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Interior designer Nicole Gibbons is Oprah-approved

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Gibbons talks to us about her famous boss and being a black woman in a racially-exclusive biz

A New York City living room masterminded by interior designer Nicole Gibbons
Photo by David Land via Nicole Gibbons
Nicole Gibbons
Photo by Reid Rolls

What do Oprah, Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, and stylish New York City interiors have in common? Stellar designer Nicole Gibbons. Gibbons is a Harlem-based design wiz whose career began when she started her blog in 2008. Fast-forward eight years, and she has a television show, Home Made Simple, on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and is working with clients like actress Adrienne C. Moore of Orange is the New Black fame and on both residential and commercial projects alike.

For this episode of the Curbed Appeal, we sat down with Gibbons to talk about her career (she didn’t start out in interior design), what it’s like to have Oprah as a boss, and why having people of color represented in interior design coverage is so important. If you want to check out Nicole’s work (and you should!) you can head over to her website and follow her on Instagram.

Listen to it all—or read the interview in full—below!

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Zoe Rosenberg: I'm Zoe Rosenberg.

Asad Syrkett: I'm Asad Syrkett.

Zoe: This is The Appeal, the Curbed podcast.

Asad: Interior design is something that, I think, intimidates a lot of people. Even if they're interested in design and have strong tastes, they don't really know how to bring their ideas into fruition in their own homes.

Zoe: But, in the age of Pinterest and Instagram, it's becoming more accessible than ever.

Asad: Yeah. Advice and inspiration are out there in spades. Today, we're going to be talking to someone who has a lot of advice and wisdom to share. Nicole Gibbons, an Interior Designer based right here in New York City.

Zoe: You might recognize Nicole from her stints on the Rachael Ray Show or from her Oprah Winfrey Network show Home Made Simple.

Asad: We're going to be chatting with Nicole about her trajectory from working in fashion to being an interior designer and really building her brand. Stay tuned.

We like to start every interview with guests with the same question, which is when you're at a cocktail party, how do you describe what you do?

Nicole Gibbons: I'm an interior designer. I like to keep it short and simple. I just focus on the main tent of my career because even though I do other things—media and work as an expert —it all boils down to my role as a designer, so that's the short and sweet answer.

Asad: Yeah.

Nicole: Because everybody understands that.

Asad: Right. Exactly. That's something people are going to be like, "Oh, okay. I get it."

Nicole: Yeah.

Zoe: I understand you came to the design profession sort of in a roundabout way. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became an interior designer?

Nicole: Yeah. I should backtrack because my mom was an interior designer. I grew up with a decorator mother. I grew up around the industry in Michigan, which is a very different environment than the New York design community. But, still, I've always been exposed to good designs. I've always loved design and I've always had a passion and appreciate for it, but growing up I never thought I wanted to follow in my mother's footsteps or working design as a career.

I was much more interested, as a young girl, in medicine. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, then I went to college and started taking advance science classes and I was like screw this. I'm not doing this for the next twelve years. What can I do that's fun?

I had a really strong interest in broadcast journalism. I went to Northwestern. They have a great journalism program. I studied communication, but I started doing journalism, extracurriculars, and taking journalism classes. I wanted to be the next Shaun Robinson from Access Hollywood at the time. Then, I realized I wasn't really passionate enough about journalism to be one man banding in South Dakota after graduation to be on air.

So, I took a PR internship in fashion. I thought it was really fun. It was here in New York. I loved being in New York and I loved being around the fashion industry. I didn't put a ton of pressure on myself to figure it out. I was like, "I'll just work in fashion until I figure out my life. It'll be fun. I'm 21 in New York." That's what I did. I worked in fashion PR and while I was at that job I started my blog as, sort of, a hobby. I didn't have any real hobbies and it was back when blogging first became a thing. It was 2008, January, when I launched the blog and through the process of writing that blog, I realized that I was incredibly passionate about design. That's when I started thinking about a career shift.

Asad: Was your mom like, "Yes, got her!"

Nicole: Actually, no.

Asad: Really?

Nicole: She was like, "You don't want to be a designer. It's hard." She was totally Negative Nelly about it.

Asad: She gave you the real talk.

