There's No Place Like Home
Entrepreneur Chuck Comeau relocated his international luxury furnishings company to the rural Kansas town where he grew up and learned preservation isn't just a way to celebrate community'it's good for business, too.
hen Chuck Comeau’s two young sons borrowed a local farmer’s tractor for a joy ride years ago, they should have known they would get busted by the neighbors: Plainville, Kan., is the sort of place where everybody knows your business. The city of 2,100 has no stoplight. Streetlamp banners declare this windswept outpost “Home of the Cardinals,” the high school team. Locals can differentiate the blare of the daily tornado test whistle from a real emergency warning.
So finding one of the nation’s top luxury furnishing companies tucked between the cattle pastures and oil derricks 205 miles northwest of Wichita is unexpected, to say the least. But for the past 19 years, lifelong Plainville resident Comeau and his staff have been creating high-end pieces for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Kelsey Grammer, and Sir Elton John in the once sleepy commercial district.
The 55-year-old designer credits his rural hometown and the nearby city of Hays with making his business stand out, though by incorporating historic restoration into his ever-growing portfolio of ventures, it’s Comeau who’s setting these reenergized communities apart.
Like his father and brothers, Comeau initially worked in the cattle and oil industries, studying earth sciences at Fort Hays State University 25 miles down the road in Hays. But he always managed to fit his passion for art and design into his busy schedule. When a photo Comeau sent to Architectural Digest—showing the renovations he and wife Shirley had completed on their antiques-packed Colonial (kittycorner from Comeau’s childhood home)—prompted a full-fledged feature story, it dawned on him that design could be more than a hobby.
Comeau and business partner Len Larson founded Dessin Fournir (“to design” and “to furnish”) in Los Angeles in 1993. Southern California, though a design industry hub, was a tough commute for Comeau, especially with young children back in Plainville. After three years, with ballooning overhead costs and constant employee turnover, Comeau decided his hometown would be a better place to set up shop.
Historic preservation wasn’t originally part of the plan. But building office space in Plainville’s dilapidated downtown seemed wasteful with so many abandoned storefronts available, so Comeau established his headquarters (production is still largely based in California) in the basement of a 1920 former Chevy showroom on West Mill Street, a space that had served as the city’s fallout shelter during the Cold War. As Dessin Fournir grew, so did the restorations.
“We started thinking, ‘Look at all these empty buildings. If nothing else, what we can do is utilize them so it shows that there’s life in downtown,’” Comeau says. “And what came out of it was that these buildings each have an interesting charm and they do create a really wonderful, creative environment.”
The company expanded to occupy two more former automotive shops, a onetime meatpacking facility, and an old doughnut bakery that had originally been a grocery store. When operations outgrew the showroom basement, renovations in the space above revealed fir trusses and an elaborate tin ceiling in what is now the headquarters’ design studio.
“It’s interesting when you follow the building and the way it works best,” Comeau says. “The building is what talks to you and tells you how to move forward, and I think we ended up with a great floorplan that set the stage.”
Comeau calls his architectural aesthetic “modern industrial with an agricultural influence.” The airy corporate offices use exposed concrete and steel as a nod to Kansas industry. Such unexpected art as a prop from Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), and chairs made from deconstructed radiators and welded-together wrenches from Comeau’s impressive personal collection keep the mood light.
Residents who had lost their oil industry jobs when prices dipped in the late 1980s came to work for Dessin Fournir. Old friends who’d left town had a reason to return. Kelli Hansen, the city’s mayor, handles financial and legal matters for the company and works in the office next to Comeau. Hansen and her husband also grew up in Plainville.
“Obviously [Chuck] has a passion for stuff like this, and it rubs off and everybody starts to want the same thing. They start believing in it,” Hansen says. “One of the things that drove me to be mayor was I wanted to preserve that quality of life and the childhood I grew up with in Plainville. I wanted that same thing for my kids.”
Preservation has been a boon for business, too.
“It’s helped us marketing-wise. It’s created awareness about our company,” Comeau says. “[People] don’t look at us like, ‘Oh, they’re this little company in rural Kansas;’ they go, ‘You oughta see what these guys have done!’”
Plainville can be difficult to reach—visitors who aren’t afraid of prop planes can fly into Hays—and Comeau admits it can be tricky to attract young professionals without the draw of big-city living. But a small-town setting has in no way impeded growth. Since relocating to Plainville, Dessin Fournir has added or acquired seven lines, opened showrooms in Chicago and New York City, and worked with vendors in Thailand, India, and across Europe. In England, Rolls-Royce even sought out the rights to one of Comeau’s cashmere-blend fabrics for its automobile interiors.
“[The company has] grown, but I think the core values of fairness and customer service have stayed the same,” Chicago Showroom Manager Robert Brass says. “There’s no shortage of niceness in Kansas. People are very pleasant there, so that’s really helpful.”
For Comeau, growing his company while returning Plainville to the vibrant rural community he remembers from his childhood was just the beginning. The same approach that had been working so well in Plainville, Comeau posited, just might work in Hays, a city of 20,500, too. In 1997, he and Shirley opened C.S. Post & Co., a chic twist on an old-fashioned general store. It’s stocked with home goods aimed at customers who might not be able to afford Dessin Fournir’s $1,200 dining chairs or $44,000 custom breakfronts. The shop, housed in a 1910 building surrounded by deserted historic architecture in downtown Hays, didn’t get much foot traffic. So when a 1917 former grocery store went up for sale down the street, Comeau was quick to snatch it up.
