Small Business Spotlight: Decorum Furniture
By, Q Virginia Staff
With a twinkle in his brilliant blue eyes and a loving smile, Claus Ihlemann tells his husband and business partner, Robert Roman, “If we can dream it, we can make it happen.” When Claus moved to Norfolk in 1975, the Denmark native brought big dreams to the then sleepy naval port town. Over the past 40 years, he has become a key figure in Hampton Roads by helping transform the Ghent neighborhood into a thriving commercial district and serving as a model steward of the community he calls home.
Although Claus and Robert have been friends since the late 1980s, it wasn’t until 2003 that the pair decided to begin sharing their lives together. On September 23, 2008, without telling anyone, Claus and Robert secretly flew to California and quietly exchanged vows a small church. Had they waited just six weeks, the passage of Proposition 8 would have prevented the couple from legally marrying in the Golden State.
While Claus and Robert have always been strong advocates for LGBT rights, in recent years the duo have established themselves as pillars of Norfolk’s LGBT business community, helped revolutionize LGBT Pride in Hampton Roads, and become a powerful voice for equality throughout the Commonwealth.
Q Virginia recently got to speak with both Claus and Robert about their lives and their work.
Q Virginia: Robert, where are you originally from and what brought you to Norfolk?
Robert: I was born in upstate New York but I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone. My dad was retired military and worked for the Panama Canal Company. I later went to school in Florida and eventually ended up in Norfolk in the mid-80s. At the time, I was working for a retail operation in men’s fashion.
Q Virginia: That must be why you always look so fashionable!
Q Virginia: Claus, what brought you to Norfolk from Denmark?
Claus: I got here by accident, but I guess it was a good accident. I worked for a Danish company as a manufacturer’s representative. The company I worked for bought a textile company that had a small warehouse on 21st Street here in Norfolk. In 1975, I came to Norfolk to do some inventory work. At that time, the economy had crashed. Gas became rare. There were long lines at gas stations. You got gas on odd and even days, depending on the numbers on your car’s license plate. It was a difficult time. I was not sure how long I was supposed to stay in Norfolk. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. I was getting tired of living out of a hotel room. So, one day I called my boss and asked if I’d moved to Norfolk and just didn’t know it. After all, I wanted to know where I lived! I asked if I should just move to Norfolk. He thought that was a good idea, so I did and carried on with my work at the Norfolk warehouse. I eventually took a part of the warehouse and turned it into a retail space because my background was in retail. It took off. In 1978 I bought the retail section of the warehouse from my company and went into business for myself. In 1979 I set up shop at 301 West 21st Street and Decorum has been there ever since.
Q Virginia: How did you come up with the name “Decorum” for your store?
Claus: The Decorum name originated in the late spring or early summer of 1979. Vernon Middleton, my partner at the time, and I had a visitor from London. We took him out for dinner and told him about our plans for moving the store to the 301 building. Back then, the business was called “Danish Furniture Fare.” We told our visitor that we wanted to change the store’s name to reflect our broader spectrum of products. By midnight—and a number of cocktails later—this English guy said: “Everything you have sounds like you have a really nice decorum. You should name it ‘Decorum.’” That name went on a legal pad with two full pages of potential names for the store. After crossing off all of the bad names, Decorum was the name that stayed.
Q Virginia: Did you face any opposition when you first opened Decorum in the 1970s?
Claus: Actually, I found the community very, very welcoming. The only opposition came from people who thought my business model wasn’t going to work. They wondered why people would buy contemporary furniture from a store in Norfolk. Although I cater to a small market, it has been big enough to sustain the store.
Q Virginia: What can customers expect when they walk into Decorum?
Claus: Customers will have a very warm, welcoming, friendly experience here. They’ll find that they are given ample space and freedom to wander around and become familiar with the store. Yet, there are people ready to help them when they’re ready to be helped. Our staff have been with us for a long, long time and have excellent experience with our products and the market. We have a genuine “can-do” attitude. We never say, “we don’t do that” or “that’s not how it’s done.” We listen to the customer and find out what it is they’re trying to achieve so we can help them get there. If we are not the best resource for them, we will direct them to the resource that is best for them. At the end of the day it is about people achieving their goals and getting what they’ll be happy with. We enjoy a lot of repeat customers, but we also have a steady influx of new customers. After all, this region has a very transient military population.
Q Virginia: Do you cater to a particular clientele base?
Claus: We cater to anyone that enjoys contemporary and eclectic design and likes good quality, but is also value conscious.
Q Virginia: You also own a shopping center in Norfolk called the Palace Shops & Station. Tell us about this center.
