The Lillian August flagship in Norwalk is designed to inspire, and it certainly does its best to spark a rethinking of your own surroundings.
Can’t I update my dining room with that sleek new table? How great would that funky chair look in my living room? Isn’t it time for a glamorous new bedroom set?
This is, after all, a playground where ideas can run free, fueled by one stylish vignette after another. There are sparkling chandeliers and chic-yet-comfy couches, oversize mirrors and dramatic prints, intricately patterned rugs and fanciful tabletop accessories.
And the Lillian August name emblazoned over the entrance isn’t random — there is an actual Lillian August behind the longtime home furnishings and interior design firm.
In fact, the company — which officially celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014 — is still firmly helmed by its vibrant namesake, complemented by two of her sons in this family business that’s being propelled ever forward.
It’s everyone contributing, Lillian says, “passion for a product with all the energy you have with it being a family… This passion plus energy is so powerful.”
FROM THE START
And that passion has been there from the earliest days.
“My mother was always very creative and very entrepreneurial,” says Dan Weiss, Lillian’s eldest son and company president.
Lillian says her story is a familiar one. She was “the typical divorced mom starting the business. It’s pretty classic.”
Having met her former husband when both were students at the University of Pennsylvania, August would eventually find herself with three sons, living in Kentucky.
The direction for this “divorced-from-a-doctor mom” was natural, she adds.
“I had young teenage sons and I sewed,” she says in a most matter-of-fact way.
She began a “very grassroots” business selling crafts and quilts, in time taking her products on the road.
“What happened is, I would show in New York and Imperial Wallcoverings discovered me,” she says.
And from there, her business took off.
“The beginning of the company was I became a textile designer,” she says.
By then, her son Dan was on Wall Street and shopping a business plan for Lillian August in his free time.
“At lunch he would take my portfolio” around to generate interest, Lillian says. One day, “He said ‘Mom, you’re going to have to move to New York.’”
The former Martha Graham dancer who grew up in Philadelphia was not unfamiliar with the city — but it was still a major move.
“I loved New York, but I didn’t know that I wanted to give up what I had started.”
A NEW DIRECTION
But she did, moving north in 1985 and soon after the family came together when they had the opportunity to open a shop.
Westport, she says, ended up being the ideal option with its “small-town Main Street.”
Lillian offered textiles and apparel, including women’s separates and then children’s clothing, which instantly connected.
“Some people will remember that about us,” she says. “We were very much modeled after the Laura Ashley shops.”
It was a look, she says, that was “very romantic, florals, chintz. …Actually the whole concept of the business was very romantic.”
It was on one day in Westport when Lillian says she realized all the risks had paid off, thanks to a very famous customer.
“When Joanne Woodward came in and bought my fabrics, I knew we would make it,” Lillian says.
Back then, she says, “it was a mom and three sons.”
Today, Dan, as president, oversees merchandising, furniture buying and design. John, three years younger and the one Lillian calls “the math genius,” serves as COO. John’s duties include handling day-to-day operations as well as being involved with marketing, merchandising and serving as the lead buyer for decorative accessories and one-of-a-kind products including vintage finds and antiques.
As Dan explains, employing a restaurant metaphor that ends with a quip: “We kind of divide it up a little bit front of the house, back of the house. We’re kind of a two-headed monster.”
Each is married with children, Dan living in Manhattan and John in Weston. (Michael, the youngest brother, was involved with Lillian August but went on to his own successful furniture design career.).
During those early Westport days, Lillian says, “We switched to furniture very comfortably.”
She says a young Ralph Lauren was with a furniture company called Frederick Edward.
“They asked me to design a line,” she says. “We went from textiles right up to furniture.”
Things were falling into place as Lillian hoped.
“When I moved to New York, the idea was to grow.”
Today, with a showcase in High Point, N.C., where all vignettes reflect a story, the company explores looks from “traditional to glamour to even European modern.”
“We cover many lifestyles — and we are a lifestyle brand,” Lillian says. “I think as a company we’re very much trying to invest in that model.”
And the company, she says, is fluid.
“Because we’re small, we can be nimble and change and we do change, let me tell you.”
That has served the company well, as it works not only on its own designs but with licensed lines, including Lillian August Fine Furniture for Hickory White, an art collection for Wendover Art Group and The Lillian August Lighting Collection from Currey & Company.
