An Interview with Christiane Lemieux of DwellStudio

Apartment Therapy Design Evenings

What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Christiane Lemieux of DwellStudio
When: December 5th
Where: ABC Carpet & Home I 888 Broadway, NYC

We were thrilled to welcome Christiane Lemieux to our 2012 Design Evening finale! See the evening's transcript and video below, and stay tuned for more of our Design Evenings in 2013!

As always, we started with our Reader Presentations. Take a look at Carly Yates' renovation of the kitchen in a 2 bedroom/2bath apartment on W. 12th St. This kitchen hadn't been updated since 1960, and she gave it a high-end look without spending a lot of money. Carly also renovated one of the bathrooms in the same apartment.

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Maxwell and Carly
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Maxwell Ryan
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our 63rd design evening with Berlucchi donating Franciacorta to wrap up the end of the year finale. Before we get started with our featured speaker, I wanted to share a bit of news from the Apartment Therapy office.

We have a Holiday Giveaway on our site which is one our biggest endeavors. We went to retailers for our reader's giveaways for products that must have a value of $1000. There are 74 gifts—from a refrigerator to pillow sets. The TOP performer was the Bancroft Sofa from DwellStudio, which had 13,730 entries. Next, we had the Napa Island which had 11,000 entries. Sign up and you will get an email alerts from us of what the giveaway of the day is.

I'm happy to announce we have 12.6 million readers on our site now. The Kitchn food part of our site had off the chart traffic for Thanksgiving recipes.

We now have a Classified section on our site which is approaching over 2,000 listings here in NYC. It has lots of great furniture listed in your neighborhood. Check it out!

Main Presentation

Design Evening with Dwell Studio's Christiane Lemieux - December 5, 2012 from maxwell gillingham-ryan on Vimeo.

MR:
Tonight I'm delighted to welcome Christiane Lemieux of DwellStudio. Before I get into Christiane's info, I just wanted to let you all know that this was one of our fastest sellout crowds ever, so we're very pleased to have you. Christiane revolutionized the home furnishings market when she launched DwellStudio in 2000. Fusing modern design with luxurious details, DwellStudio is a design leader in the interiors world. Lemieux began her career in fashion working as a fabric assistant for Isaac Mizrahi and The Gap. Lemieux then took a position as design director with Portico, a New York-based home company. Since launching DwellStudio, Lemieux has expanded the brand to a full offering of furniture, accessories, art and bedding, plus a full line of baby and kids products. Lemieux also authored her first book, Undecorate, to critical acclaim in 2011. A native of Ottawa, Canada, Lemieux is a graduate of Queen's University in Kingston, Canada and Parsons School of Design in New York. She resides in New York City's Soho neighborhood with her husband and two children, where she recently opened DwellStudio's highly anticipated first flagship retail store at 77 Wooster Street with more retail outlets to come in 2013. Please welcome Christiane Lemieux!

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MR:
I like to start with the question I always ask. How does a girl from Ottawa get to NYC?

Christiane:
I got here because I studied art history in Canada and I came to NYC on a class trip, we went to the Met and I was standing in Soho and I felt like I was at home. After I graduated with my Art History degree I came here to study fashion at Parsons.

MR:
So Parsons was your way in. Did you look at other schools?

Christiane:
I did, but in terms of fashion I think Parsons is sort of the pinnacle.

MR:
How did you get from fashion into home? Was it a conscious choice?

Christiane:
You get from fashion to home via textiles. That's the foundation of my company. But it was serendipity. I graduated Parsons and went to work at two very diverse jobs. I worked in high end with Isaac Mizrahi when he was owned by Chanel. Then I worked with Mickey Drexler at Gap. I learned a little bit in both places. Then I got the opportunity to go to Portico. I knew the VC guy who bought the company. He said we need some design direction, what do you think. And I'd never done home, so why not. A year or two into it, I loved it!

MR:
What was the Gap like with Mickey Drexler, who now runs JCrew? A lot of people talk about him being a great merchant and great runner of companies. The Gap used to be so cool.

Christiane:
Mickey was so hands on, looking at every seam, wanted to understand the story. He is very much that visionary. Very much that guy who is really interested in all the details.

MR:
What's the opposite of that? The hands on quality you described...are a lot of people, particularly at a Gap level, not that hands on?

