As an interior designer and small business owner, it was incredibly inspiring to speak with Jeanine Hays of the popular home decor blog, AphroChic. Formerly an attorney, Jeanine initially started blogging about her interest in interior design and eventually expanded AphroChic into a well-respected product line and brand that includes fabulous wallpaper designs, as well as modern pillows and other accessories.
*The following content originally appeared on Williams-Sonoma Designer Marketplace.*
When Jeanine Hays started her blog, AphroChic, she never imagined it would turn into a full-fledged business, let alone lead to product lines and a home decorating book.
When you began blogging, you were an attorney. Do you still practice law at all?
No, I don’t anymore. I was working in San Francisco as a policy attorney and in 2010, I moved back to Philadelphia and I’ve worked on AphroChic full-time since then. It’s been an adventure!
Considering the success of AphroChic, are you surprised you didn’t go the design route originally?
Before I went to law school, I was trying to decide between that and going into interior design. I knew I really had this passion for interiors and design in general. I applied to two different schools and ended up getting into the law school of my choice, so it seemed like a practical route to take. I don’t regret it at all, because having a legal background has helped me with my business. The two converge all the time. Plus, I think having a nontraditional background has helped me as well. I like to break through the barriers or walls or things you “should” do as a designer and really go with my gut. I’m really grateful to be able to do that.
After juggling both your law career and the blog for a few years, at what point did you decide to ditch your day job and commit to AphroChic full-time?
There was a balancing act in the beginning. If you talk to lawyers, you probably know that a lot of them are creative but practicing law turns off that side of your brain and you find yourself hunkered down in facts. Design was my hobby and I never had thoughts of going into blogging full-time, but AphroChic took on a life of her own. It became bigger and bigger and I started to get freelance work with networks like HGTV and it became a part-time career for me. I would go to my job during the day and then stay up until 2 or 3 am working on the blog and freelance jobs. In 2008, I started thinking about a pillow line and my husband and I expanded AphroChic to include the lifestyle line. That’s what’s allowed us to work on AphroChic full-time. The blog is now just one component and the larger brand, focusing on modern design and culture, includes products and a book that will come out later this year.
You touched on the fact that you work with your husband, and I know that you work with your sister and brother-in-law, too. What roles does everyone play within the company?
My husband started AphroChic with me. In a lot of ways, he’s always been the silent partner because he doesn’t like the public aspect of it. But everything that is AphroChic, we began together. We both work on everything we have to do to continue building the brand. My sister was our stylist on the book my husband and I are working on. My brother-in-law is a videographer and we’ve brought him in to do the e-book portion of our book and he’s also done some freelance projects with us, like a shoot we did for HGTV. I’m very lucky to have a multi-talented family when these projects come up!
Is it hard to keep family get-togethers, like Thanksgiving, from turning into a business meeting?
My sister and I have always been interiors-minded. We were the kids who begged our parents to go to IKEA when their new catalogs came out—even when we were little! We’ve always enjoyed looking at new designs or new products, so it’s never been like a business meeting. We’re able to separate our regular lives and turn off our business when it’s time for family, but we’re all so passionate about interiors that it doesn’t feel like a takeover of our lives. It feels like a natural component of the life we’ve always had.
How did you know the time was right to jump into products?
It was very organic in the beginning. I wanted to buy a pillow with a girl with an afro on it. For me, it’s always about that cultural aspect and bringing that into my home. I went online and I couldn’t find anything, so I had to figure out a way to get it. I took some pictures, started fiddling with them in my Paint program and came up with our first pillow design. I don’t sew, so I had to find a company who could print my design and make pillows out of it. I found a business just a mile from my job at the time, who could do this work for me, as well as another company close by who made the inserts. I was able to schedule meetings with these folks over my lunch breaks or before my regular workday started and it just all seemed “right.” We took a whole year to plan our launch so we could develop a collection and a website. As a blogger, I knew how important photos would be for marketing our collection, so I met with Patrick Cline from Lonny Magazine over my Christmas break to see if he would do it, and scheduled our catalog shoot over my Easter break at work. We launched it through the blog and sent Patrick’s photos to friends who were bloggers and the blogosphere really embraced the line. That’s when we knew we had something. The next year, we expanded into wallpaper and linens and things. The doors kept opening and we just kept going through them! We kept getting connected with the right people and that’s how we’ve grown.
So you handle all of the manufacturing, inventory and fulfillment yourselves?
Yes, it’s the two of us! Last year we sold over 800 pieces on a flash sale site, so we had to fulfill all of those orders ourselves, from stuffing the inserts to packaging them for shipment to delivering to the shipper. It was a family affair—we had parties where we invited family members over and they helped stuff pillows in exchange for pizza! The amazing support from our family and friends is allowing us to continue to build out this brand. Whenever we’ve had situations where we wondered, how are we going to accomplish this, people have stepped up and stayed up late at night to help us stuff pillows. It’s been a team effort in so many ways. We haven’t always known where this brand was going to go but our family has been a great gift in building and growing the brand.
Whenever I polled you and other designers for your New Year’s resolutions for 2013, you said you wanted to spend more time with things that inspire you. Specifically, what inspires you?
