In Business of Home’s series Shop Talk, we chat with owners of home furnishings stores across the country to hear about their hard-won lessons and challenges, big and small—and to ask what they see for the future of small industry businesses like theirs.
This week, we spoke with Renate Ruby, the owner of the Seattle store Adorn and its more recent sister spot Brume. She was joined by her stepdaughter Roisy Rickel, who helped build and manage Adorn’s e-commerce site as a teenager and now oversees marketing while contributing to designer sales. Here, the pair discuss the value of a designer, their close relationship with Verellen, and the challenges of Seattle’s unfancy culture.
What was your professional background before the shop?
Renate Ruby: I’ve been in the interior design industry since 1989, so a long time. I started out at a custom furniture manufacturer in Portland. Then, for about 15 years, I had my own business here in Seattle doing high-end decorative finishes, back when that was a thing throughout the ’90s. In the early 2000s, I started doing interior design. It started slowly and built and built and built. At the time, interior designers controlled the distribution of all the good stuff. If you wanted a really high-end piece, you had to go to the design center. But as the industry changed and as basic products [became] available to the general public, I didn’t see the interior design industry shifting to redefine the value that design and curation bring.
I don’t like to fight battles I can’t win. With the internet distribution of home furnishings and [furniture companies] trying to go around the design industry to the end users, it just felt like I couldn’t do it as a designer. But I saw that as a showroom, I could bring things to the interior design community that people couldn’t get online. About six years ago, I started Adorn, and we slowly built it up to what we hope is a resource both for interior designers and for people who aren’t working with a designer—to connect to people who make gorgeous stuff. And then Brume opened in 2018.
What’s the aesthetic of the two stores?
Ruby: Brume has a very open, comfortable, cohesive feeling about it. It’s 3,500 square feet, so it’s not tiny, but it’s also not huge. We’re not trying to appeal to a lot of different aesthetics here at Brume. We have one point of view, or a narrower point of view, that’s connected to [products from] Verellen and Alfonso Marina and Amadi Carpets.
Roisy Rickel: There’s a lot of neutrals and textures, very minimal color or pattern. It’s a really classic and timeless approach at Brume—as opposed to over at Adorn, where we’ve gone almost in the opposite direction in the best way possible. There, we have tons of color, tons of pattern, and possibilities with everything. At Adorn, you’re executing your own vision and you can do whatever you want with whatever colors and patterns. We have endless custom and in-stock options, and tons of finishes on bedding.
Ruby: Brume is a poetic word for fog—like, “Mr. Darcy emerged from the morning brume.” The aesthetic is connected to the foggy, near-the-ocean feeling we have here in Seattle. In this light, you can see the subtle differences in neutrals. I really love exploring that. Adorn is a much broader perspective. I love color. I love textiles. We have a wallpaper boutique because we love Timorous Beasties. We love all these wonderful, expressive patterns and they didn’t work at Brume. I had to do two different storefronts, and they’re two doors away from each other. Having the two was a great way of showcasing my two loves.
When did you expand to Brume, and why?
Ruby: Verellen is such a singular look that I felt like mixing Verellen in with the pattern and the textiles cheapened them both. In order to show the Verellen and Alfonso and Amadi [they way] they deserved, they needed to be in this protected environment. We say that Brume is like a gallery, where you come in and it’s pre-curated. It’s a very careful point of view, but Adorn is more like an art supply store, where there are endless possibilities. Brume opened in our first space, but we moved into our current space during the pandemic.
Who is the typical customer at each store?
Ruby: Most of our business is still to the trade. Our sales team tries to be furnishing consultants to designers. We have a lot of new designers who do their entire projects here because we can bring them such a broad range. That being said, the Brume product is all made to order. It’s a longer lead time, and it requires a more mature approach. Adorn has a lot more ready-to-ship [items].
Your relationship with Verellen is so special. How did that come about?
Ruby: It started with Libeco. I was looking for furniture makers who were utilizing Libeco linen. [Their] Belgian linen is the best in the world; my theory was that if I followed the linen, it would bring me to top manufacturers.
Rickel: If anyone cared enough to wrap an entire sofa in Libeco linen, then that's who we would want to work with.
