Elaine Griffin began her design career working for the legendary Peter Marino. She is the first African American designer to receive an honorary PhD from the New York School of Interior Design and the first person of color to be a contributing editor at Elle Décor. Today, she runs her own firm and opens up about career challenges, the importance of people, and the joy of new beginnings. We sat down with the clever and delightfully southern designer to chat about her professional journey and what home means to her.
WHAT DOES HOME MEAN TO YOU?
Honey, there’s a reason Dorothy cooed “there’s no place like home” when she made it safely out of Oz. No matter how grand or humble, home should be our sanctuary. If nothing else, the pandemic reminded us of that every day.
Home is where our lives are truly lived. It’s where we both celebrate our triumphs and retreat to soothe ourselves in silence. For Southerners, it’s where the three pillars of our society — faith, family and friends — intersect intimately. I’ve almost always worked out of an at-home office since my departure from Peter Marino, and it’s always my favorite room. (Confession: I am an office supply product junkie, which may account for at least part of this.)
The truth is that home matters like nothing else does. How it looks, how it feels, how it’s organized, how it smells. Once, after a shamelessly lazy spell during which clutter threatened to overtake style chez moi, the little voice in my head greeted me one morning with “girl, you cannot create in chaos!” Needless to say, I sent a shipment to our Habitat ReStore immediately.
These days, creating a stylish, comfortable space that nurtures you doesn’t take scads of money. (Quality is expensive; style isn’t.) It does, however, take intention and dedication. First to study who you are and what says home to you (that’s your style and the tone you set), and then to implement your design.
I wrote a book called Design Rules but the solitary rule I’ll never break is that spaces should unequivocally look like the people who live in them. Authentically. Because having a warm, inviting space to come home to isn’t a luxury — it’s one of life’s basic necessities.
HOW MANY YEARS HAVE YOU BEEN IN THE INTERIOR DESIGN BUSINESS AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?
This is my second career. I was a publicist for nine years in New York and Paris after graduating from Yale. Just before my 30th birthday, I had a “Devil Wears Prada” fight with my Vogue editor. Afterward, and well into my second bottle of Chardonnay, I called my mom and she said, “Sugar, why you don’t take a hobby you like and make it your job?” It’s the best advice she ever gave me. So off I went to the New York School of Interior Design. My first job was an assistant at Peter Marino.
WHEN DID YOU START YOUR OWN FIRM?
About 1999. I would go on interviews and superstar designers would say, “You’re doing well. Why work for me?” But just like budding actors have day jobs, it’s okay for budding designers to have night jobs. I was a temp office worker, a Kelly girl, in my salad days. I called in the credits for my first New York magazine feature from underneath a desk at Deutsche Bank.
WHAT TIPS YOU OFF THAT A POTENTIAL CLIENT ISN’T GOING TO BE A GOOD FIT?
In my experience, there are five red flags that say “jerk.”
- Always ask if they’ve worked with designer before, and how was that experience. How did it end? If they haven’t used a designer, they may not understand how the process actually works.
- People who obsess over your price from the get go.
- If folks try to sell you on the opportunity their project represents for your portfolio, leave immediately to save yourself the parking fee.
- When you see the beginning of indecision. Indecisiveness is an incurable disease.
- Dueling partners. You have to especially watch those too-involved husbands. There isn’t enough money in the world to pay me for being a referee in a bad marriage.
DESCRIBE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BUSINESS LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST 20 YEARS.
Design is a community and no man is an island. But success is about what you bring to the table even more so than what you take. Interior design has a supply chain filled with people who matter. And the designer is at the top of the food chain. What a privilege! It is my duty to take care of every element of the chain that supports me, all the way to the man who fills my pillows with down. I care about them and they matter. My success is theirs and vice versa.
WHAT WOULD YOU PUT ON A BILLBOARD?
“Hang your curtains as close to the ceiling line as possible, and always extend them at least 6-8 inches past the outer edge of the trim.” This will be my epitaph.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF?
The path to success is never a straight arrow. It meanders. You will have seasons of plenty and you will see droughts. Just keep moving forward; don’t become stagnant. Forward motion means your journey toward success continues. Sometimes it’s just at a faster pace than others.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF YOUR CAREER AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?
The hardest time? Now, actually. I returned home to Georgia in 2015 to take care of my mother, who had dementia. I thought I was coming home for the winter, but I had unknowingly returned home for good. I didn’t work, substantially, for five years. My mother passed in early 2020 and I don’t regret a day I spent with her.
I relaunched my career in the fall of 2020 by participating in the Black Interior Designers Network Iconic Home show house with Architectural Digest. And by God’s grace, it’s been gangbusters ever since. We’re creative people, so we always think if we step away from our career that we will be forgotten. I’m here to tell you that you won’t.
WHO HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST MENTOR?
Jim Druckman, president and CEO of the New York Design Center. He starts his day by greeting the people on his loading dock. They are just as important to him as a $20 million per month tenant. That is why 200 Lex feels like home.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR GREATEST BUSINESS ACCOMPLISHMENT?
The 11 Good Works makeovers I did for O at Home magazine. We would renovate a room or two for a charitable institution. The impact that a well-designed space makes on its inhabitants—it never fails to blow me away.
DO YOU HAVE ANY QUOTES THAT GUIDE YOUR BUSINESS OR YOUR LIFE?
“Living luxuriously is getting the mechanics of living right. It’s having lights in the right places so you can see to read both at day and night; grouping furniture so you can chat or watch TV; having a big enough bedside table; even where the drinks tray should go in a room. Those are all important things to get right.” – Tom Parr, Colefax & Fowler
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PAINT COLOR AND WHY?
Just one? A mother loves all her children.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE FURNITURE PIECES FROM UNIVERSAL TO USE IN PROJECTS?
I like useful, well-proportioned pieces that can go anywhere. One of my favorites is the Modern Farmhouse console table. Its sleek lines go with any style. And I love the Escape pullup bench. It can go 82,000 places in any home in the world. I’m wild about wicker, and no one is happier than I am to see it come back.