Nicole Crowder makes beautiful, padded pieces. Crowder is an artist with extraordinary and diverse talents and comes from the world of photography for upholstery. Until 2016, she worked as a senior photo editor at the Washington Post. Now she applies her finely tuned aesthetic to furniture design and upholstery, be it in projects for large hotels and retailers, custom-made items for customers, or soft items like meditation cushions sold directly through her website. (The latter may not have been sold out unexpectedly in these times of meditation.)
Here we talk to Nicole about how she balances scaling her business with time for passion projects, how she creates a home that feels like a “place of rest,” and how these meditation pillows became such a hit.
How do you balance the exceptional quality of your work with the possibility of further scaling? How do you find out which projects make sense for a mass offer while still taking time for passion projects and experiments?
I’ve tried to approach my work from a more playful, relaxed state versus a sense of urgency and that has resulted in my being allowed to freely sketch and experiment and think about products that can be brought to market without worrying about whether you will be financially successful. When I started upholstering, all I really wanted was to reupholster the chairs. The ability to expand into other products now is a bonus.
I love designing chairs for clients, but I also take time to get creative by playing and matching textile combinations that I love just for fun. I have a secret panel of fabric that I want to work with in the future and sketches of chairs that I would like to see updated. I used to work in such a way that I identified Q1 or Q2 goals. That was very early on when I started cushioning, before I understood that timelines are nebulous and can and should be fluid.
I didn’t find a balance in allowing a certain amount of time to focus solely on scaling my ideas and the time to sketch out my ideas or experiment. I do both at the same time because I am always thinking of a million different things at the same time and my personality is such that when I have an idea and the tools to create it and I can see it clearly in my head, I get started right away. I am very excited. My best friend is joking all the time about how I had an idea for an upholstery workshop tour one week and by the next week I had already launched a whole website with the cities identified and confirmed and registration was open, haha . But it is true!
In terms of scaling, I think something is good for mass production if I take a small sample of it and then get a wave of requests across platforms consistently. When I am able to control the production, make sure that each product has its own design – which means that I can see it in different fabrics and colors or styles – and think that with a large population resonates with people. I am happy to delve deeper into promoting this product for mass production. And also whether or not I have the budget to produce it.
What are the practical steps you have taken to create a warm and caring 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 as many as many others during that time, and I’m so sad to have to give them away or donate them because I’m about to be moving across the country.
For my apartment, removing interference and organizing a room helps me create a warmer atmosphere. When I’m physically in a clean room, I feel better emotionally. I don’t clean all the time, but if I look too long in a crowded corner or a crowded room – and that “too long” could take more than a few hours – I have to rearrange myself and straighten myself or flush myself completely.
I’ve been very fragrant for the past couple of years. I like to play around with sandalwood and jasmine; I like notes of wood in my candles to make a room feel light and warm and inviting – a room that you want to spend some time in. I love it when my kitchen smells like lemon, so always burn a lemongrass candle in it when I’m cooking or just washing dishes. My good friend Dian was my candle fairy. She always randomly sends me a new one from a small company to try.
And light. Natural light is an instant mood booster and helps me feel more bound to a room. To increase the light, I also like to add mirrors, which also serve to reflect more light and make a room appear larger or more spacious.
I also routinely burn sage and sage in my bedroom or living room, or in an area with heavy traffic or when I’ve had a stressful week. It helps me reset the tone and remind myself to experience my home as a place of rest rather than constant work. I also have carpeted floors in my current apartment, 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 enough stuff against too much? Her design aesthetics – with the beautiful, clean lines of the furniture and the explosion of the pattern in the upholstery fabric – seem to create this balance perfectly.
I used to try to fit into a minimalist aesthetic, but my nature is to be a maximalist. Be extra like hell. I love a house or apartment in which I feel comfortable, but clean. Display trinkets from your travels or books with coffee tables that you can tell have been leafed through, or soft blankets strewn on 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 upholstered my previously brown velvet sofa in a mix of different shades of blue and white with a touch of orange just because I wanted something that was different from anything else I’d seen on the market. And I wanted to improve my own contrasting pattern skills.
I like the way brass accents emanate from jewel tones, so I painted the walls in my living room with a vibrant dusty coral and another with turmeric. I have robin and egg blue plates that I’ve collected from my travels on the walls and I need to hang up some large photos from my history as a photo editor.
What about things that are impractical?
One inconvenient thing I’ve done is take a large area rug, cut it in half, and hang it on my wall for use as wall art. That instantly creates texture and height. I also have a macrame hanging chair in my living room that is just for decoration and I put pillows on it. There’s no functional purpose because I couldn’t sit in it, but I just love having that extra layer of texture and creating a vignette next to my balcony window. I also use this corner as a backdrop for a lot of my photo shoots.
Can you give me an insight into the meditation cushions? Given its great success in recent times, the coverage I’ve seen has brought its evolution right within the timeframe of the pandemic. Is that correct? Could you share your thoughts on why these pieces have been so popular with buyers?
The meditation pillows themselves were born of me when I had extra scraps of fabric in my studio and wanted to create a meditation pillow that was an extension of my morning routine. When I wrote about them at the beginning of the quarantine in March, I suspected they might be of interest to some, but had no idea that they would resonate with so many and from around the world. I love that you have. It is not calculated. Admittedly, I’m pretty bad at making calculated moves. It arose out of the act of wanting to serve and make a sacrifice in that moment. The timing was right because people were also able to find some kind of grounding.
Shortly after the pillows were released, they got a lot of visibility as they were also on the brink of a wave of people wanting to support black-owned businesses and I started receiving wholesale orders from brands and companies I wanted to work with for a long time . My instinct was to keep up with this wave and make a large amount of pillows for these companies. But the increased volume – coupled with the fact that I was still reupholstering furniture for customers, and [a desire for] Rest during a pandemic – the workload and volume felt unbalanced. I work a lot of my intuition and gut for better or worse, and when I feel like I’m overwhelmed in a way that feels healthy, I choose to slow production or say I don’t will produce this large volume. Scaling is nice and necessary for a lot of companies, but for me it’s increasingly about controlling how it looks and feels for my general well-being. I need to feel connected to the work, invest in my joy, and rest while creating the work – and make sure I still leave the time and space to do this work and share it nicely. It makes a nice gift to make smaller, one-off products that people can take with them – like a meditation pillow or work bag or throw pillow – and still feel like they have something with a Nicole Crowder signature.
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.