The irony of going with a calming, neutral wall colour for your home is that the process of selecting it is anything but. If the number of ecrus, linens and nudes doesn’t cause decision fatigue – Sherwin-Williams offers 147 shades of white alone, compared with Behr’s 117 and Benjamin Moore’s 108 – then all the other corresponding options will. Should the finish be flat, satin, semi-gloss, full-gloss or eggshell? How many brushes and rolls of tape will it take to complete the job?
Soon, however, Clare and Backdrop, two new, U.S.-based start-ups, are planning to come to Canada with the goal of radically simplifying the process. Instead of thousands of options, both have a tight lineup of about 50 colour choices each. The companies have only eight whites between them, a welcome paring down of choices in a country where neutrals account for 65 per cent of paint sales. Everything else is similarly slimmed down: Shopping is done online and by mail, eliminating the risk of getting lost in a labyrinthine big-box store. Pre-packaged essentials kits are available with all the necessary tools. And instead of messy mini cans for testing, samples come in the form of large, peel-and-stick swatches that can easily be moved around a room, even bend around corners, to test each hue in different light conditions.
As for the finish types, both only have two options, a standard, low-sheen for walls and a more durable, glossy coat for trim, doors and baseboards. “The finish offerings in the world of paint are endless,” says Clare founder Nicole Gibbons, who is also an interior designer and who can be seen on the Oprah Winfrey Network show Home Made Simple. “We wanted to keep the offerings very simple by offering only what a designer would recommend.”
It’s a bold shift considering that until now, North America’s US$31.5-billion paint industry has not only been built on maximal choice but deeply entrenched companies that have been around since the Victorian era (Behr and Farrow & Ball being a rare exceptions – both are relatively young at 72 and 73 years old, respectively). Are Clare and Backdrop, with their streamlined, direct-to-consumer approaches – the paint industry’s equivalent of Warby Parker and Casper mattresses – set to be disruptors? Or is there a reason that Chantilly Lace, Ivory, Polar Bear and hundreds of other whites exist in the first place?
For top interior designers such as Toronto’s Jane Lockhart, the volume of options isn’t daunting, it’s necessary. “As a professional, you really want the choice,” she says. “I need to be able to have the exact right thing for the exact right application. Variations in the space, like the upholstery and the finishes and the light, change the requirements.”
Lockhart, who started her career at Benjamin Moore in their retail design department and used to host the W Network’s Colour Confidential, a homemaker show featuring dramatic before-and-after paint jobs, acknowledges that to the average shopper, the process can be overwhelming. “That’s one of the benefits of working with a designer,” she says. “We’re highly versed in all the options. It’s our job to know the differences between the colours and the brands and the finishes, and to find the product that will work the best.”
Of course, not everyone is willing or able to invest thousands of dollars to hire a professional, especially when the average gallon of paint costs less than $100, including the options from Clare and Backdrop. And for its part, Clare has built a quiz-based algorithm called the Color Genius that takes into account some of the factors that experts like Lockhart consider. A friendly chat-bot (it uses phrases like “sounds lovely” and “good to know!” – when was the last time anyone at a big box was that chipper?) asks nine or 10 questions about things like room size, lighting and style preferences, then helps narrow Clare’s already focused lineup of 55-colours down to a single recommendation.
The algorithm helped architect Keith Bradley decide on the right colour of trim for his own home in Boston. “The hardest part about picking paint is knowing how it will react to lighting conditions,” he says. “The Color Genius helped identify the amount of light in the room through simple questions. It selected a paint [Whipped, a warm white] that worked for the feeling I was after.”
For the average shopper, “I can see the benefit of having less choice,” says Erin Coe, partner at CMID, a new, Toronto-based interior design studio. “They often don’t see the differences in the colours until it’s too late – all the undertones, for example, that come up in all the different whites. The pink or blue or yellow tones.”
Coe also notes that designers have a big advantage over their clients, in addition to their years of experience and colour theory classes at design school: Sales reps from the big paint companies come directly to their offices. “They drop by regularly to update us,” she says, which is one reason the process is less overwhelming. Pros don’t have to scour strip malls on their lunch breaks.
Both Clare and Backdrop hope to replicate that sense of ease by shipping everything, including the samples and tools, direct to shopper’s doors. “Depending on someone’s schedule, the paint buying process could end up spread over many weeks,” Caleb Ebel, co-founder of Backdrop, says. “The traditional process includes a colour card collecting trip, another to buy sample pots and sampling supplies and then yet a final trip to purchase paint and supplies for the project. Plus, hardware stores tend to cater to contractors and have limited hours, which makes it difficult to get there after work. About 30 per cent of our orders are outside traditional business hours, during which going to the store wouldn’t even be an option.” Over all, Ebel hopes to shrink the procurement stage down to a few days.
Clare and Backdrop might also have another advantage over traditional paint suppliers. With their bright hues and sharp packaging (Backdrop’s cans are square with modern black fonts, Clare’s are similarly minimal but come in bold blues and yellows), they seem optimized for the Instagram age. In fact, before Backdrop launched in October, it “had a focus group of friends and family from across the country on a 100-person private Instagram account,” Ebel says. “They helped to vote as we narrowed down the palette.”
Choosing hues based on which looks best through a mobile app is very different than the approach of a traditional paint brand. There, an in-house designer might come up with palettes based on fashion or interiors trends, then create darker and lighter gradients of those colours to create the kind of specificity that designers such as Lockhart appreciate.
Not that traditional paint companies aren’t innovating their processes. Farrow & Ball, for example, is in the process of re-launching its website, adding more dynamic features, such as a portal where interior designers can upload and share photos of completed projects, a bit like a paint-centric Pinterest. They are also expanding on their network of bricks-and-mortar showrooms with “a digital colour consultancy tool,” says Molly McDermott Walsh, Farrow & Ball’s North America vice-president of marketing. “Our experts can share tailored design advice that is utterly bespoke to each client, suggesting a cohesive scheme that suits a particular lifestyle and palette.” Which sounds like a human version of the Clare Color Genius.
Traditional paint companies also have an advantage over the new upstarts: deep pockets to keep influencing the market. Revenues for Clare and Backdrop are not available, as the companies are privately owned.
However, Clare raised US$2-million in seed funding in 2017 from prominent venture capital investors including the co-founders of Casper and Harry’s, an online subscription service for men’s grooming products, which is impressive for a new company. But that’s small compared with the estimated US$1-billion in annual revenues for Warren Buffet-owned Benjamin Moore, or the nearly US$15-billion in revenues for Sherwin-Williams. It might take a bit more time before the less is more approach takes over the paint industry.