“Believe me, I’ve had many nights of tears,” says carpet designer Malene Barnett who started Malene B, her own business in handcrafted custom carpets some five years ago. She says she knew instinctively when deciding to go it alone, that “nobody is going to give it you” but that she wanted what she wanted: to get up every morning and do something that she loved. Her work reflects her deep interest in the visual expression of other cultures and the colors of her airy Bedford-Stuyvesant townhouse are inspired by the colors of her Caribbean background, including something we haven’t really seen before: wooden floors stained in lilacs, greens and blues.
So now I’ve switched the tape recorder on …
I haven’t been taped in who knows how long!
Everyone gets nervous when I switch the tape recorder on … It’s like the NSA, although they probably know more about you than we’ll ever know.
[Laughs] Yes, them! Now, is it on?
Yes—don’t worry. What I wanted to talk to you about is this whole scary business of starting an actual business—one of your own. I wondered where you found the courage to do that.
It’s years … I’ve been building up for years, honestly. I’ve been preparing for the moment. I went to school, studied textile design, studied painting, studied photography, and in my first year of college I realized art is my business. When I sold a painting to someone who worked at the college, he said, “How much?” and I was like “Oh! You can do this!” At the time it was about $100 but you know … I realized people would pay for what I do. So every summer I would design t-shirts and sell them because I had to contribute to my college education. I always knew I had a talent and I wanted to share it with the world.
But business sense is a very different talent to having an artistic sensibility – did the business part make sense to you or was it a challenge?
It came natural to me. Even when I was at FIT, I took business courses.
It’s good that they have them—it’s been a criticism of an arts education that they don’t include courses like that.
They’re training you to work for someone and not for yourself.
What was difficult to begin with?
Ouff!! Being an entrepreneur!! [laughs]
How do you live with the risk?
You know, it’s funny because I’ve always said, I have no other option. You go in knowing that this is it. You don’t think about how it’s not going to work—you just keep figuring out how to make it work. I learned my purpose in life a long time ago—and it’s to inspire.
So this takes tremendous confidence in yourself, right?
You know, I look at the design I started with and it’s still my top-selling design. It’s called “Wolof”. Everyone was like, oh no that’s not going to work, it’s too this, it’s too that … but that’s okay. In school we had good training—we were constantly being judged—you put your work up on the board and the class has to tell you what’s wrong or what’s good. Everybody’s always going to have something to say and they may not get it but you have to stay true to your core.
How do you or did you cope with the criticism?
I’m not attached. You have to learn to detach yourself because the thing is, I believe when you understand your craft, it’s not about you, you understand? I feel like I have this talent but I’m blessed with it—I’m bringing it to you; it’s not about me. Through me, I’m able to provide you with a wonderful carpet. If you’re very attached to your work, it’s hard to let other people experience it.
What is the hardest thing about running your own business?
I think it’s to continue to grow and to get sales and to stay relevant. You can’t take it for granted that you’re different and that’s enough. And I tell designers, “Listen, the design business is 10 percent design—and I’m being generous—and 90 percent business.” If you’re not up for the hustle, then take a step back and that’s okay. This is not for everybody. Believe me, I’ve had many nights of tears. Nobody is going to give it to you.
Is social media crucial?
Oh, beyond … beyond. When you’re on a tight budget—just to be frank—you have to be very cautious on where you’re placing your dollars when it comes to advertising. This is a small business and you rely on press and the blogs.
When you’re actually designing, do you just sit alone and hope that something comes or do you look through photographs? How do you get your ideas?
I find my design process very organic—it’s based on how I’m feeling. I don’t have a set process. For example I was in Savannah, Georgia and I started taking pictures of the moss hanging off the oak trees and then once I had taken the picture, I said, “You know what? I’m going to make that into a carpet.” It’s doing well and it’s called “Oak”. I have a pattern called “Mehndi” and that was [inspired by] the time I went to my girlfriend’s wedding in India and participated in the [henna] hand painting ceremony.
You mentioned how being an African-American woman in the carpet business is unusual but I would say that in the design business in general, there aren’t many African-American people given much by way of a profile. Is that something you’re working towards changing?
Yeah, I was down in Atlanta for the African American Top 20 Interior Designers event because the problem is we don’t get recognized and acknowledged within the industry so the woman who created it said “You know what? We’re going to create our own.” I mean, we look at the major design magazines when they have the Top 50 list and we’re never on it.
Well, I hope it’s changing but probably not fast enough. Tell us about living in Bed-Stuy.
I actually really love it. I love the diversity and I’m close to my Caribbean culture. I can walk to the corner and get my local food—my father is Jamaican—so I can get a plate of food for $6; peas, plantains, vegetable patties—I’m vegetarian. And there’s some new stores opening up—there’s a new home store down the street called peace & RIOT and she actually carries my carpets. You’re seeing more of that. And I have friends in the neighborhood.
Where did you grow up? Did you spend time in Jamaica?
I grew up in Connecticut with my mother because my parents are divorced but I’m still close with my father’s side. My mother only went back home once because everybody [in her family] left. My grandmother came here first—she was a fashion designer and my aunt became a fashion designer and went to FIT.
Were you a good student when you were a little girl?
I was like the popular one! You know I grew up with a mother who was divorced at the age of about 35 and she had three kids. She was a teacher at the time making $18,000 a year and her man just left. She got up every morning knowing that she had these three girls she had to feed and educate—that’s what she always said, “All I have to do is feed and educate you. After that I’m done.”
Gosh, that’s a refreshing approach to parenting in this day and age.
[Laughs] But that was her goal. She’d come from a small, tiny island. She had no time to think about the situation. She just had to get up and do—and that’s where I get it from. One of her goals was to get one of the highest degrees this country has to offer—she has a doctorate from Columbia. I never knew the struggles she went through. She just knew she had to get up and take care of us. So I live my life like her. I know I get it from her: this is what needs to get done so let’s just figure it out.