Meet Carla CONTE
Carla was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and the daughter of two entrepreneurial Italian immigrants. She had a typical Italian upbringing with all the cultural influences that it entails but with a North American feminist, “can do” liberal mentality mixed in. She started her design career in 1998, interning for one of Toronto’s top design and branding agencies. She was offered this opportunity through a Global Internship program that accepted students in her province with an exceptional grade point average. Some of her peers were placed with the likes of NASA and Bombardier so the calibre of the placements were phenomenal.
"To be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced that a design placement was right for me as I had decided on a career in medicine and I imagined I would one day be a dermatologist with a skincare line of my own. I questioned if people were actually making money or even happy in creatively focused careers and I hadn’t imagined I would end up in interior design. I spent so long working on math and science scores in high school that I just didn’t consider the arts seriously. I ultimately accepted the intern position at the agency with a 'I have nothing to lose' attitude."
Carla immediately saw first hand how big brands developed sales strategies utilizing design as a tool to convey their message and attract customers. She began to experience the business potential that design offered the world and decided this was something she could commit to as it fascinated her. After her internship she obtained her interior design degree from Ryerson University.
"I took my education very seriously and hoped it would eventually pay off – not necessarily in a financial respect but I wanted to be known as a branding expert as they have the power to change people’s perceptions and minds."
If you were a movie, what is your story?
The eccentric, nerdy girl and avid people pleaser who grows up and ends up doing exactly what everyone else says is right yet feels deep down that something more is out there for her. At age 26 she reaches a crossroads and moves to the Middle East alone, single and very determined to shake things up in her life. She hits the restart button and never looks back. Detours, tears, laughter, friendships and chocolate. So much chocolate. Can Salma Hayek play me please? I feel her unibrow in the Frida Kahlo movie pretty much sums up my pre-teen look.
What has been your biggest challenge? How did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge has been dealing with homesickness. I moved to Dubai 13 years ago and don’t regret it at all. It changed my life for the better and I’ve only been supported and uplifted by those around me to start my own business. I love how we are surrounded by innovation and high energy. I met my husband here and gave birth to my son here – so it will always be a very special city to me. But the longing to be around my family in Canada has never gone away. My two greatest friends in life are my brother and my sister and they both live in Toronto. We are always in contact but picking up and meeting for a coffee in 10 minutes or making plans for dinner “tonight” – impossible. Sitting with my mother in her kitchen and watching snow peacefully fall outside – there’s nothing that can match that feeling. I try to be in Canada at least 3 times a year. My 2 year old son has already been there 6 times since he was born. It’s expensive and tiring to do it – but I need my tribe around me to feel right. Going home re-energizes me for the next steps in life.
How would you define your design style? What do you think has shaped the way you design? I have a deep appreciation for multidisciplinary thinking. I’m an interior designer in the traditional sense but because I’m creating brands from scratch, one day I’m a graphic designer, one day I’m a fashion designer, another an art director – being versatile in my problem solving and thinking has really shaped how I design projects. Personally, I’m a sucker for moodiness. I love darker palettes that play on rockstar, edgy statement pieces. If there’s a chance to be dramatic and bold – I’m there for it! If Depeche Mode were an interior designer – that would be me.
As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to other young designers who want to have something of their own one day? I think my advice to anyone wanting to own a design business is to definitely “do it” but build undeniable credibility and a solid reputation for yourself first. You cannot underestimate the value of your reputation and how a few years of true experience under your belt working for someone else really builds a credibility that future clients will trust. A young person who has spent their formative years after graduation bouncing from one firm to the next and who isn’t willing to show loyalty, dedication and hard work will find it hard to find good clients who will respect them and most of all – who will pay them. I worked 13 years in the industry before starting Brand Creative and I feel that was my strong point. Prospective clients really do want to hear your story and understand whom you’ve worked with in the past and why you deserve their money now. Talent isn’t always everything and the Middle Eastern culture is one that positions relationships and trust above many other things.
Top 5 favourite designers / architects
1. Yves Saint Laurent – his multidisciplinary ability is so admirable to me. Fashion, graphics, interiors, landscaping. People often don’t know the depth of his creative skills.
2. Yabu Pushelberg (George Yabu & Glenn Pushelberg) – they graduated from Ryerson and are the stars of Canadian interior design with offices in Toronto and New York. Their work is truly stunning.