Ruby: Exactly. The Verellens have a small showroom in High Point, and I walked in there in 2017 and just about dropped on the floor. It was singing to my soul—the style there, and the commitment to quality. Everything about Verellen just screamed Seattle to me. At the time, I had a 900-square-foot storefront and was doing small things. Meeting the Verellen team changed the trajectory.
Is there a certain product or type of product that you can’t keep in stock?
Ruby: It’s a Libeco product—their Belgian towel. It’s a large woven linen that can be used as a bath towel, table cloth, or throw. You can wear it to the beach. It's this textile that is so versatile and so beautiful. We really do sell a lot of them.
Is there any advice you would give yourself if you could go back to opening day of Adorn?
Ruby: Stick with your own soul. You know, Roisy is my stepdaughter, and she graduated from the University of Washington’s business school about a year and a half ago. While she was going through business school, she was living at home and we had a lot of family conversations about value propositions. I’m reading Business of Home and Sean Low’s column and I’ve actually done Zoom presentations with him for my friends in the local design community—he just has such an amazing way of seeing the value proposition that designers bring. And so I developed both of these showrooms with the express goal of helping designers communicate the value that they bring. We don’t have a designer discount here; we have a business-to-business price for trade, and then we have our retail prices. The trade buys at a different price than the general public, because designers are adding value. They’re also making our job easier by taking liability for the sale.
Rickel: So it’s not that we don’t have designer net pricing—it just means that we don’t call it a discount, because that’s not what we believe that it is. We believe that they’re—
Ruby: They are earning every penny.
Rickel: They’re earning all of that, because there’s work that goes into it. There’s a curation process. There are lots of things that a business takes on when they buy from us, as opposed to a retail customer, so we try to really respect that.
Ruby: We don’t do design here. We’re all designers, we all can do design, but we don’t do it here because our best customers are the people who are really doing the design. We’re furnishing specialists now. We’re focusing on a very narrow part of a design project.
Rickel: When retail customers have a very specific vision that they want help executing, we can help with the furnishings and we can give them recommendations on what type of fabric to use. But if they need help with creating that vision, we have tons of amazing designers that we can refer them to.
What is your biggest everyday challenge, and what’s your existential challenge?
Ruby: Look, we’re still a pretty young business. I would say right now the most difficult thing is supply chain and delivery and freight and lead times, and trying to manage expectations of our customers. You used to be able to expedite things. You used to be able to know where everything was, and that just isn’t the case right now. And of course there’s always cash flow and any kind of small business worry.
But I’ll tell you the existential thing—it goes back to creating value for the customers. We’ve gotten so connected to finding the lowest possible price for any item. My goal is to add value to everything that we sell so that the value of what is purchased is greater than the price they pay. A lot of that is in the curation. One analogy that I use a lot to sort of explain this to designers is, [say] you take a room and you fill it with 10 lamps that all have a $1,000 price tag on them; without any context, the value of each lamp is $1,000. But if a designer walks into that room with the context of their project in mind, and they select one lamp from those 10, that’s the right lamp. The remaining nine lamps are the wrong lamp. I believe that this is the key to uncoupling the online price from the value that a designer brings. Because what made that one lamp more valuable than the other nine? It was the designer. My job is to provide a room with the 10 best lamps I can find, so that when the designer comes in, they have the best lamp with the most value.
I usually ask how you convey to customers that what you’re offering is more worthwhile than cheap internet stuff—but that’s how!
Rickel: We tell the stories of everybody involved in the process.
Ruby: I mean, we have a Verellen leather sofa that’s $19,000 retail, and people are like, “$19,000!” But then when they sit on it and they feel the leather, it’s obvious why that’s the value. And with the Alfonso Marina pieces, they’re not for everybody and they’re not for every project, but I constantly tell people that it just makes me happy to know that there are still people in the world who can produce product of that caliber.
Rickel: We had a customer this year that called us after having their Verellen sofa for—wasn’t it over 20 years? And her kids had gone off to college and her pets had passed away, and she was like, “I’m kind of bored with this color. I need to reupholster it.”
Ruby: Sustainability is something that’s been important to me my entire career. Sustainability, while it does include using ground-up water bottles as fill, is more importantly building things to last. That’s about the materials, but it’s also about the business practices. Are the people who are involved in making the product earning a living wage? People come in and look at Verellen, and I’m like, “Part of the reason this is so beautifully made is that everybody who works on it has health insurance.”
