It’s no small feat for a home brands company to grow and thrive over the past few years, given our sluggish economy and general consumer reticence. Despite it all, Christiane Lemieux, the fashion-savvy founder of the decade-old furniture and upholstery phenomenon DwellStudio , had the determination and creativity to grow a significant following online through the thick of the recession. DwellStudio now offers its unique furnishings and eclectic textile offerings at a new flagship store in New York while Lemieux savors her hard-earned success. In fact, Lemieux was just named to Fortune magazine's 2012 list of Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs - as the only honoree from the interior design industry. Here, she talks personal aesthetics, world travel, and the one interior space she can’t quite wrap her head around.
Interior Design: What's your take on being named to this year's list of Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs?
Christiane Lemieux: I am honored . . . to be included among such a distinguished roster of women leaders. This has been a tremendous year for DwellStudio, particularly with the opening of our first flagship store in New York. We also opened locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. This award is coming at a time when DwellStudio has evolved from a niche design business to a full-scale national home furnishings lifestyle brand. It really caps off a time of rapid growth and expansion for the company.
ID: What’s your creative process like at DwellStudio?
CL: It always comes down to bringing the designer experience to a retail level. I love things to be curated and eclectic. Every season I get inspired by all sorts of things—travel, museums, exhibitions, great architecture—and then I put it all in the “mental blender.” Last season, we were feeling very “Matisse,” and so we really went for that very French, saturated color in our upholstery offerings. I always look at fashion, as well… I believe fashion and home are informing each other all the time.
ID: What’s your philosophy for clients looking to imbue their home with pieces that are really specific to them?
CL: First, I’d say that layers make an interior really rich. Prints, texture, motifs, and upholstery… all married with the right carpet, drapery, and paint for you. These layers have meaning, and customers can do a lot of that, themselves. When I’m trying to tease someone’s interior design out of them, I always ask about the wardrobe. If you’re a man who likes to wear a beautifully tailored three-piece suit with accessories and great shoes, you’ll probably be more comfortable with something more formal. If you’re the girl who dresses in all black and prefers to keep it basic, you’ll probably be most comfortable in a space that’s on the minimal end of things.
ID: Do you feel that a lot of customers get caught up in the “trendy” furnishings problem?
CL: We’re trying to help people solve that problem, and personalize their design. While you might have the same shaped sofa as the guy next door, some strong upholstery can give it a totally different feel. I’ve tried to steer DwellStudio away from the trends, so it doesn’t look like a customer opened a catalog and bought the entire thing.
ID: How do you see DwellStudio within the larger context of the interior design world?
CL: I think we have a look: Eclectic modern with some luxury details. But we constantly push it forward. I don’t look at anyone else, and I’m not going to interpret someone else’s work. That happens a lot in the home world, and even more so in the fashion industry. We see our own work being interpreted quite a bit. I don’t really understand the point of referencing contemporaries… There’s no need to interpret what the guy next to you is doing.
ID: As your company grows and demand for your product swells, how do you keep a close eye on construction and quality?
CL: We are actually psychos about that, about giving customers the best possible quality in our price point. Personally, I spend a ton of time sourcing. I was just over in Asia, on the factory floor with the guys, explaining exactly what I want. The devil’s in the details, and what makes a good thing great. It’s my belief that service and quality are going to truly differentiate companies in the future.
ID: On that topic, you’ve opened your first retail store in Soho. What’s your philosophy on service?
CL: We want our staff to really be accommodating and listen to customers, particularly in the upholstery process. There’s an education element, and in the end it should always be the customer’s decision which direction we take.
ID: What are some of spaces that have inspired you throughout your life?
CL: For me, it’s Paris; the street fashion, and how Parisians just can pull everything together. I love going to London, to Brussels and Antwerp… When I hit the ground, I do the museums, antique markets, and must-see stores, and always leave with a million great ideas. I also spend a lot of time traveling in Asia, and I’ll go right to the local markets to see who I can use to do small runs. I really love sourcing... I would have been a good “adventurer.”
ID: You’re a mother… How early in your own life did you begin to notice good design?
CL: I was a design kid from the start, painting from a very young age. My parents were really good travelers and took us all over the world. I can remember being seven years olf at the Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, with my eyes wide open. I think hotels always take things to the next level.
ID: What’s your own home like?
CL: Honestly? In my own home I can never get anything done. I can make a million different decisions in the office, but at home, the to-do list is so long because I’m constantly inspired by new things… It’s the last frontier. My apartment, by de facto, is quite minimal with somewhat of an eclectic mix, but not done to where I’d like.
ID: How satisfying has it been to have DwellStudio grow and develop from that idea you had way back when?
CL: It’s pretty crazy to go from by myself in my apartment to now employing fifty people. Fifty-one, actually, as of yesterday… Working with people in my office has been the most amazing part of it. It just tells me that you can’t be “risk averse.” I stuck to my concept, and staying focused is paramount to business growth. I really believe it’s crucial not to chase other people’s business… Once you do that, you’re in trouble.
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