Nicole: I was like, whatever. I'm a hustler. I'll make it happen. The other thing, too, is I didn't want to just be an interior designer running a design firm. My goal was always to become a brand. I was always inspired by the Martha Stewart business model. That was really the bigger goal, rather than just be a designer and helping in the living room helping them pick out curtains for the rest of my life. You know?

Asad: For sure.

Nicole: So that's what I've been working on.

Zoe: That's very forward thinking. My mom is also an interior designer. I feel like I have to throw that out.

Nicole: Yeah! That's awesome!

Zoe: Yeah.

Asad: Zoe's mom, if you're listening.

Zoe: Hi, mom!

Nicole: Hi!

Asad: Exactly! My mom is not an interior designer, but also in the art world. So, here the three of us are.

Nicole: Yeah! I think good creative genes are inherited. I come from a family of musicians and creative people so it's kind of in the blood.

Asad: Yeah. So, you started the blog, you said, January 2008. That was, kind of, the Golden Age of blogging. Everybody had a blog, or knew someone who had a blog, or wanted to be blogging. Curbed was founded right around that time.

Zoe: Yep. Roughly equivalent to when Curbed started.

Asad: Exactly. What was that like? I'm imagining you had to pull on those journalism skills that you did acquire in your time blogging and learning the tools of the trade.

Nicole: Yeah. I definitely think my journalism skills helped me with the writing portion of it. But, really, the blog had no agenda. Now, people run their blogs as businesses. Back then, it was purely a hobby. I had no agenda. I had no sponsors, no advertising, and made not one cent off of the blog. I was purely just writing about what I loved and things that caught my eye and places I got to experience that I thought were inspiring. It was just a place where I could explore my interest in design.

I think that was when blogging was in its purest form. Now it's a little bit, I hate to use this word, but diluted a little bit because everybody has sponsors, you have advertisers, you have branded content. I think that original authenticity isn't as pure as it was when it was just blogging for fun.

Asad: Yeah. What was the blog called when it started?

Nicole: The blog was called So Haute and I was blogging anonymously because I had a day job and I was afraid my job would find out and be mad. So, I picked a really random name that really had no meaning. It was a headline in Teen Vogue and it was, I don't know, some little pop tartlette "Oh, So Haute" was the headline. I was like that's cute!

It wasn't taken so I literally just chose it from a headline in Teen Vogue because it sounded cute. In hindsight, I probably should have put my name in there. I'm actually in the process of re-branding the blog to be called Nichole Gibbons Style and it will be up in the next couple of weeks.

Asad: If folks want to find the blog now, they can find it at So Haute.

Nicole: Yeah.

Asad: Okay, great. I like that pun. You know, it's like “so hot!”

Nicole: Yeah. It was a cute play on words at the time. Now, I think, my career has evolved so much and I have evolved so much so I really want the blog to reflect where I am today and that's what people will see coming soon.

Zoe: Yeah. Speaking of your blog, one of the most recent things that's up on it you did a redesign of Adrienne C. Moore’s living room?

Nicole: Yeah!

Zoe: Or was it the entire apartment?

Nicole: It was her living room and bathroom.

Zoe: Her living room and bathroom. For those who don't know, Adrienne C. Moore plays Black Cindy on Orange is the New Black and this room is stunning.

Nicole: Thank you!

Asad: We're not just saying that because you're sitting here, but it's lovely.

Zoe: Yeah, we were both fawning over it!

Asad: We were like, "Where are those chairs from?" Yeah.

Nicole: Thank you so much! Adrienne and I actually went to college together at Northwestern so we knew each other from the college days and we have a ton of mutual friends.

Adrienne has had tremendous success with her role in Orange is the New Black. She had this apartment and was like, "I'm really ready to decorate it. I want my apartment to look sophisticated and grown up!" She was telling this to one of our mutual friends and she was like, "You should call Nicole." She called me up and I brought in a couple of brand partners—Lowe's and ATG Stores—and they helped furnish her place and we worked together on this fun little collab and it turned out beautifully. The before and after is ridiculous. The before pictures...

Asad: It's drastic!

Zoe: Yeah. It's so light and airy.

Nicole: Yeah. The befores are up on the blog for anyone to go check it out, but it's a very dramatic difference. I think that's what it's about. Design is transformative. You know? To take a space that lacked personality or lacked style and make it into something that makes you go “Wow!” when you walk through the door, that's cool. That's why I do what I do and it's really rewarding.

