Welcome to Talking Top 10, a recurring series in which we feature the founders, CEOs, creators, and leaders who are shaking up their industries. Ahead, read our Q&A with Paloma Contreras, and keep scrolling to shop her Top 10 must-haves.
Paloma Contreras is an award-winning interior designer and tastemaker based in Houston, Texas. Paloma’s design sensibility is a modern take on traditional style—gravitating towards classic silhouettes and timeless pieces paired with a touch of glamour and an infusion of color. Paloma has honed her distinct eye for style over more than a decade in the design industry and a lifetime of appreciating beauty in all of its various forms. She has developed a reputation for designing beautiful interiors in a broad range of styles which are executed in a manner that is polished, refined, and effortless. Paloma's interiors are at once timeless, yet fresh—balancing attention to detail and the intersection of form and function to enhance a well-lived life.
Paloma has been repeatedly named to the prestigious ELLE Decor “A-List” of the top interior designers in the world. She has also been recognized as a “Next Wave” interior designer by House Beautiful and has been named to LUXE Magazine’s “Gold List." In 2017, Paloma was named #4 on the Forbes list of the Top Social Media Influencers in the home category and has one of the Top 10 Instagram accounts to follow for interior design according to ELLE Decor. Paloma and her work have been featured in numerous publications and websites including ELLE Decor, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Vogue, Domino, Luxe, Traditional Home, Southern Living, Better Homes & Gardens, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
Paloma recently debuted a licensed collection featuring decorative accessories, bedding, textiles, and lighting with Williams Sonoma Home and has also worked on special projects with top brands such as One Kings Lane, Bravo Television, American Express, Kitchen Aid, Kohler, Auberge du Soleil, and Peninsula Hotels. Paloma’s first book, Dream Design Live was published by Abrams in September 2018. Her curated retail shop, Paloma & Co opened in Houston's River Oaks neighborhood in January 2019. In April 2020, Paloma launched The Style Files Podcast which features thoughtful, engaging conversations with design luminaries. In her free time, Paloma enjoys traveling with her husband, Fabian, and spending time with their sweet dog, Tate.
May 4, 2020
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Tell us about your career journey. Did you always know you wanted to be an interior designer?
I have always loved design but did not think of pursuing my passion professionally until later in my career. I didn’t really realize that this was a profession I could pursue at a young age, but I have always been very creative. I definitely fit the cliché of the future designer who was obsessed with organizing her crayons by color and constantly redecorated her room as a child. Languages were my first love, so after studying French for years, I majored in Spanish and Italian Studies. After graduation, I taught AP Spanish at the high school level for four years. While I enjoyed the subject matter and working with the students, I felt restless and disconnected. I realized that my career was not the right fit for me and longed for a creative outlet. As such, I started my blog, La Dolce Vita in July of 2007 during the summer before what would be my last year as a teacher. It started out as a series of personal essays, but quickly took on a design focus because we had just bought our first house around the same time and I wasn’t able to find much design inspiration online at the time (to think how far we’ve come!), so I just wrote about what I found interesting and inspiring. Eventually, my audience grew and people took note. I took a huge leap of faith and left my teaching career. I focused on my blog and took on some freelance writing opportunities, taking my time to figure out what I wanted to do. It’s been such a long and winding road. I didn’t set out with a specific goal or a mission to gain X number of followers or to pursue specific collaborations or opportunities. It has all been so organic. I eventually landed at Visual Comfort as their Director of Marketing for a few years. While I was there, we launched the AERIN collection. It was an incredible learning experience to understand the product side of the design business more deeply. In 2013, I realized that I am happiest as an entrepreneur, so I started my design firm and never looked back. While I did not go to design school, I have an unorthodox education in design thanks to the various facets of the industry and invaluable mentors from whom I have been fortunate to learn.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
Prior to working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic, each day was generally different from the last. I usually wake up early and begin checking emails and Instagram right away. I go into my office at 9:00 a.m. and depending on what we have on the calendar that day, I may be running around to client meetings, conducting site visits at new construction projects, shopping for clients at various showrooms and stores, or I may be working with our team at Paloma & Co to merchandise the floor at our shop, work on marketing initiatives, etc. Nowadays, I have added an entirely new layer with my new podcast, The Style Files. I usually record on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with one or two interviews per day.
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Running an interior design firm, a brick-and-mortar store, a blog, and a podcast is a lot. How do you balance it all?