Christiane:
I never would have thought the CEO of the company would be that hands on, rather more delegating. But he is fundamentally interested in the product and he cares about the story of how it was made. So it's not just a shirt, but 50 different things. He knows all of it, the story around the brand and substantial stories about each product. For example; a piece of fabric found in Italy on some guy.......etc. It's an experience. That's one of those things I could do a much better job on. JCrew really nailed that aspect of retail.

MR:
Did Portico do that same type of thing? It was trying to be a store that didn't exist (at the time). What was the story there?

Christiane:
Portico did bed, bath, towels, soaps then sold beds and furniture. It was one of the first boutique lifestyle stores out there. You were "buying a piece of NY". That was the story. You were having this great retail experience...authentic in Soho. You were buying sort of "loft living" and it delivered on this premise.

MR:
Was it a luxury store and priced higher? People didn't buy expensive towels then. Maybe they went to Bed, Bath and Beyond. Portico sort of the raised the bar on what you buy for your house?

Christiane:
Yes. They elevated that whole sector of expensive towels/luxury product.

MR:
So after that you left Portico and went right into DwellStudio.

Christiane:
I worked at Portico for 17 months. Then I was like, you know, I'm just going to do this myself.

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MR:
Why do you sigh?

Christiane:
Well I'm coming off a day where I'm doing budgetary planning for 2013. At one point my eyes glazed over and I'm like, "how did I get here?" This is so far from the original dream.

MR:
What was your original dream?

Christiane:
It was to design great stuff! And it's still the premise of the whole thing. But once you start to build a business, the design becomes a very small part of what it means. I'm sure you can relate. The dream is still there, but the foundation for the dream has to get bigger and bigger!

MR:
What was the first thing you designed at DwellStudio...was it bedding?

Christiane:
Yes. It was bedding, tabletop and decorative pillows. I knew how logistically intensive anything that has to be shipped can break. I wanted to start with something that wouldn't break and that I could put on a boat and it could safely get here.

MR:
The product can be fashion driven, because you can do multiples?

Christiane:
Yes. Textiles very much has a fashion element to it. We see the trends in textiles move very quickly. When you design a sofa, the stuff that goes into the sketching and building it, it's much more labor intensive. We can make the most beautiful sofa in the world, but if we can't get it to you and you don't have a flawless customer experience, we probably shouldn't put pen to paper. Furniture is all about logistics. Getting it to the consumer in one piece.

MR:
You are very practical. What did you do next and how do you grow towards where you are now with a wide offering?

Christiane:
After doing textiles, we realized these textiles are great. Why don't we put them in baby products. It was before the whole concept of "modern baby". In a way that really put the company on the map. We were in the forefront of that. It was a new interpretation of an old category. It just worked. Then after that we did cribs and after that accessories and furniture a year and a half ago. Then after that retail stores.

MR:
So you start with one and then you move around the home. At this point do you have the whole home and accessories?

Christiane:
We do.

MR:
I remember you said you couldn't open up a retail store until you had the whole home.

Christiane:
I just think now with real estate is too expensive of a proposition to just have a single category like bedding.

MR:
Is it still fashion driven? I think you said that what's different about what you do is that it doesn't come from the home space, it comes from a fashion space.

Christiane:
Very much. Fashion and home influence each other, but I'm very much rooted in fashion. I can't stay on one thing. To our detriment I probably should stay a little longer in the moment, but as designers we're always onto the next idea—the next thing. We're trying to slow that down to allow the customer to be part of the experience with us.

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MR:
The first thing I remember was modern bedding with bold geometric patterns. If that was fashion, what was the story behind it?

Christiane:
That came directly out of my Portico experience. They had a traditional look bringing in linens from Italy. This is at the time when Wallpaper Magazine came out. There was a resurgence of mid-century in late 1990's so I decided to do a little of that at Portico and it worked. So then I decided to do this on my own. Because it's not really what my employer was going to do...no one was doing it.

MR:
Modern now can be a hard sell again?

Christiane:
Yes, it's a hard sell again.

MR:
But then you moved into florals and more traditional prints. What's the story now? It has a European vintage feel in your story?

