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Mind the Gap

What do jazz, communism, Dracula and wallpaper have in common? Tune into this episode to hear how they all converge.  My guest is Stefan Ormenisan, the founder and creative director of one of the most unique lifestyle brands, Mind the Gap. Conceived in Transylvania and sold all over the world, MTG offers wallpapers and textile patterns spun from tales of folklore and global  cultures. Their products are a color lovers dream. Learn how this amazing company got off the ground and became who they are today. When a company's leader talks about connecting with people's souls, you know you're onto a stunningly singular business ethos. 







 

Amy: Color is the foundation of great design. It can settle a building into its landscape. It can make an unattractive structural detail just disappear, and it can change your mood in a room instantly. Welcome to Let's Talk Color. I'm Amy Krane, Architectural Color Consultant at Amy Krane Color.

I'm a color expert and use color to transform spaces and products from the ordinary to the sublime. As a paint color specialist, realtor, and design writer, I've got my finger on the pulse of what's happening in the world of color. In each episode, I'll reveal best practices for choosing color by introducing you to Masters of Color for the Built World. So throw out those paint chips, taped to your walls, and let's get started.

When you think about companies that create wallpaper, textiles, and home decor, how many of them really stand out and offer a uniquely singular vision so different from others? I think not so many. But my guest today is the founder of one of those companies.

Please help me welcome Stefan Ormensian. Stefan is the founder and creative director of Mind the Gap. Mind the Gap is a lifestyle brand that is known for its highly original, colorful patterns for wallpaper and textiles. But it now produces much more than that with lighting, rugs, furnishings, and accessories. They're based in Transylvania, a region of Romania, the name of which is so exotic to Americans.

The patterns that Mind the Gap create rely heavily on the folklore of the region and the importance of artisan, crafted, handmade objects. Their creations pay homage to the region's heritage, artifacts, culture, and history. And if you're a color and pattern lover like I am, they will absolutely delight you. Welcome, Stefan.

 

Stefan: Thank you.

 

Amy: I know you're a jazz musician. So how did you get into this line of work? Did you study design? I mean, where did Mind the Gap come from in your life?

Stefan: It's a bit more complicated. So I studied music in school. I studied piano, but then I abandoned music for over 20 years. I became a licensed journalist and I was a journalist for seven years practicing with big newspapers in our country, in Romania. And then I started to have a small printing company, a small printing company that was producing printed canvases and frame prints.

You know I could not continue the journalism because I was working in a very corrupt country where  fair journalism was totally impossible. So I created this production company. I've always dreamed to make something for the people, for the people to use. And so this is how we started at the very beginning.

And we were the first company in Eastern Europe producing this kind of framed prints. We were selling very easily and in a very short time we got into the big stores around Eastern Europe. And then I think in 2009 or 2010, we started to export our goods to the whole Western Europe, which was not that easy for a Eastern European post-communist country.

And we were producing at that time private label framed prints and canvases for big names in the market. Everything was working well except the fact that we were providing the designs, both the designs and the finished product to these big companies. And our margin was very low because we were considered like a private label company.

And in 2016, our business and our lives changed because of the Brexit, because England was our main market. Brexit was voted in 2016. And just after this announcement was made that the Brexit will pass, we were forced to reduce our margin, so we could not continue.

So that moment, me and my business partner and co-founder, Victor, we decided to create our own brand and to go into the market and see if we are lucky enough to succeed. We knew that it was very hard with the framed prints, but we had in mind the wallpaper. So this is how Mind the Gap history begins.

 

Amy: Wow. So you were never a designer, and your background actually isn't in visual arts in any way.

Stefan: Not at all. Unfortunately, not at all, but also fortunately, because it seems that today, most of the English press and the journalists are telling me that this is one of the key reasons that Mind the Gap is so fresh, that we weren't influenced or we didn't come from a design background. And this made us, how should I say, more maverick and brave enough to get into the market with something new, which probably coming from design school you wouldn't do.

Amy: Right. Why do you make the emphasis about your brand being from Transylvania as opposed to Romania? I mean, I know it's a region there, but it seems so tied into your identity. So why do we talk about Transylvania?

 

Stefan: Yes, it is. It's a good question. Romania is a country of probably 105 years old only.

So before this, Transylvania was one of the most important historical regions in that area of the world, in the Balkans. And beside of this, the multiculturality and the mix of the ethnicities that we have in Transylvania and that was forever there influenced us a lot. For example, I am a very good example because my father is Romanian and my mother, she's half German, half Hungarian.