Adrienne loves it. The first night she had all her furniture, she texted me. She's like, "I' was in this room until 3 a.m. because I didn't want to leave! I've been sitting on the couch just looking around. It's amazing!"

Asad: That must be the best feedback. That's so great.

Nicole: Yeah, it is.

Asad: Interior design, I think, is really intimidating to folks who know what they want and have ideas about what feel right in their space, but don't know how to get from the idea to actually having the room look like what's in their imagination. Where do you start when you're working with a new client who might either have ideas or might only have a vibe that they’re going for?

Nicole: It's a little bit of detective work to try to boil down what their taste level really is and what their aesthetic really is. My job is to take their aesthetic and their wish list and make it even better than they could imagine. I find that most people don't know how to articulate what they like, but they know it when they see it, and they know how to articulate what they don't like.

Asad: We’re all very good at that.

Nicole: I like to look at inspiration pictures. I think Pinterest is a really great tool. If I find a client really has a difficult time describing what they want, I will tell them to go on Pinterest and pin images that inspire them. Usually I can look at 10 or 15 pictures that they've chosen and boil down the key elements that they're drawn to. It might be every one of these rooms have a tufted sofa, or every one of these rooms have white walls, or every one of these rooms have a touch of red in it. I can find those common themes to help guide and inform my design choices.

Asad: Yeah, that's a great strategy I think people can do on their own too if they're not lucky enough to be able to enlist you to help transform their space.

Zoe: That is a hot tip.

Asad: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: That's a great idea. Maybe I should do that myself!

Nicole: Pinterest, man! Pinterest is everything. I use Pinterest daily. I'm addicted. It's just such a great place to catalog inspirational things, whether it's recipes, or food, or rooms. I love Pinterest.

Zoe: Earlier, you were starting to say that your end goal was always to create your own personal brand.

Nicole: Yeah.

Zoe: I think that you're probably making great strides doing that now that you are a presence on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Can you tell us a little bit about your show? Can you tell us a little bit about Home Made Simple?

Nicole: Yeah, for sure! I'm on a show that airs on Saturday mornings at 9 to 9:30. It's called Home Made Simple. There are four designers on the show and every week you'll see one of us tackle a room renovation for a very deserving family. It's usually people with extreme circumstances. Maybe they've adopted a ton of kids, or they've done really good in their community, or it's a widow who's starting over after losing her husband. It's all very heartwarming, endearing stories and that's really what the show is centered around is these families and their stories and the design is just the hook to tie it all together.

It's also super rewarding, because a lot of time the people in the show really need the makeovers. I've worked on episodes for Habitat for Humanity. I did a makeover in Compton for this woman who was the first person in Southern California to pay off her Habitat for Humanity mortgage early.

Asad: Wow.

Nicole: She was this amazing, hard working woman. She never had the opportunity to really make her home beautiful. When you work on projects like that, it's just super, super rewarding. It's also fun to get to say that Oprah's my boss.

Asad: Yes, exactly! You have to tell us what is she like? Tell us everything.

Nicole: I have actually never met Oprah.

Asad: All right. Well, call us up the moment you do. We want all the details.

Nicole: Yes! I need her to show up on set the next time I'm filming and be like, "Hey, what's up Nicole!"

Asad: Yeah, exactly.

Nicole: No, I don't, unfortunately, get to see Oprah. Every time I'm in the offices, I'm always peeking around like is she there?

But it's great. Doing television, it's another extension of what I do as a designer. I think I got off track when I was talking about my career trajectory, but when I started the blog I also started a design business. I was side hustling because I had a day job and it was in the height of the recession.

Zoe: So you were fashion PRing, blogging, and side designing?

Nicole: And side hustling as a designer.

Asad: Oh my goodness!

Zoe: Wow!

Nicole: So, when I left that job January of 2013 after I felt a little bit more comfortable with where things were with the economy and stuff like that, I spent the first six months working on trying to find opportunities in television because I felt that was a harder nut to crack than getting a client.

