With two Couleur Locale concept stores to their name in Europe’s Belgium, founders and curious travellers, Ruth Walleyn and husband Hendrik Jacobs, have created an eclectic and worldly interior design aesthetic, richly woven with artisanal heritage. Since 2004, the couple has ventured off the beaten track to connect and develop respectful relationships with remotely located artisans in places such as Madagascar and Kenya. And they continue to seek out intriguing, undiscovered treasures in diverse locales. A big-hearted business, Couleur Locale supports the small-scale production of some intrinsically unique items.
Ruth and Hendrik’s customers, both in Belgium and around the globe, love that Couleur Locale items are carefully crafted and hard to find, and their interior design aesthetic is a bohemian blend of ancient and contemporary cultures. Customers can also be reassured that their purchases are helping preserve long-standing artisanal traditions threatened by issues such as urbanisation and climate change.
For the past two years, Couleur Locale has stocked a selection of The Dharma Door’s products, handcrafted by our talented artisans in Bangladesh. We’re delighted to have our product amid such soulful company in the Northern Hemisphere. On that note, we wanted to shine a light on the energy that fuels the Couleur Locale fire. In this interview, Ruth Walleyn shares insight into her adventurous, aesthetically-rich world, with a few useful travel tips in the mix too. Enjoy!
Tell us about your business, Couleur Locale. When and how did it start, and what values underpin its operation?
I have three passions in life: animals, interiors, and travelling. I graduated as a veterinarian in 1994 and started my own vet practice in the Belgian countryside. I did plenty of house calls, and always eagerly observed people’s interiors. Some of my customers loved treasure hunting at flea markets and occasionally they liked to pay me in kind with their interesting finds – I think this helped create a stronger interest in decorating and the way space can influence how you feel. I always paid great attention to the decoration of my waiting room, which looked quite different from the typical waiting room in the average vet practice.
In 2004 I travelled to Africa for the first time. It wasn’t just a trip; it was a real expedition – a walking trip through Djibouti. I met my husband Hendrik there, who shared my passion for travelling and interiors (the animals were part of my ‘total package’J). It was love at first sight and from then on we travelled together. Fascinated by other cultures and local craftsmanship, we bought as many things as we could carry, and more! An idea developed to open a little concept store to sell these beautiful pieces. We value handmade, small-scale, natural or recycled products, and try to stick to these values wherever possible. The first store was an instant success! I continued working as a vet, but after a while the combination of my vet practice and the store became difficult. When we opened our second store (Couleur Locale Interior) we decided to close my practice, sold the house and moved. Ever since then, the stores have continued to grow.
Could you describe your shop spaces in Knokke-Heist, Belgium?
We have two stores in Knokke-Heist. Both of them reflect a Southern atmosphere with microcement white floors, white walls and white ceilings. The Couleur Locale Interior store’s ceiling features exposed wooden beams and bamboo branches. Our Concept Store has rounded walls and arching doorways and old weathered doors from Morocco.
Tell us more about Knokke-Heist, the area where you’re based? What is the culture like, and do you have regular local customers, and/or clients that you collaborate with on interior projects?
Knokke-Heist is a fashionable seaside town, where people like to come on a holiday or visit for a weekend. It has a lot to offer and is a great place for shopping. Many of our customers have a ‘second stay’ here, or a holiday home. We have plenty of regular customers, but also new customers because we’re in a tourist area.
You’ve just launched an exciting new website especially for Interiors projects. What are some of your key interior style influences/inspirations? What kind of clients are you hoping to work with into the future?
Our main inspiration comes from holiday houses down South, with their distinct white plastered walls and old weathered doors, like you’ll find in Greece, Morocco, Mallorca… We help decorate holiday houses, second stays and even hotels, all in our style.
You curate a wide range of unique products for Couleur Locale – how do you go about sourcing and selecting your stock? Does it have to meet any particular standards?
I try to curate our unique pieces myself, which isn’t always easy and takes a lot of time. It’s hard to describe in words; it has to be love at first sight – if I wouldn’t put it in my own house, it’s not good enough. I quite like irregularities and blemishes, but it still has to be marketable of course.
When travelling to collect and source your artisanal pieces, do you regularly visit the same destinations, or try to visit new places?
