Designers Gush: Christiane Lemieux of DwellStudioPosted: November 15, 2011
Welcome Christiane Lemieux. Christiane is the face of the wildly popular home & furniture brand, DwellStudio. It’s easy to understand why DwellStudio is so successful. Besides being a go-to source for forward design and exciting color stories, Christiane is also one of the nicest and loveliest people to work with. And it’s an attitude that transcends to everyone at the company. I was curious to learn more about how Christiane started and has grown one of the most influential boutique brands today. Here’s her story.
J: I think it’s always interesting for designers to hear about how other successful designers started out. Can you talk about that and how that eventually evolved into you starting your own company?
C: Well my experience is very organic & serendipitous. I came to NY to go to design school and when I graduated from Parsons I worked in the fabric department at Isaac Mizrahi and then in women’s wovens at the Gap. And then I had the opportunity to work for a home company called Portico. They wanted someone to do surface design for textiles and I had done that and was excited to do it for home. I started doing surface design for all of their bedding and then as the company grew, they got me involved in all kinds of product development. It was one of those typical things where there were only 3 people working there and so everybody did everything.
J: Which is good because then you learn so much more.
C: You learn everything. I think as a designer it’s probably better to start out at a small company because if you’re good they will leverage you and make you do everything and you will learn so much. If you go to a big company, they’ll slot you into a job and you’ll do the same thing over and over again. You’ll see what other people are doing but you won’t have your hand in it as much.
C: So, Portico was bought by an investor whose background wasn’t design. We were a really small design team and he had us do everything: furniture design, packaging, bath products. The only thing I didn’t do was upholstery; we bought the upholstery.
J: But you didn’t have any experience doing furniture design, right?
C: No. I had a design degree in fashion. But I think that design is an interesting thing. If you’re a visual person and you’re good at design, chances are you could probably design a dress, a couch, some surface textiles. You could probably be a great food stylist. I think they’re all related.
J: It’s just about learning the different technical things in each area.
C: Portico was a great company but it tended to be more traditional and I have a much more modern aesthetic so I tried a few things on the floor – modern textiles designs, a little modern packaging with the bath products – and it really resonated with the customer.
So then I fell in love with design for the home. There’s something about the permanence of it that’s so nice to me. When you design a chair the lifespan of it is so much longer so I think it’s more carefully considered.
J: And what year was this when you were working for Portico?
C: This was 1998. And then I left in 1999 and I started DwellStudio full time Jan 1, 2000. And I had no idea what I was doing. I literally didn’t even know what a P.O. was. I had a couple of great factories that I worked with that were willing to give me terms (things people won’t do anymore) and I put together a collection: bedding, tabletop, accessory pillows. I went to a trade show and I showed them. But that was a very big expense. You don’t have to do that. Designers these days are so lucky. They can put their stuff on Etsy and go into business tomorrow, which is pretty cool. They can get it out there without it being any expense to them at all. I did it old school. I just don’t think people do it that way anymore.
J: But if you do decide to do it the way you did, it’s a pretty big decision. And maybe you were a little scared, maybe you didn’t know what you were doing but you just went for it.
C: I think that’s what entrepreneurs do. I’m a risk taker so I was like, “You know what? I’ll just do it”. I did a lot of things to supplement DwellStudio’s income. I grew it organically in a whole bunch of different ways.
J: So now it’s almost 11 years later and DwellStudio is well-known and loved by so many people. Why do you think people are so drawn to the DwellStudio look?
C: I have no idea! (laughs) No, I guess it’s a good mix of things. We used to be super modern so we’ve sort-of come to the middle a little bit more because I think that’s where people are going. I think we’re very aware of trends. We’re able to get in front of them, to set them, to be cutting edge. I think it takes a little bit of time but people get comfortable with it and then they’re willing to take a risk and buy the product.
C: But generally speaking, it’s a little bit modern, it’s a little bit traditional, it’s a little bit masculine so it works for a broad range of people. And I think it’s design without being too scary. You know, if you go to Salone del Mobile in Milan, you see all of this futuristic design and it’s pretty amazing. It’s “DESIGN”. But it’s designed to the point where it doesn’t feel comfortable and friendly. I think we feel comfortable and friendly. Instead of being modern, modern, modern, we’re trying to make it understandable but still forward, if that makes sense.
C: But what do you think it is?
J: Well, I think that the United States has kind of been deprived for a while. Europe’s been embracing modern design for a while, but it just hasn’t been accessible to most people here until recently, largely in part to companies like DwellStudio.
C: I also think that the European thing is interesting because I’m French-Canadian our design director is Filipina–Chinese and grew up in Tokyo. We have a global perspective so I think we bring that kind of sensibility to it. We’re very eclectic. Our inspiration has a Scandinavian or European influence that then gets put through a NY filter and you get this kind of look.
J: And I think it’s really fresh and clear and it feels modern in the sense that it’s mimicking what is happening all around us. It’s not just textile design. Everything we touch nowadays has a cleaner more graphic look. So I think people see DwellStudio and they identify it with what is going on around them in every part of their life.
C: And so it makes sense.
J: I was going to ask if you if you think there’s a DwellStudio look or if it’s an evolving thing. It sounds like you would say it’s evolving.
C: Well when people think of DwellStudio I think they think of modern, graphic, color, trend. Some of the original designs have maintained their momentum (the dots are a big classic for us) and then a lot of it has died out. We did a lot of orange and leaf green and nobody had that before. Now if you do that it looks very 2000, 2002. So there is a fashion lifespan to all of this stuff too.