I spent a ton of time networking, going out to LA, meeting with representation. Through that networking and hustling, I booked a web series to do a four-video series for Pier 1. Once I booked that, I had a really strong reel and I started meeting with agents and the opportunity came about and it's really grown from there. It's been really fun. I do a lot of morning shows, I'm on Rachael Ray pretty frequently.

Asad: That's great.

Zoe: Yeah, that's really cool.

Asad: You're doing it!

Nicole: Yeah. I'm really doing this thing, I guess!

Asad: All that hard work, it sounds like it's paying off.

Nicole: Yeah, for sure. There's some other interesting projects in the pipeline I can't divulge just yet.

Asad: Well, you know where to find us after this.

Nicole: Working on some fun on camera projects coming up that you'll hear about soon.

Asad: You mentioned some of the families that you're working with on the show. Something I've been thinking a lot about, and just in talking with friends of color who work in this industry and other industries, just the idea that it can be so revolutionary to see black families at home in repose with their loved ones, relaxing, cooking.

As a counter to some of the negative media imagery that we see constantly, what is it like for you working in this industry and working with these families to have that be something that you're doing on a daily basis?

Nicole: You know, it's really interesting that you say that. There aren't a ton of black women that are at the height of the design industry and at the top of the game and are being recognized. I feel tremendously honored that I am being recognized for my talents.

One of my good friends is a photographer, David Land, and we met because he photographed me for HGTV Magazine, I think, in 2010. When we met, and David had been photographing interiors for, like, 20 years, and when we first met he said, "You know, you're the first black person I've ever photographed in their home as a designer."

Zoe: Oh, wow.

Nicole: And I'm like, "What?!"

Asad: How long have you been working sir? You know? Probably a while.

Nicole: Yeah. He'd been photographing for a really long time, working in the business. We got on this really long conversation about it. It's not because we don't have great homes. Why are we not seeing more images of black people with beautiful homes or people of color? It's a tough question to answer efficiently, but I think about just how fortunate I am to represent people of color in design. As it relates to the work that I do on OWN, I think it's really important that people are seeing normal families of color...

Asad: It's not just the Obamas.

Nicole: ...who are at home cooking and being normal. You don't always see those wholesome images of people of color, unfortunately. I think the industry needs a little bit more diversity and I think there are a ton of talented people that just don't get recognized.

Asad: Absolutely.

Nicole: I wish I could figure out a way to change that. I do feel lucky to be in the position I'm in and at least do my best to represent.

Asad: Yeah. Absolutely.

Zoe: Yeah.

Asad: I help edit the House Call series at Curbed and that's something that we're always thinking about and talking about. All the editors I work with are like, "We do our best to make sure that we're representing people in the U.S." People in the U.S. are of all backgrounds, immigrant families, single-parent households. People live in a variety of arrangements and that's the kind of thing, I think, is not just editorially interesting, but really reflective of this country.

Zoe: Yeah.

Nicole: Yeah.

Asad: So, why not do that? You know?

Nicole: Yeah. Absolutely.

Zoe: Well said.

Asad: Thank you, and thank you Nicole. Appreciate that answer.

Nicole: Yeah.

Zoe: So, shifting just a little bit, and getting back a little bit to your work. What are two things that you're working on that you can tell us about that you are excited about right now?

Nicole: I just finished up a project in Jersey City that I'll be pitching for press. Hopefully, you guys will see that soon. Then, I'm working on another design project on the Upper West Side so that's nearing the end of completion.

One of my goals with any project I work on is to photograph it. Always having beautiful pictures of your work is really important and I love to be able to showcase my work so, hopefully, you'll be seeing those projects really soon.

Asad: Awesome.

Zoe: That's great.

Asad: We like to do a little segment on the show called Thunder Round.

Nicole: Okay.

Asad: We call it that because it's a little slower than a lightening round, inevitably, every time. These are going to be just general questions. Some of them will be design related, but also just about you as a person.

Nicole: Okay.

Asad: Are there any art shows, books, musicians that you love right now that you'd recommend?

Nicole: Totally unrelated to design, I just read this book by Aziz Ansari Modern Romance.

Asad: How is that?

Zoe: Yeah, how is that? I've heard a lot about it.

Nicole: I literally just finished listening to it on Audible and it's so funny. It just breaks down dating in the age of Tinder and relationships. He's a hoot. I think he's really funny. Since we're doing the Thunder Round, that was the first thing that popped into my mind.