Claus: Decorum is the flagship store for the Palace Shops. We’ve been buying up buildings over the years and have repurposed them in a way that is right for today. With this process, we’ve acquired about three city blocks. Our approach to leasing is that we want tenants who can be successful in this neighborhood. It’s not just about putting someone in a space and collecting rent. It’s about developing a long term synergy between different tenants. We have tenants that have been here for 25-30 years. Jimmy Fields is our longest tenant. He’s been here about 30 years. (Editor’s note – Jimmy Fields owns Lili’s of Ghent, a women’s clothing boutique).
Q Virginia: How has your business evolved over the years?
Claus: Furniture is a constantly changing business model. As styles change, we have helped lead the way for new styles and new concepts. In today’s market, we have a number of lines in our warehouse that customers can get the same day they purchase something. On the other extreme, we can customize a piece of furniture (for example: style, size, cover, or cushion comfort) and get it to the customer in about eight weeks. If we need to order something from overseas, it may take four or five months to get to the customer.
Q Virginia: What is the most challenging thing about your business?
Claus: The flow and ebb of the economy. We have to adjust our business plan to fit changing market conditions. We are in a business where our lead time is often four or five months, so if you start making adjustments to your buying (up or down), it takes four or five months to take effect. We’re not a store that picks up fresh produce each morning. We may realize one day that we need fewer dining tables, but to adjust the inventory, it takes four or five months. It’s all economy driven. This remains a challenge in our business.
Q Virginia: Tell us about your involvement with the Ghent Business Association.
Claus: In the early to mid-80s, I got actively involved with the Ghent Business Association. The association used to just be a social organization. Some neighbors and I repurposed it to focus on long range plans, including street improvements, landscaping, zoning, coding, and the perceived crime issue in the neighborhood. When people say that an area is not safe, it quickly becomes a reality, whether it’s true or not. The association also began creating the foundation for the Ghent Task Force, which meets with city leaders every two months to keep fine tuning the course of the neighborhood.
Q Virginia: Robert, how did you meet Claus?
Robert: I met Claus at a dinner party in the late 80s. We became friends immediately. Over time, we became better friends. We kind of went on a couple of dates, but things didn’t mesh up right away. Over the years, we went to dinner and shows together, had dated, had seen each other date other people. There was real chemistry so we wanted to make it work. Then in 2003, we kind of put our forces together. Now we’ve been together for 12-13 years.
Q Virginia: When did you two get married?
Robert: We got married on September 23, 2008. It’s kind of a really cool story, actually. We wanted to get married, but we decided not to tell anyone. In September we flew out to California to get married. This was during that short window of time when people could get married before Prop 8 passed. Later that fall, Claus was honored by Equality Virginia as a Hampton Roads Legend. He gave his acceptance speech for the award at the Norfolk Yacht Club in front of about 300 people. In his speech, he discussed Loving v. Virginia and drew parallels between the legalization of interracial marriages and the legalization of same-sex marriages. Then he said, and this is almost a direct quote… wait a minute, that’s an oxymoron. Anyway, he said: “Many of our friends have travelled to different states to form domestic partnerships or to get married. To those who have done this, Robert and I applaud your efforts. In fact, a month and a half ago, without telling anyone, Robert and I were married in a small church in California.” At that moment, everyone lost their breath and the entire room went silent. Then, everyone stood up and started cheering. I joined Claus on stage and the cheering got louder. This was the biggest validation we could ever get. Looking back, I tell people that evening was our wedding reception.
Q Virginia: Robert, how has being gay impacted your life?
Robert: I grew up being very fearful. I knew as a kid that I liked boys. In the second grade, I came home from school and said, “Mom, I’m in love with David Dominicci.” She slapped me across the face and said, “Don’t you ever say that again!” At that point I started paying attention to the social stigma of being gay. It took me leaving home to come to terms with my sexuality. It took having my family abandon me because I was gay. This was a driving factor for me to make sure that other people didn’t experience that feeling of abandonment because for the longest time I didn’t have a family. There has been an evolution of the term “family” in the gay culture. We’ve had to form our families the best way we knew how. In the 80s, the gay community formed the biggest bond because we cared for each other during the AIDS crisis. So many people came together to help each other get through that terrible crisis. With Claus, I’ve been able to create an incredible family with our son, Josh, and his kids. We’ve also created a family of friends here in Hampton Roads that I call a “band of brothers.”
Q Virginia: Robert, you’re a co-owner of Decorum. When did you start working there?
