"I love making a piece look and feel like it's dressed."

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Nicole Crowder and her upholstery work
Credit: Danielle Finney (portrait) / Nicole Crowder (pillows and chair)

Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

Be an upholsterer? This career idea never even crossed Nicole Crowder's mind. But sometimes, when you least expect it, someone changes your trajectory. This happened to Crowder when she saw the work of Andrea Mihalik, an upholsterer based in Philadelphia. Crowder, currently working full time as a photo editor, was so inspired by Andrea's work that she decided to try her own hand at upholstery: She purchased her first set of chairs from an antique store in Maryland along with very simple fabrics and, within a week, an interior designer on Craigslist not only bought the chairs but also asked Crowder if she had a showroom because she had other clients looking for something similar. Crowder tells us, "I told her I had just started this a week ago." The interior designer advised her that, "upholstery could be more than a hobby—it's a niche."

That was in 2013, and Crowder reupholstered furniture in her sunroom and began selling pieces at local markets around D.C. This avenue turned out to be successful, so Crowder decided to leave her job (where she was burnt out anyway) and move to Baltimore to start her business. Crowder admits, "I was wrong." She says that jumping into entrepreneurship without having any sense of what it takes to be an entrepreneur, from pricing materials or labor, to structuring work hours and advocating for herself as a self-employed person, was not a smart decision. One year later in 2014, Crowder was back being a photo editor.

Eventually in 2017, Crowder found that upholstery never left her blood and the craft resonated so strongly with her spirit, so she decided to fully commit and relaunch her upholstery business from her living room in Washington, D.C,. and then finally moved the business to a 750 square-foot studio and show room space.

Where She Finds Inspiration

Crowder relishes in the discovery phase, when the seed of an idea for a piece is planted. She finds inspiration from varied sources, from a piece of sticky, wet fruit like an orange, to buttons, jewels, or flowers. "I'm inspired by the way a fashion designer's seasonal collection plays with maximalism by mixing multiple prints," Crowder explains. "Those details are mimicked in my chairs through adding a contrasting pattern on the back or dressing a chair in paper orchids."

She favors eclectic textiles from around the world, a signature of her handiwork—whether it be an original Hans Wegner shell chair upholstered with "Carricou" fabric from La Maison Pierre Frey or a set of Meditation Pillows ($65, nicolecrowderupholstery.com) hand sewn in bold and bright colored fabrics, and filled with organic buckwheat hulls. Crowder also tries to capture a mood in her pieces—whether it's sultry, vivacious or bold—and then translate it onto a chair's design. She says, "I love making a piece look and feel like it's dressed."

Slow Creation

Her work has captured the attention of an A-list clientele including the British Embassy, Audubon Naturalist Society, and the Pope-Leighey House, a suburban home in Virginia designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. But in any of these projects, Crowder talks about slow creation—the idea that the entire process doesn't have to be rushed or forced. "The very nature that it is made by hand encourages that," she says. This isn't to say Crowder is a slow crafter—in fact, her secret skill is that she's fast—it's simply that she intentionally chooses to slow it all down and be more deliberate, which allows more breathing room for creation and for an authentic, signature product. This is a concept she reiterates as the host of her own workshops, in which she shares her technique on sewing, painting, staining, and sanding for small projects like chairs, benches, and ottomans.

Lessons Learned

"One of my biggest lessons was to honor my intuition," Crowder says. "If a job, client, or deadline doesn't feel right, I can say no." That one switch in default response helped her conserve time, energy, and guilt. The other piece of advice she shares is to worry less about monetizing every single aspect of your business all at once. "Grow at a pace that is right for you to maximize the lifestyle you want for yourself and your employees. Her third lesson is to routinely do self-audits to check in on the work, asking herself continually, "Am I still on the right path? Am I working in line with my values?"

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