We do both. Places we keep returning to are Kenya, Senegal and Morocco. But we try to visit a new destination at least each year. Last year we went to Zambia, this year we’re going to Myanmar.
As a seasoned traveller, can you give our readers a few tips for how to travel light but well? Any essential garments or gear that you couldn’t travel without?
We are very adventurous travellers and like to go off the beaten track. We’re happy going on foot, by horse or even with a canoe. We tend to sleep somewhere new every night, so for practical reasons we don’t carry a lot of luggage. It also clears my head. In my day-to-day life with Couleur Locale, I’m always busy with material things, so I like to have as few items with me as possible when travelling. I always take a big, flexible travelling bag (as opposed to a hard suitcase) with minimal clothing, a piece of soap to wash clothes, a small towel and sunscreen. Essential items are: a light linen scarf, sturdy sandals, a notebook and a linen carry bag.
Have you had any particularly unique experiences when globetrotting? Have any of these experiences led to the discovery of a new product?
Each trip has its own unique experiences. I could write a book about them all! I remember a hiking trip with the Maasai people in Tanzania where we encountered a ‘boma’ that was celebrating a wedding. After some discussion, we were allowed to partake in the celebrations and stayed with the family the entire day. It was incredible to see how the tribe managed to maintain their primitive ways. The women made me some jewellery. Inspired by their talent, I searched for Maasai jewellery with a modern Western touch, which we now sell in our Concept Store.
What are your three favourite products in-store at Couleur Locale right now and why?
How long have you stocked The Dharma Door (Europe) products? What drew you to their products, and what items do you predominantly stock?
Since February 2017. It was love at first sight: the simplicity of the pieces, the timelessness and the story behind their items. We sell the jute baskets, bags, wall hangings, mandalas and plaids/throws.
What is your best-selling Dharma Door product? And why do you think that is?
The laundry basket – it’s very practical. But also the wall hangings, because they are so different from others of their kind.
What are some of the challenges associated with running Couleur Locale?
The work never stops. Both our stores are open seven days a week, and of course the web shop is always running too. Lots of people think my husband and I are always travelling, but they underestimate the many, many hours we spend at our desk. I’m very sensitive to criticism and want to help all my customers as well and as fast as possible.
What is your home like? With so many interesting products at your finger-tips, do you find many of them in rotation in your own home?
Couleur Locale is our home, and our home is Couleur Locale. The decoration changes constantly. After purchasing items, I might put them in our house for a while, before they ‘move’ to the store. Sometimes we might sell an item on our web shop, and my colleagues have to look for it everywhere…until I eventually confess I’ve had it in my house the whole time! Ha!
What are some of your family’s favourite ways to spend time at home? And what do you do to relax and take some time out from work?
Because of the constant growth of Couleur Locale, our free time is limited. I insist on working out twice a week with my personal trainer. During our long, Belgian winter, I enjoy sitting around the fireplace and watching movies with my kids, or playing Risk. The summer period is peak season for us, and the few days I’m home, I enjoy eating outside or watching the sun go down over the ocean. The best relaxation is when we are travelling and there is no internet; we can let go of everything and just enjoy and discover. The world is such a beautiful place, and there is so much to see and do!
I’ve been snooping around your beautiful Instagram account @couleurlocaleconceptstore and read that it’s your ultimate dream to live in a barefoot living house – tell us more!
We live in Belgium, where the winters are long and the summers too short. I get a lot of energy from the summer, and I think it shows in my decorating style – this is what makes me feel good. I dream of a house where you can walk around barefoot. Relaxed, open, filled with light and connected to the outside, a barefoot house gives you the feeling that you are always on holiday.
What are you looking forward to from a creative point of view? And also from a more general life point of view?
My ultimate dream is being able to decorate a barefoot house with complete freedom from A to Z. In general, I look forward to travelling more, being submerged in other cultures.
To wrap things up, we’d love you to share:
A fav dinner or reliable go-to recipe?
Sausage and apple sauce. Or my grandmother’s recipe for chicory and meatballs, but it has to be made in a black pottery casserole dish (even though I don’t eat meat anymore!)
Your most memorable holiday destination from the last 3 years?
An album or song you've been listening to lately?
Sauti Sol – Kuliko Jana (acapella)
Photography by Jeroen van der Spek
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