And this is happening with probably over 50% of the Transylvanian people. Transylvania includes and included since hundreds of years Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, Hungarians, Germans, and other Slavic nations around Romania. So I think all the Transylvanian people are very proud to belong to this historical region.

Amy: So you explained the origin of yourself and your business, but what actually gave you the idea to base the designs, at least at first, on the folklore of Transylvania? I mean, what was it about this approach that led you to believe that it would have a fairly wide appeal? You talked about being brave, and I think you're right. But what gave you the idea?

Stefan: We knew that it would be catchy to say, "Okay, Mind the Gap made in Transylvania." Because Transylvania is so famous, first of all, because of Dracula probably, thanks to Bram Stoker and the American cinema. I remember that in the early beginning of Mind the Gap, we weren't so confident to use this, but we figured it out later on.

We've seen that we have so much culture and so much heritage it would be a pity not to show it to the whole world. Today, I can tell you our Transylvania Roots Collection, which was launched probably in 2021. Is it still the best collection for Mind the Gap.

And once we got into the market, we discovered that a lot of people, especially from England and the United States, were in love with the patterns because a lot of people have roots in Eastern Europe. So they recognize symbols or motifs or patterns that they've seen when they were a child or when they were talking about it at home.

So this is how we started to believe more in Transylvania and in this special connection and special place.

Amy:  Interesting. So when you started with those patterns, did your designers use an older pattern, a historical pattern that they found, just as inspiration for what they created, or are some of them actual replicas, more or less, of old patterns you found just in your own colorways?

Stefan: Both, I would say. Usually we work on one collection a year. So we start one year previously to do the research to understand what it's all about in that story. No matter it's connected to Transylvania or, I don't know, Mediterranean or now, the Italian collection. So this was the same for Transylvania.

Even though we live here, we can't see these old folkloric patterns everywhere these days. So we started to study in the museums and I was traveling around Transylvania to old churches: Saxon churches, old Gothic churches, old museums and old houses so I could understand more about what I would love to see on our products that you couldn’t see in locally made throw pillows or on other products that are made by the traditional craftsman.

So basically, Transylvania Roots collection shows a mix of patterns inspired by old ones. Some of them are really replicas. For example, I remember one of the most successful patterns.I found it in a church, a very old church, a Saxon Church that is located in a village where Prince Charles or King Charles today is going every year because King Charles is very connected and actually the royal family has roots in Transylvania.

So I found it's a very beautiful church and I went there and I saw on the back of the bench some very old florals that were hand painted. I took pictures. I took it to the studio and we redesigned them, rebuilt them. And this is how we have one of the best wallpapers

 

Amy: Wow. That's incredible. There are no copyright issues? It's not that kind of thing, right?

 

Stefan: No. No, for sure, no.

They are old folkloric. Nobody knows who made then. I mean, they are probably over 150 years old. So yeah, I think local people and Romanian are very happy that we are trying to show to the world this. We never encountered copyright issues or something like that.

 

Amy: Got it. Got it. In fact, do you have any kind of clientele in Romania itself? Do they sell there if they can afford it?

Stefan: Yes, we have, but in a very small size, I would say, because we export over 95% of our products. So I think Romania is not yet, being a post-communist country, and there are only 34 years since the communist was taken down, I think we are still not prepared (to buy these kind of products) because, you know, first of all, because of the education, so people still need to understand the relation between our patterns and different stories behind them, like music.

We have a collection called Woodstock, very famous. We launched it like three years ago. So not everyone here knows about Woodstock or Jimi Hendrix.

 

Amy: Was your education different than your average person’s? I know that's a very difficult word to define, but was your education different or do you think because you were a journalist, you were more open to what's in the world in terms of culture and design?

Stefan: You know I keep questioning myself about why I have this cultural background and where does it comes from. And this began at a very early stage in my life. So probably 12 years or 13 years old up to 20, 22. I don't know, because of the environment, because of my family (maybe I’m this way), but I was not raised in a different cultural background because we had no access.

I mean, it was communist, I was 12 years old when communism came down. When I grew up we couldn't travel. We couldn't travel - just in the communist countries at that time. And almost nobody could afford to travel abroad. So I grew up traveling by books, by movies, you know by music.

So definitely travel's inspired a lot. And also, as I told you previously, traveling by books when I was young, I dreamed about visiting, I don't know, Papua or Hawaii. So later when I'm thinking for a tropical collection, it's easy to see it my mind, even if I wasn't in Hawaii. But it's easy. I've made already in my mind a vision. So I'm trying to transmit that to our designers and to make them understand what I'm envisioning.