Christiane:
What we're doing now is a little twist on the traditional. It is a visual journey but a lot of it is informed by NY. There is this amazing heritage in NY—the classic American decorator design. Ours is a blend of fashion, NY experience and European influences. I love to travel. If we have to source something in India...I'm game! So I love to go to Paris flea markets and bring vintage things back.

Max:
Does your living room change every six months?

Christiane:
No. I just don't do anything at home because I stop seeing it in my own space. I'm considering hiring a decorator to help me finish my apartment. I have two small kids and I run a business and I can never get to it. I also can't see my own thing because I'm so close to it.

MR:
Speaking of seeing your own thing...one of the things that has risen on Apartment Therapy is people copying designs. You have some strong opinions on this. What do you do about it?

Christiane:
There's not much you can do about it unless you want to spend a lot of money with lawyers. People who interpret your designs tend to be much larger companies. They're too wealthy to chase down. Original content of any kind can be reproduced or used so easily now. There are no original ideas. We started to have people saying to us, wait, that looks like something I did. We are inspired by the same things with everything being so global. It's sometimes hard for it not to happen. We don't have a team of in house lawyers defending our IP. We just keep moving and make new things. A large company can change like 7 things and then it's okay. They are very savvy. I think there are a lot of similar ideas out there and if it gets interpreted just move on.

MR:
So there aren't any pending lawsuits out there for you? What about people like the Eameses?

Christiane:
No lawsuits. My designs aren't iconic. Mine is more fashion.

MG-R:
Is furniture more defendable than textiles?

Christiane:
I think so. Because a lot of things people copy are very iconic.

MR:
You started online and were more savvy about how you wanted to be online than older companies in the home space. You come to things from a younger generation perspective. You only just started retail. Did that shape your business? When you launch something how do you think about getting the world to know about it?

Christiane:
We call it the new economy, 2.0. We grew up with no e-commerce shopping. There was no online shopping online but it worked. We embraced that very early on. We started an e-commerce site in 2004. In the home space that was early. Our business is multi-channel. 50% of our business is wholesale. Then we're also catalogue, web and retail (direct). Online is also less expensive to get into. You can build a website and tell your brand story in a much less costly manner than opening up a chain of stores. And if you distinguish yourself online you can reach millions of people. I do believe that the best combination is hitting all of the channels. We sell better than lots of stores. One must be more price sensitive "online". Each of these channels is nuanced. But the "total" is the way to go.

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MR:
Is catalogue a part of this?

Christiane:
Yes. Catalogue is a part of it. We don't really follow a traditional catalogue model. Catalogues are visual marketing. We tell a story and show our product in a very beautiful and visual way. People who buy home products tend to be inspired by that kind of thing.

MR:
What does retail do for you that other web, retail, and catalogues don't do?

Christiane:
It allows us to showcase everything in our line all in one place. It tells a story. You can walk in and understand the DNA of the brand. You get the whole snapshot. It is the sum of all parts. We can test out different product in stores, quickly. We get customer feedback. A lot of people can buy a sofa online but a lot of people won't. We're giving people the chance to come in and sit on and test the product. There are some things you can only understand if you sit in it.

MR:
Let's turn to our slide show and let you enjoy your product. Tell us the story.

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Christiane: I put together a trend story for 2013.

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The first trend is Fabuluxe. It's the whole layers of meaning idea that we see in great NY interiors. This particular apartment has a lot of Fabuluxe trends, for example the mastercraft brass. You see the brass pull on a walnut chest. We spend a lot of time looking at the runway shows. A lot of it is (to see) what color is relevant, what details are relevant or if it's a sleek story. Fashion designers are very forward thinking in terms of how they put colors together and that's one of those things that we want to make sure we deliver on.

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You see the dress on the left and how fashion can be interpreted in the home on the right.

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The underpinnings of this Fabuluxe trend is a lot of glamour—a lot of rich jewel tones, so deep dark colors and luxury materials. If you come into our store you will see a lot of brass and layered materials. Things like shagreen and velvet, leather and all of these things that take an ordinary interior and make it very luxurious. These are all pictures of my favorite interior from magazines. This is sort of the underpinning of our product development. No detail is overlooked. It stops just being a piece of furniture and becomes something that is really considered.

