gibbons doesn't believe racism has affected her own journey in the industry, she doesn't believe the design world is that diverse.
"While the industry isn't particularly diverse, I wouldn't say it's racist," Gibbons says. "It's just that I was always one of few. I was always the only one in the room, that kind of thing, but I didn't have any experiences that I would necessarily portray as negative, nor would I ever say that being Black has hindered me or my career in any way. I think I also am a little bit of an outlier in that."
Gibbons chalks up some of the missteps in the industry to ignorance or obliviousness.
"I think it's just a lot of ignorance and like obliviousness to what's the right thing to do," Gibbons says. "I think people just need to be a little bit more aware and a little bit more thoughtful. And like I said, it's going to take a concerted effort before it becomes like normalized behaviors to think of other perspectives, making inclusivity more of a norm than something that you have to make a concerted effort towards."
On Becoming a Start-Up Entrepreneur
As the daughter of two entrepreneurs, Gibbons was exposed to the grit and hustle of starting your own business from a young age.
"I wasn't going to go from running my own design firm to working for someone else's paint company," Gibbons explains. I was in a job for 10 years where I felt like I was way too smart, too good, not appreciated enough, not paid enough, all these things. It's not that I wasn't passionate about it."
Gibbons faced challenges like any other business owner, from learning about paint chemistry and how to manufacture quality products to working on raising venture capital.
"I know that I could do so much more on my own as an entrepreneur than like working for someone else," Gibbons says. "You're just so much more empowered when it's your own thing."
On Why She Chose to Focus on Paint
Though many designers launch a fabric line or go into removable wallpaper, Gibbons chose a different route, wanting to solve a problem she noticed as a designer.
"I didn't feel like there was a shortage of places to buy furniture and fabrics or wallpaper or whatever, but the paint shopping experience is really terrible," Gibbons explains. "I watched other examples of other product categories like mattresses and glasses, and luggage where someone figured out how to take a really painful shopping experience and make it easier, more convenient, et cetera."
Clare was born in 2018, selling high-quality, zero VOC paint and paint supplies directly to the consumer, with colors curated by her as a design expert. As she was the go-to source for friends, family, and clients struggling with choosing paint colors, she wanted to give the same level of expertise and curation to the average consumer.
"Number one is that the average person who didn't have the fortune and benefit of working with the designer really struggled to choose paint colors," Gibbons says. "I noticed how friends of mine were literally texting me pictures with 13 swatches on a wall for one teeny tiny room and asked me to help them choose, and I saw just how daunting it was for them to pick a color."
Though the paint industry has several established brands that have been in the market for decades, Gibbons saw an opportunity in the space for more creativity and innovation.
"When you have an industry that massive with that much kind of cash and liquidity, how is it that they can't figure out how to innovate?" Gibbons says. "How has it that they can't figure out how to create a better experience to shop? Like no one was selling paint online. It just felt like a bigger business opportunity than doing just another fill-in-the-blank product line."
On What's Next For Clare
Though Clare is only about two years old, the company (and Gibbons) have big plans for the future.
"We're a start-up, so we have to kind of take things one step at a time, but there's obviously lots of other adjacencies within paint or category extensions like exterior or even different sizes," Gibbons says. "For example, right now we only sell gallons, so we know that there's a market for different types of paint."
Gibbons is not thinking small when it comes to the future of her company.
"Our goal is to be the next Sherwin-Williams or the new dominant paint company for a younger generation of people who love their homes," Gibbons explains. "In order to grow a big company, you have to continue expanding your product line and more importantly, just deliver more of what customers want."
Though she's been a successful entrepreneur as both a founder of a design firm and an innovative start-up, Gibbons has learned more from her peers than traditional mentors.
"What I've found is the best mentorship is actually peer-to-peer mentorship, so I learned a lot from my other founder friends," Gibbons says. "I know lots of people who are running awesome businesses and some who are much further along than me who have lots of insights and wisdom to share."
Gibbons has a tight group of friends that she knows she can count on while growing her business.
"It's less of a one-on-one mentorship and more of this circle of people around me that I know I can go to when I need advice or guidance," Gibbons says. "I found that to be like the best form of mentorship that I've had through probably throughout my whole career, but especially in this startup journey."
On Future Paint Trends
As a wave-maker in the paint world, Gibbons has her finger on the pulse of the latest trends.
"One thing that we're seeing a lot all over Instagram is like the painted arch as this new, super easy DIY to do to create a focal point in your home," Gibbons says. "You can use it to frame an entry console or a bar cart. You can also paint an arch and then install shelving on the wall and create a little focal point as an entryway with hooks and all sorts of things."
After years of bright white minimalist decor reigning supreme, Gibbons is predicting a return to moodier colors.
"Most people will still prefer lighter like neutrals or shades of white because I think it's just the most universal and easy for most people to figure out how to make it work, but I do see more people embracing bolder colors than ever before," Gibbons explains.
Decorating with bolder colors makes an instant impact on the space.
"I love it when folks are not afraid of using color," Gibbons says. "I think a bold color on the wall will have so much more of a dramatic impact in the space than painting the whole room white. White always has a place, but I think over the past several years, especially fueled by Instagram, we've seen the all-white home be overly popularized and it's all one kind of homogenous look, and I think stepping outside that box is so much more interesting."
On the Future of the Design Industry
Gibbons says she doesn't have all of the answers to what's next for the industry as it grapples with diversity in media and design.
"Being Black certainly doesn't make me a diversity expert, but I think in general media, not just in design, but media overall, could do a better job of just having more balanced representation across the board, both in the subjects that they feature, the experts that they choose to talk to, the designers' work who they choose to feature, the staff, the leadership, et cetera, et cetera," Gibbons says. "Up until now, literally I can't tell you how many times I've seen people do diversity and design panels where you just sit around and talk about it, but then no one ever actually does anything," Gibbons explains.
She hopes that this time change actually happens and companies follow through on their action plans.
"I just hope that the industry and whatever they're working on in terms of their guidance, diversity initiatives, I just hope that that is backed up with real action," Gibbons says. "And then I hope that the leadership puts more people of color around the table as decision makers."
When the goal is inclusivity, there's more work to be done.
"A truly inclusive environment is inclusive of race, gender orientation, and makes sure that all different types of people are represented who actually reflect the audiences and the customers and readers that you're serving," Gibbons says.