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.