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Next trend I love is one of my favorite pictures of all times, Avant Garden. This is actually Pauline deRothchild in her Paris apartment with this amazing chinoiserie wallpaper. If we put a bird on something it sells—it always has. We have a bedding pattern called chinoiserie that will not die—it remains in our top 3! So when I talk about a twist on traditional, what we do is we take a very iconic classic chinoiserie and we strip it down and make it a little modern. I often find with us that classic design reinterpreted in a modern way resonates very well with our customer.

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You can see here again fashion with this Carolina Herrera dress on the left and on the other side how I would argue interiors what was driving fashion in this design.

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This is really the age of the decorator. There was this great moment in US design in the late 50s early 60s where we had all these iconic people like Billy Baldwin, David Hicks (British) and Dorothy Draper - these amazing American decorators. I've had the chance going through archives to see them in context and they are as amazing then in their historical context as they are out of it. Good design is good design and it's timeless. There's something about this amazing age of the decorator which we gravitate towards. And that's kind of our NY story.

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There's something inherent in NY about pulling your room together because people socialize at home and entertain at home. I love this story of Betsy Bloomingdale's house. How do I make it accessible? How do I make it modern? How do I make it feel hip but still paying homage to all the spectacular ways people put it together back in 1958. They entertained in very different ways but there are parts of that that are very relevant today.

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Animals. For some reason right now in design and fashion this whole idea of creatures still resonates with people. For example, people always ask, "what's the next bird?" People love animals in design. There is always in our textiles some kind of creature print. We did snakes, herds of Ibex and we're investigating animal prints in a modern way—leopard tiger zebra. The whole animal idea is the quintessential layering of pieces. It works in all interiors.

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Here with this sweater on the left you can see how little bit of animal really elevates it. Of course all of our stuff is faux.

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Here there was a great Francois Xavier Lalanne exhibition. He is this amazing European midcentury designer who actually made furniture in the shape of animals. So that's a hippopotamus desk and a rhinoceros one...bringing the exterior interior. Which is something that we love and are fascinated with. The black and white is Billy Baldwin's very famous tree print which I love.

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All of these whimsical iconic chic things are very much part of our design DNA. Adding this layer of whimsy helps bring our interiors together.

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The next thing that's happening is this whole idea of modern nostalgia. This is fueled by Etsy—this whole idea of bringing back the craftsman. Evidence of the hand, knowing that some person sanded and lacquered your piece of furniture by hand, for a lot of people is very meaningful.

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This is the Mast brothers (the chocolate guys). From an artistic standpoint I really appreciate what they do and I think that this could be a picture of something from 50 years ago...a play on modern nostalgia.

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This is "Age of the artist"—local design sustainable, cool, recycled, old is new, wood, a little bit industrial.

MR:
Is this more male or female or both?

Christiane:
I would argue that it's both. I think men probably gravitate towards this over chinoiserie.

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I love the idea of bringing found objects into the home and giving them importance. The recycling notion is pretty important. They just don't build things like they used to so there's always vintage pieces in our stores and in my home. You can mix-and-match found objects.

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This next trend I call Disco Casual.

MR:
How do you come up with this?

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Christiane:
This is my favorite thing. I love doing this. There're so many trends happening at the same time, it's really distilling them and about packaging it in a way that people can understand. Disco Casual is a fusion of the jazz age and the 70s. With the advent of the great Gatsby movie, the jazz age thing has become very important in fashion and the home.

That dress is by Etro and it could very well be one of the costumes in the great Gatsby movie—the attention to detail, the colors—black and gold. The 70s have been permeating design for the last couple of years. Even 80's furniture is commanding high prices.

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This is sexy Art Deco 70's, the Jazz age reference. It's disco via the Jazz age and that's what really informed the disco era back in the 70s. To me this is very much about fashion and it's really starting to be seen in interiors.

MR:
So this seems very familiar?

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Chrsitane:
Yes, but I would argue that modern nostalgia is hanging on because of what we do online. The bird is hanging on. Those are trends that are deeply rooted now.

I love the top image. This is Azzedine Alaia's apartment. He's really mixing the styles in a meaningful way. Trend is something everyone in our office is very fascinated with. We won't necessarily hit all of these trends, but for us it's important to be a part of that.

Special thanks to Neila Deen and Jennifer Ellen Frank of Anasa Interiors for transcribing our Meetup!

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!
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Thanks to our wine sponsor, Berlucchi Wines:
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(Images: Neila Deen)

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.

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