Caroline Diani Chats with Eliza Clark of Foxfire Mountain House for Her 20th Pillow Talk
Last week, the Arlington Plaza was a buzz as we celebrated the 3rd Annual Christmas Market leading up to the Santa Barbara Christmas Parade on State Street. I was so thrilled to welcome author and interior designer, Eliza Clark for a very special signing of her first book, Foxfire Living, a most recent addition to our DIANI Living design library. After renovating the famous Foxfire Mountain House, Eliza and her husband Tim set out to create a gorgeous page-turner bursting with design ideas, recipes, projects, and tips for achieving the boutique hotel’s dreamy aesthetic in your own home.
I originally met Eliza during our Travel Home book signing in October at our Hudson Valley Farmhouse in upstate New York. I had been following Foxfire Mountain House on Instagram after my husband and I visited the hotel for dinner last year and when Eliza reached out to come to the book signing, I couldn’t wait to meet her. It’s always fun for me to talk business with creatives I admire and when she told me about her book, I invited her to share her book at DIANI Living with a book signing. I naturally had to follow up with an interview her for my 20th installment of Pillow Talk. I can’t wait for you to get to know Eliza too and hopefully visit her hotel in Upstate New York too.
Photos from FoxFire Mountain House via @foxfiremountainhouse
What inspired Foxfire Mountain House?
Foxfire was most fully inspired by the natural world and wanting to create a place that would be inviting to guests. We created a story for the hotel when we first started the renovation as a way to help us evolve the design style and make choices, since the project was huge and overwhelming (14 guest rooms plus the main public spaces). We came up with the idea of the property belonging to an eccentric, rich uncle who you rarely saw but who traveled the world bringing back his collections like antlers, silk saris, framed butterflies, oil portraits. He loved comfort so leather and velvet sofas, sitting by a roaring fire in the evenings with a whiskey in hand. By creating a character (we called him Uncle Desmond, by the way) it made all the choices of furnishings and decor much easier for us. A little weird, maybe, but it worked!
What is your favorite part about creating and running a coveted boutique hotel?
Without a doubt, the best part is to see the guests enjoying themselves whether at the bar for a drink or dining in the restaurant or hanging out by the fire or in their rooms. The feeling that we’ve been able to create a hospitable place to be makes me very proud.
Photos from FoxFire Mountain House via @foxfiremountainhouse
What was the process of bringing the hotel to another dimension through a book?
Since Foxfire Mountain House first opened as an inn to guests three years ago, people regularly have asked us how we came up with the design, how it was to make a full career and lifestyle change, why we chose the different elements of the design and restaurant menus? Lots of “how” and “why” questions. The FOXFIRE LIVING book is a kind of love letter to the whole process from finding the derelict 100-year-old building in the Catskills that was once a classic summer resort, to renovating and designing it, to welcoming guests, doing everything partnered with my husband, so our love story too. Now that the book is finished and out in stores, I’m so proud of it. The layout was created by the amazing Amanda Jane Jones (Kinfolk) and is truly beautiful. But, writing itself is never easy. I drank a lot of coffee and spent a lot of time (almost a year) at my desk, staring out the window and pondering what to say? In the end, I just told myself to write like I was talking to someone, just communicate my thoughts as best I could. It’s an ode to taking a risk to change your life and live how you want to live, as well as a design and cookbook. The blend of the personal story with design tips and recipes wasn’t something every publisher we spoke to understood, but luckily enough did and we were able to create the book the way we wanted to. It’s a great way for us to get our design style and overall vibe out into the world. We’re really thrilled.
When you were in school, what was your favorite subject and what did you want to “grow up” to be?
I loved history the most because it was epic and romantic, often brutal, full of drama…conquering heroes, espionage, banished or murdered royalty, I mean juicy stuff compared to algebra. Not surprisingly, I always wanted to be a writer from the time I was a child and I went to college for creative writing.
What contributed to you becoming the businesswoman that you are today?
Possibly getting a divorce from my first husband (only semi-joking). I always considered myself a “creative” and wrote novels, then story edited and directed television series. Wanting to up my game and earn more serious money when I was on my own, I began producing then executive producing television. I found that there is creativity in managing teams and managing money. It’s completely engaging and full on outside-the-box problem solving most of the time. Owning and running the hotel/bar/restaurant (Foxfire Mountain House) brings together all my skills and I love it.
