Keep­ing the legacy alive

Owner com­bines sen­si­bil­i­ties and ven­dors of famed in­te­rior de­sign­ers in Wells Ab­bott

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By Diane Cowen STAFF WRITER diane.cowen@chron.com

Lau­ren Hud­son ran her hand along the long swaths of lush fabric and smiled.

“There’s truly an art to sell­ing For­tuny,” said Hud­son, flip­ping through the fabric-cov­ered boards hang­ing at the front of her Wells Ab­bott show­room in the Dec­o­ra­tive Cen­ter Hous­ton as she launched into a story about this lux­u­ri­ous Ital­ian fabric.

Be­cause the fabric is made when it’s or­dered, show­room sam­ples might not ex­actly match the bolts that would ar­rive for a cus­tomer, she ex­plained. So when a de­sign client wants For­tuny, get him or her to like three sam­ples so that when new cut­tings ar­rive, one of the three might be the right shade.

“Jerry taught me how to sell For­tuny,” she said of her busi­ness men­tor, Jerry Jean­mard, who once was an owner of Wells De­sign. “When it’s made, the color or tex­ture can be off, so what you see in a sam­ple is not nec­es­sar­ily what you get.”

For­tuny is the gold stan­dard of fabric for home de­sign, run­ning up to about $400 a yard. The Egyp­tian cot­ton is so fine it feels like silk, and its vel­vets might be the soft­est tex­tiles you’ll ever feel.

The fabric sam­ples hold court in the front of Hud­son’s show­room, and the line plays a key role in this new chap­ter of her life as an in­te­rior de­sign en­tre­pre­neur who has man­aged to keep alive two leg­endary busi­nesses that could eas­ily have van­ished.

Rein­ven­tion

Hud­son gets com­fort­able in an armchair — it’s cov­ered in Til­lett’s iconic chrysan­the­mum pat­tern — in a vi­gnette in­side her de­sign stu­dio. She owns what used to be two busi­nesses — Wells De­sign and El­louise Ab­bott, merged and re­named Wells Ab­bott — for just four years, but the short story of how she got here sounds like a made-for-TV movie.

A hand­ful of years ago, Hud­son hired Jean­mard to help her up­date the High­land Vil­lage home she shares with her hus­band, Brock, who works in the oil-and-gas in­dus­try, and their 15-year-old daugh­ter. Their friends had used Jean­mard for dec­o­rat­ing projects, and she ad­mired his work.

“My home is a ranch-style home with 9-foot ceil­ings and small rooms, but I wanted ev­ery inch to be per­fect. So we made ev­ery inch per­fect,” said Hud­son, 52. “It’s Cape Cod-meets-ranch, and it’s got a great vibe.”

Work­ing a room at a time, they spent much of 2009 and 2010 rein­vent­ing it. When they were done, her friends asked if Jerry might do their homes, too.

The an­swer was “no.” He’d al­ready told Hud­son that her project would likely be his last. So Hud­son made him a propo­si­tion: If she helped her friends dec­o­rate, could she lean on him for ad­vice?

When Jerry in­vited her to his of­fice to talk about it, he had a propo­si­tion of his own: Would she want to buy Wells De­sign?

Jean­mard had owned the busi­ness since 2000, when he pur­chased it from his men­tor-turned-busi­ness part­ner Her­bert Wells, the leg­endary de­signer who died in 2010 at the age of 86. Wells put his el­e­gant-but-un­pre­ten­tious im­print on the homes of some of the city’s most no­table res­i­dents, in­clud­ing phi­lan­thropist Louisa Sarofim and for­mer Mayor Bob Lanier and his wife, El­yse.

Jean­mard, now 73, came to Hous­ton in 1968 as a graphic de­signer and in his late 30s wanted to start a new ca­reer in in­te­rior de­sign. A mu­tual friend in­tro­duced him to Wells, and Jean­mard be­came his part-time as­sis­tant. Quickly, he shifted to full-time work and even­tu­ally was a part­ner and then sole owner.

Un­til he met Hud­son, Jean­mard was ready to re­tire — to sim­ply close down Wells De­sign.

Although Hud­son was ready for some­thing new, she was hardly ready to take it on by her­self, hav­ing never worked as an in­te­rior de­signer ex­cept for help­ing a few friends. They struck a deal: She would buy Wells De­sign, and Jean­mard would spend two years teach­ing her the busi­ness.

That was three-and-a-half years ago, and Jean­mard is still around.