Robert: I started working at Decorum when Claus and I got together in 2003. Over time, I was groomed to take on more responsibilities. Now we run the entire operation together. And it’s not just Decorum. We also run the Palace Shops, Palace Station, and the Depot. We’re both very active in running the shopping center. The Depot is the newest building we bought not long ago. Currently, it is a warehouse, but we are turning it into a mixed use building that will have both a retail and a residential component. Now we’re dreaming the dream and planning with an architect and the city. Also, the area has been designated as a historic district, so now we can get historic tax credits and make the Depot a really nice part of the shopping center. The Depot should come to fruition in about three or four years. This type of project takes lots of time. There’s demolition, planning, architecture, zoning, parking, etc. You know, when Claus and I got together back in 2003, the Palace Shops were there but Palace Station was not. We worked with an architect and planned the Palace Station as we wanted it to be. I guess you could say there is a little bit of my DNA in Palace Station because I was able to help with that project.
Q Virginia: Tell us about the renovation currently going on at Decorum.
Claus: Decorum’s renovation is designed to make the outside of the building represent what the inside of the building has become in the last 20-25 years. Our larger glass storefront areas will make you notice how much the building contains and create a visual that tells a story that we have three full levels.
Robert: If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into Decorum and said “I had no idea this store was so large,” I’d be a very rich man. We’ve put an incredible piece of glass on 3rd floor so people from street can see the interior. The new façade will help people see all that we have to offer from the outside.
Claus: You know how when you walk down a city street and look up at a store window and you see merchandise in the upper floors? That visual makes you want to go inside. We want the building to be as open as inviting as possible, to mimic what we are on the interior.
Robert: People say that Decorum now looks “so DC” or “so New York.” I think our building will have a huge impact on 21st Street. I also think other buildings in the area will begin to adopt some of the designs that we’re incorporating. Our philosophy is simple: rather than tear buildings down, we want to enhance them. We feature lots of exposed brick and beams. While Decorum is a contemporary furniture store, all of what we’re doing showcases Ghent’s architectural history. It all works together.
We also want to engage a younger demographic. A lot of our customer base has become Gen X and younger. Now millennials are coming to a time in their lives where they’re shopping for better furniture for themselves. Decorum’s renovations will help us develop a broader and better customer base.
Claus: We’re also addressing the rising sea level issue. We’re at an intersection that has a tendency to flood. The last few years we’ve had to do sandbag drills three to five times a year to keep water out of the building. We are waterproofing the base of the building and making it so there is only one penetration point facing 21st street, where we’ll have a built-in flood gate. Our new design features will allow us to keep the floodgate in place at all hours when we’re not open and, if need be, can be installed quickly during business hours. Moving the store’s main entrance from the corner of the building to the middle of the building will also help keep the interior totally dry when big storms come through. The parking lot entrance will also be redesigned to look more prominent and appear like another main entrance to the building. For a full list of our renovations, take a look at our website.
Q Virginia: Tell us how you both became fixtures within Hampton Roads Pride.
Claus: I’ve been a little bit involved with Pride over the years, but Robert energized me to really get involved. It was really important to get the Pride event out of a back field in Chesapeake. It was very important that Chesapeake supported Pride and played a very important role by keeping it alive, but at some point you just have to be out on Main Street. We wanted to bring Pride back to downtown Norfolk and get it on the waterfront at Town Point Park. Anywhere else is kind of hiding.
Robert: When we first started to be engaged with Pride, there were a few people that wanted to make a difference: Cindy Cutler, Todd Rosenlieb, and others. They wanted to change the existing venue in Chesapeake and make it something more noticeable. They wanted to grow the event. So they called me and I went to one of the meetings. We knew that moving Pride from Chesapeake to Town Point Park was going to be expensive. There was also a Pride board that had been accustomed to doing things a certain way. They had a little trepidation about moving Pride to Town Point Park. The Pride board said that they needed someone to step up to the plate to help. I kind of got the hint. I came back home, told Claus what was going on and that we needed to help the organization make it happen.
Claus: We were in the fortunate situation to step up to the plate and support Pride financially, which we’ve done for a number of years.
Robert: We said that we would give them the money and be the presenting sponsor. We wanted to be involved and make sure that Pride became an event that we could be proud of, a place were we could market our company, and an event that showcased the LGBT community as something very positive. That first year was phenomenal. We engaged so many people that it led to a change in command with the Pride board. Now Hampton Roads Pride is an organization that creates change in our community.
Q Virginia: What’s next for Hampton Roads Pride?
Robert: Hampton Roads Pride wants to grow to a point where we can hire an Executive Director. Currently, everyone is a volunteer. This is hard because we all have jobs, careers, homes, and families. It gets crazy putting these events together with just volunteers. Hampton Roads Pride is using over $100,000 to throw this year’s event. Our headliner is En Vogue. We have lots of people who are committed to making this event really fun. Having a full-time Executive Director would be very helpful. Hopefully, we can grow the event so it becomes a destination for those outside of Hampton Roads. We’d love to have a big White Party at Virginia Beach one day. How great would it be to have three blocks of oceanfront blocked off for a big White Party?!? We have to have these dreams. When you start talking about dreams, then you start talking about reality. I’m a big dreamer. Claus always tells me, “If we can dream it, we can make it happen. We just have to figure out how to put the pieces together.”
