Christiane Lemieux of DwellStudio and Undecorate
Revered for its innovative use of geometric shapes, whimsical florals, and vivid color palette, Christiane Lemieux's distinctive aesthetic challenges others to welcome an unconventional approach to styling and design. As the sophisticated founder and creative director of DwellStudio and author of industry-adored Undecorate, Christiane revolutionized the world of interiors with her vibrant textile design, impecable style, and fresh perspective towards the art of home décor.
Christiane fell in love with design at a young age, and the Ottawa native studied art history at Queens University in Canada and then moved to New York to pursue a degree in fashion design at Parsons. Beginning her career as an intern and fabric assistant at Isaac Mizrahi, she then worked as an assistant designer in women’s wovens at The Gap. Inspired by the notion that fashion and home design are intertwined, she took a position as design director at Portico, a small New-York based home company. Given the company's small size, she was involved in everything from textile and furniture design to packaging and sourcing, and introduced her own contemporary designs at Portico. There she discovered a market for her early ideas that incorporated geometric textiles and linear structures.
Despite the risks and uncertainty, Christiane left Portico and started DwellStudio from her apartment in 1999, a time before blogs and online marketing. Committed to the success of her business, she cold-called, sent out press releases, and took on as many design projects as possible to fund her business. Today, DwellStudio is a beloved name as it continues to evolve and deliver timeless yet modern designs in everything from home furnishings to furniture, baby, and kids accessories. We're honored for this powerful entrepreneur, wife, and mother to share her inspirations and the invaluable lessons she's learned throughout her impressive career.
Full name: Christiane Lemieux
Location: New York City, New York
Current title/company: Founder and Creative Director of DwellStudio, Author of Undecorate
Educational background: Art History Major at Queens University in Canada, Fashion Design Degree from Parsons School of Design in New York
What was your first job out of college, and how did you land it? Take us through a brief career bio.
My first job, after an internship and position as a fabric assistant at Isaac Mizrahi, was in the design department of The Gap. I landed it because I won a scholarship from the Gap at Parsons. It was a great first job. I learned so much by working in a big company. It was a first-class place full of very talented people. I learned process and organization–the way you can only in a large, well-run company.
Your degree is in fashion design, however you spent about a year and half working for Portico after Isaac Mizrahi and Gap. What drew you from fashion to textiles and home furnishings with Portico? How did your fashion design experience help you at Portico?
During my time at Isaac Mizrahi, I was working in the fabric department. I was exposed to all of the greatest fabric mills in the world. It was so inspiring. I then had the opportunity through a friend to go to Portico to do design. My first responsibility there was textile design but then I got involved in everything from packaging to furniture design. I also got to spend time sourcing all over the world. It really was the perfect training for me. Because the company was small, I was able to learn all parts of the business. My fashion design degree has been very helpful. Fashion and home really inform each other–especially in textiles. I learned how to design print and pattern for clothing and was then able to use that to interpret new designs for home. I think that my fashion training really informs my design. The color, trend, seasonality, and detail in fashion are perfect for pushing home textiles forward. I really used fashion as inspiration at Portico when starting and still do today.
At what point in your career did you realize that it was the right time to leave Portico and take the leap to start your own business? What factors went into this decision?
I started trying some of my more modern and clean design on the floor–things like more linear sofas and geometric textiles–and they really resonated with the customer so I left and started DwellStudio in my apartment. Looking back sometimes I can’t believe it–I really did not think about it–I just did it.
Starting and owning your own business can be a huge financial risk. What steps did you take to get ready for this new venture? What would you tell new business owners to save money on, and what do you believe is necessary to invest in?
Starting a business can be very risky and costly. I did not start and grow the usual way, which is by writing a business plan and raising money. When I started, I knew nothing about investors, private equity, or structuring a business. I grew my business organically. I worked on DwellStudio while doing design for other companies. I used my earnings to keep growing DwellStudio. We did finally take investors in 2011 to help us grow our retail side of the business.
I would tell people starting out to save on costly overhead–things like rent–and invest in people. A great employee who is an expert in their field will cost more upfront but will save so much in the long run. Invest in the best people.
What advice can you give to other women who are looking to start their own company? And to aspiring designers?
I always tell people if you are starting your own company, it’s best to do something you know and have experience in. It’s much harder to start something outside your experience, not that it can’t be done. It’s just harder and ultimately easier to fail. I think as a designer it was instrumental for me to try a couple of different design jobs before going out on my own. I think it was instrumental in knowing where I wanted to go with my design, as well.
How did you initially market DwellStudio? You have said that DwellStudio’s success did not come overnight, and early on, you made the mistake of saying ‘yes’ to everything. Can you tell us a little more? What did you learn from these early experiences?
We were lucky early on because our product got a lot of attention from the press. That helped with marketing. This was before the whole world of blogs and online marketing. It is so much easier to start and build a business today. You can even get funding online from places like Kickstarter and use the web to market for you. Sites like Etsy make it possible to start small and scale up. I had to do it the old-school way–press releases and cold calls. Today’s entrepreneurs can make their own destiny in a much faster and less costly way.
