Textile design is a lofty field to get into in New York City, especially when fabric stock can easily outprice tuition or rent. Out of necessity, Toronto designer Candice Kaye turned from fabric to paper and quite literally designed her career. She developed four prints for Maman Café that branded the business floor-to-ceiling; the coffee cups, floor treatment and wallpaper generated a buzz that spread quickly via word-of-mouth and social media. In wallpaper Candice saw an application that desperately needed a facelift from its outdated roots; she was inspired to create modern prints that moved people. Responding to custom orders was market research in its purest form, and what started as small-batch custom wallpapers almost three years ago has carried her triumphantly into today, where she’s still driven to innovate in her field. She hand paints new designs to bring her client’s vision to life, and has most recently layered and manipulated a cabbage motif into a delightfully fun wallpaper displayed at Mary Be Kitchen in Toronto. The art and science of wallpaper is just the beginning for Candice, as she delves further into interiors through other textile design. Although her primary medium may change in the future, her mission to impact people and ask them to participate and interact with design remains. Finding success isn’t easy; she knows all too well that there isn’t light without darkness but she has always kept learning, kept her faith, and followed her intuition toward her goals. She believes that opportunity isn’t pretty but when it rears its ugly head, it’s important to make sure you don’t let your inner critic talk you down; instead, work hard, share your perspective, and find a way to design a space in the world that’s authentically you.
A vision board featuring my wildest dreams
I moved to NYC - without knowing a single person
Always being open to all potential clients and industries
Alice Temperley’s book, True British
Knowing it’s not just a coffee
I started making collections before I had clients;
Travel! If you stay in one place for too long, you can't grow as an artist
Enjoy the process, it's where the magic happens;
My eye for beauty and design
Podcasts I listen to while I work
Tell me about Candice Kaye Design and how you work with your clients.
I do custom wallpaper for commercial spaces like restaurants, hotels, and cafes. Essentially my client gives me what they’d like to see on a print and I work closely with them one-on-one to collaboratively create something that’s their vision. That’s one part of my business, and I also produce collections; I like to do those for myself, and clients can either buy from the collections or we can do something custom together.
And how did you get into wallpaper design?
I went to school in New York City for textile designing. I knew I wanted to do interior, but my attention was more on fabric and embroidery. I was a student, and I was interning and living in New York City and it was insane cost-wise; I didn’t have the money to put towards the kind of stock needed. If you want to produce fabric the factory minimums are quite high, and I just didn’t have the funds to put thousands of dollars into a fabric that might not sell. Right around when I finished school I was also finishing working with Elisa Marshall from Maman Café. I did four custom prints for them; that was about two and half years ago. At the time, it just sort of blew up, largely because of social media. It was great, and I was like ‘OK, this is awesome, this is exactly what I want to be doing,’ but I also wanted to make sure I created my own company with my own vibe in the field, and that became Candice Kaye Design.
Tell me more about the Maman project.
Maman actually has five locations now, including one in Toronto – this project was in New York. We did everything that was paper, so it started with four custom designs and those went on the coffee cups. Elisa was visualizing putting the prints on everything, so she essentially used those prints to brand the cafe. We did wallpaper, packaging, floor treatments – literally everything in that café has the prints, and that’s essentially where the idea of custom came up. No one was really doing it at the time, in textile and wallpaper, and people were saying, ‘We love what you did with Maman, can you do that for us?’ That’s how it started growing.
So that single project designing Maman’s paper products launched your career in wallpaper design?
Yes, that’s sort of how it started. Elisa is actually a good friend of mine, and she was like ‘You should be doing your own collection, you should be producing your own stuff.’ And wallpaper, it’s just paper – it was the cheapest thing I could think of! That’s honestly how it happened; I decided to get some samples made and do a cool launch party. Elisa found the supplier who did the wallpaper for Maman, and now that’s the same supplier that I use for all my US clients. The supplier and I remain friends, and she’s been a big help throughout the entire process; she was able to do custom runoffs for me and small samples so that I could afford to show clients as I needed. It was all timing; wallpaper ended up becoming a thing and then I just rolled with it.
It sounds like you found a niche market.
I really did, and it was so unexpected, so out of the blue! I think I was also successful because I was so open to where my company could go. I was like ‘Yeah, of course I’ll do custom.’ I did a completely custom powder room in the East Village New York, and those clients were a very young couple. I think she was around 29 or so, and he was 34-ish, and this is wallpaper – something that’s seen as old and outdated. But the fact that they were willing to spend money on custom designs and they valued the piece and treated it as artwork was really exciting for me. It encouraged me to dig into the space and try to grow and it’s been working, which is really nice.
