A French­man in Gal­way

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - SHUTTERBUG - La Mai­son Chic, 11 Lower Abbey­gate St, Gal­way, tel: (091) 530-694, or see Hand in hand, see hand­in­

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 17 th 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 in­te­ri­orde­sign 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

‘The cas­tle was just won­der­ful, there was so much wood pan­elling, mar­ble col­umns, and dec­o­ra­tive fea­tures’

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 in­te­ri­orde­sign 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.

Left Lau­rent Bil­liet’s home was built by his par­ents in France and shipped to Ire­land, where it sits com­fort­ably in the Renville land­scape Above Lau­rent in his liv­ing room. The Louis-the-13thstyle man­tel­piece is French, as is the oak floor. The so­fas...

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