I had said 'yes' to every job in order to fund the business. I needed other income to grow DwellStudio. Looking back, if I had been a little more business savvy, I would have raised some money and stayed very focused on building the brand. It has taken us longer to grow because the focus was not always there. I have learned over time that the best and most successful entrepreneurs are laser-focused. They don’t expand until they are really ready.
In 2010, you opened DwellStudio’s first retail store in ABC Carpet & Home and your first flagship store in SoHo last year. Before that, your business was strictly online. How has opening a retail location changed your business?
Having our own retail space has given us the chance to visually tell the story of DwellStudio. From the moment you step in the front door, the customer can see, feel, and experience the brand. As a brand, that was always distributed in a wholesale way. This is really the only place you can see everything from our baby products to the vintage finds that inspire us.
Your book Undecorate challenges the traditional rules of interior design, but it is also about how the interior design world has been revolutionized with the Internet and blogs. How have these things, along with social media, impacted your business?
The Internet has changed design and the way we see it. There is so much amazing content being produced by so many people. Amateurs are creating some of the most amazing interiors and now influencing the way we think about design. It’s almost like street fashion and couture–people showing their own interiors are starting trends that reach everyone. Social media, and the Internet in general, have revolutionized the way people shop, the way companies sell, and the way brands portray themselves. Nowadays you need Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and a blog just to stay afloat in social media. And you need a clear understanding of how all of these channels connect, and what the experience is like for the online shopper. It’s changing every day and that keeps it very interesting.
Where do you draw inspiration from to keep your beautiful designs fresh, modern, and interesting? Tell us about your vision as a designer and business owner and how fashion and textiles go together.
Starting at a young age I fell in love with design–every era, artist, style, and decorator–they all inspired me. So when we are working on a new collection, we take everything into consideration (our current line, home and fashion trends we see and love, classic designs we'd like to see more of, palettes we see as fresh yet timeless) and distill it all down to its essence. From there we build our new collection–for example our spring collection is heavily influenced by the great designers of the 'Era of the Decorator'. It combines a dusty palette, hand-drawn designs, refined lines, and elegant furniture, all from our point of view. The world of design, art, fashion, and décor is completely intertwined. So we draw inspiration from them all and create designs that feel fresh today, but also with our eye on the future.
What skills or personality attributes do you believe have led to your success, both as a textiles designer and an entrepreneur?
It is very hard work to start your own business. You need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do everything. When I started, it was just me and as the company grew, my role changed but it remains hard work. You never just leave the office behind. It’s with you all the time. I guess that makes me pretty determined.
I think there is also the element of risk–you have to be comfortable that things could change, fail, or surprise you at any point. As a designer, you are putting your ideas out there. Sometimes they work really well and sometimes they don’t. It’s hard to have your ideas judged but when things resonate with people, it’s very rewarding.
With DwellStudio's continued success, you've had to grow your team. What do you look for when hiring? What about a candidate makes the best impression throughout the interview process?
Hiring great people is one of the hardest things to do as a business owner. I look for people with great skills and who could be part of our team and family. I have a good friend who is one of the best head-hunters in the city. He always tells me that when hiring someone senior, it’s so important that you have dinner with the prospective candidate because they will become part of your life both in and outside the office. I have done this lately and it’s proved to be true. You want to be invested in people's whole lives.
Your husband, Joshua Young, is also your business partner. What level of involvement does Joshua have in the business? What are your core responsibilities versus Joshua’s? How do you two separate your work life from your personal life?
My husband Josh is very involved in the business. We are working towards separating that a little more. It becomes more and more difficult with the kids. We are working towards a more balanced life!
My core responsibilities are the creative and marketing sides of the business. Josh oversees the finances and operations. I think family businesses work when there is not much overlap in skill sets. Two creatives on one team might be hard. We try and keep work at work but when you own the company, that is not always easy. We try very hard to keep business out of the house when the kids are around. It is amazing how in tune they are to us being on the phone or e-mail. We really try and be present with them.
What is a typical day in the life of Christiane Lemieux like?
It’s non-stop! I start by making the kids breakfast and dropping them them at school. I usually grab a juice from Miss Lilly's on my way into the office. From there, the day is full of business meetings, web design, product design, collaborations, working on my book, and then home to cook for the family. I usually do a little more work after the kids are in bed and then I read a little and go to bed early. I need to be well rested the following day to start all over.
As a business owner, designer, mother to two adorable children, and a wife, how do you balance your personal and professional life?
I try and outsource as much as possible–I am a huge online shopper. I use everything from FreshDirect to Amazon Prime to get things done. The less time I need to spend shopping and running errands, the more time I have with my family.
Best achievement in your career thus far?
I have loved the whole experience. I have learned so much from the people I employ to the partners we work with. I do feel especially proud of our furniture line. I have been so inspired learning about the manufacturing process, being on the factory floor, and seeing our design come to life. I had no idea I could be so moved by a cast brass handle, the perfect stain color, or the sabot on the foot of a cabinet.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Slow down and enjoy yourself a little more, don’t be so serious. Life is not a race. I am trying to learn this now.