3. Santiago Calatrava – anyone who appreciates breathtaking drama in their architecture loves his work.
4. Nate Berkus – his interiors are full of life and so incredibly beautiful to me. The type you want to read books in while sipping on a glass of something interesting…
5. Rem Koolhaas – for being able to shake up conventional ideas and being unapolegetically a trouble maker in how he approaches problem solving.
Name a mentor or someone who impacted your career and life. And how?
Ronald Harris was my first boss at IDG in Toronto and the greatest mentor I’ve ever had. He hired me when I was very young and inexperienced. He told me at my first interview that I impressed him with my raw talent and confidence a nd that shocked me because I spent the night before awake and most of the interview in cold sweats. He took me under his wing immediately. I spent my first 3 days on the job sitting behind his drafting board on a stool watching him work. He even made me sit there while he had private conversations with staff. Who does that? He let me in on his world and pulled back a curtain that is often left closed to juniors. He was a phenomenal retail designer who could draw manual perspectives of entire concepts in under 3 hours (Pantone markers and all!). He was always so composed and elegant in his delivery of speech. He cared for his employees but wasn’t a pushover either. He was deserving of respect by all who knew him and that left a huge impression on me. I feel very lucky to have met him when I did. He convinced me that a career in medicine would be honourable, but wouldn’t satisfy the creative side of me. I remember him saying that even if I didn’t choose design then, I would eventually cave in. My gut told me he was right.
What is the trait / quality in someone you admire that you wish you had? Give a shout out to this person.
I admire people who can retain composure and restraint in the face of – well – how to put this nicely – what can seem like blatant stupidity. You know those times when someone who is clearly and obviously wrong is being a bully and pushing their weight on everyone around them and there’s this one composed individual who takes it all in and gracefully smiles and brings calmness and decency to the conversation? That guy – he’s gold. I’m looking at you Boutros! He’s our Design Manager. Some days he’s my hero.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Starting Brand Creative in 2011, against all odds and in a time of financial uncertainty, has been my greatest achievement to date. It has grown from just myself to 18 people in 8 years in 2 countries. Our growth was faster and bigger than I had ever imagined. In 2011, the retail market was just re-surfacing after the recession and businesses that had maintained some funds to build or expand their portfolios were ready to start spending again. The difference was – no one was willing to pay any large agency “pre-2008 type” fees but more importantly many of the large agencies had pulled their branch offices from the Middle East all together in 2009. I felt as though I had nothing to lose and after years of studying and learning from the companies I dedicated myself to, I finally felt well prepared.
Talk about a time you failed at something or thought you did – but how it molded you in some way.
I once worked for an agency where I was never a cultural fit and felt like an outsider. It was a studio I admired deeply for it’s work and leadership but couldn’t wrap my head around other internal issues. I thought I could work through it as I spent 11 years with my first agency in Toronto and was very confident in my creative ability, but in the end, I mentally broke down and felt unhappy at the end of most days. That horrible feeling of failure and not fitting in was the driving force behind picking myself up quickly (for the second time in my life) and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone to go out on my own. The experience gave me the grit to move on and beat to the rhythm of my own drum.
A quote you live by.
“You can never be truly innovative if you aren’t willing to make any mistakes”.
The hardest part of your job is….
The hardest part of my job is managing people. Whether it’s the creative people on staff or difficult clients, I still have a hard time delivering messages that I know someone won’t like. Sometimes you need to reject someone’s ideas, or be tough on contractual issues and that isn’t the me that comes naturally. But I work on this part of myself a lot and I operate on the policies of truth and transparency.
The part of the design process you love most.
Formulating the aesthetic concept based on strategic thought Is the best part of the process for me. It’s the “aha” moment between the thinking and mood boards to when the crux of the concept is formed. Since our work isn’t trend based it’s always exciting to present a concept to a client that they can clearly see is rooted in strategic
thinking. Even if the ideas are a bit wild or
different, it’s easy to get an approval if you
walk and talk people through that experience.
The part of the design process you least like.
Tendering is the least favourite part of the design process for me. Meeting with contractors who understand your work and want the best for the project is pure joy. But when you’re meeting with people who will stop at nothing to convince clients to cut out key features or substitute materials that are fundamental to the success of the final execution – I still don’t know how to compose myself in those meetings!
