June 5, 2011

Interior Designer Elaine Griffin Dishes on the Art of Decorating

Elaine Griffin created vignettes for HomeGoods at this year's Design on a Dime event. Photo: Joe Standart

Several years ago during my time assisting with the public relations efforts for Metropolitan Home, I was working at the publication's signature "Design 100" event, which highlighted its picks for 100 of the best modern home products of the year. I was just getting my feet wet in the world of magazine public relations, and this event was a big deal for the brand. As I was scrambling to get my job done that day, a lovely lady stopped me in my tracks to introduce herself and offer a few kind words. This stuck with me ever since, and I remember thinking how much I admired her character. This lovely lady is none other than Elaine Griffin, the accomplished New York interior designer and author of Design Rules: The Insider's Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator.

I had the chance to speak with Elaine about everything from her summer decorating tips to how aspiring interior designers can go about fulfilling their dreams. Enjoy the interview.

Decor Musings: What’s your decorating philosophy?
Elaine Griffin:
The one rule I will never break is rooms should look like the people who live in them. How you decorate your home is an intimate representation of who you are. It is the most personal, most private space there is, so I am stunned when people don’t make an effort to fix their place up.

DM: What's one goal you try to accomplish with all the clients who come your way?
EG: I am a native of the South, so I bring that Southern hospitality to all of my clients. Whether they entertain or not, they will be well equipped to do so when I leave their home. I make sure even a hermit in a studio apartment can throw a successful dinner party for four.

For this year's Design on a Dime event, Elaine revealed her take on an urban garden. Photo: Joe Standart

DM: What's the key to entertaining?
EG: So much about entertaining is really making sure your guests have everything within reach. Billy Baldwin put it best when he said that the best rooms have something to put upon, sit upon and gaze upon. John Fowler said that true luxury is really about everything being in its proper place. There’s a table within reach for a drink or a book. There’s a box of Kleenex, wherever you might happen to need one, in a pretty container. There’s sufficient light wherever you might need it. It’s all about covering the practical bases with style.

DM: As for summer decorating, what do you suggest?
EG: You want to be able to tell what season it is outside, inside your home. Summer really is all about lighter colors, lighter fabrics, and less texture, darkness and heaviness. It's light and airy.

* It’s the perfect moment to put up art in white-colored frames. Ikea has the perfect Ribba frame that really does look like some of the more expensive options.

* Switch out your throw pillows to lighten up your existing color palette. If you have burgundy pillows, bring in fuschia or a pretty peony pink. If you have a lot of orange, go for peach. If you have navy, go with turquoise.

* Lighten up your throws as well. A heavy cashmere throw is lovely to cozy up with during the winter, but for summer, consider cotton.

* And don’t forget to buy summer flowers. I think orchids are elegant.

* For the truly adventurous, you can change your area rugs. If you have a heavier wool rug, you can switch it out to sisal. Stores like HomeGoods carry them at great prices.

* Change your lampshades as well. I love shades made of grasscloth or raffia.

DM: What are some great, affordable online sources for people to consider when decorating?
EG: I love Shades of Light and Circa Lighting for lamps. You will also find amazing things on Overstock.com. I found a great leather chair that happened to be sold for three times the price at another store. I also use Amazon for home essentials..

Elaine enjoys shopping at Shades of Light, which is where she purchased the lamp shown here.

DM: Where do you draw inspiration from?
EG: Inspiration is everywhere. I’m always inspired by what my client wants. Rooms don’t come alive until they’re inhabited so my number-one inspiration is from people. I’m always inspired by the great decorators who came before me. I learned my trade in the office of Peter Marino, so he will always be my ultimate design star. I also like David Hicks, Frances Elkins, St├ęphane Boudin, who was Jackie Kennedy's decorator, Albert Hadley, John Fowler, Billy Baldwin and Renzo Mongiardino.

Nature is another inspiration for me, because the creator has created the most exquisite color combinations that are right outside our windows. If a color combination exists in a flower or landscape, it will work in your living room.

DM: Can you share one secret decorators would never reveal to their clients?
EG: We make mistakes.

DM: What are some of your favorite items in your Harlem home?
EG: I’m wild about my dining chairs, which we purchased at the Les Puces flea market in Paris. They were 100 euros each and came from a French prime minister’s palace. I also love a ceramic lamp that I bought for $10 from a thrift store in Harlem when I first moved here. I love my black Regency-style chairs that I reupholstered in orange corduroy from Ralph Lauren Home. They were $30 each. And my Hunt Slonem watercolor that my husband, Michael, gave me for my birthday. I also love shells because I grew up on the South Georgia coast. Although I live in New York, Georgia is still home for me.

Elaine's home in Harlem, including her Regency-style chairs.

DM: What advice would you give to an aspiring interior designer?
EG: See everything. Developing your eye is about exposure. I don’t see enough of us at showhomes. Aspiring decorators should hit every showhouse he or she possibly can. Every city offers tours of various homes as well. You just want to make sure you see different things, and not just one style. It’s important for a designer to be fluent in many styles. And whenever you travel, see the pretty, historic homes. Study floorplans to understand why things are laid out in a certain way and how colors are used. It’s more than just looking at magazines. It’s more about getting yourself into as many homes as you can in your lifetime. You should also aim to work with the most talented designer you can get to hire you to learn the intricacies of our craft, as well as the business side of the job.

DM: Your book, Design Rules, was released in 2009. What's one takeaway for readers?
EG: In America only 14 percent of people use a designer to decorate their homes. For this reason, I wrote a book to help people decorate on their own and achieve professional-looking results. One takeaway I like to remind people of from Design Rules is that curtains should always be hung as close to the ceiling as possible.

DM: Will there be a follow up?
EG: We’re contemplating a follow up to Design Rules, which will be out in 2013. I told readers what to do in terms of decorating in Design Rules, so in this next book, I'll show them how to put it together.

DM: How do you define true style?
EG: You are either born with style or not. You can learn about style and imitate it, but it's hard to conquer if you are not born with it. On the other hand, taste can be learned. Taste is knowing that Chanel is chic and knowing that you don’t wear blingy diamonds to lunch. Style is being able to say I wear blingy diamonds to lunch all the time and pull it off because of who I am. Style is mixing flea market pieces with couture and looking like a million bucks. Style is wearing Jones New York and having it look like Dior on you. It's the same idea when it comes to your home.


Gray Living said... Reply to comment

Great interview! I've been meaning to check out her book. It's on my list of must reads.

Decor Musings said... Reply to comment

@Gray LivingThanks so much for compliment. Yes, her book is full of useful tips.