It’s been a while since I shared the details of my story, so I thought it might be a good time to tell you how I became the first True Colour Expert. I hope you enjoy looking back with me…
Early into my first attempt at a colour and design business, I was on the phone with a potential client who wanted to hire me to help her pick out a beige for her living room. It was when sage green (and beige) were trending in the late 90s.
She had noticed that some beiges had pink undertones and some had green undertones and this was making it difficult to pick the right one.
I immediately replied, “Absolutely, I can help.”
But I had no idea what she was talking about, and of course she didn’t hire me, so I decided, I better figure this out.
A True Colour Expert in the Making
This is the moment when I decided to get serious about my side hustle new career. I deeply wanted to be the colour expert I claimed to be in my ad.
You see, in my early 30s while working in hotel sales, I realized I was tired of being miserable at my corporate job selling rooms and meeting spaces. I needed to be CREATIVE. And, I knew the thing I loved most was helping my friends and family decorate their homes.
Something I had already been doing for years.
Maybe I could pursue this passion in a business of my own? So I quit my corporate sales job. And with no savings or another job to fall back on, I went ALL IN and placed an ad in the yellow pages. This is what it said:
One Day Design. We use what you have to create incredible, affordable interiors. Expert colour consultation.
Sure, I had good taste and enjoyed styling rooms. And if loving all things colour was a skill, that made me an EXPERT. Right?!
Well, the ad worked.
Except that while I claimed to be a colour expert, the only training I had at that point was a single colour theory class.
So based on that one phone call from a potential customer trying to pick a beige for her living room, I decided I better figure this colour and undertone thing out. It’s funny how life works, isn’t it?
I immediately signed up for the best course on colour I could find (this was before my course on colour – wink, wink). The course was in San Francisco – the perfect city for the colour-obsessed.
If I thought I was in love with colour before, this five-day course set my path in stone. When I came back home, I decided that I was going to be an internationally known colour consultant.
I had a purpose. A design niche. A future business.
And that’s where my True Colour Expert journey officially began.
Time and Talent
Specify Colour with Confidence – DC 2017
I’m guessing there are some people who walked away from that colour course in San Francisco and thought, “I’ve got this.” But not me.
Oh my, I have suffered so much anxiety because I’m just not able to BS and pretend when I don’t know something. You know that saying ‘fake it ’til you make it’? I can’t fake it. No poker face here. Anyone else out there find this a challenge too?
My true talent is learning to master it before I’m compelled to take action.
That means I need to understand something inside and out. I will analyze it 6 ways from Sunday before I will say, “I’ve got this.”
First, I needed to get a job that allowed me to invest real time and effort in working with colour. So I started working at a local Benjamin Moore store as a colour consultant.
I also convinced myself that I was not going to leave that job until I could walk into any house with perfect spidey-senses to know what colour the homeowner needed to pull together their space. No matter how long it took.
It worked. Over the next four years, in addition to helping customers inside the store choose colour all day long, I averaged five in-home colour consultations a week and had completed over 1,000 before I left Benjamin Moore.
My coworkers joked that I would drive anywhere, anytime for a colour consultation. They weren’t wrong.
Understanding Undertones and my Timeless Aesthetic
Working with large colour samples in client homes, I noticed a pattern in neutral undertones. That’s when I began to understand them more distinctly, starting with beiges, then greys and taupe, whites and now complex creams and greige.
Next I decided to categorize and label the most useful neutrals I had observed in both soft and hard finishes. And, ultimately this became the insight that sparked the creation of my famed Understanding Undertones Colour Wheel inside the Killam Colour System.
The Killam Colour System
What is the Killam Colour System? It’s language, tools, and education that gives people a simple process for making colour decisions.
Here’s something else I learned from all those consultations. Seeing home after home in these early years, revealed another epiphany that forged my lifelong design philosophy.
I noticed that each homeowner always complained about the previous homeowner’s choices they inherited with the house. Hard finishes they didn’t love and were now stuck with – especially the accent tiles. Ever inherited accent tiles you wanted to keep forever???
That’s how I discovered the essence of what would stand the test of time aesthetically. That’s how I define timeless.
I became obsessed with recommending the most timeless and classic selections possible for my clients.
I tried to help them make choices they wouldn’t regret 5 or 10 years from now.
Choices the next homeowner wouldn’t need to immediately rip out. Choices that didn’t immediately scream what trend or decade they were installed in. Choices that were… timeless.
I understood the advantages of firmly planting your design feet on the bedrock of making timeless colour choices. Most people are surprised to learn how this will give you the MOST freedom to express your personality and love your home forever.
(But not you… you’re here reading this blog 😉)
Student Becomes the Master
As it often does, life comes full circle. What started with a five-day colour course in San Francisco, evolved into a lifelong learning experience in colour and design. And eventually? The student becomes…yes, teacher.
Specify Colour with Confidence Workshop | Chicago 2015
15 years ago I started writing this blog where I continue to share freely what I’ve learned about colour and design. It’s packed with sound advice in my no-nonsense writing style – bossy but in a charming way. Little did I realize how much my words would inspire and resonate with hundreds of thousands of loyal readers.