Rickel: In the long run, it’s both more affordable and more sustainable to get something that’s going to last longer. Your carbon footprint is dramatically reduced.
Is there a challenge specific to Seattle as a retail owner? Real estate comes to mind, but what are some challenges to operating in Seattle that people in other cities might not know about?
Ruby: We have a very sophisticated population here. I think we have the highest per capita population of college graduates in the country. But we’re in this beautiful area, and people spend a lot of their time outdoors, going to the mountains. It’s not about being fancy here; it’s not like L.A. or Dallas, where it’s a lot about how you present yourself on the outside.
Rickel: In Seattle, we are so not fancy. People go to a corporate business meeting in jeans and a T-shirt. If the quality is there and you know that people and the environment are being protected along the way, then you can justify the cost in that way. “Farmer’s market furniture” is what Renate says sometimes—it’s a good way to talk to our market, specifically, because it’s not about having something super flashy and shiny. Sometimes people in Seattle are like, “No, I don’t want something expensive because I don’t want to be fancy,” but we have to [explain] that it’s expensive because people are being taken care of. It’s going to last a really long time. Your carbon footprint is better. And those are the types of things that they actually do care about.
What’s the future of small businesses like yours, and has that changed in the pandemic?
Ruby: I think that the designer community has been in love with the idea of going direct and bypassing the “middleman.” What we’re finding is that interim curators— people like us who curate the shopping environment—we add value that’s not there. The country is filled with small businesses that are all middlemen. And if your goal is to save 10 percent by going around your local showroom, that is like stabbing yourself in the foot, because you need the showrooms. Designers can’t go to every market. Designers can’t know about every vendor—they just can’t.
I think that designers are going to really appreciate the value that vendors like me bring to the table, and also the vendors are starting to appreciate having those boots on the ground in every city, as well. When I purchase goods from Gus Modern at wholesale and I resell them to the client and I manage the client experience, I make sure that the product is delivered in a timely and a safe way; it’s a fabulous partnership. I think more national brands are going to start realizing that not having people like me to connect with the local population is a detriment.
What’s your favorite kind of day as a shop owner?
Ruby: That's changed recently. As the team is getting more and more knowledgeable about the products, I'm stepping back from the day-to-day sales. I’m working on the business rather than working in the business. So this is really strange, but my favorite day is when I'm invisible. When I can sit back and hear everybody on the team interacting with a customer in a way that makes me proud of what I've built, and the team that we have built together. That's my favorite kind of day.
Is there any aspect of retail ownership or areas of the business that we didn't cover that you'd like to mention?
Ruby: I think the piece of it that we really didn’t talk about is feminism. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and what is still true is that work that’s traditionally done by women is valued less than work that’s traditionally done by men, still. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about adding value to the process of interior design is because it’s mostly women, and I see so many designers who I love and respect who are trying to share their discount with their clients.
Rickel: They’re spending so much valuable time looking for the cheapest possible price. That’s their interpretation of giving value to their customer.
Ruby: Rather than focusing on the design being excellent. I don’t believe designers should try to be the lowest price. They should try to be the highest value. The clients are like, “Well, I need to know what you paid.” No!
Rickel: Nobody else does that. No one asks the electrician.
Ruby: You don’t go into Nordstrom and say, “Oh, well, what did you pay for this?” It’s proprietary information. And so a lot of what I talk about with designers is just: “Look, it’s your business. You need to make a profit. What you paid for your cost of goods is proprietary; it’s none of your client’s business.”
Rickel: We shouldn’t feel guilty as women for having sustainable business models that pay us a living wage.
Ruby: I see designers walk through with clients and they have three sofas, four chairs, six rugs, and the client goes down and they pick each one like it’s an a la carte menu. I just think that cheapens the design. I mean, I know why designers are doing it, because they’re worried that the client’s going to go, “I don’t like this thing.” We, as a culture, haven’t valued the curation that the designers provide. We’re not treating designers like professionals.
Rickel: Because we don’t view women as experts.
Ruby: Did I win the stepdaughter lottery or what?
Homepage photo: The Brume showroom | Courtesy of Brume