If you’re interested in the décor scene, you’ll know House Beautiful, Veranda and Domino magazine. They’re interiors favourites, and that has a lot to do with Dara Caponigro, whose career in publishing spans all three titles. You know her name – seen it on countless mastheads and read it in interviews with top interiors designers. In the décor world, she’s a veteran so it came as no surprise when, after announcing her departure from Veranda magazine, she was quickly snapped up to spearhead a revamp at the American fabric, wall covering and rug company as creative director.
For the uninitiated, Schumacher was the first company to bring European decorative fabrics to the States and the first to introduce designer collaborations, too, partnering with the likes of Paul Poiret, Cecil Beaton and Dorothy Draper. They’re also responsible for the décor in Teddy Roosevelt’s White House, and then again with Jackie Kennedy when she did her famous renovation of the White House. The company is a big deal.
We meet in the Schumacher office, which is stacked with fabrics and reference books, to talk about how she accidently fell into publishing, learning from good and bad bosses and why new opportunities mean nothing without good judgement.
WHERE HER LOVE FOR DESIGN CAME FROM: I grew up in a very special house – one of only three Eichler houses built on the East Coast. Eicher was a California developer who built affordable modern homes that explored open floor plans and the relationship between interiors and exteriors. I know that house informed my interest in design. As a matter of fact, my neighbor at the time, Marisa Bartolucci, who also lived in an Eichler, has devoted her career to writing about design. Then, there is Steve Jobs who also grew up in an Eicher! Of course, it was my parents who decided to buy that house. Several years after moving there, my mom went to the NYSID and became an interior designer. She would sometimes take me to the D&D building instead of making me go to school. I started going there when I was about four or five. Back then, I remember being fascinated with all the different pencil designs in the showrooms (I would collect them) and all of the dogs. Lots of showrooms had dogs back then, which gets me to the question of “what did you want to be when you were growing up?”. I was very good at math and science and my dad was a doctor so when I was in college, I minored in biology thinking I might want to go to vet or medical school. During school, I interned at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum but wound up working at The Bronx Zoo after graduating. After seven months, I was back at The Cooper-Hewitt, as the assistant to the director.
ON HER IMPRESSIVE RUN IN MAGAZINES AND HOW SHE FELL INTO PUBLISHING BY ACCIDENT: I had a friend at House Beautiful and she would let me know when there were positions open. I got my job as an assistant in the decorating department because I had worked at a zoo. The editors said that if I could handle snakes, I could handle packing boxes. When I got there, I worked my butt off and sucked up as much information as I possibly could about design, the decorative arts and photography. I asked tons of questions and kept my eyes open. I worked my way up from an assistant to an associate editor to an editor to the director of the department that produced all the interior and product photo shoots. Lou Gropp, the Editor in Chief for most of that time, taught me how to be a real journalist. He also taught me how to be a good boss. He recognized people’s strengths and let them run with them and never micromanaged. I went to Elle Decor in 2000 as the Design and Decoration Director, where I produced and oversaw the product and interior coverage. Then, in 2004 I went to Domino as the Style Director to help Deborah Needleman conceive and launch that magazine. That was an incredible experience – it was all the right people in the right place at the right time. I was there until 9pm almost every night and worked a lot of weekends but we created something that really resonated with readers and I forged bonds with other editors that go so deep. It was like being in the army together.
MIXING CREATIVITY & COMMERCIALITY: My publisher at the time, Jennifer Levene Bruno, used to joke and call me the Chief Revenue Officer. I always loved the business side of magazines; coming up with marketing ideas for advertisers, forging ecommerce partnerships, and being creative about working within a budget. One always needs to make concessions. I didn’t love every cover we did but, if I thought it would sell, we would do that cover.
ON WHAT’S GUIDED HER CAREER MOVES: They have not been the least bit calculated. Usually I mull things over for a long time and then, when I least expect it, I just take a leap. I’ve surprised my husband (and myself) quite a few times. I think I’ve had good judgement when things came my way in terms of what to pursue and what not to pursue. I’m a big believer in trusting your instincts. To me, if you aren’t learning anything anymore, it’s time to move on.