I started writing my blog while I was teaching colour theory to interior design students at a local college in 2008. Soon I realized that half the students in my classes were there because they were reading my BLOG!
And that’s when I decided to launch my first course on the blog. No one else out there was talking about undertones or how to describe colour accurately.
Specify Colour with Confidence | San Francisco 2017
So many designers say things like, “Choose what you love and it’ll all work out.” But I was hearing from so many readers who said they did that, and it didn’t work out. Something was off and they were crushed that choosing the finish/colour they loved didn’t make it any easier.
I thought, I invented a system to make colour easy. Shouldn’t I be teaching this to EVERYONE around the globe?
So I proceeded to launch my own workshop for training homeowners and designers in the fundamentals of the groundbreaking Killam Colour System.
It’s the EXACT course I wish had existed when I started my journey to become a true colour expert all those years ago.
And now? Having trained thousands of true colour experts worldwide, I’m so grateful for all the ENERGY and ENTHUSIASM that comes from our colour community!
That’s the abbreviated story of the OG True Colour Expert… I didn’t perfect my colour skills overnight. I wasn’t an instant success. I invested in years of deliberate practice and focus on my craft.
It’s this experience and effort that helped me develop the skills and talents to eventually lead me to create language, tools and education to help people like you make better colour decisions – yes, the Killam Colour System.
I included a quote from Penelope Trunk in this post. And I want to share a bit of it with you again.
“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts.”
A Colour Community
Since starting my blog and building an education system around colour, I’ve created a vibrant colour community both here and on my social media channels.
The bottom line is this, as a new decorator, I spent a lot of time asking my clients questions like “Do you like this?” because I didn’t have enough experience to be able to advise them what the right colour/tile/fabric actually was, nor could I explain why my suggestions were the right ones.
Without even realizing it in the beginning, my blog gave people the answer to the question, WHY? Why this choice is better than another one, for example. Learning the answer to that immediately empowered them to have a much more knowledgeable conversation with their spouse, designer or contractor.
And this is also the reason why my workshops and online courses are so powerful as well.
A little more about me…
I believe your favourite colour is always way more timeless than the trendy neutral of the moment. So, buy a sofa in your favorite colour.
I love the power of lamps to bring joy to any room. Here are the five lamps everyone should have in their home.
There are (at least) four rules of design that I think everyone should follow:
First Rule of Design: Boring Now Equals Timeless Later
Second Rule of Design: Waiting Now Equals Beautiful Later
Third Rule of Design: Expensive Does Not Equal Timeless
Fourth Rule of Design: Trendy equals Temporary
And finally, when you can’t change a paint colour or finish that you don’t love, all you really need is GOOD STYLING. Creating “a look and a feel” will instantly make a room appear more expensive and more personal.
Become a True Colour Expert this Spring from the comfort of your home in a live Zoom call with me. Register here.
Professionals Know when to Avoid the Obvious
Rules are for Amateurs, Exceptions are for the Professionals
Super interesting recap!
Because I’ve read every blog post you’ve sent, I understand what you mean by your first design rule: Boring now equals timeless later. However, I think it’s time to expand on that again. When I walk into a new construction house, I see a totally boring place that is NOT timeless. Some kinds of boring will NEVER be timeless. Boring can simply equal boring, forever.
Our house also has ‘boring’ white tiles and vanities in all bathrooms and I am very happy with that. I’ve never thought of changing them, as the white is timeless. The only thing I dislike in the en suite is the style they were put up in, namely the ‘brick pattern’, which I dislike. But the colour white I am very happy with. I was in a neighbour’s home who had changed their white tiles and had grey tiles laid on both walls and floor in their bathroom and noted now awful, dark and drab their bathroom now looked. I will never change our tiles from timeless white. Thank you Maria for helping me see how timeless and beautiful white tiles look.
I recently read “The Established Home” by Jean Stoffer, and I was JUST thinking of you, because I think you should write a book like that as well. This blog post is kind-of the start for that! I found a great writer who helps people write their books (especially business based), named Cindy Childress, who would be perfect to collaborate with on something like that for you!
I can totally relate to your learning style of needing a thorough understanding, Maria. SAME. And I also doggedly pursue that understanding until I overtake it. But recognizing the same hunger for finding out “why” that I have is what makes me trust you. I know you’re on the same journey to find out, with a built-in love for truth and a childlike wonder at discovery. Thanks for sharing your story. Your insights are a blessing to me.
Maria, I have been a follower of yours since 2008! I’ve watched how you have grown with wisdom in this business. But your ethics, values, and insights into color have never been derailed What you said in 2008 still holds today. Trends have come and gone, but you are still on top, poised and beautiful, saying your not too boring but timeless advice. I‘ve been a TCE since 2017.
I have followed you for a few years and use your advise at home and in my career as a kitchen designer residing in a flooring store. Thank you so much for the common sense.
This article came across my email today and I just HAD to share it with you. Color is coming back to my job!
Maria, thank you so much for this post. I am in the same position as you were all those years ago in your 30s. I am now 30 and decided to quit my full-time job to pursue a career in design and color with no fall back so your story rings very close to my heart. I will be registering for the TCE course this year and am excited to get started.