Acting as his own architect and designer, entrepreneur Chuck Comeau builds Dessin Fournir in Plainville (population 2,200)
Monica Geran -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
To qualify as a professional designer, one needs specialized schooling and relevant experience. One has to find reliable trade sources and seasoned consultants, also broadening one's project scopes and honing creativity. There generally is, in short, an established pattern.
Not so with Chuck Comeau. Born, bred, and educated in western Kansas, he started his professional life as a petroleum geologist specializing in exploration. In 1977, with his brother Roger and their father, R.A., he founded an oil company, which they developed and five years later profitably sold, shortly thereafter starting another one. More investment ventures ensued, enjoying varying degrees of success but, says Comeau ruefully, lacking the stimulation he sought. He longed for something more creative, more satisfying—and, above all, more fun.
Then, in 1993, he realized that the inspiration was right at his side: Shirley, now his wife of 25 years, had long collected antique furniture and fabrics, often with his help. Ergo, he posited, why not make it his own full-time job to deal in "beautiful things"? With his brother and industry expert Len Larson, Comeau founded Dessin Fournir (loosely translated as design and furnish), an apt label for exclusive furniture that he designs, manufactures, and markets. In 1997, he launched Classic Cloth, a division specializing in textiles. In '98, he and his wife opened C.S. Post & Co., a home-furnishings retail store. (Though his other enterprises are to-the-trade only, he reasoned that the public wasn't, but ought to be, offered case goods, upholstered seating, accessories, and more, just as ready-to-wear is sold in addition to couture.) Most recently, in 2000, Comeau launched the furniture line Gérard and bought Palmer Hargrave, a lighting source.
All this, of course, aggravated the hectic pace he'd tried to avoid. To organize, fine-tune, and consolidate operations became the vital next steps.
How, then, did this contrarian go about establishing his headquarters? Resolved to stay on home turf, he chose the Kansas town of Plainville (population 2,200) for his venue. There, he bought an 11,000-square-foot 1920s car dealership, whose below-ground garage had been designated a safe haven after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He converted the disused showroom and lower level into work space for his staff, currently 47 strong: customer services for Classic Cloth and graphic arts above, other service groups and the accounting department below. Despite the lack of structural changes, spatial transmutations of this kind need specialized knowledge; yet Comeau acted as his own architect, designer, and coordinator. Forestalling disbelief, he claims jauntily that it was no big deal, simply done by osmosis. But he does admit to engaging a general contractor from the nearest big town, Hays (population 20,200).
Comeau's design plan was simplicity itself: to provide an environment conducive to the staff's comfort and enjoyment as well as, not surprisingly, to having fun. At the same time, he introduced an awareness of Kansas architecture, land, and heritage.
Not one of the old car dealership's basic elements—reinforced concrete flooring, steel trusses, exterior brick walls, wood roofing—was concealed, camouflaged, or in any way adulterated. In fact, the work crew even uncovered hidden architectural details. About to total a truly ugly hung ceiling, the participants discovered lovely pine planks overhead. Sandblasted, brushed, and power-washed, the resurrected overhang now tops an assemblage of workstations. Also of note, Medex (a composite sheeting material of glue and compressed straw) is used for cabinetry, bathroom doors, and dividers between desks. Office partitions are Sheetrock. Artificial illumination comes mainly from industrial ceiling fixtures supplemented by wall-mounted gooseneck lights.
Unexpected artwork includes 19th-century mezzotints bought in London, a professional wine taster's grape-stained tabletop purchased from Axel Vervoordt in Antwerp, and a 19th-century Japanese silk quilt from the estate of James Northcutt. Six large clocks assume both decorative and functional roles, showing the hour in each of the proprietor's business zones. (He also loves the clocks as embodiments of his cherished free time.)
Furnishings are, to understate the point, extremely eclectic. Chairs bought by Comeau—because he couldn't resist—go under the descriptive rubrics of gilded, George Nelson, twigged, Mies van der Rohe, and Arts and Crafts. Other seating comes from C.S. Post & Co. In the lunch-breakout room, stools designed by local artist Marvin Reif sport bases made of tractor parts and seats of sliced cottonwood trunks.
Emblematic of Comeau's whimsical and unpretentious style, two stripped-down tin chairs stand guard downstairs. After peeling off the vinyl padding, did he leave the forms denuded because he found them funnier? Cheerfully, he pleads guilty as charged.
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