$500 And A Dream: Celebrity Home Interior Designer Nikki Chu On How She Got Her Big Break

Celebrity home interior designer Nikki Chu believes you can have it all and it all starts with the pursuit of your purpose.


There are many of us who are on the search for purpose.

Some people overlook it, choosing to take “safer" routes in hopes of having stability or because the idea of dreams becoming a reality can sometimes feel overwhelming. Others dive deeper into their seemingly foolish fantasies, and find that the very thing they've been commissioned to do was rooted inside of them since birth. Take celebrity home interior designer Nikki Chu, for instance, who, during the cold winters in Toronto, would retreat to her mother's craft room filled with everything from fabrics to glue guns to create her own unique works of art.

It was a place where her imagination could run wild and where her confidence in her art was developed as she spent hours cutting, sewing, and pasting together clothing and topiaries, and drew award winning designs that placed in her school art shows and county fairs. They were small confirmations that, even at a young age, told her that she had something special—something exceptional.

“If you talk to somebody who's a singer they would say I was born to sing; I know I was born to design," says Chu. “Every childhood picture I have scissors and crayons in my hand and it was all that I did all of my life."

In an industry where brown faces are few and far between, celebrity home interior designer Nikki Chu is challenging the norm. The lifestyle and design connoisseur has graced the television screens from HGTV to E!, dishing out her top notch expertise on transforming spaces from drab to fab, and has become a go-to designer for Hollywood's elite. And while it was certainly an innate eye for design that helped her climb her way to the top, Chu likes to credit education to being the catalyst to her career.

At George Brown College in Toronto she studied graphic design where she dived into courses on color theory, patterns, and illustration while simultaneously being trained on design programs such as Photoshop and InDesign. “It honed in my design skill abilities. It gave me a focus. And it taught me how to do it on the computer, and all of the programs that now I use every single day of my life," says Chu.

It also gave her an edge up on her competition when instead of turning in paper portfolios she would submit them digitally through e-mail or send them on a disk. By graduation she had turned down four other job offers to pursue a career in advertising at Miami-based agency Tinsley Advertising. She excelled in her role as Creative Director, earning two of the industry's coveted ADDY Awards during her five-year stint while picking up skills in brand building, which would later come in handy when launching her own luxury lifestyle brand.

Looking to expand her expertise, Chu began developing an idea for an art-based magazine at the age of 23, and was introduced to two investors that she hoped would become solid business partners. But after convincing her to move out to California just three years later, the deal went sour, leaving Chu with two options—go back to corporate or bet on herself by creating her own opportunities.

“I didn't really want to work in the corporate setting anymore. It was a great experience, but when I moved to California I realized it wasn't for me."

Tapping into her love for all things vintage and design, she began repurposing old décor items and selling them, as well as working as a freelance designer. Around the same time she met Tisha Campbell through her then fiancé, and upon returning from a trip to Miami the actress requested Chu to design her dressing room on the set of My Wife and Kids to reflect the décor of the then popular South Bleach nightclub, B.E.D.

“All of a sudden Damon Wayans came in and all of these celebs came in and they were like who the hell did this? And she's like Nikki Chu," recalls Chu, who soon attracted other notable clientele including Gabrielle Union and Tyra Banks. After premiering on the makeover segments of The Tyra Show, the television opportunities came pouring in.

“I didn't really see that happening," she says. “I knew I was really good at it but I didn't realize that would the direction and it happened simultaneously."

Despite not having an interior design background, Chu soon became the go-to person for upgrading homes, though she admits that starting out there was a lot of pro bono work and discounted rates in order to build her portfolio, not to mention having a strong work ethic helped her become a staple in the industry.

“Showing up on time, not overspending someone's budget, looking professional, being reliable…this type of career boils down to character on top of talent, so it's not just being a great designer, somebody's paying you to put up for your crap. There are too many talented people. Just like if you're a singer and you don't show up and do studio time and you have a bad attitude they'll go get the next singer. That is the difference in the people who work a lot and get recommended a lot versus people who are talented and really don't get the job all the time."

“They knew how much effort and work that I put in in the middle of the night when everybody else was at home sleeping."

It's also about sacrifice, because let's be real, there's no reward without putting in the work. There are days when Chu works beyond her 14-hour television show schedule just to make sure that her work is top notch. She recalls having to sleep in her trailer while filming for Lifetime show Girlfriend Intervention, to ensure that her makeover reveals were perfect. “They knew how much effort and work that I put in in the middle of the night when everybody else was at home sleeping. But my reveals on the show were phenomenal. People were crying; my takeaway from my reel with all of the makeovers were exceptional. I was proud of the work. You've go to do what it takes and a lot of people just don't have that."

While Chu is becoming a staple name in the industry—even picking up licensing deals for her home décor line, Nikki Chu Home—there's still and underwhelming number of women of color pursuing interior design as a career.

The Nikki Chu Home collection.

“What I do for a living is not mainstream, it's very dominated by middle-aged white women and gay, white men. Most black minority people, they don't know how to get into it because it's not a common career that you would typically see people in."

Though Chu has a large minority fan base on her Instagram page, she says that many of her followers don't quite know where to start. “A lot of people look at what I'm doing and they go holy cow, but what they don't realize is going to school learning graphics, working in advertising and understanding branding, working in television and understanding poise and professionalism, working with celebrities and having to be accountable and professional and having my business be word of mouth, all of those things lead up to where I am now and why I am at the level success that I have."

She also says that although having a niche is good, being able to design with a bunch of different styles will take you further. But before anyone considers interior design as a career path, they have to be honest with themselves about what they're willing to forgo to build a name big enough to attract brands such as NIKE, Disney and major television networks. The glitzy side includes trips to Paris for design shows, but the not so glamorous aspect means that sometimes personal takes a backseat to the professional.

"You can have it all. I just think there's a time and a place and you have to space it out accordingly."

“I think you can have it all. I just think there's a time and a place and you have to space it out accordingly," says Chu. “I love my life. What was required of me to get to a place of where I am now I probably couldn't have done it if I had a kid because you're spread a little thinner. I was able to pour everything into what I do. I have friends that I went to college with and they all came out of design school and had two or three kids and none of them are designers on the level that I am. And I'm not saying you can't be with kids, but it just takes even more effort and more support."

Does she have any regrets for pressing pause on marriage and motherhood? Hardly. She's living the life that she started creating years ago as a little girl playing in her mother's craft room in Canada. Seeing that come to fruition and being a pioneer for women of color in an often times elitist profession, well, that's the ultimate reward for Nikki Chu.

For more of Nikki Chu, follow her on Instagram.

Originally published January 23, 2017.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

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