I’m so inspired by art. Living in Philadelphia has been great because we have the most amazing art museums here and a lot of historical landmarks as well. I love to go to the Philadelphia Art Museum and look at their portraits and exhibits of new artists. One of the exhibits that inspired me last year featured an artist who did Sanskrit graffiti. It took my breath away. The Academy of Fine Arts has great modern art. My husband and I like to go to art museums during our lunch break and see what new artists are doing, as well as the old masters. I have an affinity for portraiture and love to look at fashion illustrations with their patterns and color. History is extremely important, too. I live right in Old City so I can go down the street and see Betsey Ross’ house. Benjamin Franklin’s house is right around the corner. I can see the Liberty Bell. Having historical context is really important and we look at that a lot in our designs. It comes out in patterns like chevrons and ikats that have been around for hundreds of years. Winter is not the most inspiring time in terms of nature, but in spring, when everything’s happening, I love to look at trees and the shapes and colors of flowers because gravitating toward natural colors is so important in design. Color is such a big part of what we do so we’re looking at those elements in nature as well as what Pantone is predicting for the year.
What kinds of things go into selecting your line’s color palette? You’ve touched on the influence of nature and Pantone’s Color of the Year, but how do you round out your line in terms of color?
I do look a lot at Pantone but I’m always looking at what’s happening in design, whether it’s going on blogs or looking at publications like Elle Décor, Traditional Home or House Beautiful. They’re all a big help in determining where color is going. We have a new collection of wallpapers featuring soft and muted metallics, and we’re looking at colors like navy blue that have come up a lot on Pinterest. Going to trade shows like High Point, you get to see what’s happening a year in advance, or at shows like Maison et Object in Paris, you can see what will happen in the US five years from now.
Speaking of Pinterest, you’re a prolific pinner, and your boards are all well-curated. Do you think Pinterest has helped your business?
I didn’t start Pinterest as a business. I had a personal profile and just pinned for my own use. As more brands established themselves on Pinterest, I converted my personal boards to AphroChic and it has been a major way for people to find our brand. We’ve also gotten some great opportunities through Pinterest, like an event at the White House for followers of the White House Pinterest board. I never imagined going to the White House as a blogger or pinner! It was such an amazing event and interesting to see how Pinterest has inspired people—right up to the most famous house in our country! AphroChic was featured on the White House Pinterest board as well as West Wing Week on YouTube. We got a feature on the White House blog too, so that has been a huge and amazing opportunity. Social media in general has been a great sounding board for our brand and way to connect with customers. I enjoy using Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest because I’m a visual person and they’ve helped me see what I like and where I’m going as a designer. A lot of people think they “have” to do Pinterest or read a bunch of blogs but I do it because I love it. For me it’s always fun to see what’s new in design.
What can you tell us about the book you have coming out later this year?
The book has been a great way to hone in what AphroChic has always been about, which is modern design and cultural style. It features seventeen homes from across the country—New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. We picked modern homes that have a lot of culture and pattern and color and global influences in them. The book teaches people how to bring cultural style—whatever that culture is, whether it’s a culture that you come from or one you identify with—into your home and how to make your space tell your personal story. It provides inspirational home tours that show you how these people developed their personal style within their homes. These are homes that have never been in magazines—they’re really original spaces. Some were designed by interior designers we love, like Emily Henderson, from HGTV, but some of them are done by homeowners who have put together these really wonderful spaces that really reflect their travels and their cultural backgrounds. It’s been an exciting endeavor. We worked with each of the homeowners and got to be a part of their lives for a whole day. My sister did the styling and Patrick Cline shot the book on film, which means there’s so much more depth to these images. As we’re looking at the layouts, these photos are special and very distinctive. There will be an e-book format as well, which will feature original content. When people buy the e-book version, they’ll see the videos my brother-in-law created featuring the homeowners as well as video content on some of the stores we feel help people bring culture into their spaces. A lot of times, an e-book is just an electronic version of the same book, but this is being built separately from the ground up, so we’ve been able to provide more behind-the-scenes and original content through the e-book version.
That’s really interesting, because it speaks to your brand—which started as an electronic product—and it’s a smart move for books to start moving toward providing bonus content with their e-books after watching the film industry use that so effectively as a marketing tool for DVDs over the past decade.
We and our publishers were also inspired by e-mags and how they’ve done such a great job with adding videos and links to shops. We thought, why shouldn’t a book provide the same capability when it’s in an online format? We wanted to provide a robust experience and as much information as we can to help people create their own unique space.
What made you decide to launch your product line at Maison et Objet in Paris, as opposed to domestic trade shows like ICFF?
A woman who reads my blog introduced me to a gentleman at the US office for Maison et Objet who was looking for American designers to come show in Paris and invited us to check out the show. I hadn’t been researching international shows, but I love looking at European design because I think they are several years ahead of what we do here in the US. They embrace color more than we do here. We went to Paris—our first trip to Europe ever, so it was a really exciting experience for us. We went to the show and it’s still one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, because there were designers from all over the world. For me, I was a kid in a candy store. We toured the Ethnic Chic halls, which have a lot of cultural designs. African, Indian, and Asian designs were well represented there. We knew it was the right show for us because there we saw so much color and so much pattern—we knew our line would be embraced there. It was one of the highlights of this brand and for myself, in general. It was another family effort, with me and my husband and my sister out there for a week doing the show. We got to see how our brand was received from people from all over and how they connected with this small business from the United States. That’s also how we met our other vendors—they were out there in Paris! Being an online business, we don’t have to sell domestically and then wait to branch into the international market.