Benjamin Moore offers consumers a choice of more than 3,500 paint colours. Sherwin-Williams, a competitor, sells a more limited but still substantial palette of 1,500 hues. To buy either brand, you generally have to visit a hardware store or big-box retailer like Lowe’s, select from an array of colour chips and wait while the paint is mixed by an employee.
You may have to buy sample cans to test the paint on your walls at home, and make a return trip to the store, before you settle on the right colour. It’s not exactly a soulful task, but for decades it was a manageable one. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Because as with so many consumer categories that have been transformed over the past decade by tech entrepreneurs, from mattresses to eyewear to hailing a cab, paint is being “disrupted.”
Two new brands — Clare and Backdrop — have emerged in the past eight months, selling paint through their websites. Convenience and a friction-free life, ideally one in which any desire can be fulfilled through clicking and swiping, is the millennial consumer’s utopia, and now that utopia has colours of its own, with generationally appropriate names like Clare’s “No Filter” (a “light beige with warm undertones”).
Say goodbye to the hardware store, because now you choose the paint online and have it shipped to your home. Say goodbye to testing paint on your walls, because now the samples are disposable peel-away stickers. Say goodbye, too, to choice overload, because Clare and Backdrop each offer a “curated” selection of about 50 colours.
That’s less than half of the 132 colours offered by Farrow & Ball, the high-end British brand that previously marketed an edited palette. (One Kings Lane, with its new direct-to-consumer paint collection, offers an even more edited 32 hues.) Brad Sherman, a designer in New York who specializes in commercial design for tech companies like Casper and Food52, said he was recently served an ad for Backdrop on Instagram and was intrigued.
“I felt it was about time somebody looked at disrupting this industry,” Sherman said. “The branding, the repackaging of the paint can, the tools. Looking at chips, the colour is never accurate.”
It can be difficult at first to tell Clare and Backdrop apart (just as with Uber and Lyft in the ride-hailing business). Both are New York-based companies founded by young people who wax on about “storytelling” and “pain points.” Both tout their eco-friendly bona fides. Both offer a subdued selection of colours sure to look great on Instagram, and at prices comparable to most midrange paints (about $45 per gallon).
And where Farrow & Ball made an art out of twee names (Elephant’s Breath, anyone?), Clare and Backdrop give it an on-trend spin: Clare’s natural green is Avocado Toast; Backdrop’s warm beige is Palo Santo.
First-mover advantage, however, goes to Clare, which debuted last July, four months before Backdrop. With its uncluttered design and simple navigation, Clare’s website is perhaps better at conveying the mood of domestic ease, while the brand’s colours “seem to be a little brighter, a littler clearer,” than Backdrop’s, said Annie Elliott, an interior designer and blogger in Washington, DC, who goes by the nom de plume Bossy Color.
“I’m a sucker for kits, and that adorable yellow Clare box — sign me up,” Elliott said, referring to the brand’s five-piece tool kit, which sells for $25.
Clare’s founder, Nicole Gibbons, 37, is a former interior designer who appeared on the TV show “Home Made Simple,” on the OWN network. Working with clients on the show and through her interiors firm showed her how lost people were about painting without an expert guide.
“Like white, for example. You would think white was just white. Easy,” Gibbons said. “But you go to any other company and there are usually a hundred or more whites to choose from. People start to get confused and doubt.”
Taking a “hyper-curated” approach, Gibbons offered only three whites with Clare, one paint finish for walls (eggshell) and one finish for trim (semigloss). She also developed a “colour genius” tool that asks questions about your space and spits out a recommended hue.
“The whole premise of Clare is to simplify, so by the time you’re at the end of this process, it’s joy, not hassle,” Gibbons said. “Sometimes people just want fewer, better choices.”
Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the married founders of Backdrop, also espouse fewer, better, but unlike Gibbons, they celebrate the messiness of painting. Colours are represented on their site as gooey drops of wet paint, and the imagery in their ad campaign is of people ready to paint, not static, furnished rooms.
The Ebels, both in their early 30s, have no background in design or colour theory. Natalie Ebel worked in marketing and branding for an education nonprofit, while Caleb Ebel, who has a finance degree, touts his early experience at Warby Parker (“I worked at Warby Parker” is the new “I was at Woodstock”). With Backdrop, the Ebels have applied personal branding and style signifiers to a business “void of any emotion,” Caleb Ebel said.
Thus, Backdrop’s neutral beige is named Ryokan Guesthouse because two years ago, before their daughter was born, the Ebels spent their babymoon in Japan. They are developing Spotify playlists for each colour. Inspired by olive-oil canisters, they redesigned the boring round paint can; the Backdrop can is square, with a rubber stopper that gives what Caleb Ebel called “a beautiful pour.”
In addition to paint and tools, the Ebels sell branded work T-shirts, drop cloths and coveralls. Indeed, they say they want to make painting appear so fun and easy that people will be inspired to change their walls every six months. Isn’t that exhausting?
“Well, it’s the cheapest way to transform your space,” Natalie Ebel said.
Fifty per cent of Backdrop’s customers don’t bother testing samples, Natalie Ebel added: “They’re commenting on social that they’re purchasing paint because of the names. When your backdrop is Surf Camp, you’re much more able to remember that versus just blue.” Elliott, the designer, said she is unlikely to buy paint based on a catchy name. At the moment, one go-to is Benjamin Moore’s Simply White, a shade she has used time and again.
But, she admitted, “this is for a generation of folks who are probably not going to hire a designer anyway. It’s for someone who wants to spend a Saturday changing the room for not a lot of money. And for that, I see the appeal.”