Chateau Domingue is a Houston treasure known the world over for its presence as a premier importer of reclaimed architectural pieces, antiques, and European furnishings. The woman behind these extraordinary finds is Ruth Gay, and I was thrilled to sit down in her Houston home to chat all things life, business, and reclaimed beauty. Read on to discover how Ruth’s passion for European history and design transformed from a hobby to a highly respected, multi-faceted brand.
Marie Flanigan: Thank you so much for joining us today! You are such an inspiration, not only for your aesthetic, but also for building Chateau Domingue! Where did this dream begin and what inspired you to get started?
Ruth Gay: My husband and I were building our first home together and, having been raised in Europe, I wanted to incorporate a European feel. I quickly realized there wasn’t a place to get that in Houston, so we had grandma stay with our kids for a week and headed off to Europe! It was 2000 when we took that trip which was before people were using the internet for everything. Now it would be much easier to achieve what I was trying to do on that trip, but at the time, we didn’t even know where to start! But I knew what I wanted was out there. During that trip, I was connected with a person who ended up joining our team, and who’s actually still part of our team today. That person has been our boots on the ground, going out to find the homes being torn down. I learned so much and was able to really start digging. It was that trip that gave me the idea to start Chateau Domingue. One year later, I took my first buying trip. I filled a container thinking it was just going to be a hobby and now, 70 employees later, it has definitely grown into more!
MF: What was once one company is now 3 different companies with multiple locations. How do you manage all of that? How have you strategically grown your team?
RG: We manage it by having the best team! Everyone we work with truly is the greatest. Some of our guys have been here a very long time (over 20 years) and we’re a family. When we decided to open Atelier Domingue, a few of our key team members moved over there to help build things up. But the Domingue Finishes team is actually newer and, because that component of our business started out as a passion project, we enlisted the help of a few branding gurus who could translate our story and guide the look and feel of our materials. Another exciting area of growth is tied to our relationship with Eddy Dankers. He trained with acclaimed designer, Axel Vervoordt, and does incredible work with plaster and paint. We’re doing some really exciting projects in Malibu which began the concept of an installation company called Dankers Domingue. It’s targeted to our high profile clients with significant projects requiring Eddy Dankers’ expertise, and has been a really fun collaboration!
MF: Can you tell us a little bit about your customer base. Is it mostly designers? How has that changed over time?
RG: One of the biggest things that has contributed to the growth of our business is our amazing sales team out there on the road. We routinely travel to New York and call on the big firms there, always working to establish those relationships. We’re currently working with Roman and Williams and Peter Marino and it’s not necessarily because they came to us. It’s because we went to them and introduced what we’re doing. We believe in the power of a personal relationship and understand how important it is for us to go out and interact with people. We study their aesthetic, figure out how we can support their projects, and then we reach out. That’s actually how we started our relationship with Atelier AM and now we do the majority of their reclaimed flooring.
MF: I often comment on how lucky we are to live in Houston because we somewhat fly under the radar while still having so many amazing resources at our fingertips. How do the designers you work with manage selecting product? Do they fly in to pick things out or do they utilize your website?
RG: We try to get things up on the website, but we have such a prolific inventory that it’s difficult to keep everything updated. And just as much as we have on our website, we have 4 times as much in stock! We sometimes need to complete mason repairs before pieces are ready, so they don’t make it on the site right away. Clients regularly fly to our showroom asking for exactly what they need so that we can dig through inventory together to find pieces that fit what they’re looking for.
MF: How often do you get a new shipment?
RG: We get a couple of containers per week – things are constantly coming in! Whether it’s a special order or a product I picked up on a recent buying trip, the shipping process happens differently for each item. In fact, we have to get passports and licenses for a lot of our products because anything over 100 years old that was connected to a property (like gates or columns) requires that to ship. So, when you buy something that doesn’t mean it’s going in a container the next week. It trickles out whenever it’s ready and the right paperwork is complete.
MF: Are you doing most of the selecting yourself? If so, how often do you travel to Europe to do that?
RG: Yes. Until this past year, I typically traveled abroad to source and buy every other month. This year, because of our big move, the start-up of Domingue Finishes, and trying to expand Atelier Domingue, I’ve definitely gone less. We actually have a full-time team member in France who usually gets the first phone call when a home or building is coming down. Those updates are crucial because I can plan to be there when it happens!
MF: Many of the pieces you source are incredibly old. What do you believe keeps them feeling fresh?
RG: Part of what I’m loving these days is the juxtaposition between old materials and clean, contemporary aesthetics. I think it’s a combination of elements that freshens everything up immediately. I’m also constantly inspired by new projects, and I’ll remember pieces I’ve seen on past trips, even if they’re not currently in stock. It takes some imagination but it’s a fascinating process that allows me to see everything in a new light.
MF: I love that you re-purpose all of these ancient things. It’s like being green in a very unique way.
