Nicole Crowder Talks Balancing Business + Passion Projects
Nicole Crowder makes gorgeous, upholstered pieces. An artist of exceptional and varied talents, Crowder comes to upholstery from the photography world; until 2016, she worked as a senior features photo editor at the Washington Post. Now she applies her finely tuned aesthetics to furniture design and upholstery, whether on projects for major hotels and retailers, custom pieces for clients, or soft pieces like meditation pillows, sold directly through her website. (The latter sold out, perhaps not-unexpectedly, during these meditation-requiring times.)
Here, we talk to Nicole about how she balances scaling her business with making time for passion projects, how she creates a home that feels like a “place of rest,” and how those meditation pillows turned into such a success.
How do you balance the exceptional quality of your work with the possibility of scaling it further? How do you figure out which projects make sense for offering at a mass scale while still making time on your schedule for passion projects and experimentation?
I’ve been trying to approach my work from a more playful, relaxed state versus a sense of urgency, and that has translated into giving myself permission to sketch and experiment freely and think of products that can be taken to market without the worry of whether they will be successful monetarily. When I first started upholstery I really just wanted to reupholster the chairs. Being able to expand into other products now is a bonus.
I love designing chairs for clients, but I also take time to feed myself creativity by playing and pairing textile combos that I love purely for fun. I have a secret board of fabrics that I want to work with in the future, and sketches of chairs I’d love to see actualized. I used to work in a way where I identified Q1 or Q2 goals. That was very early when I started upholstery, before I understood timelines are nebulous and can and should be fluid.
I haven’t found a balance in setting aside a specific time to focus solely on scaling my ideas versus time to sketch out my ideas or experimenting. I do both simultaneously because I’m always thinking of a million different things at once, and my personality is such that when I do have an idea plus the tools to create it and I can see clearly in my head – I jumpstart it immediately. I’m very excitable. My best friend jokes all the time about how I had an idea for an upholstery workshop tour in one week, and by the next week I already had an entire website launched with the cities identified and confirmed and registration was open, haha. But it’s true!
In terms of scaling, I feel something is good for mass production when I create a small sampling of it, and then get a wave of requests consistently across platforms. If I’m able to control production, ensure that each product has a distinct design about it – meaning I can see it in different fabrics and color ways or styles – and think it will resonate with a large demographic of people, that’s when I’m happy to dive deeper into nurturing that product to mass production. And also whether or not I have the budget to produce it.
What are the practical steps you’ve taken to create a warm and nurturing home? What, if any, are the impractical steps?
I love a good jade or rubber plant. Big, fat green leaves make me so happy. I’ve added so many during this time like a lot of people, and I’m so sad that I’m gonna have to give them away or donate them because I’m moving across the country soon.
For my apartment, decluttering and organizing a space helps me create a warmer atmosphere. Being in a clean space physically helps me to feel better emotionally. I’m not cleaning all the time by any means, but when I look at a cluttered corner or room for too long – and that “too long” could be more than a few hours – I need to rearrange and straighten or purge altogether.
I’ve been really big on scents the past couple years. I like to play around with sandalwood and jasmine; I like wood notes in my candles to keep a space feeling bright and warm and welcoming – a space you want to spend some time in. I love when my kitchen smells like lemon, so I keep a lemongrass candle burning in there whenever I’m cooking or just washing dishes. My good girlfriend Dian has been my candle fairy. She’s always randomly mailing me a new one from a small business to try.
And light. Natural light is an instant mood booster, and it helps me feel more attached to a space. To increase the light I also like to add mirrors, which also double as a way to reflect more light and make a room seem larger or more spacious.
I also routinely will burn sage and sage down my bedroom or living room or any area that has just seen a lot of heavy traffic or if I’ve had a stressful week. It helps me to reset the tone, and to remember to experience my apartment as a place of rest and not constant work. I also have carpeting in my current apartment, and so my vacuum cleaner has become my best friend. And let me tell you – seeing fresh vacuum lines in your carpet is a different kind of peace!
How do you balance having enough stuff versus too much? Your design aesthetic – with the gorgeous, clean lines of the furniture with the explosion of the pattern in the upholstery fabric – seems to manage that balance perfectly.
I used to try and fit into a minimalist aesthetic, but my nature is to be a maximalist. Be extra as hell. I love a home or apartment to feel lived in but clean. Display trinkets from your travels, or coffee table books that you can tell have been flipped through, or soft throw blankets strewn a sofa or chair.
My furniture is a mix of vintage chairs upholstered in vibrant prints and patterns, complemented by solids, but lots of texture. I reupholstered my previously brown velvet sofa into a mix of several different blues and whites with a hint of orange just because I wanted something that was unlike anything else I had seen on the market. And I wanted to push my own capabilities for contrasting patterns.
I love the way brass accents pop off of jewel tones, so I’ve painted the walls in my living room a vibrant dusty coral and another in turmeric. I have robin’s egg blue plates that I’ve collected from my travels hanging on the walls, and I need to hang a few large photographs from my previous history as a photo editor.
What about impractical things?
An impractical thing that I’ve done is to take a large area rug and cut it in half and hang it on my wall to be used as wall art. That instantly creates texture and height. I also have a hanging macramé chair in my living room that is used purely for decor, and I put throw pillows on it. There is no functional purpose because I could not sit in it, but I just love having that extra layer of texture and creating a vignette next to my balcony window. I use that corner as a backdrop for a lot of my photo shoots as well.
Could you give me any insight into the meditation pillows? With their huge recent success in mind – the coverage I saw placed their evolution squarely within the pandemic timeframe. Is that correct? Could you share any thoughts you might have about why these pieces have hit such a chord with buyers?
The meditation pillows themselves were born of me having extra remnants of fabric around my studio and wanting to create a meditation pillow that was an extension of my morning routine. When I posted about them initially in March, at the start of quarantine, I had an inkling they might be of interest to a few, but had no idea they would resonate with so many and from all over the world. I love that they have. It’s not calculated. I’m admittedly quite bad at making calculated moves. It was born out of an act of wanting to serve and give an offering in that moment. The timing aligned because people were also in a space of wanting to find some sort of grounding.
Shortly after releasing the pillows they received a lot of visibility because they also came on the cusp of a wave of people wanting to support Black-owned businesses, and I started getting wholesale orders from brands and companies that I’ve been wanting to partner with for a long time. My instinct was to try and keep up with that wave and produce a large volume of pillows for these companies. But the increased volume – coupled with the fact I was still reupholstering furniture for clients, and [a desire for] rest during a pandemic – the workload and the volume felt imbalanced. I operate very much from my intuition and gut for better or worse, and when I feel like I’m overextending myself in a way that does feel healthy, that’s when I make the decision to slow down production or say I’m not going to produce this large of a volume. Scaling up is beautiful and necessary for a lot of businesses, but for me it’s become more so about navigating how that looks and feels for my overall well-being. I have to feel connected to the work, invested in my joy, and rest when creating the work – and making sure that I’m still leaving time and space to execute and share that work beautifully. Making smaller, one-off products that people can take away – like a meditation pillow or a work bag or a throw pillow – and still feel like they have something with a Nicole Crowder signature is a beautiful gift.
Diana Ostrom, who has written for Wallpaper, Interior Design, ID, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets, is also the author of Faraway Places, a newsletter about travel.