In Conversation: Ruth Walleyn – From House Calls to House Style
Photos: Couleur Locale
“Just leave, do not prepare too much and take little with you.” Ruth Walleyn
You’ve had a less than usual route into interiors, explain how you went from being a vet, making house calls, to house styling with an interiors concept store?
I graduated in 1994 as a vet and immediately started my own practice, which I was very passionate about and soon my practice started to grow. Being based in the countryside meant I did many home visits – I always looked at the patient with one eye and the interior with my other! I had a couple of customers who visited flea markets and after taking care of their pets, I went to browse the customer’s shed and often went home with a nice candlestick or an old farmer’s basket. We did some sort of barter and soon had an attic filled with unique objects. In my free time I was always busy decorating my house.
In 2004 I traveled to Africa for the first time, more specifically to Djibouti. I was just divorced and wanted to get away. The desolation and the unknown appealed to me. On that trip I met Hendrik, an architect from Knokke. It was as if we had known each other for years, it clicked immediately and soon we fell madly in love with each other. We not only shared the passion for travel but also the interior passion.
On a subsequent trip to Senegal we bought as much as we could carry – wooden gourds and tribal chairs at the local market. Our children wondered what we were going to do with it. But that’s how the idea of opening a store (Couleur Locale Concept Store) and we started to sell travel objects. Afterwards came the web shop and a second store (Couleur Locale Interior store).
Had you always wanted to be a vet, or was interior design an equal passion?
Veterinary was really the only profession that existed for me, this choice was already made as a child. Interior design was more of a hobby, I never saw that as a profession until much later.
As Couleur Locale took off, you were faced with a difficult choice. Was closing your vet practice a real wrench or a natural progression into interiors?
For a few years I combined my work as a veterinarian with the stores, but it became too much and choices had to be made. This was a gradual process, a difficult process also, with many tears and even criticism from my family. It took me 2 years to say goodbye to my vet practice, which was 6 years ago, but afterwards I knew it was the right choice.
Meeting your architect husband, Hendrik, seems to be one of those happy, chance meetings that lights a spark and alters the course of both your histories. Do you think you would have made the leap into interiors had you not met?
No definitely not. It was that chance encounter that changed my life. We now do everything together and that feels great
Your travels remind me of The Grand Tours undertaken in the 19th Century, the golden age of exploration and collecting. Did you feel like you were on a journey with more significance than a holiday?
Yes indeed, we never use the word vacation. We are travelers and prefer to go to places where there are no other travelers/ tourists. Social media has made it harder and harder to find remote places, it has changed travel patterns, with a lot more people traveling the world like crazy to post selfies of “instagrammable” places. To us that is traveling without a soul. We enjoy nature, other cultures, and are certainly not looking for MUST see places or highlights. We prefer the unknown, undiscovered.
How did you turn collecting into a business?
With trial and error and zero knowledge at the start.
Much of your collection has an ancient artisan elegance, a pared bake simplicity, with imperfections and a softness that’s both charming and restful. What underpins your buying choices?
I have a huge admiration for handmade things and buy purely by the feeling, which I personally like. The trick is to collect things and then combine them afterwards with what I already have. When I buy I immediately plan in my mind what I will do, how I will combine things. I never look at the price, to the annoyance of my husband.
My favourite pieces are the wooden Notorial Acts, from Morocco, used by the Berber to record a marriage, will or deed of sale, because there was no paper available, and the Wooden Fish made from driftwood or canoes. How much of the Couleur Locale collection do you have at home and which are your favourite pieces?
I have a large collection that keeps growing. The fish from Kenya are certainly part of that, but also a large collection of baskets and small chairs from African tribes. I have five baskets from Morocco that are so tightly woven they are watertight – they are beautiful. I also collect bird litters from weaver birds, collecting one from each country and hanging up by my desk. There is much more, old wooden jugs, Koran tablets, henna cloths, bogolan cloths etc etc! My big favorites are Hima wooden milk jugs with woven lids, from Uganda. Brides-to-be lived in separate huts where they mainly had to eat and sleep a lot. The whole milk containers were used to add fat to the bride’s body (to make it thicker) – quite a different idea of beauty than the west!
An interior design service is a natural fit for your business, tell me about Couleur Locale Projects
My husband takes care of the renovations, bathroom and kitchen etc, and I then continue to furnish. This way we complement each other perfectly. For projects abroad (holiday homes) we work with local contractors and then fly there regularly to monitor everything. We also arrange the entire relocation, (transport but also unpack and give everything a place …) we fill the fridge and the wood basket so that the customer arrives and has nothing to do except enjoy.
Describe your interior style and what ingredients make a happy home for you?
The basis of our house is completely white: white walls and white floor, although I recently painted my daughter’s room in sand colour with a lime paint. In addition, warm wooden furniture is added, I love slightly weathered wood such as elm and use linen everywhere, the more wrinkles the better. This year we are going to renovate our bathroom and this will certainly get tadelakt walls, I’m looking forward to it, and it will be a sand colour.
The two most important criteria for me are daylight, lots of light, and an unobstructed view. Through our windows we see a meadow with cows and behind it is the forest, I could never be without this now. We currently have 3 cats, in the past we also had dogs, chickens, sheep etc … but we live 130 km from the stores so we had to reduce the number of animals. But someday they will come back, we continue to dream of living in a house where you can walk barefoot all year round (so abroad) with a lot of pets.
I regularly do veterinary volunteer work abroad, whenever I can, including helping with sterilization and vaccination projects in Thailand, Panama and Congo. It is now 3 years ago, so I start to miss it very much, especially when I see the poignant images in Australia now, with the bushfires, I just think: if only I were there to help …
And on getting married in Senegal, this must have been extraordinary?
Indeed, we got married there eight years ago in a lodge (Collines de Niassam) where we often went to relax. We were married on the hill while pelicans flew past and the locals danced with us. We partied with friends and family for three days, it was beautiful. That was 8 years ago and they are still talking about our loyalty there. we plan to return In May this year, which will be amazing.
Where was your very first holiday and where is your favorite destination?
As a child we always went to the Landes in the South of France. My first intercontinental journey was Djibouti, and then everyone says “where the hell is that?”!
What advice would you give for those less traveled, who want to experience some of the cultures you have?
Just leave, do not prepare too much and take little with you. Do not visit too many places on one trip, but stay longer in each place and get to know them more thoroughly. Try to sit as little as possible in cars, go on foot, by bike or by canoe.
**Shortly after this interview, Ruth suffered a broken back after falling from a horse – we wish her the very best in her recovery.
You’re based in Belgium, but the collection is available online with international shipping. Where has your furthest order been from?
Australia, but we ship worldwide!