When it came time for Natalie and Caleb Ebel to transform a closet in their Manhattan apartment into a nursery, the relatively simple project took significantly longer than anticipated. (It was 2016, so the all-too-familiar shipping delays of present day were not to blame.) The problem was the paint. With a background in art, Natalie was no stranger to the medium. She and her husband were, however, not members of the design trade towards whom traditional paint retailers cater their businesses. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and nondescript swatch books, it took the couple a month to decide on a hue. Fortunately, out of this anguish came an initiative to rethink the paint industry from the consumer perspective. Meet Backdrop, the first digitally driven paint company for retail consumers and tradespeople. Seven years, 74 paint colors, an acquisition, and four collections of wallcoverings later, Backdrop has established itself as a leader in the paint industry with no plans of slowing down.
Last week, the company debuted their latest collection of wallcoverings, BACKDROP IV, which hearkens back the brand’s roots in the paint industry. AN Interior sat down with Natalie and Caleb to learn more about the company’s evolution and expansion into the world of wall coverings.
Sophie Aliece Hollis: How did you two decide to reinvent the paint industry?
Caleb Ebel: When we started Backdrop, we were living on the Upper West Side near a hardware store. We would walk by all the time and see people, sometimes the same people, multiple days in a row, basically pulling their hair out trying to decide on a color. It had become a running joke for Natalie and me, but then we found ourselves in the same situation when we were looking to paint our nursery. At the time in 2016, a crop of new brands in almost every other purchasing category had begun to really prioritize the customer experience. But our paint purchasing experience just didn’t compute. We began to ask ourselves, “Why is the paint buying process so painful? Why, when you walk into a hardware store as a nonprofessional, are you treated as almost second class?” Half of the paint market are residential consumers. That was where we began to develop our initial ethos for Backdrop. In 2018, we jumped in and started making that a reality. Initially, we were really serving customers like us—the DIY consumer who was overwhelmed by infinite color selection and multiple trips to the hardware store—but now we are working extensively with the design trade as well.
SAH: What did Backdrop do differently to better serve the spectrum of consumers, from DIY to professional?
NE: It was very important for us to prioritize the online experience. Before Backdrop, people were hesitant to dive in and buy color online. So, we looked to the beauty industry: If people feel confident buying foundation, lipstick, or nail polish online, how do we give them the same confidence to buy paint? It’s all about visualization. What does the paint look like in real spaces? Wet and dry? In a corner? In the shade? In the direct sunlight? We began gathering images from our customers— thousands and thousands of photos of real paint, in real spaces—to help the online consumer visualize the product in their space. This has been a crucial part of our success: About 50 percent of our customers buy paint online without ever sampling it because they trust the visualization.
SAH: I imagine that this online model was also a huge asset in 2020 when people weren’t leaving the house and DIY home renovations were exploding.
CE: Absolutely. We were well positioned for that moment because we had been optimizing everything around that type of interaction. COVID was certainly a catalyst for us, both in the DIY consumer space and, to our surprise, the design trade. There was a great response among professionals to the product quality, the value, the convenience, and the brand as whole.
SAH: Backdrop has a relatively refined paint offering: 74 colors, each memorably labeled names like Stromboli Chess Club and West Coast Ghost. How did you arrive at this curated selection and what inspired the nomenclature?
NE: The initial palette took a very, very long time. We wanted each color family to have a high level of conviction, making sure each had a purpose and really stood out. The most important task was getting our whites right. Those are the best sellers, but they’re also the hardest to crack. Before Backdrop, you’d go to buy paint and have 300 white options and zero information on how they differ. We narrowed it down to six, each with poignant names and descriptions—Harvest Moon is a warm white, for example. Naming our colors something heroic and memorable was just as important as creating the color itself. We tried to shy away from easy and cheesy names like Cherry Red and instead give each color a real persona.
SAH: Can you speak to the quality of the product? How did you develop your paint and what is unique about it?
CE: When we dove into this, we had a steep learning curve on the product side. Paint is a product that requires a lot of chemistry, but we were fortunate to partner with some great industry experts to help us over that hurdle. And the result is a formula that is universally loved in terms of its quality, but also for its sustainable characteristics. The environmental consideration that went into our paint formula extended to our recyclable metal cans, drop cloths, and packaging for shipping. In 2020, we partnered with the nonprofit Climate Neutral to become the first carbon neutral–certified paint company.
SAH: When did Backdrop expand from paint to wallcoverings?
NE: Backdrop was acquired by F. Schumacher and Co. in May 2021, which was very exciting. The company is innovative and forward-thinking about what it means to own and create a home. They produce premium textiles, wallcoverings, rugs, and now, with Backdrop, paint. When we joined Schumacher, we saw that there was an opportunity to serve a different customer with wall coverings. Through a very painterly lens (all the art is created by hand in our studio in downtown L.A.), we launched our first collection just over a year ago. It sold out in a month, then we won an award for best wallpaper of the year, and now we’re getting ready to launch our fourth collection, BACKDROP IV. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind but has had some exciting momentum.
SAH: What does BACKDROP IV add to the existing three collections?
NE: Our last few of collections have been bold, geometric, and graphic. For this collection, we wanted to get back to our painterly roots. There are four different designs, from barely there watercolors like Ephemera (which is one of my favorites; it’s our take on a watercolor stripe) to Fairferren, an almost-speckled arrangement of gorgeous falling florals that communicate the connection to the paint. It’s been fun to incorporate the wallcovering collections with the original Backdrop paints. I think if you look at all the products together, they embody our point of view and brand message.
SAH: How would you summarize that brand message?
NE: Since day one, we’ve always celebrated the process of paint as an art form. Historically, you’d see the paint and then the finished room. But we think there’s something very beautiful and artistic about creating and sharing and selecting color, so we put it on display, for everyone. And we’re doing the same with our wallpaper collections: We always include photos of the original art, the process, and capture everything inside the studio where it’s made. I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We’re all real people using these colors and patterns to build our personalities into our everyday lives.