ON CREATING WORTHWHILE EDITORIAL STORIES: First and foremost, you, as a journalist, need to be excited about the topic. Then, you have to look at it from the readers’ side: Are they going to care? What are they going to get from this? Are they going to learn something new or see something differently? Most people can snuff out inauthenticity in a second. Don’t underestimate them.
THE STANDOUT MOMENTS OF HER PUBLISHING CAREER: I’m proud of so much but, I suppose, my two biggest accomplishments were helping to create Domino, a magazine that redefined and democratized decorating, and taking Veranda to the next level (I will never forget the round of applause I got at my last executive meeting at Hearst).
ON MAKING THE TRANSITION TO THE BRAND-SIDE: The then CEO of Schumacher took me to lunch after I had resigned from Veranda. I thought she just wanted to wish me well but instead she offered me a job! I had wanted to take six months off to get my life together but six weeks later, I had a new career! What attracted me? Just like Veranda, the brand had great bones but needed reinvigorating. I can’t help myself – I love that kind of thing. As creative director, I oversee product development, marketing and visual merchandising for Schumacher and marketing for Patterson Flynn Martin, our sister rug company.
WHAT HER ROLE INVOLVES AND HOW SHE WORKS WITH HER TEAM: In the design studio, the designers are talented artists but also have incredible technical expertise. I work closely with Pamela Marshall, our Design Director, who has unsurpassable knowledge in how to achieve specific results and also an exceptional eye. I often bring a direction or a partnership to the table but we develop the collections together coming up with the patterns and colour direction. Once the samples are in, we select what we are going to move forward with. One of the things I love about Schumacher is that, of course, we develop the product to be commercially successful but we also bring to market things that we are passionate about, even though we know they might have limited appeal. Taking those kinds of risks keeps us ahead of the pack. I’m a big believer in collaboration, we approach everything at Schumacher as a team. Because we have great respect for one another, there’s no ego involved – it’s just about getting the best end product possible. We aren’t engaged in neurosurgery so it seems kind of silly to have creative disputes. There’s nothing wrong with feeling strongly about something and voicing that but you have to have perspective.
HOW HER EDITORIAL BACKGROUND INFORMS HER APPROACH: There are so many similarities between both roles – the transition was surprisingly easy. My magazine radar comes in handy when anticipating product trends. Putting together collections is a lot like putting together a magazine. It’s all about the right mix and making sure there are some surprises. And, since I’ve been exposed to so many interiors in my lifetime, I have a real understanding of what designers want and need. And the marketing arm of my job is second nature because it’s all about telling a story and getting a message across, just like in magazines. We have so many platforms – Instagram, our website, our digital newsletters, Pinterest and printed collateral. Having an editorial background has proved indispensable. The content we create has an editorial voice – it’s interesting, intelligent, beautiful and has a point of view. A lot of the team came from magazines. Tori Jones, our genius Director of Creative Services, worked with me at domino and Veranda. We have a short hand and she has taken the ball and has run with it and kept on running with it. Under her stewardship, we have over 100,000 Instagram followers and our digital newsletters are the talk of the town. I do have one baby and that’s our Schumacher Bulletin, our biyearly magazine. It’s my personal creative outlet and keeps me in touch with my former life.
LEADERSHIP & ADVICE ON MANAGEMENT: I’ve been fortunate to have had some really great bosses who taught me tons about good leadership, and some really bad ones who taught me how I never want to lead. My biggest rule is not to micromanage. My second is to give your team responsibility so they can grow. The third is to give people credit for their ideas and work. So many people are afraid to do that – they think it takes away from their own self-worth. It’s so much better to give credit where credit is due.
WORK & MOTHERHOOD: Honestly, it’s an imperfect world and you can’t have it all. When my daughter was young, I had some flexible work hours which helped but I know she would say I wasn’t around enough. I feel terrible about that. However, I also know a lot of very intelligent, smart women who chose to stay home with their kids and now that their kids are grown, they are miserable. I certainly try my best and I’ve made concessions: I don’t cook anymore (something I loved to do) and my house is a mess!
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