From Entertainer to Designer: Ellen Z. Wright Shares How Renovating a Harlem Fixer-Upper She Bought with Her Wife Changed Everything
A spoof video and generous architect helped the 40-something New Yorker find her true calling as a designer who puts well-being first
Six years ago, Ellen Z. Wright was drawing accolades as the female lead in an Off Broadway musical in New York City, living out her family’s legacy of performing theater. But something was missing in her life.
“I was checking all the boxes in this career that I dedicated my life to, but I was really miserable and I was getting sick all the time,” she says. That changed soon after she and her wife bought a tired studio apartment in Harlem.
Wright shares here how pouring her creativity into the long-neglected apartment and receiving a surprise call from HGTV inspired her to teach herself to run a design firm, navigate dyslexia and start living her belief that a professionally-designed interior space is a matter of wellness for everyone.
The stars align
Wright, who has a degree in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, often used her design talents to redecorate her theater dressing rooms, but had no plans to leave the professional stage. “It was always something that was in the back of my mind, that I did as a hobby for people, but it never occurred to me to make a career out of it because I was a successful performer.”
Therefore, when she and her wife, a Broadway stage manager with Hamilton, decided to do a gut renovation of their apartment, they hired a professional. “That’s where I met the architect that changed my life. I said ‘Listen, I don’t want to step on your toes, but I have a lot of ideas, like floor plan ideas. Would it be cool if I showed you the design that I have in mind for the space? ’She said ‘Yes, bring it on!’”
Together, they completed the work, and Wright came up with a playful way to do the big reveal for family and friends. “I made a spoof You Tube video using the Chip and Joanna Gaines mold of Fixer Upper, which is one of our all time favorite shows.”
“About a week later, two things happened within a 24 hour period,” she says. “HGTV called me, interested in pitching me to the producers for a show because they thought I was an interior designer full time.” Shocked, she explained the video was a parody. “I am an actor. I have a degree in tap dancing.” Still, the rep told her she was a talented designer. Then, the next day, the architect of their studio renovation called and offered Wright an interior designer position with her firm.
“The clouds parted, the chakras aligned and the universe basically handed me what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life, on a silver platter,” Wright says.
Going digital to manage her business
It’s been just a little more than 2 years since Wright founded Apartment Rehab, NYC Interior Design and she has already been honored with a Houzz Award. For Wright, learning the business end was a DIY project. She bought piles of used how-to business books, joined BNI Business Networking International, and discovered Silver Lining Action Plan. “It’s an incredible platform that basically teaches small businesses how to survive, thrive and grow,” she says.
Still, she was unhappy with the look of her client presentations and turned to her wife who began researching platforms intended specifically for design companies. “We fell in love with Houzz Pro immediately,” she says. “What Houzz offered was so user friendly. For my sort of learning disability brain, I have dyslexia, the way the format was for a visual learner was just perfect for me.”
She uses Houzz Pro for nearly every aspect of her business. “That was a massive shift in my business growth because now everything I present to my clients looks professional. I am able to basically run my business just on this one platform.”
Managing projects and overcoming extra challenges
Wright quickly learned that she needed a workflow to manage projects and grow her business, and uses the visual timelines in Houzz Pro. “I know what task I need to be focusing on each day, so I can dedicate specific days to do specific things.”
Using the color coded timeline tabs to enter lead times provides transparency and clarity to clients any time of the day or night. “They love that, because then if they get up at 2 in the morning and wonder ‘what’s happening?’ they can see tomorrow that the bedspread is coming,” she says. “It helps me to be more efficient and make faster revisions, which gets the project done within budget and on time.”
Being a right-brained artistic person, and having dyslexia, Wright finds paperwork extra challenging, and appreciates the simplicity of creating fast, professional proposals with Houzz Pro. After clients approve the items on the software’s virtual Mood Board, she generates beautiful proposals with just a click. “I don’t know what people did before this. I truly don’t know how designers handled this level of paperwork.”
Her favorite feature in Houzz Pro is the Product Clipper Tool because it saves her significant time and effort when migrating products from any site to the Mood Board. “There are so many specifications attached to each product, and having to copy and paste them all takes too long. The clipper tool makes that so fast and efficient, that now I just shop on Houzz all the time.”
Design as wellness
Wright believes every designer brings their own design sensibility to their work. “At first I thought oh no, I’m going to have all this competition, and yet I don’t think anybody brings to the table exactly what I bring to the table, and I don’t bring to the table exactly what they bring to the table.”
She specializes in bringing “wellness” into the homes of her clients. “The spaces my clients live in may reflect who they used to be as opposed to who they are now, which could be holding them back in other aspects of their lives,” she says. “Whatever they are struggling with, I take that and design a solution into the room.” she says. That can mean renovations that help them sleep better, reduce clutter or induce calm.
Most of her clients are hiring a designer for the first time, and she enjoys bringing interior design to those who thought it was an out-of-reach luxury. Part of her five-year plan is to set aside a percentage of her profits to offer pro bono work to people with low incomes. “I firmly believe that interior design promotes psychological well-being, and that everyone on any budget should get to experience the benefits of incorporating thoughtful interior design into their living spaces.”
Enjoying an authentic life
Living in New York City as an openly gay business owner is seamless for Wright. “I don’t really think about it much as I’m just living my life and it just happens to be who I am.” Her advice for queer designers working in less welcoming places is to remain as authentic as possible, and avoid code switching to meet their environment.
“If there is push back, take it with grace,” she says. “ But keep doing what you're doing. Just say ‘no thank you.’ You don’t need to engage with the haters,” she says.“By staying positive you will attract positive people and energy. Everyone under the queer umbrella knows what that push back is like. You just have to lead by example.”
And as someone who in her 40s was determined to learn and pursue what was missing in her life, Wright is doing just that.
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