I think you’re right about the outdated perception; many people may still think of floral patterns in granny’s house. Can you tell me about how you’ve revitalized wallpaper?
What I wanted to do was have people notice things in a space besides a really pretty chair or table; it was rare that someone would be sitting in a restaurant and say, ‘Oh my God, look at the wallpaper.’ I wanted to create that impact with textile by taking something that had been used for centuries and reinvent it.
The relationship I create between the client and the wallpaper for custom designs is most exciting; it becomes very personal because a) they are essentially giving me the ideas and I work with them to create a piece and b) it becomes a topic of conversation. With Maman it was like, ‘Oh look at these cups, they’re so cool’, and now the customer has something to talk about with the cafe and even with me. When I was growing up no one talked about wallpaper. Now with social media people are taking photos, tagging, sharing, and liking – they’re appreciating the little details.
And how would you describe your style?
When you walk into a well-decorated room, you feel different; there are all these little details that play into that, and they aren’t mistakes, they’re there on purpose – that’s what excites me. In general, I work with colour and scale. I’m not afraid to make something larger than life, and I think that’s a tenet of my style.
It sounds like working collaboratively with your customer can result in a bit of a storytelling element to the design. Is there something else about your work that you think stands out as distinctly Candice Kaye?
To be honest, I think every artist has their own hand. I believe that the more I do, the more that’s out there, the more people will be able to recognize my work. But I don’t do it for the sake of people knowing that it’s mine; it’s about my client. I want them to be happy, to get the results they want, and I want them – and their customers – to enjoy it. I’m very fortunate to work with people who aren’t afraid to think outside the box. For example, next week I have a custom design going up in a restaurant called Mary Be; we did cabbages for them. The average person might think wallpaper with cabbage on it is crazy, but my client – lucky for me – is willing to take that risk. That’s what I’m excited about: pushing the boundaries with wallpaper. What’s possible? How do we create a design that no one has seen before? I want my clients’ customers to walk into a space with a Candice Kaye Design wallpaper and react with ‘Wow, that’s different, that’s cool,’ and then associate that print with the restaurant.
So you have a fresh take on wallpaper but it’s also custom, which is a word you keep saying. Do you feel that more custom, small batch work is where the industry is headed?
No, not really. I think there’s opportunity for everyone. I think that there’s a client who wants stock images – there are beautiful patterns – on their restaurant walls and that’s great. But I do think there is a particular client that’s willing to spend that extra money to invest in a print that no one has seen before. I think there’s value in that; if you walk into a place and see something brand new, it’s special.
I appreciate that; subtle design details can invite the public to participate or interact in some form, right?
Absolutely! And who wouldn’t want that? I mean you go into a hotel, and everything matches in some way, and you’re like ‘Wow, how clever is this hotel to be doing that?’ and then you remember it, maybe talk about that hotel, and even go back to it because you appreciate those small details.
It’s all about the experience, and design can add to an experience by elevating a space.
Can you bring me through the process of how you turn a design into wallpaper?
I personally hand paint and then scan the painting into a computer to manipulate it and create the repeated pattern. I have lovely suppliers who I’m very loyal to; I send the prints to them and they print out the panels for me. In practice and theory, it’s not the hardest process, but there is a certain art to it and many things to consider, like whether it’s scaled properly, if the colours are right, et cetera. Are the customers going to enjoy it or are they going to be scared of it? I think that’s especially where the artistry comes in because anyone could go to a printer to create wallpaper, but I think the most successful people are those who understand how people will react. There’s also a flow when you do the repeat. In the cabbages, for example, they’re a certain height and width – a little bit bigger and they’d be too much and a little bit smaller, they’d be emo.
How has technology played into wallpaper design?
I feel that wallpaper is still very old school, which is exciting for me because I have so many new ideas. One of them that I’m passionately looking forward to is 3D wallpaper. I’m talking with an absolutely talented person in Toronto about that now. I think it’ll be something that homeowners or restaurant owners who want something really different would consider.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever printed on wallpaper?
I honestly think it’s the cabbages.
What projects, aside from Maman, are you most proud of? Or do you have any in progress that you want to make note of?
