Growing up in the Golden Isles along Georgia’s Atlantic coast, Elaine Griffin had no idea how many firsts she would accomplish.
Her birth was a first. Her elementary school was a first. Her interior design career has been littered with firsts.
And two weeks ago, she added even more. She became the first Georgian and person of color to receive an honorary Ph.D. from the New York School of Interior Design after addressing the 2019 graduating class, which was also a first.
“That was the first time I had ever really taken the time to stop and think about my number ones,” she said.
Some of those accomplishments were due to her family, which is full of trailblazers. Her great-grandfather, Rev. Joseph Taylor, was a Presbyterian minister in 1874 who started a school in McIntosh County to educate freed slaves.
Her father, Dr. David Griffin, was the first black physician and surgeon in Glynn County. He delivered Elaine in the white section of the then-segregated Brunswick Memorial Hospital, making her the first African-American baby to be born across the color line at the hospital.
“It’s almost like I was born under a lucky star,” she said.
Her mother, Ethel Griffin, taught fifth-grade math for 30 years, and by the time Elaine graduated to the first grade in 1970, she became part of the first desegregated class in the county.
While Elaine said she knew coastal Georgia, she wanted to experience other cultures, which is why she attended Yale University. That perspective also led her to a publicist job in New York followed by a five-year stint working in Paris.
However, Elaine never lost touch of her southern roots, which she said helped propel her New-York based eponymous interior design firm that she launched in 1999.
“If you’re born and raised in the south, you are southern—no matter where else in the world you may be,” she said.
Elaine credited her hard-working attitude and ingrained sense on southern hospitality with her quick success within the interior design space. In 2004, she partnered with Oprah Winfrey’s magazine “O at Home” to perform makeovers for 11 charitable organizations.
She also became the first African-American contributing editor at Elle Decor magazine, the first room designer of color to be featured in the Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse and the only designer of color to produce a showhouse for Southern Accents magazine.
She published a book in 2009, “Design Rules: The Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator,” which she said is meant to help do-it-yourself designers. It hits on the core rule to Elaine’s design philosophy.
“My one rule that I’ll never break is that the homes should always look like the people that live in them,” she said.
Her mother is a good example. Elaine moved back to the Golden Isles in late 2015 to be with Ethel after she was diagnosed with dementia. She said if you looked inside her mother’s home, you’d see floral designs and a rarely used living room that Elaine still isn’t allowed to sit in.
“Back in the day, no southern lady would ever allow people to sit in her living room unless they were company…You sat in the den, not in your mother’s living room,” she said.
A year before moving back home, Elaine was a contestant on the NBC reality show “American Dream Builders,” but she said a casting snafu almost led her to be a judge.
“If I had known then what I know now, I would have said yes to be a judge,” she said.
After all, judges win by default, while Elaine placed third in the competition. Nate Berkus, the show’s host, shared the stage with her at the New York School of Interior Design’s graduation on May 23, where he also received an honorary degree.
In her speech to the new graduates, Elaine used superheroes as an analogy to the gifts they’d all been given.
“Everyone in this room is a superhero because we’ve all been given an incredible superpower; we are creators,” she said during her keynote speech. “We have the supernatural ability to see a completed room where there is nothing.”
Elaine also boiled down the main three differences she sees between good and great designers: sight, knowledge and a commitment to serving your client.
She said she hopes the graduates will soak up everything they can, becoming a “visual sponge” to further their creative ambitions.
“A room anywhere is just four walls, a floor and a ceiling,” she said. “The rest of it is what we create.”
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