Abbie Elizabeth is so much more than an interior designer. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, home to the largest collection of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and she was reared by a family of visionaries. Abbie’s keen sense of place is informed by nature, provenance, and the critical effect that architecture has on basic emotions. When you add the practical business and people skills gained from a career on Wall Street, what you have is a multi-dimensional businesswoman and aesthete who has the heart, brains, and courage to help the rest of us sort through what we want our space to be . . . even if we don’t know it yet ourselves.
As summer gears up in the Hamptons, Abbie took the time to share some whimsy and wisdom with Social Life readers.
What does the term “interior designer” mean to you?
Designers are problem solvers, detectives, inventors, even therapists. Designing is instigating or adapting to change, whether it be purposeful or reactive. I also think creativity in interior design has to be cultivated, not necessarily taught.
Your love of design started at an early age. What were your early influences?
I can’t deny that FLW had an impact and his philosophies resonated with me. When I was in fifth grade, I started giving tours of the houses as part of my schoolwork. Incorporating natural light and utilizing existing natural elements are always considered in my designs. I didn’t realize until much later how much of an influence that childhood environment had on me, but, looking back, I consider myself to be so lucky. My grandmother taught me the purpose of a home, which is a place that nurtures and reflects your character, your experiences and your family.
Finally, my father, who does commercial design, taught me to think about the integration of social factors and how design can shape our lives and provide the atmosphere for our rapidly increasing use of technology. When you walk into any building, you experience an emotion, whether you’re conscious of it or not, and there is an incredible amount of thought that goes into the spaces we inhabit.
You didn’t go directly into design. You had a lucrative career in financial services. What was that like?
Yes! I did. That was fantastic and the best part about it was learning how to take calculated risk and to fail better. My specific role in commodity sales taught me how to build and maintain relationships with people on multiple levels and from many different backgrounds with many different visions. You have to be able to take communication, sales, and marketing skills and make them transferable. You can have an idea but if you can’t execute or close then where does that leave you? Those elements of my career on Wall Street certainly impact my success today.
What is the first thing you do when establishing a relationship with your clients?
Most of the time clients have an idea of what they want, but they just don’t know how to communicate it. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought a client was wrong; it’s more that they need someone to help them express themselves and develop a vision. So that is what I do; I become the conduit. Similar to finance, managing client needs, objectives, and troubleshooting problems are all part of design. I start with basic questions. How do you start your day? Where do you have your coffee? Do you jump out of bed to go surfing? We go through it hour by hour, and it gets very detailed. Do they entertain? Are there kids, pets, etc? We start with functionality and then move to creativity and eventually marry the two. That’s why I say designers are somewhat like therapists, because what is more personal than your home?
What is the biggest mistake people make when embarking on a design project? How do you help them through it?
Not being open to surprises. I had a client who was dead set on having a large dining table in a limited space, yet he was out to dinner five nights a week. His vision was completely scrapped, and what we came up with achieved the dining space but was also much more conducive to his lifestyle. Being able to drive on is vital. If something isn’t working, move on. If it is, roll with it.
What is your favorite aspect of the Hamptons?
My fiancé and I fell in love in the Hamptons, so I love everything. It’s amazing that two and half hours from one of the biggest cities in the world you have spectacular beaches, hiking trails, golf, vineyards, great restaurants, and privacy. There’s also a really great sense of community and support. In Chicago it’s completely normal to become friends with people you meet at a bar. The Hamptons has the same feel — everyone is friendly. In fact, just a few weeks ago I met an awesome person at the East Hampton Grill bar and he’s now officiating our wedding this fall!