Which entrepreneurs do you admire?
I’ve been immersed in the hotel world for the last few years as I learn about this industry that’s still quite new to me and I completely admire the boutique hotelier, Liz Lambert. From her base in Austin, Texas, Liz Lambert is creating world-class hotels, the latest one being in New Orleans. She’s a remarkable inspiration to me.
What has been your favorite part about creating a business?
The best part about creating a business is being able to earn a living my way and feel that I’m in charge of my life, choosing the path I’m on every day. Next best is the honor of having employees who are committed to the business my chef husband, Tim Trojian, and I have created and who care about the same things we do in terms of stellar hospitality.
What has been your favorite role to date?
By far my favorite role was as designer of the hotel. I have always had a true passion for interior design and I was able to bring that out with the full renovation and styling of Foxfire.
What’s the most challenging part of your professional life?
As an entrepreneur, work never really stops. I’ve gotten used to a low level of anxiety most of the time as my life is so entwined with my work that if say, a guest might not have the best time at the hotel for whatever reason, I die inside. I kind of die just thinking about that happening. Luckily, complaints don’t happen often but they’re like a knife in the gut every time and inevitable when you’re dealing with people in large numbers. You may not be able to please everyone, but I sure want to.
What do you think is the single most important ingredient to success?
Without a doubt, unrelenting passion for the endeavor.
How do you try to manage your work/life balance?
I insist on making myself deeply believe that my work is part of my life, and not a separate thing. It’s still my life when I’m working, but it’s only one part of my life. Granted, a big part but I chose that and want it that way.
What do you see yourself doing next to express yourself professionally?
This is my favorite question because I love hatching plans and dreaming about the future. For the first time in my life, I feel like next steps are going to require partners and investors, and that’s a world that’s not too familiar to me since I’ve always made things happen on my own. I’d like to create a homewares product line; I’d like to create more inns; I’d like to keep growing in the design world.
How do you manage the fear and doubt that inevitably creeps in when you’re paving a less trodden path?
It’s sometimes hard for sure but I believe in originality and telling your own “story” to the world. I guess mostly I try not to measure success as an end result, but as an enjoyment of the process and journey. If you get satisfaction out of doing something, if it makes you feel good and happy within yourself, then to me that’s success and worth acknowledging with gratitude.
What have you been most afraid of trying in your career, but you did it anyway?
I think designing the whole hotel from scratch in such a way that would make people want to come and stay there. It was vital on two levels, well maybe three: first, my livelihood would depend on it; second, what I wanted more than anything was to give designing a try and be good at it because I love interior decorating so much; and third, my self-esteem was depending on that quite a bit since it was a new challenge I wanted to rise to.
Was there any opportunity that you had in your life that you didn’t take?
No. I think mostly because I’ve always made my own opportunities and gone after them.
What gifts has moving to a new state brought you?
Moving to a new state allows you to see everything with the fresh eyes of a traveler and not take any of the landscape, or the people, for granted. Still, six years later, I don’t go a day without admiring the Catskill mountains as I drive through them home or the fast-flowing Esopus River that our home is perched above.
Any sleep rituals that you use to help quiet the mind after a long day?
I soak in a long bath every night.
What’s the biggest gift you give yourself to recharge?
Taking time to be outside, whether it’s sitting on the deck and watching the birds in the trees or going for a walk. Getting outside and being conscious of the natural world.
What’s your favorite indulgence?
What’s the first thing you do after you wake up?
I put the coffee maker on as soon as I wake up and let the dog out while the coffee brews.
What’s the last thing you do before bed?
I watch the news while looking at Instagram.
That sounds like my night too! Thank you so much Eliza for allowing me to introduce you to the Santa Barbara community and for joining me on this addition of Pillow Talk. Your passion and love for the design world is truly inspiring and I connected with you on the creative front even before we physically met...thanks to the world of Instagram. I can’t wait to see what you do next and am so honored to have you as a friend. Congratulations on your book! It’s a new favorite at DIANI Living.