For those of you who (like us!) have been glued to the tube come Sunday night on NBC, you’re already familiar with our guest today—Elaine Griffin. In addition to being a contestant on Nate Berkus’ American Dream Builders, Elaine is a BHG contributing editor, with a venerable taste well worth looking up to. We are thrilled to feature the designer and get the inside scoop on how she is, time and time again, able to turn a house into one stylish home.
First of all, congratulations on all of your success! You’ve, of course, worked with Better Homes and Gardens as an editor, and also have designed for Oprah’s O at Home, contributed to Elle Décor, among so much more—and now you are a cast member on NBC’s design reality show, American Dream Builders hosted by Nate Berkus. How did you get your start in this industry? What about design sparked your interest?
I was a publicist after I graduated from Yale, working in New York and Paris. After getting into a very Devil Wears Prada fight with my Vogue editor just before my thirtieth birthday, my mother suggested that I take a hobby and make it my job. Being Southern, my two greatest passions were design (interiors + fashion) and etiquette (about which every Southern Belle is obsessed), so off I went to the New York School of Interior Design, and later got a job working for Peter Marino.
Tell us a little more about American Dream Builders—We can imagine that your limits were tested! How were you able to keep your cool and execute such stunning results while under tremendous pressure?
Some days were better than others! We worked 12 – 14+ hours a day, six days a week, under more pressure and with less sleep than I have ever had, professionally. We would see a house for the first time at 9:00 a.m.; all of our drawings, plans and elevations were due at 1:00 p.m. for demolition, new framing (we couldn’t add footage to most homes, so we restructured the existing interiors), electrical, plumbing and tiling. Demolition began immediately after lunch at 2:00 p.m. Our fabric orders were due by 5:00 p.m., as were curtain measurements with finished lengths. We ordered fabrics online without seeing swatches, so sometimes we had surprises when the final goods arrived. To say we were on pins and needles and everybody’s nerves were frazzled is an understatement—each week, we completed two projects that would have taken months to do in the real world.
We were divided into two competing teams, but there was still enormous intra-team competition—you didn’t want to be the one to make a mistake and get sent home if your team happened to lose. Plus, everyone on the show runs his own successful business, so essentially we were twelve Chiefs and no Indians, which made for an interesting personality mix, too.
I realized after the Spanish build that in my quest to win, win, win!, I was being too aggressive with my teammates, and that I could be just as assertive and effective without being overbearing. The judges really gave me quite the tongue-lashing at elimination, and I almost got sent home, which was a very humbling, major aha moment for me. I’m a competitive, Type-A person by nature, but I saw that I didn’t have to overpower my teammates to get the job done, and that was life-transforming for me. In subsequent builds, I made sacrifices you don’t see on-camera for the benefit of the team.
You’re well-traveled, having been raised in Georgia, with stints in both New York and Paris throughout the course of your career. How has living in these cities shaped your style?
The one design rule I’ll never break is that rooms should look like the people who live in them, which, as a designer, translates into being able to implement a wide spectrum of styles for a diverse clientele. I’m a firm believer that dictatorial design is a no-no—the client runs the show when we’re working together, and I aim to implement their specific vision for their home. (Helloooooo, it’s where they live!!!!)
Developing a great “eye” in design is all about exposure—the more you see, the more you understand. So living and visiting as many places as you possibly can helps expand your creative vision. It’s why fashion designers are forever taking big trips to faraway spaces, but truthfully, with the Internet, we can all travel to a different destination every night on our computers.
Staying fresh and innovative in such a fast-paced industry like design can be a challenge. How do you stay creative and where do you look for inspiration?
Inspiration is everywhere, especially in nature, which never ceases to amaze me with its beauty and complexity. I learned to understand color by studying the combinations in nature: a forest’s 10,000 matching shades of green, the colors of the sky at sunset and dusk, the skyline at the shore—I could go on forever. It’s important to look back, too, at the work of design and architectural legends of the past—Billy Baldwin’s rooms from the 40’s and 50’s look as fresh today as they did back then, as does the work of British legends like John Fowler and David Hicks. I could spend days lingering over the work of my contemporary peers and visiting designer showhouses, which are always endlessly creative and inspiring.
In flipping through your portfolio, we see earth tones and tribal-inspired patterns intermingled with geometrics and mid-century silhouettes. Can you give our readers some pointers for successfully co-mingling design styles?
As a rule, for patterned fabrics—floral, plaid, big print, stripe—you can have one example of each in a room, otherwise it starts to get busy. Fill in the rest with textured solids.
Of the four main “players” in a room’s design—the walls, ceiling, floor and furnishings—only one can be the shining star. The other three have to be supporting actors. So if you opt for the super-bold patterned rug, for example, then the upholstery, walls and curtains have to be quieter. Making bold visual statements with all four is painful to look at and even harder to get comfortable in.
When mixing furniture styles, know that all pieces with the same historical origin match: all classically-inspired styles fit beautifully together, for example, no matter where they’re from or how traditional or modern they are.
And it’s important to mix furniture finishes in a room to avoid visual monotony. You want wood, metallic and painted pieces, plus sleek/shiny and matte/textured surfaces and fabrics in every space to give it a professionally-designed look.
What are your top three tips for achieving high-end style on a lower-end budget?
1. Commit to an investment. When decorating, time and money are inversely proportionate—to save one, be prepared to spend a lot of the other.
2. Buy lamps, even if they’re only cheapo temporary lamps from the dollar store or thrift shop. You could fill a room with cardboard box furniture and it would look flat-out warm and inviting by lamplight. (Trade secret: As a rule, you need a lamp in at least 3 out of 4 corners of a room for balance and to avoid dark spaces.)
3. Do accessorize. The finishing touches are the last 10% of decorating but they give 90% of the effect, style-wise, so don’t give up until you’ve got them. It’s the objéts, accessories and art that personalize a room and add warmth and style. I’m a big fan of hitting flea markets, thrift stores and HomeGoods for fabulous chic-on-a-shoestring pieces.
You’ve been quoted as saying that a person is the “soul of every room” in their home. What does your home say about your soul?
My most favorite compliment by visitors dropping by is how nap-worthy my living room is. I love that because it means that it’s warm, cozy and inviting. And that’s what a home should be—nurturing. I have wanderlust and love to travel—I hope that’s reflected, too, in the multiple periods that are present. I’m crazy about style but am a practical gal, too, says my Ikea dining table and Pottery Barn rug.
I grew up on the Georgia coast and still have sand in my shoes…and far too many seashells in my living room now. True to my Southern roots, I love to entertain and adore doting on my guests—there’s always room for one more at my table, with proper napkins for cocktails, lunch and dinner (Southern ladies believe in fussing over their table napkins), and it’s always six o’clock somewhere! At the end of the day, though, I want you to feel comfortable and instantly at home the minute you walk through my door. That’s what’s most important of all.
Catch Elaine on American Dream Builders Sundays on NBC at 8/7 c, and keep an eye out for her winning space from last week’s episode in the upcoming June issue of Better Homes and Gardens!
(Photos courtesy Elaine Griffin)