J: Speaking of color, I always feel that when I’m creating color palettes there’s something that just “feels right” but I think it’s probably more than just a feeling. I’m probably sensing what’s around me and responding to that. But I’m wondering what your thoughts are on color and how you come up with your palettes. How do you stay ahead of trend?
C: Isn’t that “feels right” thing interesting? I think it’s a designer thing. It’s like you can’t really figure out what it is but you have a sense and you hope your sense is right – I think most of the time it is. A lot of it is that your eye is looking for something new; it’s trying to process and figure out what that thing should be. There are color trends and then you get tired of them. Your eye looks for something else. Your gut tells you what that should be. Also with interiors you’re a little bit informed by what works and what doesn’t work. I think some things just don’t work in interiors.
C: And now we’re doing all of these Robert Allen fabric collections which has been so amazing because two years ago we did wovens but we did a woven stripe so now to be working with the Robert Allen team doing complicated jacquard patterns is so interesting.
J: Can you talk about those collections and how some of the specific fabrics came together?
C: Well we really wanted to show the DwellStudio classics like Vintage Blossom and Gate but also open up our archives to the Robert Allen team. Together we have come up with 2 residential collections that really show off our philosophy of mix and match. They have some of our standards but also many new things that all work together.
Eclectic Modern was our first collection and it’s really built on the DwellStudio archives. It shows off our philosophy of small, medium and larger scale prints and wovens that all work together.
C: Global Modern Luxe builds upon Eclectic Modern with a nod to traditional textiles. When you mix the two you have a real breadth of great options and looks.
J: And you also did a wovens & print collection for interior designers but focused towards Boutique Hotel looks?
C: Yes. The hospitality collection was an interesting design challenge. We wanted to get our look across but still work with all the regulations associated with commercial work. The amazing team at Robert Allen Contract took us through the design process and the result is a collection that is clean, modern and very mix and match too, which I think is unique in this kind of space.
J: What are you most excited about in design right now?
C: Well I’m most excited on expanding our furniture line because after working in 2D for so long, it’s just so amazing to see our vision take shape in 3D. Going into a furniture line we really designed it so that it mixes and matches and it all works together but none of it is deliberately eclectic. It hit the floor in October and it’s also available on our site. We have included all the Robert Allen fabric so you can really act as your own designer.
J: So you’ll be selling wholesale and retail?
J: Wow – that’s a big move. How exciting!
J: You know, I think as a designer, when you start your own thing you’re putting your soul into the company, every part of it. It can really tug at your heartstrings.
C: So much…
J: So do you think that’s a blessing or a curse?
C: I think it’s both. I think it’s a blessing because when you’re passionate about something you work on it to the best of your ability. It’s with you 24/7. You put in all of your creative energy, a thousand percent. I think it’s a curse because when things don’t go well you take it personally so if we do a bedding pattern and it doesn’t sell or we do a fabric at Robert Allen and it under performs, it’s crushing because it’s like, “My idea didn’t work” and you can see it over and over again. And I think only in design when you produce something that doesn’t work do you really see that. It’s just so concrete.
J: Although sometimes the thing that gets the most reaction and press and interest can also be the thing that doesn’t sell.
C: Yes but in that case it probably drives the rest of your collection. But yes, it’s hard. I think it’s hard. You’re literally putting your heart out for sale.
J: And are there are other ways that it’s difficult? As you’re growing in different ways, are you trying to protect it?
C: I think sometimes you try to protect it in ways that are unwise for the growth. People always say, “Don’t worry about it, it’s just business”. But when it’s your own company it’s not just business. It’s you. So that’s very hard. But I think eventually if you want to get past a certain point it has to be just business. You have to step back and say, OK.
J: So where are you now?
C: I’m stepping back. We just got an investor so now we’ve got a board of directors. I’ll be answering to people and I think it’s time. If we want to take it to the next level in terms of a business, I’ve got to stop holding on so tight to everything.
J: What were your goals when you started the company and how have they changed as you’ve grown?
C: When I started the company I wanted to start a design company, I wanted to make product, I wanted to create a brand. But the world was so different. There was no internet. That has changed the way businesses transact completely. Now I want an online presence, I want it to be multi-channeled. So I think that the world is so different now that my idea back then doesn’t matter. The world has changed so much in the last 10 years that what I thought then is dinosaur now.
J: I would like to ask you about your new book Undecorate and this phrase you’ve coined.
C: Well, Undecorate is 20 different homes and it’s really about a trend or evolution that I see in the interior design world. It’s largely because of the internet and it’s largely because of blogs. It’s highly personalized interiors. Magazines deliver us interiors that are really manicured. If you close your eyes you know what an editorial of an interior looks like. They’re perfectly styled. I mean they’re gorgeous, no doubt. But blogs showcase people who live in gorgeous homes that are completely personal and not highly styled and so that’s what I think is so interesting.
C: Blogs have changed the way we see interiors and what’s acceptable as interior design. It’s also organic how these people decorate. They don’t hire somebody to come in, do their home, and leave. It’s undecorating because it’s constantly evolving. It’s decorating forever. I’m always tweaking my place, always thinking of changing something or moving something around. One day I just painted my kitchen black because I wanted to so that’s what I mean by totally organic. It’s never done. It’s undecorated.
C: And the stories that these people tell about their homes are personal stories so it’s also a good read.
A big thank you goes to Christiane for sharing her story with designgush. DwellStudio products including furniture, bedding & decor can be purchased at the DwellStudio website. Fabrics from Robert Allen can be found there or at the Robert Allen website. Undecorate is available here. Also check out the DwellStudio blog and facebook page, always filled with fun updates. We look forward to seeing what’s next from Christiane and DwellStudio.