Honestly, I feel fortunate to have every client. Like I said, I’m in a bit of a different territory. You can go to a beautiful textile design company, buy existing prints and even change them – maybe do a new colour – but for me to be doing something completely custom to the space is something that I think is very new to the industry. I feel very fortunate to be able to work with people who are open to that because essentially without my clients, I wouldn’t have a company. I’m very proud of every project that I’ve done, and I continue to be amazed at what’s possible. For example, I did a restaurant in Toronto called Broncos; the client found a photo on my Instagram account that my mom had taken in 1985 in Greece, and he was like ‘I love this picture. Can we make this into wallpaper and maybe add some 1950 Cali umbrellas?’ And so I did. I took the picture, blew it up, and layered some hand painted umbrellas and blue palm trees, and gave the customer what he wanted. It’s something I wouldn’t ever have thought of on my own, so it’s a case of the client essentially pushing me to think outside my own box.
Where else do you find your design inspiration?
First, I believe in travel – I think every artist needs to see the world, because inspiration is literally everywhere. While I lived in New York I’d see signs all over the place, like the cover of a magazine in a bookstore for example – the littlest things could drive an entire idea. I can’t always stay in one place to think of ideas, it’s better if I’m outside my comfort zone. I was recently in Morocco, where we rode camels to get to an overnight tent spot for some much needed quiet and relaxation. Total peace and just being able to quiet my mind is really inspiring to me too. Sometimes – this sounds so strange – I’ll just sit on my studio floor and close my eyes and let the ideas start flowing that way.
Walk me through a typical day in the life of Candice Kaye.
I wake up really early. I get my best ideas in the morning when it’s quiet, and I think it’s because my mind is still tired enough that I’m not thinking about a lot at once. I make coffee, sit in my studio and answer some emails. I browse online – I love Pinterest and I have blogs that I look at for inspiration too, and then I’ll work on a project. If I need to get into the city for a meeting, I’ll do that. A typical day is nice, I’m not going to lie. It’s very lovely.
What do you love most about design?
I think the biggest thing is how I can make someone feel a certain way based on the fabric they’re sitting on or the wallpaper they see on the walls. Contributing to their experience excites me, and the fact that I have an impact on a space excites me. That’s part of my drive to keep pushing to do more innovative and better work. I think that designers have sort of a responsibility to constantly improve a space, to strive to make things better, and I’ve tried to do that since the beginning. I have so much fun having my own thing and creating my own world; there’s something really special about it.
How did you find design? Have you always been artistic?
No. Well, maybe? But no. There was definitely a journey. I grew up as a dancer, and that’s what I wanted to do. The dream was to be a commercial dancer in New York and LA, and I ended up dancing for an NBA team – I was on the Raptor Dance Pak. A couple of the other dancers did photography, and at the time there was this thing called Pic Monkey, do you remember that? It was an online photo editor that I used to be obsessed with. I realized that I was actually okay at taking photos and I really, really enjoyed it. From there a friend of mine was blogging – this was about nine years ago, before blogging was such a big thing – and I thought that was so cool. I started my own blog and I was posting every day; I really loved it. I’ve also always loved fashion, spaces and interiors – I used to rearrange my bedroom when I was little. So I guess I was always an artistic person? I went from photography to blogging, then to teaching myself video. I told my mom I wanted to get into fashion but I didn’t want to do clothes and she suggestion interior design, which I ended up going to school for. I really hated it though because I had no desire to build a structure; most of interior design is actual architecture, a lot of numbers and stuff I’m not really good at. I just kept pursuing all my passions. It’s easy to dismiss quotes on Pinterest like ‘follow your intuition,’ but it’s true; it’s real, it worked for me. If I didn’t chase all these random things I liked I never would’ve gotten into what I’m doing now. I mean, it took me years, and I didn’t really find out what I wanted to do until I was around 25, so it’s definitely been a journey.
Where did you go to school?
FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York; I got into the textile design program. I have no idea how I got in, I was basically self-taught. From interior design, I knew that I could draw things like floor plans and elevation, but I’d never learned how to paint, it just turned out to be a natural thing that I could do. Everyone in my class was a brilliant artist so I was constantly asking them questions and learning from them and taking as many notes as possible.
It was right after school that you landed the design job with Maman, right? How were you feeling then?
