Written by: Simonette Berry
While most European antique buyers are shopping in the high-traffic Parisian markets, Randy Williamson and Richard Clements of Designer’s Showroom are leaving dust trails in early morning light down the winding roads of the French and Belgian countryside. During a typical buying trip, they wake before dawn and work 12- to 16-hour days. They find their best pieces in small towns among the dusty bric-a-brac of shops, street fairs, personal storehouses, and farmhouses, pieces that have been tucked away sometimes for centuries. The trick, they say, is traveling by box truck; this way, they don’t have to pay exorbitant shipping costs to transport their treasures.
“We do more than most buyers ever will. We get our hands dirty, we get lost down dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes we have to literally step over cow pies and go into barns at midnight with flashlights, but it’s worth every second of it,” says Randy. “We’re dealing in three different languages, so it’s always an adventure. We have a guide that serves as an interpreter at times, but we can communicate well enough. We know enough to know when they’re talking about us,” he chuckles.
Randy learned the ropes from his parents, who started the tradition of these off-road adventures. When they retired, they passed the legacy on to Randy, his brother Guy Williamson, and sister Sherri Pascal. The Williamsons’ 13,000-square-foot showroom in Shreveport houses designer furniture, fabric, and interior accents, but their niche is French antiques and antique lighting fixtures.
Designer’s Showroom is an interior design firm as well, with five certified interior designers on staff. Richard Clements, a buyer and Randy’s partner in crime on trips, is one of these designers. “We do design work all over the world,” he says. “We just finished projects in Tuscany, Dubai, and on the upper East Coast. We also do a lot of work in the Midwest, in Aspen and Vail, and a lot of luxury second homes in Florida.”
“We have all the major manufacturers in stock and we have the ability to do anything custom. We do design work, high-end fabrics, and a lot of custom furniture, but there are a lot of firms out there that do that, too. We have fabrics from all over the world, and access to the line that does fabric for today’s royal families and the papal line. The antique lighting and French and Belgian antiques are kind of our niche, though,” Richard says.
Designer’s Showroom has evolved year after year to reflect the latest trends, and over the past 55 years they’ve been in business, some trends have come full circle. “Tastes change, colors and finishes change, the scale of furniture changes, but we have evolved with the market. Things that were popular 30 years ago are back today. The mutation of color that was used in the 60s and 70s is popular again, too. Houses are larger than ever before now, and the formality has left. People want things that are more functional, livable.”
Designer’s Showroom specializes in 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th-century lighting elements in iron, bronze, brass, and crystal, but on buying trips, they look for any items that will generate interest. “Recently I found a pair of six-foot-tall linen panels hand-painted with the Stations of the Cross, dated 1825. They were hanging in a barn. We bought them, had them stretched on canvas and framed, and we sold them both within the first week. One of the buyers cried when she first saw the piece, it was so powerful for her.”
Randy and Richard focus on French pieces, but they find many Italian and English items along the way. They buy regularly from the hunting chateaus in northern France, and often stumble upon priceless architectural pieces from the remainders of 15th- and 16th-century churches that were destroyed in WWI. The highest point of a battlefield was normally the church steeple, so soldiers used them as lookout points. Many of the churches were destroyed. Soldiers and townspeople salvaged what they could from the ruins. “We’ve gotten a lot of Gothic bronze light fixtures from Catholic orphanages, convents, churches, and monasteries. At any given time, we stock 100, sometimes 130 antique fixtures. Some were made to hold candles, and others are gas or early electrical fixtures. Each one is unique. We’ve placed these all over the world.” “Sometimes it goes like this: we have an appointment at five pm with a guy in southern Belgium. That guy calls his friend who has a consignment storage two miles down the road, and he tips off his friend five miles down the road, and on it goes; so they’re literally lining up when we get there. We go from place to place to place until three in the morning sometimes, following a trail. We travel 75 miles down a dead-end road sometimes, but it just takes one piece to make the trip special.”
“Normally this is hard to do because you can’t take it with you, but we can. Shipping costs are so much lower this way, and we can then pass these low costs on to our customers. Logistically, the cost of picking up that one piece from a little village, and getting it to Paris would be extravagant. The pieces we bring back are one of a kind. Our clients and their lifestyles are not cookie-cutter either, and that’s why they gravitate towards these pieces. Sometimes we do as many as five or six fixtures in a given home because they just fall in love with them. You can’t just walk into a new lighting store and see what we have here. There are so many wonderful stories behind these things; it makes them almost like part of the family after they’re installed.”
“It’s a fun job. It’s fun to sell-it’s probably more fun to buy. Again, we’re really not selling, we’re placing. We do a tremendous amount of central and south Louisiana business because we can pass these prices on, and we’re known for our value and unique inventory,” Richard says. “I often tell my clients that we have an ulterior motive; the quicker we sell, the quicker we get to go back!”