The Scavenger

Elaine Griffin
Space 800-square-foot railroad flat in a brownstone
Location Harlem
Lived There Four years

Elaine Griffin is describing the feeling of “ahhhh” she gets when she walks in (and up four flights) to her Harlem rental at the end of a busy decorating day—but this is not a woman who ever seems all that relaxed. While she is talking, an upholsterer is installing a textured Roman blind in her bedroom, one shade lighter than its chocolate walls. And you can imagine her obsessively rearranging all her shelter magazines. “I never met a magazine I didn’t want to keep,” she says, “so I built a table using two-by-fours and had this great Ralph Lauren plaid table skirt made to cover it.” That clever use of fabric to dress up Home Depot bones is the essence of her at-home design strategy. “I scavenge for friends and for myself, but not for clients. There’s a difference between style and quality.”

What She Finds:
“Harlem is thrift-store heaven.” Most of Griffin’s living room comes from the Salvation Army on 125th Street and Madison. Golden wood bergères, $40 apiece; a pullout sofa, $100. “Of course, by the time I’ve had new cushions made and reupholstered, I might as well have spent more on a new sofa,” she says. There’s also “Scotty’s at Morningside and 124th, the Goodwill store at 135th; Aunt Meriam’s, where I got a bamboo table, on 125th near Amsterdam. These places are better than the flea market,” where you have to show up at 7 A.M.

How Much To Do To A Rental:
The one item Griffin truly covets is “a roomy apartment at River House with a view of the Pepsi-Cola sign from the terrace. That’s what I call Manhattan.” In the meantime, she recommends that fellow renters invest in portable luxuries—like upholstery and window treatments. The hallway of her railroad flat is hung, like a Pullman car, with floor-to-ceiling burlap, one flap drawn back to give more drama to her kitchen.

Mistakes People Make:
The biggest error is “matchy-matchy,” though mismatching is just as bad. “The secret to success in mixing disparate periods of furniture is that they must all have the same stylistic origin. You could mix some French forties furniture with English Regency.” And the ever-more-ubiquitous “Danish modern doesn’t mix very well with anything—except maybe Japanese furniture—because it references itself and the organicness of its locale.”

Mistake She Made:
“I was having a trendy moment and painted my bedroom orange. I walked in when the painters had left, and I thought all the lights were on. It was like it had been painted with kryptonite. After the longest night of my life, I woke up at Janovic Plaza.” That bedroom is now Benjamin Moore Roasted Coffee Beans. “I also had a red moment, but just for my clients. My house is really muted, because I am working with colors all day.”

Biggest Mistake:
After working as a publicist for nine years in New York and Paris, Griffin “wearied of the obsequiousness. Now I actually like my clients.” But one of her first projects was “a girlfriend who was a Wall Street shark. We had gotten an estimate for decorative painting, and she did not understand that the estimate is frequently just that. She made me eat the difference. I haven’t spoken to her since. Now I just try to give friends advice.”

But Only In Limited Doses:
“It’s ridiculous to lose friends over taste. I’ll tell a friend once, I’d put a lamp there. If it’s a good friend, I might repeat it—but not a third time.”

The Scavenger