RG: So true! It’s very interesting because people make comments about how it seems like the sourcing we do takes all of the history out of Europe, which is entirely untrue. What people don’t realize is that I’ve bought three different chapels, entire private chapels, and brought them over. In the case of the first one, the roof had already collapsed and it was on a piece of property that had been passed down through several generations with owners who no longer had the money to restore it. It had become a hazard to the kids visiting and living on the property. They were either going to bulldoze an incredible 18th century chapel or we could buy it, take it apart one piece at a time, and bring it over. So, it really IS green!
MF: Some of our readers are designers who would love to work with you and others are aspiring to one day use a product like the ones you offer. Are there parts of France you feel particularly drawn to when buying?
RG: I can’t tell you my sources or I’d have to shoot you! No, I love the south of France. Everything about the aesthetics and the lifestyle of the south makes me feel like I’ve just died and gone to Heaven! The stone is soft and everything is bleached by the sun. Even though stone can feel masculine, the stone in the south feels so feminine to me. There’s so much movement and wear because it’s a softer limestone. And the people in the south of France will literally stop and smell the roses more than any other culture I’ve ever been around! There’s some of that in the Tuscan and Umbrian regions of Italy too, and I’ve also seen it during my trips to Spain. It just seems like in the southern parts of countries, life is slower. Living there and working there on a full-time basis might drive you crazy, but when you’re over there visiting, it’s so beautiful. People don’t sit down to a meal without going out to the garden and putting some fresh flowers on the table. Or using beautiful old pottery that’s been passed down in their family. Things that people here would hide away in a closet out of fear of ruining them, they will literally use everyday.
MF: So beautiful! Is that where you source?
RG: As far as shopping goes, there’s L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. What’s sad about L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is that it’s not what it used to be. It’s no longer a secret so everyone goes and it’s getting harder and harder to find great stuff over there. Not to mention, it’s becoming more difficult to find good stuff in general because it’s simply not as available as it used to be. I also think the economy hasn’t been as strong, so people who are hunting for items, called “pickers,” don’t have the budgets they used to. Everyone you talk to, from the antiques dealers to the middle men, is talking about how hard it has become. With that said, there’s obviously still great stuff to be found, but you really have to get out and dig!
MF: I love the tip you mentioned about re-imagining aged pieces and actually using them within the home. I think that’s a beautiful reminder for everyone and a wonderful way to incorporate special Chateau Domingue items into their everyday spaces.
RG: Absolutely! It’s so important to use those special pieces that bring us joy. When I first started collecting faience, a white glazed pottery, before I ever opened my store, I was buying it in New Orleans. I loved pulling out pieces and using them all of the time! But the day I had a tea party for my 3 year old daughter and I pulled out the white faience, I thought my husband was gonna’ have a heart attack.
MF: Tell us more about your new showroom that opened last year!
RG: We love it! It’s located in a nice, central location and the property was originally a baseball field so there’s this lush green meadow out front with cute little flowers – it has such great energy! It took us 6 months driving back and forth with an 18 wheeler to transport all of our pieces over there. It was thousands of crates filled with beautiful things!
MF: What are some of your biggest challenges as a business on an everyday basis?
RG: Client expectations rank high, because it’s one thing to see a piece of old stone and another to see it stacked up in your home! That’s why it’s so important that we hand-select every single lot of stone that we sell, as opposed to many of our competitors that do not. That’s what makes us a boutique business. We do everything in our power to make sure what our clients think they’re going to get is what they end up getting.
The other challenge comes with installation. We guide the process and it can be a extensive one when you’re installing handmade tiles of varying thicknesses and sizes. We spend a good amount of time educating and holding installers’ hands through the experience, and we even have a few team members who fly all over the nation to get projects started and show people how to install. On that note, managing logistics can also be a headache. Finding the right piece, completing the necessary paperwork, and making sure things are clean enough to transport is very time-consuming. We’ve had entire containers stopped and opened by people in white suits because a reclamation guy didn’t get everything cleaned off of the stone that he should have. One snail could disband the entire container…I actually have a $5,000 snail somewhere because that’s what he cost me! Last but not least, it takes a great deal of manpower to get a container here and then transport it to Florida or New York without anything being broken. Last week, we had an entire crate of stone fall off of the back of an 18-wheeler on a freeway! It may be out of our hands because it’s with the driver or logistics company, but it’s still our problem to fix for our clients.
RG: Yes, we did! Martha Stewart has also been using us a lot for her finishes AND she just ordered a steel window from us so that’s been fun! She did a magazine shoot with one of our steel windows in the background and has been a wonderful supporter, referring so many people our way – she even blogged about us too! It was Super Bowl Sunday and I get a phone call from Stephen Sills in New York saying he gave Martha Stewart my cell phone number. Needless to say, I canceled my plans and met her at the showroom!
MF: I love it! You’re such a joy and we can’t wait to see where life takes you and Chateau Domingue next!