Laurel & Wolf, the online interior design marketplace, has shut down its website and disconnected its phones. The company’s social accounts have been inactive for the past three months, and the Yelp page for its Los Angeles headquarters is marked as “Permanently Closed.” Emails sent to the company asking for clarification bounced back. Laurel & Wolf has gone dark.
The company launched in 2014 with a disruptive business model, promising to bring affordable interior design services to a wide audience via the efficiency of the internet. Customers would be matched with a designer and pay a flat fee for a consultation, carried out over Laurel & Wolf’s online platform. Small tweaks to the company’s model and pricing were made over the years, but the basic premise always hewed close to the disruptor playbook: Cut out the middlemen to bring premium quality to the masses.
"You’re talking about taking a small pool of people in the U.S. who could afford to hire interior designers,” founder and CEO Leura Fine told the website Create Cultivate in 2016. “We’ve opened up the market to 30 percent of the U.S."
The concept caught the attention of Silicon Valley investors. Laurel & Wolf in total underwent three rounds of funding, the latest in 2015 to the tune of $20 million from Benchmark, a blue-chip venture capital firm that has invested in eBay, Dropbox, Twitter, Uber and Instagram. In 2017, Laurel & Wolf announced a partnership with Home Depot. By all outward accounts, the company was thriving: As recently as November of last year, the press-friendly Fine invited the Los Angeles Times into her home for a tour.
A close look at the company’s online fingerprints paints a different picture.
Starting in the summer of 2018, the vast majority of Laurel & Wolf’s Yelp reviews flipped from a mixture of positive and negative to a wall of one-star rants. According to reviewers, furniture was never delivered, or arrived broken. Refunds were offered and never provided. Yelpers reported receiving placating emails from a purchasing coordinator named Alex, before ultimately giving up hope.
“The designer work was fine but I tried to order furniture through their website. I paid over $4,000, they replied a few weeks later saying they couldn't source the furniture. So they claimed to refund the order. THEY KEPT THE MONEY THOUGH,” wrote Manhattan-based user Sebastian B.
The view from the inside wasn’t much better. A look at the company’s reviews on Glassdoor.com—a website where employees can weigh in on their employers—suggests a disgruntled workforce and an atmosphere of distrust. “About 90 percent of the designers have left the platform, either in protest of the disgusting practices or for being fired for asking for their contracted payouts and speaking out,” wrote an anonymous commenter in September of last year. “Run away.”
Fine responded to several negative reviews on Glassdoor. “I’m not perfect and there are a million decisions I would make differently today as I have learned so much along the way. However, Laurel & Wolf is 14x larger in revenue today than when it launched. We have achieved massive growth and built a product that thousands of people all over the country love,” she wrote in reply to one of many harsh critiques. “I haven’t had the luxury of making popular decisions but they were the right ones for the business.”
Eventually, Fine stopped responding to negative reviews on Glassdoor. The most recent posting, at the end of February, suggests that the company has indeed closed for business—and that the end was dramatic: “For years, the writing was on the wall; the company was plummeting fast,” an anonymous commenter wrote. “In a grand finale of despicable behavior, [Fine] sent out a false E-mail before Christmas claiming the company was being acquired. However, this is clearly not the case.”
Laurel & Wolf’s apparent exit from the market leaves the field of online design disruptors a little less crowded. Currently Homepolish, Havenly, Modsy and Decorist are the leading players in the space, while Kathryn Ireland and Leta Austin Foster have recently debuted online “room in a box” concepts. It’s too early to say whether the concept of scaling the notoriously high-touch interior design experience is inherently flawed, or whether Laurel & Wolf’s fall from grace is unique. One sure thing: When a much-hyped disruptor fails, it fails in public.
After a frustrating experience with the company, a Yelp reviewer, Carla B. from Maryland, wrote: “I’m not sure what is going on, but this just reminds me of a documentary I watched last week (Fyre) and how instead of dealing with the reality of things, they kept digging their hole deeper and promising people something that never happened.”