Raised in a rural South Carolina farmhouse filled with antiques and flea market finds, Nicki Clendening finds herself creating new spaces with old pieces thanks to her upbringing. With a mother who continually rearranged art and repaired rooms and a grandmother whose house brimmed with trunks of exotic things sourced from places around the world, these influences are at the heart of her passion for interiors. As she tells the story, “I went to college in Charleston with the intention of becoming a female Indiana Jones, but decided I didn’t want to be in school for years and switched my major from archeology to art history.” Nicki moved from Charleston to New Orleans, then to New York, where she found herself in book publishing. After years of helping friends and family with design projects and checking off a long list of possible career change ideas, she launched her design business. She earned early success for her design projects that celebrate her love of art and antiques and hit a range of styles — from modern to traditional.

Ten years ago, Nicki started Scout Designs. As a complement to her interior design business, she launched an online shop for vintage and exciting finds from marketplaces around the world, by the name of Beetle. Walking through Scout Designs-created interiors is a bit like visiting a very well-designed flea market that you’d be eager to call home, and perusing Beetle is like tagging along on a shopping trip with Nicki. Read on to hear about how she discovers one-of-a-kind objects, how to find gems of your own, and why she still finds herself drawn back home to the South.

Interior designer Nicki Clendening posing with some flea market finds.

This South Carolina native started an interior design business in New York City, but returns to the South to design stunning interiors that combine the old and new. Image: Provided by Nicki Clendening

Vintage decoration in Harlem apartment, including a chair, hat and wall decoration

Nicki’s designs benefit from her incredible eye for vintage and antique objects. In this Nicki-designed apartment, there is no shortage of interesting art and furniture. Image: Brittany Ambridge

How did you begin to define your signature aesthetic and assert yourself as a new designer?

That was the hardest part of launching the business because I didn’t have a portfolio of work or a design degree. I was definitely starting from scratch. Because of this, I approached design projects with the same mentality as I’d done for my own space and friends’ homes, which was about finding the right pieces over time and being open to those pieces possibly changing based on how things evolved. We’d set the overall aesthetic vibe and needs of a space and go from there. It takes a little longer, but I’ve been fortunate to have clients who’ve been on board for that approach. The other thing we did when making our website (long before Pinterest) was create a page called “Idée Fixe” and a blog on the site with the hope that it would illustrate our design aesthetic. That definitely helped when the press and clients went to find us on the internet.

What are the best flea markets for beginners? Any tips for finding gems?

The Rose Bowl Flea Market, Brimfield Antique Show & Flea Market and Scott Antique Market are all great ones to visit, be it your first time or not. They all offer a wide variety of goods and price points, so no matter your aesthetic, you’re bound to find something at any of these markets. My two biggest pieces of advice are:

  1. If you don’t know what something is, ask the dealer to tell you the piece’s history, its age and what they know about it. I do this all the time, and I am constantly learning from flea market dealers.
  2. Have a price in mind you’re willing to spend when you ask the price of something you are interested in. Even if you’re unsure of a piece’s value, as long as you’re comfortable with paying the amount you have in mind, chances are you’ll be happy to have it in your home.

RELATED: Tips From Brimfield: How to Successfully Shop Any Flea Market

Modern living room with patterned rug and colored walls

Despite launching a business without a portfolio of work behind her, Nicki and Scout Designs were named one of Traditional Home’s Top 20 “New Traditional” Designers to Watch in 2011, and a “Rising Star” by the International Furnishings & Design Association in 2012. Image: Corbin Gurkin

You share your finds online through Beetle. How do you source items for the shop?

I’m always looking for great pieces, no matter where I am. I go to the flea market in NYC several times a month and go to the big antique market in Round Top, Texas every year. Every summer, I visit my mother who lives in France, and we spend the weekends brocanting all over the countryside. I travel with an extra suitcase to fill up and bring back. I have a sister who lives in Italy, and I try to go see her every year. The flea and antique markets in Italy are my favorite because the quality and types of pieces you can find are so fantastic. My sister is enormously helpful on that front, and we’ve perfected a system of “remote flea/antique market shopping.” She goes out early to the markets and knows the kinds of Beetle pieces I’m looking for. She will snap pictures and text them to me so that when I wake up, I can look them over and circle pieces I’m interested in. She will then go back out, and we’ll FaceTime so I can see the piece, discuss the price and decide yes or no. It’s almost as good as being there — almost!

Vintage headboard attached to all-white white bed

Nicki takes her time to discover pieces that fit a specific space. The process can be time-consuming, but the results are always worth the wait. Image: Brittany Ambridge

Can you share your trick for incorporating antique items into contemporary designs?

There are so many possibilities when mixing antiques and vintage furnishings into a space. The most important things to keep in mind are scale and functionality. I’m always looking for beautiful old armoires to hide TV’s because I think it is much nicer to look at a beautiful piece of furniture than a TV. I also love using antique dressers as entry or bedside tables but have learned to make sure the drawers are functional. And antique rugs are great ways to introduce color and pattern to a contemporary space!

What was your most memorable project in 2019?

I had the opportunity to do another trunk show at Garden & Gun’s beautiful store Fieldshop in the Dewberry Hotel in Charleston, which required stocking up on pieces to fill the store. I had done one the previous fall, and I was thrilled to be asked to do one again in the summer. It was an enormous amount of work, but it gave me the chance to create a store from scratch with all the things I’d been collecting. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ve learned so much from having done them.

I was also able to help my best friend, Tara Guérard, get moved into a new office in New York City. We’d done her office almost 10 years ago on a tight budget and only had a month to pull it together. Almost everything was sourced from a flea market or thrift store! For me, it was a great example of how, even with a modest budget, all the pieces we’d bought years ago worked beautifully in the new space, and with a change of wall color, everything feels fresh and new. It was one of my first design projects, and I’m still really proud of it.

Bedroom space designed by Nicki Clendening

Antique pieces tell a story in your space and work together to create a narrative unique to your home. Image: Brittany Ambridge

Bathroom with patterned walls and decorative animal skull

Daring and bold, Nicki’s designs smartly combine elements from various styles. Image: Brittany Ambridge

Living room space designed by Nicki Clendening

Whether traditional, contemporary or eclectic, vintage and antique finds belong in every design. Image: Brittany Ambridge

Although you are based in New York, you spend a significant amount in the South. What draws you back?

I’ve lived in New York City for almost 20 years, but it is necessary to get out of the city every few months for a change of scenery — particularly in the winter months. Three of my oldest and best friends live in Charleston and Louisiana, and I’m fortunate to get down to visit them several times a year. Being in the South offers a much-needed recharge for me; it’s a chance to slow down a bit, be outdoors, cook and entertain for more than the handful of people who fit in my Harlem apartment!

Who or what is currently inspiring you?

A constant source of inspiration for me has always been art and museums. I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art monthly and make the rounds to the galleries in Chelsea often. Also, my very talented friend, decorative artist Caroline Lizarraga, is someone I’m blown away by on a daily basis. We share a deep love of Italy and all the wonderful decorative painting, finishes and frescos you find there, and I’m hoping to get to do a project with her soon.  I’m also very excited for fellow South Carolina native and friend Kate Temple Reynold’s new venture, Temple Studio, here in NYC. I’ve seen what she’s planning, and it promises to be a very different kind of showroom!

Learn more about Nicki Clendening by visiting HERE.

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