Do you have a dream project? What is it?
We get to work on a lot of beauty and wellness concepts. I would love to work on a conceptual centre that was dedicated to mental wellness and alternative healing methods (like extremely alternative stuff that maybe doesn’t even exist yet). I think a space like that would need unconventional thinking and design solutions that are thoughtful and meaningful. Creating a space that cares for people in any manner comes with great responsibility and I’m up for that in this stage in my life.
Is there something you would do differently if you ran a design school? What do you think there should be more emphasis of in design schools?
I think it would be interesting to give senior students real paying clients with real projects that have real problems. That way they would understand how design creativity only forms a part of your career and the ability to manage people and problem solve is the key to success and endurance. On the whole, most reputed design programs have fantastic resources and workshops that allow students to explore every aspect of the creative process first hand. For me, the soft skills aspect makes all the difference in identifying stars.
If there is one thing you want people to know or be inspired by from your story – what is it?
You can change your life at any point. Your past is there to give you lessons to learn from but it definitely doesn’t define you. Circumstances change, people change – and you can re-write your life if it’s making you unhappy. Be responsible for how you are treated and how you treat yourself and everything else will fall into place.
What are you most excited about for what’s coming next?
One of my goals for the next 6 months is to open our Toronto office. We’ve had a business license there for a few years but not an official address or a substantial team. In 2014 we opened an office in Kerala with my first employee Alex John. That office is like extended family to us and we work seamlessly with them to execute some of our bigger projects like retail roll outs and shopping center design. I know from this experience that we are truly capable of successfully running a branch office from Dubai. I plan on making Toronto a wonderful connection for current staff to be a part of while tapping in on the emotional connection we naturally have with new Indian and Arab immigrants in the city who are creating brands of their own. We have the ability to genuinely connect with a particular niche in that market and that excites me.
Are there any other outlets you express creativity? How did that come about?
There are many other ways I express my creativity and I’m very non-commital about it. The minute I have ever been formal about commiting to creativity outside of work – is when I lose interest. For me it’s all about the proverbial “dabble”. It’s been everything from make-up artistry, to painting (I had formal training in acrylics in school), to acoustic guitar, dancing and cooking. I love it all but if I had to commit to one – that would be torture.
What makes you happy?
It’s going to sound simple and cliché but knowing that the people around me are happy and healthy gives me great peace and that’s because I know what the other end of that stick is like. It’s imperative that my life is full of genuine connections with positive, kind and interesting people. Deep conversation over a wonderful meal - nothing beats that. Short answer: chocolate, puppies and scratch n’ sniff stickers.
What is your morning routine before you begin work?
I always wake up with my son at 6:30am. I want to be the first person he sees each day and I really treasure the hour I get with him before anyone else is awake. I exercise outdoors on most mornings with another working mum and a trainer. After getting ready I’ll have coffee and schedule internal meetings first thing so we have a strategy for the day or week ahead.
What music do you listen to when you work?
I can never define the exact type of music without sounding strange – new wave, post punk, synthpop, new romantic – somewhere there. I love British and Canadian artists in that realm. I’ve seen Depeche Mode in concert 8 times and could listen to them all day everyday. Other bands I have on repeat – Metric, Arcade Fire, Kasabian, Radiohead, The Cure, old U2.
What is an important lesson you’ve learnt over the years as a designer that you would like to share with other designers?
Pick your battles. There are going to be some people who understand your vision and will do anything to make that vision happen because they “get it”. Your job is to recognize those people quickly and concentrate your efforts there. When someone doesn’t get your vision or is relentlessly pushing their own and that person happens to be a client – that’s when you need to decide if you can service them properly as a “backseat designer”. When it doesn’t feel right – do everyone a favour and say no thank you. Side note: it’s impossible for me to be a backseat designer and it took me a long time to come to terms with that.
Carla's multi disciplinarian approach to design has allowed her firm to build a vast portfolio of diverse projects and rise to the top.
Carla made it to the top 20 of the 2018 Commercial Interior Design Power List. Since beginning Brand Creative nearly 8 years ago, she has become a prominent figure in the Middle East Design scene. Carla has now featured in the list for 6 consecutive years, recognized amongst the most influential industry leaders in the region.
Written and Edited: Kamsin Mirchandani