It’s a lot, there is no sugar-coating that, but I feel tremendously lucky to be able to what I love, especially because I know what it’s like to feel uninspired and unfulfilled by one’s career. As I mentioned, the priorities each day are a little different from one day to the next. That being said, my top priority and the facet of my business to which I devote the most time and attention is my interior design firm. Our client design projects demand a level of focus unlike anything else. I love designing interiors and working closely with my clients to bring their projects to life. I have a wonderful design team who helps me to manage our projects and keep the ball rolling on everything when I am traveling or when I have to focus on other areas of the business. I have a partner in Paloma & Co, our Houston brick and mortar store and e-commerce shop. We also have a great retail operations manager and marketing coordinator on that side of the business that help to keep the day to day operations going. I am extremely involved in the product assortment, merchandising, and overall voice and marketing of the shop, but the team handles a lot of the day to day operations which is a tremendous help. It would be impossible to run both a design firm and retail store successfully without a solid team. There just wouldn’t be enough hours in the day. I think of the blog as a marketing arm of my overall brand. I like to share exciting developments and discoveries as well as what is inspiring me at the moment. The podcast is the newest endeavor and was something I had been wanting to do for a while. Having some extra time during Coronavirus really inspired me to connect with other creatives. I love every facet of design and am a big proponent of our industry. I am having the best time with it! We have had some amazing guests so far, true luminaries in the design space, and everyone has been so candid in sharing their stories and advice. It’s a true passion project.
What’s your favorite way to wind down?
What’s that? Ha ha! I always joke that I will sleep when I am dead. I have been trying to make more of an effort to separate my personal and professional lives, but they are so intertwined that it is really just my life. When I can, I like to step away from the computer, enjoy some wine and cook with my husband, Fabian, and watch mindless television. If it’s on Bravo, chances are, I will watch it.
What interior design mistakes do you spot the most and how would you fix them?
I certainly don’t go around looking for design mistakes in other people’s homes, but I definitely notice issues, especially when I am traveling. Most often furniture placement and the use of materials may not make sense. One thing that drives me nuts is bad lighting, especially in a bathroom setting. You need a light source on either side of your face (sconces) and one above your head in order to have the most flattering light possible. Otherwise, your lighting will make you look haggard! Another helpful tip is to always use frosted lightbulbs on anything with a shade. Otherwise, you will see shadows of the internal hardware reflected onto the shade. Similarly, anything with an exposed bulb or a glass or crystal fixture requires a clear lightbulb. I can’t tell you how often even working designers get it wrong!
What inspires your design process?
I know it sounds cliched, but travel is absolutely my greatest source of inspiration. I love immersing myself in another place, taking in the architecture and cuisine, and studying the details of my surroundings. You certainly don’t have to go somewhere far off or exotic to find inspiration. I find it imperative to get out of your usual routine and go somewhere new. The eye and the soul have to travel, otherwise everything, including inspiration can become stagnant. In terms of our process, my jumping-off point is usually a textile or a piece of art that can help to determine the mood of the space. That said, we always begin with the floorplan and the architecture of the home as those two elements dictate a tremendous amount.
Tell us about your all-time favorite project you’ve worked on.
That is a pretty tough question because every project is special. There are so many homes that we have designed for clients that I feel very proud of. That said, there is something really exciting, somewhat scary, and rewarding about working on a showhouse space. I designed a room in the 2019 Kips Bay Showhouse in New York last year which was an incredible experience. I loved pushing myself out of my comfort zone and also proving to myself that I could execute a very high-stakes project within six weeks from start to finish in a city other than my own.
Do you have a favorite piece of furniture or decor in your house?
I truly mean this when I say it, but I love just about everything in my home. I believe it was William Morris who mused “Do not have anything in your home that you do not know to be beautiful or useful” and I ascribe to that theory. It has certainly taken some time to get there, but we have made a concerted effort to fill our home with things we love. A couple of my favorite pieces include an 18th-century Georgian mirror that I have hanging over our fireplace in the living room and an overscaled series of 9 abstract plaster pieces by an artist named Jane Timberlake Cooper.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to start their own business?
No matter how creative an industry is as a whole, you have to run your business as a business. Interior Design is 20% creativity and 80% accounting, logistics, and psychology. I believe in the best use of talents and have hired talented people to do the things I cannot do, such as accounting, so that I can do the things that only I can do in my organization, and ultimately, what people pay me for. You must be impeccable with your word and with your reputation. Systems and standard operating procedures-- while not the sexiest thing in the world, are absolutely imperative. If you don’t implement standards and tried and true practices, you will be like a dog chasing its tail, struggling to reinvent the wheel constantly.
What’s next for you and your firm?
We are currently working on quite a few projects including several new construction residences in Houston, a beautiful historic renovation in Atlanta, a chic home in Chicago, and I am the honorary chair of the Lake Forest Infant Welfare Showhouse in Lake Forest, Illinois which was supposed to have opened in April, but given the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been postponed. I am in the very early stages of working on my second coffee table book, a follow-up to my first book, Dream Design Live which was published by Abrams in September 2018. Aside from that, my newly launched podcast, The Style Files has been keeping me busy and has been a wonderful way to connect with my colleagues and peers in this uncertain time.
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