Reimagining Your Space with Upholstery Star Nicole Crowder

This vibrant designer finds inspiration from Mexico City and coastal Spain. In collaboration with Walmart.

  • By: Bibi Deitz
  • Photos: Courtesy of Nicole Crowder

There are few design stars as colorful and cool as Nicole Crowder, whose upholstery toes the line between traditional and modern. For example, her wait-listed meditation pillows that she started producing during quarantine come in splashes of brightly patterned cotton—but their circular shape reflects the zafu, which originated in China and has been used for centuries for sitting in silent contemplation.

Crowder’s also not afraid to create visual mix tapes of different design eras, like a settee that would be right at home in someone’s parlor reupholstered in a bold print, or a retro Hans Wegner–style shell chair featuring her own custom fabric. What we admire most is her ability to combine these beautiful, personalized designs with affordable store-bought items. Recently, she’s found some key pieces from Walmart’s Bohemian Dreams Summer Edit to mix into her signature aesthetic.

How did you get into upholstery? When did you know it was going to be more than a passion and turn into a career?

“I began my journey into upholstery design after spending my entire childhood traveling and often moving with my family. I frequently found myself having to purge my possessions when we moved somewhere new, so I became interested in this idea of finding small ways to feel at home no matter where you are in the world.

“When I finally settled in Washington, DC, I began seriously creating bespoke furniture that reflected me—things that I knew would allow me to feel at home, with myself, no matter where I moved next. Once other people began to seek me out to create pieces that would give them that same feeling of “coming home to yourself,” I knew I was onto something.”

Any design tips for us mere mortals who need help elevating our homes right now?

“Focus on creating an experience in your home that makes it feel like your home. It’s really easy to grab pieces out in the world that are mass-produced or reflect a broader cultural reality, but home should really start with manifesting the expressions of who you are at every stage in your life—so when you come home from a long day, you feel embraced by your truth and your own reflection. I believe that the best home design is the kind that reminds you and others of your own unique beauty.”

[Editor’s note: Take time to identify your own personal style. Whether you’re learning how to DIY a wall hanging or simply browsing decor until you find something that speaks to you, learn what you love and what makes you feel like home. You can start now with the eclectic designs from Walmart’s Bohemian Dreams Summer Edit.]

What was the very first thing you upholstered yourself?

“The very first thing was a pair of metal dining chairs I snagged from Craigslist. The frames were initially silver metal, and the seats were a tattered cream. I painted the frames gold and upholstered the seats in a green-and-white floral print. I sold them to a woman who happened to be an interior designer one week later, and she told me I should get into upholstery more full-time because of the need for it in DC. And the rest—as they say—is history.”

Where do you get inspiration?

“My inspiration comes almost directly from each client’s unique and rare style. That’s what makes my designs special—every piece is like a woman who is fully dressed for her day in a style that reflects who she is.

“So if I have a client with Afro-Caribbean roots who loves water, speaks softly and gracefully, is an animal lover, and is having a newborn baby, my vision will stem directly from her story and where she is in life.

“From fabric selection to the construction of the piece, I’m looking for ways to manifest her qualities onto the piece—say it’s a chair—so when it’s done she can truly sit with herself. All of my design inspiration is about celebrating our individual essence in a world that so often homogenizes and diminishes our beautiful and rare qualities.”

How would you describe your own personal style?

“My personal style has evolved more to crave comfort. The irony is that I love dressing my furniture in colorful, mixed prints, but for my personal style, I’m drawn to much more minimal dressing. I love clothing that has flow, but is still like it was tailor-made for your body—a loose top or pair of pants or a dress.

“I love accenting a stark white or black top with a handmade gold necklace or with some earrings. I like clothing that is simple but has a surprise detail in it, like an asymmetrical cut or a deep cut out of the back of a top. Essentially, a closet full of Mara Hoffman’s designs would be a dream. I dress for the kind of energy I’m channeling on any given day.”

[Editor’s note: Discover textured furniture and decor in colorful, mixed prints like this Foreside Handwoven Pillow and Beacon Lounge Chair. Find more bohemian living room picks here.]

When you go into a new space that you’re tasked with designing, how do you get started?

“I like to meet my clients at the moment when they are seeking to find their place. That can be if they’re moving into a new home, designing a new office or hotel space in a burgeoning city, or if they’re simply graduating to a new level in life.

“My vision starts by finding my client on their journey. Then I get to work gently breaking down the layers to understand the essence of their story. After exploring what makes them and this moment in their life interesting and rare, I begin thinking about how to capture their story and manifest it into a piece.

“Usually, the process with the piece itself is very similar—I break down the layers of the chair or sofa, explore what elements are rare, like the wood or the construction, and then I manifest the client’s story on to it.

“My process is so important to me because it ensures that my clients walk away with a bespoke memory piece for their home that helps them feel like they have a place in the world. It can go with them anywhere, as a refuge and resting place.”

Your home seems to reflect your free-spirited persona. What unique places and cultures have inspired your design choices?

“I’m inspired by the vibrancy of coastal Spain and Mexico City. Trips that I’ve made there have inspired my approach to color combinations because they are so bold and fearless about it. Mexico City in particular is such a visual [explosion] because corals and purples bump against vibrant greens, lemon yellow, and colorful tiles. And that could be a sight you see at just the gas station.

“Barcelona’s easeful approach and its aqua waters and relaxed vibe have completely inspired me to hopefully open a B and B along its coast someday. Rest and pleasure is such a part of the culture, and that has permeated how I approach my own work. I painted my apartment walls coral and yellow and teal to remind me of Mexico City and Spain, so that I could feel present with their memories every day.”

What was your favorite Walmart purchase? How does it work well with your design aesthetic and the pieces you already have?

“My favorite Walmart purchase is so hard to make, but it’s between the hammock and the jewelry armoire. I was in need of a place to store my jewelry and nail polish—small sundry items—so they weren’t just loosely rolling around in a drawer. And the armoire fits in perfectly with the rest of the decor in my bedroom, and doubles as a great plant stand for my pothos. I plan to install the hammock on my balcony soon.”

We love your meditation pillows! How did you develop them?

“The meditation pillows are important because they allow me to offer clients the first opportunity to come home to themselves, as I often say. The process of meditating is exactly that—sitting with yourself, reflecting on who you are and who you will be, and manifesting that into your reality. It’s literally a microcosm of our creative process for larger furniture pieces, so it’s really fun to offer the smallest expression of my work in pillow form.”

No matter what your design goals may be, Crowder is sure to provide inspiration and a little splash of motivation to your plans. Her eye is unparalleled, and her ability to truly understand her clients and combine homemade items with store-bought finds is a gift we can only hope someday to attain a little bit of ourselves. Until then, we’ll be browsing Walmart’s Bohemian Dreams Summer Edit.

Want more stories like this?

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