The main components of the business today, in addition to the licensed lines, include the To the Trade program, interior design projects and the retail locations, complemented by the online shop.
The company has some 150 employees and more than 30 in-house interior designers. The design projects are broad in scope as well as approach, with customers having access to as much input from the team as needed. The projects, which reach a worldwide audience, include senior designers’ work being featured in two prestigious showhouses, the Hampton Designer Showhouse and The Holiday House NYC, within the past year.
There are four brick-and-mortar showrooms, anchored by the flagship. Officially called the Norwalk Design Center, the 100,000-square-foot space opened just over a decade ago and includes the company’s To the Trade program, designed to support interior-design professionals; an art gallery; rug department; a recently redesigned LA Café; and the corporate offices.
The design center in Norwalk was a risk — “a huge, huge cereal bowl to fill” — Lillian recalls, but it’s been worthwhile. The retail shop is likened to a lab, she says, where she can get a sense of what connects with people.
As Dan adds, “It very quickly grew and expanded and put us on another level.”
In addition, there is a Manhattan showroom that spans a full block in the Flatiron District; the Greenwich store that opened in the summer of 2013 with a boutique feel; and the South Norwalk Outlet, where treasures and deals abound.
From the start, Lillian says there has been an awareness of the varying tastes of customers, often — but not always — influenced by region.
“The Connecticut customer is extremely tailored,” she says, while the New York customer might look for something minimal. In other parts of the country, other approaches are in vogue. Overseas, there is a leaning toward the maximalist approach, which allows Lillian to play.
“I like to be over the top, especially with colors,” she says, mentioning she also loves to paint.
With her sons so involved, Lillian is able to focus solely on design, working full time while now living in both Florida and North Carolina. Again, that was also by design.
“I really separate in my mind the retail, so they could feel an opportunity,” she says.
And, she adds, the company has run with that, being ready to face the ever-changing business challenges.
“I think that the opportunity now is that we’re both retail and to the trade,” she says.
Working so closely with interior designers, both those on staff and those out in the field, also gives constant input.
“It’s just a wonderful chance to stay current in design,” she says.
Designing products for designers, she notes, is particularly rewarding.
“I like that. It makes me feel good that we’re accepted.”
When it comes to trends, John says, the company is seeing quite a few.
“We are seeing a lot of natural and organic elements in the design and color palettes for the season… live edge tables, unstained woods, organic and undyed textiles.”
So, does the prevalence of shelter magazines and television shows affect the business?
“People are so much more aware of design and interiors,” Dan says. “With all the television shows and the magazines and the blogs, people are just so much more aware of home furnishings.”
John adds, “In some ways, it’s made things better because there seems to be a greater appreciation for good designs and beautifully finished homes. On the other hand, all these shows have distorted some of the incredible hard work and real talent (and training) that it takes to put together a beautifully decorated home.”
When asked if there is a “Lillian August look,” John offers a thoughtful response, “We love all great design styles and push for an eclectic designer aesthetic — a general theme we have always stayed with is ‘style, comfort and beauty,’ and of course, our tagline, ‘Love How You Live.’”
It’s nothing new, agrees Dan.
“We’ve always been eclectic in our approach to design, and I feel that’s definitely on trend with what’s in demand today. We were ahead of the curve on that.”
And it needs to stay that way, he adds.
The main goal, Dan says, for the next few years is that “we continue to evolve more and more our proprietary designs and our multi-channels.”
As he adds, “We’re interested in having great, unique interiors.”
And, as always, remaining true to the goal, says Lillian.
“The biggest challenge today in business is the differentiating of your brand,” she says.
At the end of the day, though, it’s still a company where family comes first.
“I will tell you that my sons’ taste and mine will vary,” she says with a laugh.
But that spurs creativity, not friction.
“I called it the Family Forum,” she says. “I think that there’s such a wealth of resources.”
No matter the room, no matter the elements, one thing is paramount to Lillian.
“I love to tell a story. I’m a storyteller, and that is still true.”
And helping her, every step of the way, are Dan and John.
As Lillian says with a laugh, “I’m lucky they didn’t run away.”
For more, visit lillianaugust.com.