And this fed my imagination and created my cultural background that later allowed me to create transporting design stories and home decor.

 

Amy: It must have been amazing to be able to get out of the country for the first time. Do you travel a lot now? I don't mean for business because I'm sure you must, but I know that when we first contacted one another, I think you were in Vietnam.

 

Stefan: I try to travel. Yes, I don't have too much time for anything besides the business and the music because I'm doing also some jazz. I do travel, yes. I try to go with the kids and my wife. I try to go at least two times a year.

 

Amy: Thus far, have you been influenced to head in any particular design direction because of your travels or not necessarily?

 

Stefan: Yes, I was and I'm still influenced. I know that one of the future wallpaper collections will be called Saigon, for example, because I fell in love with Vietnam. So of course, I think this is one of the best resources you can get as a designer to travel because once you are there, and usually I try to stay like at least two weeks in a place, I discover as much as I can from food to cultural to music to fashion, local fashion.

 

Amy: Wonderful. Your designers are all in Romania and are all Romanian or no?

 

Stefan: Yes. They're all in Romanian. We have five designers today.

 

Amy: So where do you sell the most now? Is it England?

 

Stefan: No, it is the United States? Yes, yes. Over 60% of our business comes from the United States. Since the beginning of last year, it grew amazingly. And before it was England, but you know the economical situation today in Europe is quite difficult because we had COVID, then we had Brexit, and then the war, which affects a lot. So all these are influencing a lot, the buyers. And we can see the last one in Europe, very big decrease in the whole European countries and mostly in England because of the Brexit.

 

Amy:  So how do you think the American market learned about your products?

 

 

 

So this is very interesting because somehow people learned about Mind the Gap and I believe it's social media. End users learned about Mind the Gap, they liked it, and then they go to the interior designer saying, “I want that in my house”. Which is not the common way of things working. You know it's not the designer coming and saying, I have this and it's very beautiful you should use it. So I think social media, internet.

 

Amy: Isn't that amazing? It's so amazing.

Stefan: Yeah, it's a different way of building a business these days, and it was very helpful for us. I mean, I can't imagine the business without internet, definitely. Even if I'm an old fashioned guy, who I likes to touch the fabric and to see the sofa. And also with the professionals, the internet is growing very fast. So ten years ago or five years ago it was still working the traditional way where the interior designer would go into the showroom and place the order upon seeing a book.

Today, everything has changed a lot, and we see the professionals going more and more online, which forced us to develop more and more of the online business and the social media.

 

Amy: Yeah. Right. And of course, as I always tell my clients, you can't choose anything from online only. You can get interested, but you must see a sample.

 

Stefan: Yeah, sure. That's so important for your line of business.

 

Amy: Talk to me about color.

I mean, all of your collections now are different, but I think as an observer, color still seems to play an important part. What's your take on color for your brand?

 

Stefan: I think from the beginning, I've seen that it's a way to create a new brand. I mean there is a path to create a new brand by bringing in more color into the home decor.

It wasn't easy, but now I can see that people love that. And to be honest, we are called by the English press and the competitors a maximalist brand, yeah which I'm not very pleased about because I don't consider it.

 

Amy: It is very maximalist compared to Scandinavian.

 

Stefan: Yeah, exactly.

Compared to the Scandinavians and the gray and the beige and the plain velvets. But then I don't want necessarily to have this nickname - maximalist. But we became called this. And seeing the success, of course, we want to explore this. And yeah, color is part of our life.

I think I'm dressed now in black just because I'm in a hotel, but usually you would see me in denim or with some color scarf or something. I mean, because I always embrace color. And this is something that you can see also in our collections. I mean, we believe that color brings happiness, brings joy. When you come back home, it helps you relax more than a gray or beige space that you have it in your office too. You know like in a white hospital or whatever.

You know I think people need color. You know we need color in our life.

 

Amy: Yeah. I agree. How do you decide how many colorways you want to release a textile or a wallpaper in? Is it financial?

 

Stefan: Yes, it is financial, but it is also a matter of being different because I know that most of the brands are releasing many different colorways, mostly for stripes or plains.

But then if you have a very heavy pattern on the printed linen or velvet, I think it doesn't need a different colorway. With wallpaper it’s different. So on the wallpaper, we can play a bit more. We are also producing our own wallpaper in our factory. So we control totally the production for the wallpaper.