“I’m very happy I didn’t close the busi­ness. Lau­ren has done a good job of keep­ing the legacy not just alive but vi­brant, and the same with El­louise Ab­bott,” he said.

Div­ing in

Hud­son stud­ied his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa and got a job teach­ing U.S. his­tory at Lee High School in Hous­ton. She was there five years, but for­mer stu­dents still show up in her show­room as in­te­rior de­sign­ers look­ing for fab­rics, wall­pa­per fur­ni­ture or win­dow shades.

“Lee High School en­dures,” she said, laugh­ing. “I like to say I was a teacher in my 20s, a re­cruiter at Arthur An­der­son in my 30s, a house­wife and mom in my 40s and, now, in my 50s, I’m in in­te­rior de­sign.”

From teach­ing, Hud­son went to work for Arthur An­der­son, even­tu­ally lead­ing the cam­pus re­cruit­ing ef­forts for its as­sur­ance di­vi­sion. It was there that she learned to en­gage her right brain and get in touch with her in­ner ex­ec­u­tive.

“I knew I wanted to go back to work. … I was ask­ing my­self, ‘What do I want to do? What do I feel like I’m good at?’ when the whole Jerry thing fell into my lap,” she said. “I feel like when you open your­self to other pos­si­bil­i­ties and ex­plore those things, they have a way of pre­sent­ing them­selves to you.”

So she bought Wells De­sign and learned lessons as they came at her. When their build­ing on San Felipe sold, she and Jean­mard moved it into a tem­po­rary space be­fore set­tling on the third floor of the Dec­o­ra­tive Cen­ter.

She wanted to reach be­yond de­sign to cre­ate a show­room and started con­tact­ing the firm’s long­time ven­dors, such as Ann Mor­ris Light­ing and Til­lett Tex­tiles.

“They were easy calls to make be­cause they had a re­la­tion­ship with Wells De­sign go­ing back to Mr. Wells. I said, ‘If we were to open a show­room, would you want to be part of it?’ and they said yes,” she said. “It be­gan to be the joke around the of­fice that all I did was ask. Be­fore I knew it, I thought, we might have a show­room.”

Hud­son lined up a va­ri­ety of bou­tique fabric mak­ers, most unique to Texas, and in Fe­bru­ary 2017 held a grand open­ing.

Bet­sie Weather­ford was Hud­son’s Dec­o­ra­tive Cen­ter neigh­bor, op­er­at­ing El­louise Ab­bott — the state’s old­est de­sign show­room — across the hall. One day Hud­son was com­mis­er­at­ing with Weather­ford and made an off­hand re­mark: “If you ever want to re­tire, let me know.”

Weather­ford didn’t hes­i­tate: “Well, I’m telling you now. I want to re­tire.”

Once she got over the shock, Hud­son re­al­ized the ben­e­fit of ac­quir­ing El­louise Ab­bott, its ex­clu­sive lines and its square footage in the sought-af­ter Dal­las De­sign Cen­ter.

In the mid­dle of ne­go­ti­a­tions, Hud­son went on a fam­ily va­ca­tion, and they agreed they’d fin­ish when she re­turned. But Weather­ford sud­denly be­came ill and died be­fore the con­tract was signed.

Word got out, and show­room own­ers all over the area pounced, hop­ing to ac­quire the lu­cra­tive For­tuny line. Weather­ford had ex­clu­sive re­gional rights to For­tuny, and if you were a de­signer want­ing even a sin­gle yard of the fabric, you had to go through El­louise Ab­bott.

It was a busi­ness les­son for Hud­son, who man­aged to keep For­tuny as she learned about the brisk com­pe­ti­tion in the de­sign world.

“I was new to this busi­ness and didn’t un­der­stand that the de­sign hub in this re­gion is Dal­las. If you have a show­room in Hous­ton, you’re com­pet­i­tive in Hous­ton, but you’re not com­pet­i­tive in the re­gion,” she said. “Bet­sie summed it up this way: ‘Like it or not, Dal­las pulls from five states and Hous­ton pulls from five neigh­bor­hoods.’ ”

“Ini­tially this was a fun lit­tle project, Wells De­sign; it seemed like a good idea at the time. But tak­ing on El­louise Ab­bott was se­ri­ous. Hang­ing on to those lu­cra­tive lines was se­ri­ous, and com­pet­ing in Dal­las was se­ri­ous,” she said. “I was like a deer caught in the head­lights, but I man­aged to hang on. I was able to get scrappy and just fig­ure it out.”