Asad: How about musicians? Are you listening to any good music right now?

Nicole: New favorite song at the moment is Bruno Mars 24K Magic. Have you heard that song?

Asad: I haven't heard it yet.

Zoe: I have a friend who loves it.

Nicole: It's so good! He just released it last week and I've been playing it nonstop. I was listening to it when I was coming up the elevator and into your office. It's such a pump up song. Bruno Mars makes these songs that makes you want to dance. The video was super fun and cool. It's like my Friday night anthem.

Zoe: All right.

Asad: He was great at the Super Bowl. I'm like if you can hold your own next to Beyoncé, I will listen to your music.

Nicole: Yes! So, yeah, that's the song I'm jamming to these days.

Zoe: It's a good one. If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Nicole: I'm dying to go to Cuba. I'm trying to figure out how I can get myself there. I know there's direct flights and all that. But, do y'all know? Do you need a visa?

Zoe: I think you need some intent that aligns with the intents that you're supposed to have going there. Some sort of missionary work or school.

Asad: Right.

Nicole: Yeah, so I got to figure that out, but I really want to go to Cuba. So that's high on my list.

Asad: Yeah, same. If you could live in any other place in the world, where would you decide to move?

Nicole: Maybe somewhere on the beach, like in the Caribbean, like a little thatched-roof hut.

Asad: You just want to get away.

Nicole: Yes! Somewhere warm.

Zoe: Escape! Winter's coming.

Nicole: Live in my bikini and step out onto the ocean everyday and exfoliate with sand and saltwater. That would be the perfect life.

Asad: Sounds ideal.

Zoe: That's pretty nice. One more that I have on my mind. What is your favorite midnight snack?

Nicole: Steve's Ice Cream. Have you guys heard of Steve's Ice Cream?

Asad: Yes. First of all, I love ice cream. We've definitely devoted some time to talking about the ice cream maker I have at home on this show.

Zoe: Yes, we have.

Nicole: OMG! I just bought an ice cream maker.

Zoe: Yes!

Asad: It changes everything!

Nicole: Yes!

Asad: Steve's is so good! Tell us what flavor do you like? Which of Steve's flavors?

Nicole: I like the cinnamon coffee and the burnt sugar vanilla.

Zoe: These sound incredible!

Asad: They're insane!

Nicole: It's like small batch artisanal ice cream and they have a lot of dairy-free flavors that don't taste dairy-free. It's just so good!

Asad: Are you lactose intolerant or vegan?

Nicole: I'm not lactose intolerant, but I like to eat really healthy and I eat very little dairy just for health reasons.

Asad: That's great. If you can get the same dairy-full tastes out of a dairy-free ice cream, then so be it.

Nicole: Yes! But Steve's Ice Cream is everything so you should probably try it.

Asad: It is really good. Yeah, they did not pay us to say that, it is actually that good.

Zoe: I will look for it in my small artisanal-packing grocery store in Brooklyn.

Asad: I'm sure they have it. They're based in Brooklyn, right?

Nicole: I think so, yeah, yeah!

Asad: So you'll be fine. You'll find it.

Nicole: Do Instacart. I get it on Instacart from Whole Foods and they'll deliver to your house.

Asad: Oh my god, you get it delivered? I love that.

Nicole: Yes! I get everything delivered. I don't shop for anything. iPhone or on my computer, everything is Google Express.

Asad: It's 2016!

Zoe: It's truly the way to be, especially in New York.

Nicole: Yeah.

Asad: Yeah. Well, Nicole, thank you so, so much for coming in.

Nicole: Thanks for having me!

Zoe: It was a pleasure! Thank you so much.

Nicole: It was so fun.

Asad: Appreciate it.

You just listened to another episode of the Curbed Appeal with Interior Designer Nicole Gibbons.

Zoe: If you liked what you heard, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or in the podcast section of the Spotify app. If you really liked what you heard and happen to know Oprah, hook us up.

Asad: Yes, we would love to have her in the studio so please do that favor for us. If you'd like to find Nicole online you can find her on Instagram at Nicole Gibbons Style and you can also check out her show Home Made Simple on the Oprah Winfrey Network on Saturday mornings.

Zoe: Ta-ta!

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