But for the fabrics, it's also harder to get the best colors in some colorways. So sometimes for printed ones, we do two colorways, but otherwise we try to keep just one way. I know there is always a need for, you know, I want a black background and we only have an ochre. But you know if you really like it, you can use it because you'll find so many hues in our designs in just one pattern.

Amy: I was trying to remember how I first heard of your company, and I thought it must have been on social media, but it wasn't. I was on vacation in Maine, and I was in a store in Portland, Maine. And in one little section, in the back, a little accent wall had one of your designs and I really fell for it. It’s called Green Sanctuary and it has very large ferns.

And I was like, "I love that." It’s fabulous. It comes with a white background or a black background and I got a sample for my dining room. I don't know how I ended up with elephants on my wall, but that's what I got! That's what I got.

 

Stefan: You know it's funny because in the first two years we had two tropical collections that became very strong for Mind the Gap. And we knew that we would make a good success with these designs in most of Europe and Nordic countries where people don't have tropical plants outside, or you can look out the window and you see snow or a foggy day. But then this became massive also in Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand.

 

And we were so surprised to see that people are in love with greens and bringing in the greens and the ferns and the tropical foliage.

 

Amy: Yeah. It's interesting. I mean green over the years in decorating goes in and out of style, but I find here since the pandemic, green's been really big. So people are looking for just the refreshment of it.

The connection with nature, the peacefulness of it. It's one of my favorites, so I'm really thrilled with that. It's a great color. Tell us about Le Dolce Vita. I watched you on Instagram Live a little bit. You had an incredibly bold wallpaper behind you. Primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. It was like, wow.

 

Stefan: Yeah, it's beautiful.

It's called Bossa, like the musical style, the South American musical style. After Transylvania Roots, we had a very successful collection, Woodstock, inspired by the famous Rock Festival. And that collection won the best wallpaper and fabric collection in the UK in that year.

And after that, we had another one called Tyrol, which is inspired by the Austrian mountainside. It’s a bit more niche and more targeted, you know. It's not very easy to use, you know? So I was aiming to create, let's say, a second successful Woodstock.

But I had in my mind something Italian and more summer-ish, fresh, like an Italian summer, very beautiful with everything inspired by Italian escapism, by the Italian lifestyle, you know. With no heavy thoughts and just have a good martini. And this is how it came out, Dolce Vita, of course, inspired by the famous movie back in the '60s.

But with a totally different touch, the main aim for me was to create something more contemporary with a modern touch because the other collections were more into the folkloric pattern with florals and stencils even if they were colorful, but a different approach to designing the patterns. And with Dolce Vita, I asked the whole team and it took longer actually than normal.

Usually it takes one year because everyone gets used to creating these timeless patterns, floral patterns. So with Dolce Vita, we introduced more bold geometrics, very strong colors, and combined with architectural and historical elements, like the carriage with the horses or other Italian elements. It was a hard work, but I'm very pleased with what came out.

And I think it will be more successful than Woodstock.

 

Amy: Wow, great.

 

Stefan: And this is very important because I mean, we feel that we grew and we are better than three years ago. So for me personally, this is very important that we still can came out with such strong collections.

 

Amy:  As you increase your collections every year, will you start to retire some?

 

Stefan: Yeah, we just started to retire the first and the second wallpaper collections because it's harder and harder to manage with the books especially.

So we will keep these designs online, but then we will retire from the stores, from the showrooms because it's very hard to keep this up. I mean, when we sign with a new showroom and they see so many books, they get scared, you know? So we have to stop some of them. But online there is no issue to sell all of them because we still have some older ones in the top 10 designs.

Amy: Amazing. Everything is created or manufactured in Europe? Nothing's from Asia, for instance?

 

Stefan: Yes, we do have. So most of our products are created and manufactured in Europe. What we are bringing from Asia is embroidered some of the embroidered fabrics that comes from India. But otherwise, yes, some of the cottons, the stripes and the plain cottons that we launched last year, they're coming from Turkey, but Turkey is at the edge of Europe.

But otherwise, everything is made in Europe. Yeah, the velvets and cottons are made in England. The woven fabrics are made in Belgium. We try to search and to work with the best mills. Probably 85% of our fabrics are natural fibers. So I'm trying to avoid anything related to plastic and to in some cases with the woven ones, we need to accept like 15%.

Amy: Yeah, just for durability.

 

Stefan: Exactly. But then we try to work as much as we can in Europe. And also we produce the wallpapers and the lampshades in our own factory.

 

Amy: My wallpaper hanger said it was beautiful quality, by the way.