“We started thinking, ‘Well, what if we were able to get enough buildings so that we could really cause a change in perspective by renovating them?’” he says.
After buying four more empty storefronts, Comeau presented his plan to an initially skeptical group of city leaders. Liberty Group, Comeau’s development firm, was formed in 1999. In 2000, the City of Hays formed the Downtown Hays Development Corporation (DHDC) to work in conjunction with Liberty Group on the restorations. The nonprofit DHDC took the $100,000 it had been given by the city and raised an additional $650,000 to acquire the properties and get work underway. The first renovations were completed in 2003.
“This was a town of farmers, Volga Germans, working people, so the buildings that are still standing are brick. They’re plain, but it’s that plainness that’s so Kansas,” says Henry Schwaller, a Hays city commissioner and DHDC board member. “One might have been tempted to tear them down and put something different in their place, but I’m glad we didn’t. Because this is what Hays was and is. That’s what I really appreciate about Chuck—he can take these plain old brick buildings and make them incredibly beautiful.”
Downtown Hays is a little ways past the chain motels and drive-thrus clustered off Interstate 70, but as Liberty Group and DHDC have brought life back, building by building, along Main Street, travelers have started to drive the few extra miles for a hot meal or a break from the road. Perhaps the biggest draw? Gella’s Diner & Lb. Brewing Co., an eclectic restaurant and award-winning microbrewery housed in four structures built between 1919 and 1938. With the help of nearly 60 local investors, the popular eatery and watering hole opened in 2005. The forgotten space that once stood decaying behind sheets of aluminum is now packed with locals and visitors who regularly enjoy its exposed brick, reconstructed ceilings, locally raised beef, and World Beer Cup–winning Oatmeal Stout.
Today, 13 properties in downtown Hays have been completely renovated and leased. The rejuvenated storefronts house a gourmet kitchenware and gifts shop, photography and art studios, a baby and maternity boutique, a dance school, two salons, and a planing mill—once a Coca-Cola bottling plant—where some of Dessin Fournir’s custom furniture is produced. Tammy McClellan became the redevelopment plan’s first tenant when she moved her jewelry business into a 1926 barber shop. Simply Charmed opened in 2003.
The historic location gets people to walk in the door, McClellan says. “We’re a small Midwestern town, but our appearance would rival something you would find in a big city. When I go talk to other retailers, I always take pictures of my store. I say, ‘I want you to see where we do what we do.’ And they’re pretty amazed by it.”
Equally amazing have been some of the architectural finds the work has uncovered. Removing drop ceilings revealed soaring trusses. Dark exterior paint had hidden intricate brickwork. At the cavernous 1917 Strand Theatre building, restoration efforts led to the discovery of not only original stained-glass exterior windows that had been bricked over, but also an intact, ornate tin ceiling painted in dazzling blues and greens. Entrances African-Americans had to use during segregation give the theater added historical significance.
Comeau’s oldest son, Adam, works on his dad’s restoration team—though he keeps a walkie talkie on his belt when he’s on call as a volunteer with the Plainville EMS two days a week. “I find it really interesting, to go to a building and start peeling back all the layers and seeing how everything changed,” the 30-year-old University of Kansas grad says. “And it’s like, ‘Why the hell did they ever do that?’” Twenty-seven-year-old Alex went into the family business too, working for Dessin Fournir as an industrial designer. Colin, Chuck and Shirley’s youngest, is away at college.
Comeau has big plans for the Strand Theatre, along with several other properties nearby. Liberty Group has enlisted the San Antonio–based Lake Flato architecture firm in drawing up blueprints for a boutique hotel on Main Street. With lines inspired by grain elevators, the hotel would incorporate upscale loft suites on the second stories of several restored downtown buildings and a renovated Strand Theatre as event space.
Alleys between buildings will be brightened and landscaped as pedestrian- friendly walkways. And along the train tracks that cut through the center of town, Comeau and his colleagues envision a greenscape that connects the striking limestone buildings of Fort Hays State University’s 1902 campus to the downtown business district. They’ll fit the city’s grain elevators in, too, as restrooms or commons, along with a performance stage, restaurants, and a farmers market. Comeau says the projects have been approved, and he hopes to have construction under way within two years.
The revivalist spirit has proven contagious. A local couple sought Liberty Group’s help in turning a 1946 Singer sewing machine store into a live music venue; it opened in October 2011. Back in Plainville, Lake Flato has sketched out Comeau’s plans for another boutique hotel and café in a 1920 former hotel across the street from Dessin Fournir’s headquarters.
Slowly but surely, Comeau’s idea to restore the lively downtown atmosphere of his youth has taken hold. And as he tells his dedicated staff, bigger and faster and newer isn’t always better. For Comeau, quality, authenticity, and passion always prevail. A tight-knit rural community is not to be underestimated.
“If it weren’t for [the historic aspect], this would be like another strip mall,” Comeau says. “In the city, they’re trying to create the downtown outdoor shopping malls, but if you go to them, you know they’re not real. You can’t re-create this off the bypass and just stick a couple of trees there. There has to be a story behind it, and downtown has the story.”
Online Exclusive: Check out these cool behind-the-scenes shots from Chuck Comeau's renovations.