Cre­at­ing a new niche

A vi­gnette in­side the Wells Ab­bott doors is filled with those col­ors, and racks of fabric sam­ples nearby cre­ate a charm­ing tex­tile bou­tique with solids, prints and hand­some mo­tifs by Fer­moie, Ni­cole Fabric De­signs, Fleu­rons d’He­lene, Jed John­son Home, Ni­cholas Her­bert and Chase Er­win. Funkier Pukka Print Linens and prints by Pin­tura Stu­dio are around the cor­ner.

On a small rack, Jean Roze silk sam­ples dan­gle like lit­tle gems from hanger clips. The Roze line has its own his­tory, dat­ing to 1470 in France, one of the old­est silk fac­to­ries still in op­er­a­tion.

Hud­son has amassed these small bou­tique lines as part of her busi­ness strat­egy: of­fer­ing some­thing de­sign­ers can’t find else­where in the city.

“Lau­ren has gone out of her way to find un­com­mon things … not only are they won­der­ful, but they didn’t have rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Texas or, in some cases, the U.S.,” said J. Ran­dall Pow­ers, one of Hous­ton’s most no­table in­te­rior de­sign­ers. “As a de­signer, that’s ap­peal­ing. I want to see un­usual prod­ucts or things I’ve read about or seen in Europe that are rel­a­tively new here.”

He also ad­mires Hud­son’s busi­ness sense and tenac­ity.

“I do re­ally love the way she has this gung-ho at­ti­tude … it’s very brave. If she had any idea (how tough it is), she wouldn’t have done it — and I mean that in the kind­est way,” Pow­ers said. “It’s like walk­ing to the edge of the high dive and look­ing down. Some­times you just run and jump and do it.”

Just down the hall from Wells Ab­bott are the Lu­cas/ Eil­ers De­sign As­so­ci­ates of­fices, an in­te­rior de­sign firm led by Sandy Lu­cas and Sarah Eil­ers.

Both knew the orig­i­nal El­loise Ab­bott and Bet­sie Weather­ford, too, and they’re glad that Hud­son is keep­ing their friends’ legacy alive.

“They have such a won­der­ful ar­ray, and so many of their lines feel so be­spoke — the wall­pa­pers that are made on a kitchen table in Eng­land or the hand­printed de­signs that give a real unique feel­ing to a project,” Lu­cas said.

Ul­ti­mately, Lu­cas and Eil­ers think that both Her­bert Wells and El­louise Ab­bott would be pleased with what is now Wells Ab­bott.

“El­louise was a won­der­ful lady, and Herb was such a ta­lented man. Both ded­i­cated their lives to cre­at­ing busi­nesses that set a level of qual­ity for the city. It’s the ul­ti­mate com­pli­ment that Lau­ren ap­pre­ci­ated that and wanted to keep them go­ing.”

Paul and Hunter Bell moved to Hous­ton from Man­hat­tan three-and-a-half years ago. When they needed an in­te­rior de­signer to dec­o­rate their new home here, they called on Wells Ab­bott in part be­cause Her­bert Wells had de­signed homes for Paul Bell’s rel­a­tives who lived here.

Hunter Bell is a fash­ion de­signer who likes more con­tem­po­rary, for­ward-look­ing de­sign. Her hus­band is more tra­di­tional, so it was Hud­son’s job to cre­ate spa­ces that would please them both, feel un­pre­ten­tious and han­dle the wear and tear of the cou­ple’s three young chil­dren.

Their ’50s-style Briar Grove home had dark-wood floors, which Hud­son had painted a light color, and their foyer has a painted geo­met­ric de­sign that reaches into the back hall­way. Painted floors were a com­mon theme in Wells’ projects.

“Lau­ren has so much knowl­edge and wis­dom on these lovely brands and I don’t, but I know what I like,” Bell said. “She and Jerry opened my eyes so much to the in­te­rior de­sign world.”

Pho­tos by Melissa Phillip / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

The Wells Ab­bott de­sign firm and show­room hon­ors the tra­di­tions of the com­pa­nies it’s de­scended from, Wells De­sign and El­louise Ab­bott.

Wells Ab­bott re­tains ex­clu­sive re­gional rights to carry For­tuny fabric that Hud­son’s pre­de­ces­sor, Bet­sie Weather­ford, had.

Three-and-a-half years af­ter Jerry Jean­mard said he’d stick around to show new owner Lau­ren Hud­son the Wells Ab­bott ropes, they still work to­gether.

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