French leave... a look inside the interior designer's home which was shipped from France
While interiors stores were closing all over the country, Laurent Billiet went the opposite way and opened up his own. There was method in his madness, however.
It's often said that a man's home is his castle, but what about someone who really did live in a castle? Is that likely to be more special than your average home?
French interior designer - and owner of La Maison Chic in Galway - Laurent Billiet, hails from a tiny village called Bourbourg near Dunkirk, where his family lived in the local chateau for generations. Laurent grew up there, enjoying the 47 rooms contained therein, something which, no doubt, impacted on his future decision to become an interior designer. "Bourbourg is the only village that survived intact until World War II; it's very charming," Laurent reminisces. "The castle dates from the late 17th Century and was rebuilt twice, as it was destroyed by fire during the French Revolution, and it was renovated again in the late 19th Century."
Looking back, he notes it was always really cold but great fun, with hidden doors and passages. "It was a great place to play hide-and-seek. It could get scary, though," he recalls. "I remember once being left alone as a teenager on a stormy night, and with the noises, drafts and wood floors cracking, I definitely was scared. Overall, I have great memories."
They weren't a wealthy family, so they couldn't heat the whole castle, but they did enjoy some of its most special features; the ballroom was their kitchen, dining room and sitting room, and so living there was quite splendid in its own way. "Of course it was wonderful. There was so much wood panelling, there were marble columns - so many decorative features," Laurent explains.
The castle didn't just influence Laurent's career, it played a part in both his parents' first and second professions. "My father was a well-known hairdresser. He won the award for best hairdresser in France many times; and my mother was a beautician - they both ran their businesses from the castle," he says. "They also spent a lot of time doing it up, and after they sold it - when they were in their 40s and I was 21 - they went into construction," Laurent notes. "The castle always needed repairs, so they learned an awful lot about building work."
Laurent himself decided to study business and human resources when he left school, and after graduating, he went to the States, where he worked for the French equivalent of Enterprise Ireland for two years. After his stint there, he had two job offers. "One was in Germany and one in Ireland. I had already spent six months in Frankfurt as part of my degree, so to experience somewhere new, I took the job in Ireland," he says.
This was a position with Sopexa, the French food-and-wine promotion board, and Laurent soon settled in. "That was 1996, the start of the boom, and coming to Dublin to live, with new clubs and restaurants opening every week, it was very exciting," Laurent enthuses.
His contract with Sopexa ended after two years, but he wanted to stay on in Ireland, and got a job with a biomedical company in Galway. "I fell in love with the Irish people. I thought I'd like to stay a bit longer, not knowing that nearly 20 years later, I'd still be here," the 40-something says with a laugh.
Dublin was great, but Laurent soon found that the west was even better; he started in sales and marketing in the biomedical company and went on to became their European MD, which entailed travelling all over Europe, spending a lot of time in Paris, while he had his base in Galway. He really enjoyed the job, but he began to get itchy feet. "It was a great company to work for, but almost all my family have been self-employed - I decided I wanted to work for myself too," Laurent notes.
An interior-design business was an obvious choice, given his castle heritage, and his interest in all things house was further fuelled when he did an interior-design course while he was working in Paris for the biomedical company. He got his first practical experience when he was asked by his parents to do the interiors on their home.
He set up as an interior designer in Galway 10 years ago, and initially it was a success. "The first few years were booming, then the recession came and everything dried up," he says. "I thought I might have to go back to sales." However, a cunning plan occurred to him. "The interior-design shops were closing, so I decided to go the other way and open a shop in 2011, in the middle of the recession. I saw it as an opportunity because there was pretty much nothing left," he says. It was a calculated bet, and one that didn't look initially as if it was going to work. "The first two years were tough - no matter how nice a shop it was, there was a recession," Laurent explains, adding that sales have since improved enormously.
There was method in Laurent's madness - the shop was a showcase, a good way of letting people know about his interiors business, and, at the same time, selling nice gift items and accessories which were no longer available, as so many businesses had closed down. In recent years, the interiors scene has been changing again. The bigger home stores are selling the accessories and Laurent has gone more into fabrics, paint, wallpapers and custom-made sofas. Twenty per cent of the business is undertaking full interior-design projects, while about 80pc is where people come to the shop with a photo of a room, seeking advice, and buy the major pieces from Laurent.
Laurent's own home is a good example of his design style, which he describes as "classic, modern and eclectic". "I like to mix old and new, modern and antique," he notes. He built the house in Renville village, which overlooks Galway Bay, yet is a nice distance from Galway city, 10 years ago. He loves the area, and has immersed himself in the social life there, including fundraising for the local charity Hand in Hand, which raises money for families with children suffering from cancer. "I was renting in the area first and liked it. I wanted to build my own home and looked all over Galway. I knew about this site, but thought it had problems with services, but it turned out. It was under my nose all the time," Laurent laughs.
Laurent drew up the house designs himself, had an architect friend approve them, and then ordered a timber-frame house from France. It was all helped by the fact that his parents were his house suppliers - their construction company specialises in timber frames.
The house has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a compact kitchen to the front, but its most special feature is the L-shaped living room, which opens on to a large patio, affording Laurent stunning views of the surrounding area.
The interior is full of interesting pieces, including lots of spectacular art, which he's bought from art students in Galway; and a fish tank full of 99 Lalique glass fish, but, of course, pride of place goes to an antique clock and matching candelabras, salvaged from the castle. You can take the boy out of the castle, but you can't take the castle out of the boy.
La Maison Chic, 11 Lower Abbeygate St, Galway, tel: (091) 530-694, or see lamaisonchic.ie
Hand in hand, see handinhand.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine