*UPDATE* In case you missed it, back in 2016 our very own Cathy and Pierre were interviewed for a local publication. Since then, they've consolidated their Whit Hanks gallery into a new large showroom in North Austin. And to celebrate their 25th Anniversary, we decided to repost this fun article. Take a look!
When you meet Cathy and Pierre Négrel, you simultaneously marvel at their contradictory personalities and also how wonderfully cute they are together. He is quiet and charming, with a cool exterior punctuated by hilarious one-liners. Oh, he's funny. Funny without even knowing that he's funny. She is kinetic and curious, her full-bodied hair an outward embodiment of her energetic nature. For how different they are externally, they are like two halves of the same person and they are also two of the warmest people you'll ever meet and you never leave their company without a smile on your face.
Cathy and Pierre came to an appreciation for finer things in very different ways as well. As an eight-year-old, Cathy watched her parents build their family home "from the ground up." She watched first-hand as the architect created a mid-century modern gallery for her parents' "mix of mid-century modern pieces and antique pieces." She felt that her parents and grandparents instilled in her a "love of beautiful furniture, beautiful paintings" and that appreciation has developed naturally over time. Pierre's knowledge of antiques is more intuitive; he knows what he likes. His parents had contemporary furniture when he was growing up in the 60s in Marseille and he was not exposed to antiques until he and Cathy decided to start their business. Once Pierre knows that he likes a piece of furniture, he methodically sets out to find out everything he can about it. He immerses himself in research and, by the time a piece reaches their showroom floor, he can tell you the story of its long life as it came to be in Texas in his captivating French accent.
When you enter the Négrel Antiques gallery at the Whit Hanks* Antiques center, it's like entering a candy store. If your inner child was a designer and your tastebuds were calibrated for vintage French decorative objets d'art and two-hundred-year-old furniture, that is… The collection is purposefully eclectic. Cathy and Pierre both count 1930s French Art Deco as their favorite decorative style, but see the beauty in all decorative epochs and want to bring them all to their customers. Their "retail collection exactly represents" their taste and they both feel that they will often choose something for the collection that they like over what they think might sell in the store. Cathy especially enjoys finding extraordinarily unusual pieces that "can serve a few different functions in the modern world today." And Pierre agrees that "functionality is very important." As he puts it, "It's our personal taste that makes our collection." Luckily, their customers agree, appreciate their eclectic taste, and regularly comment on what a superb presentation their pieces have.
*Négrel Antiques moved to a new location in 2019.
When asked if their home reflects the same eclectic taste as their gallery, Pierre immediately agrees that their "home is a mix of things, it's a mix of styles." Their small and cozy West Austin bungalow home has been meticulously curated so that each room efficiently and beautifully serves its specific function. Cathy and Pierre rarely change many things in their home unless they stumble upon a piece on a buying trip to France that they fall in love with and feel that they simply must have in their home. This makes for a tasteful marriage of styles in their home; French country with modern, Louis XVI with Venetian, and Cathy's favorite workspace, a long Parisian bistro table beside a contemporary daybed with a panoramic window view of their bustling uptown street.
For years, Négrel Antiques has also operated a large warehouse space separate from their retail gallery. If the Whit Hanks gallery is the candy store, the warehouse is the candy factory. Cathy and Pierre prefer to buy pieces on their trips to France in stellar condition so that each piece can expand its life story without interruption. However, some pieces need a little care before they are ready for their public debut. A coat of furniture wax to restore some original splendor, a gentle but thorough cleaning, and the occasional restoration take place at the warehouse. And Pierre exercises his favorite activity; merchandising! Unlike their home, the warehouse (as well as the gallery!) is constantly in flux as Pierre experiments with various vignettes and combinations. Customers who stop by the warehouse for an appointment or during Pierre's customary Saturday hours are treated to an ever-changing decorative playland.
Another point on which the Négrels agree is where to begin a room; the table. Pierre likes to start decorating the walls first and working toward the middle of the room, but if there is a table in a particular room, it is definitely the "table first." Cathy is immediately reminded of some customers from a few years ago who purchased an extraordinary Directoire table for their kitchen. "It was a long table, and it had a shelf underneath. And it's their kitchen island and they have stools at it and that's where they read the newspaper and have coffee every morning." They both feel that the spot in a room where folks are most likely to gather is the most important feature of the room.
When they decided to start their business, Cathy and Pierre were quite cautious. They did meticulous research and crunched a lot of numbers before deciding that it was palatable. They even traveled to France to learn the customs procedure to see what their shipping container would have to go through to make it back to Texas. Then, with a minimal budget to start, they went to France for their first buying trip. Now, Pierre is French (in case you haven't noticed) and Cathy has traveled extensively on the continent and speaks French, so they admittedly had an advantage. Cathy tells the story of the early days of their business:
"While you're in the frenzy of buying, it's pretty exhilarating. In the old days, we would buy from these little antique shops all along the back roads of France, so competition was slim. We weren't vying for pieces with the international buying world. And so for years, we had a couple of dozen merchants all around the countryside in the south of France that we were buying from."
Pierre tells us a slightly different, and more funny, version:
"We went into a very small town in France, in the Ardeche region, and the guy had what I thought some great stuff, and I think, without telling Cathy, I spent $5000. I bought things. And then I went back and she was going to go out to all the little shops and I told her well I just bought, I don't know, six or seven pieces. So that was it! What are we gonna do? We had to do a container!"
Regardless, their business acumen, impeccable taste, and renowned customer service has steadily built an impressive enterprise in Austin. And recently, with their expansion to various online marketplaces, their pieces are being sold to far-flung locales such as Australia and Hong Kong, as well as their discerning customers in the Central Texas area and other parts of the U.S. With simultaneous focus on selling well-crafted pieces of furniture that already exist as well as helping people organize the way they live, Cathy and Pierre stand by their collection of remarkable antique and vintage pieces. Many of the pieces have been around for more than one hundred years, and they want them to be around for another hundred, being enjoyed and deeply appreciated in businesses and private homes. C'est magnifique!
*UPDATE* The new Négrel showroom and warehouse complex is at 10200 North Lamar, suites 106 & 108, Austin, TX 78753 and is open Thursday-Saturday 11AM-4PM and by appointment.