 

Stefan: Yeah, we work with different suppliers for the base of the wallpaper, for the substrate. We buy from France, from Germany, from Finland.

We have very good quality. We had to learn a lot. And to invest a lot I remember the first three years we were cutting by hand the wallpaper because we could not find the proper machine to buy that would cut. So we had to order a machine in England.

 

Amy: You know, I find here, especially with the prevalence of social media, people are so guided and focused on what they see in Pinterest and Instagram and things like that.

And I feel like people have homes that you could say wear a uniform. Kitchens look this way and living rooms look that way. And even if you're not going mid-century modern or Japanese or minimalism, it's amazing how uniform and same, same people's homes look. And I wondered, you've kind of answered this question already because you've said the American market is really great for you.

And I'm thrilled to hear that because I think your products, your patterns tell stories, and people will always love stories. I can see the connection. And yet, it's not really what you see on Instagram and Pinterest. You know that is more minimal. It is white walls and you know maybe a pattern in a rug, or they'll venture into having a green sofa.

Do you feel that you'll always be fighting that desire to have one's home look like everyone else's home? Or have you just broken out beyond that and it's no problem?

 

Stefan: I don't believe we necessarily will have an issue with this. I agree with you that people want to match what they see on social media. Yeah.

And that's a pity because that doesn't necessarily get connected with their souls, you know? I'm always asked how do you get people to buy your products? So what is your advice when decorating a house? And I'm always saying, try to think what's in your head, what you like, what you love, what you would love to see on the walls, what inspires you and start working from there because it's very important.

And I think we managed to be successful because of the variety and the wide range of styles and stories we approach. Because definitely some of us like Transylvania roots. For example, me, I'm very connected with Woodstock because I'm a musician and I’ve loved rock since my early life. So everyone should find in a Mind the Gap collection something to like.

Either it's equestrian or tropical or so some other way, we manage to maybe get into those minds that are looking for a more uniform thing and maybe to make a click in their head and see that there are other options too. You know?

 

Amy: Yeah. I mean, I think it's all about self-expression.

 

Stefan: For sure.

 

Amy: I mean, to have the choice between white walls and color and pattern that expresses who you are…….

I think a lot of people aren't in touch with that, unfortunately. They don't have that connection to themselves and the visual world. But I hope seeing the kind of variety that a company like yours offers might, like you said, help people get in touch with who they are and then express it around them.

 

Stefan: I think that's very pleasant for me to see that people can find that in our goods.

We have a showroom in our city and I can see very well-educated people like doctors and lawyers coming in to order for their houses. And they always, you know, they look at all the books there. And I see the designer beside them getting bored and they say “oh my God, I love this one or should it be this one?” I would love to go up to them….. I don't know them. I would love to say, “what do you love? You love cars, you love horses, you love countryside?

Then get connected with that. “ Because this is what I would like to see when they are going home. So I like travel and I have in my house African masks and masks from Papua, but I also have a beautiful Oriental wallpaper. And then I have upstairs, I have a Japanese indigo pattern because I love indigo color. And it's moody in the bedroom.

This also a bit easier for us because we are in the business. We are already educated with this. So make the connection.  I'm trying to promote this every time. I'm trying to make my friends and family learn about this. It's not just about color or what other people would love to see in your home because they've seen it in the magazine or whatever.

 

Amy: Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, I think one thing you'll always be fighting for homeowners is their idea, and this is more about wallpaper than anything else, that they think about the resale value. Right? And what will the next person think if I needed to sell my house? But I think that's really lame.

 

Stefan: Oh, yeah. I would never think about that at all.

I mean, you know for one collection, I'm asking our designers, to design something like 30 patterns, 20 patterns each. And then I'm doing the selection of what’s going into the collection. And some of them are disappointed, of course, because it's their design and theirs didn't make it. And when I'm having the meeting, I'm always asking them, would you take this home?

Would you put it in your bedroom? Yes or no? Because if you like that, then for sure it will sell. And for sure, I would love it too. So it has to be strong enough, but it has to represent your soul. If not don't do it. Don't design it just because Stefan will like it and he will put it in the collection. So I think it's the same way with the customer. Don't take it just because you saw it in your neighbor's house or on Instagram.

Amy: Well, listeners, I suggest the minute you finish listening to this, you hop onto your computer. Don't do it on your phone. The screen is too small. And take a look at all the patterns at Mind the Gap because I think you'll be as wowed as I am. Thank you, Stefan.

 

Stefan: Thank you, Amy.

 



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