I’ve always been, and still am, a big vision person. I feel like I can put things into the world and change everything. I already knew that I wanted to flip the textile design industry as much as I possibly could, just really push boundaries. Elisa and I would go out for drinks in New York and talk about our dreams. She’s obviously a very talented business woman, she definitely knows marketing, and she knew what she wanted Maman to look like and knew what I wanted to do, so her requesting I do the designs was a very happy coincidence. I knew I was in the right hands with her. Neither of us could’ve known how much it was going to blow up; we had no idea that anyone would like it as much as they did.
What came next for you? Was it straight into business as Candice Kaye Design?
I was still interning at a textile company at the time; wallpaper wasn’t happening yet. I had these cuts and Maman Café was blowing up, but I didn’t know where I wanted my business to go at that point. I made sure I stayed true to myself and learned as much as possible. I got a full-time job at Holland and Sherry New York, which is an incredible company. Not only are the people amazing but the quality of their fabric, rugs and embroidery is outstanding – it’s where I want my quality of work to go. It became a sort of overlapping mash-up for me – I got this job where one of the things they were doing was custom rugs, Maman was sliding into place, and I saw a gap in the industry. I knew I could tackle it, but wasn’t totally sure how to do it; that’s when wallpaper came into play.
What was it like navigating that opportunity?
It was hard; that’s why people give up. Having the opportunity and seizing the opportunity are two different things – at the time it didn’t look pretty. Mentors I’ve had say that opportunity is going to knock on your door and it’s not going to look pretty, because it takes time for things to make sense. When I did my first collection of wallpaper in New York, no one bought it. I wasn’t making loads of money, I was just doing it for myself. I was still working full time because it’s not like I already had clients – I started my company for me. The scary part is that it takes time for things to evolve and for people to catch on, and it’s hard to have patience. I’ve learned that time and patience are the most incredible qualities in opportunity because you need time to sort things out and sort yourself out. I think for me if things had kicked off earlier I might not have been ready even though I would’ve thought I was. I’m glad I could just sort of sit with it. I simply made a collection that I liked. Having a vision that I really believed in made the work a little easier, but it was still hard work – I still had to kick through to persevere and keep it alive.
While you were trying to be patient did you ever find yourself having self-defeating dialogue or self-doubt? If so, how did you handle it?
Yeah, I did. A lot. It was a hard decision for me to leave New York, but I realized I had to put everything into my company and I couldn’t afford to have that fast-paced crazy city lifestyle at the same time. Being a Canadian citizen and working in New York City is not the easiest thing to do, and quitting my job meant my visa would be cancelled, so I had to decide – was it time to give up on what I’d worked so hard for? Then when I came back to Toronto, I was by myself all of a sudden – just me and my company, all day every day. I thought ‘What have I done? I’ve made a mistake!’ It’d been easier to suppress the doubt when I was so busy. I’ve felt like I wasn’t good enough or that no one was going to buy my stuff. I’ve had all those terrible thoughts – they’re real, they happen, and you have to navigate them. Because I’d blogged in the past, that’s what I ended up turning to. I told myself I’d write something every day, blog something, send out emails…and that sort of kept me going.
I don’t want to talk about faith much because I don’t think everyone has to go that route, but I believe in God. I had faith in myself and what I had to do, and I had faith that things would come to fruition if I just kept on putting my head down and working really hard. The more that I did that, the more opportunities came. I’ve come into contact with so many people that feel sorry for themselves. They say ‘I want to live in New York and I want to be doing this, and I want to be doing that,’ and I ask what steps they’re taking to make those things happen. Are they talking to anyone in New York? Have they started their own company yet? If they’ve got nothing then I think ‘Ok, well that’s your problem!’ No one will answer your prayers unless you work for it; that’s always been my mentality. I choose to stand up to the negative thoughts, I choose to work harder, I choose to have faith that I am going to be something. It’s definitely a psychological battle that I think every entrepreneur has to face.
Lastly, what’s next in your entrepreneurial journey?
At the moment it’s wallpaper; there are a couple restaurants in the mix and a couple really fun hotels coming in the next two years I’m really excited about. I’m currently also getting into rugs, I’m getting into fabric, and I’m getting into custom patio and beach umbrellas…and upholstery is coming. I’m nowhere near where I want to be – I’m just beginning. The more that I work and talk about what I want to do the more opportunities seem to come knocking; I’ve been lucky in Toronto, it’s been very good to me. All the projects on the go at this very moment are wallpaper but down the road it’s going to be everything for the interior – that’s the dream!