Q Virginia: How does Hampton Roads Pride impact the broader community?
Robert: We keep saying that Pride is not about the big party; it’s about what we do in the community. Pride has a scholarship. Pride donated $1,000 to the Food Bank of Hampton Roads. We want to engage parts of our community that are not LGBT. After all, being gay does not define us. We are proud of our community and want to be a part of the community. This means being a philanthropist and a good steward. Not just helping LGBT community, but helping the hungry, the poor, and people who just need a helping hand. Claus and I have teamed up to really serve our community. We get this incredibly good feeling inside when people come up to us and say that we made a difference in their lives. Sometimes you do things because it comes from the heart and you don’t expect anything back in return. Seeing the gratitude expressed by people is like being paid back tenfold.
Q Virginia: Are you active politically?
Robert: I have a really big mouth. Politically, I’ve been able to be a voice that won’t be silenced when fighting for equality. I let politicians know that Claus and I are a married couple and that we deserve equal rights like everyone else. We walk the halls of the General Assembly building in Richmond as a married couple and are not afraid. Once they decided that they would put on paper that marriage was defined as being between one man and one woman, we said, “You can’t do that to us and you won’t do that to us.” We stood in front of the polls all day asking people to vote against the amendment. We wanted people to see what the face of an LGBT family looked like. When the federal marriage case came to Norfolk, we protested at the courthouse in favor of marriage equality. People outside of the courthouse protesting against gay marriage said some really awful things to us, like “So you want to marry your dog? You want to marry two other people?” They didn’t want us to have what they had. But we stood there in solidarity and our voices were heard. Hopefully, in a few weeks we’ll have a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that will go our way. If not, we’ll continue the fight. But I’m very, very, very optimistic about the U.S. Supreme Court. Especially Justice Roberts, who’s going to make the difference. It would be nice to have a 9-0 vote, but we know Scalia, Thomas, and Alito will not change their minds.
I have a big emotional attachment to my sexuality and being gay because I think that I was put on this planet to help us get through this fight. Claus and I are proud of all of the people who give of their lives and time, not just money, to support equality. There are so many wonderful voices that champion our cause on a daily basis. It’s not the dollars you give, but the cause you fight for.
Q Virginia: Do you face challenges being openly gay business owners? Do you think that being openly gay business owners is important?
Claus: I have never made an issue of it one way or another. I have never seen a reason why I needed to deny it. However, it was a matter of not making it an issue.
Robert: Being gay is not what defines us. Who we are as individuals is what truly defines us. We want to be good people and be good stewards of our community. We just happen to be gay. Whether we’re gay or not, we’d still do the same things. It’s important to be out because lots of people can’t be. In Virginia, you can still be fired for being gay. I think that being out helps a lot of young people see that you can be gay and successful.
Q Virginia: As members of your local LGBT chamber of commerce, HRBOR, how do you think a statewide LGBT chamber can help the community and the economy?
Robert: A statewide chamber of commerce will help bring communities together economically and politically by bringing to light the fact that that there is a big opportunity to grow business in the state by being LGBT-friendly. When major corporations look to invest in different states, part of what they look for is how those states treat their employees. If Virginia wants to continue to grow, it has to step up. I’m very proud that we were the first southern state to grant marriage equality. But if Virginia wants to attract big corporations, stay connected, and remain competitive, a statewide LGBT chamber of commerce would be very productive in helping to make this happen.
Claus: Having a statewide LGBT chamber will be great because it can identify the issues that most concern the LGBT business community across Virginia. I think lobbying in Richmond of behalf of LGBT businesses is going to be very important. Connecting communities, especially those that are in smaller parts of the state, is also very important because it will make them feel like they belong to a greater whole.
Q Virginia: Looking back over the past 40 years, what makes you proud about being business and community leaders in Norfolk?
Claus: Having the opportunity to make an impact on the Ghent neighborhood and the 21st street corridor has been tremendously satisfying. I love that we can restore and repurpose the buildings here and really put a mark on this little area. Decorum now has third generation customers. One time, this young guy came in and said he was so surprised to see that I was still an active part of the store. When I asked why, he told me that his grandmother used to talk about me and how my store sold really cool Scandinavian furniture. So now, I think to myself, wow, I’ve impacted this grandmother and now, decades later, this grandson. But to realize that what we’ve done with the store and the furniture has made a difference to customers, the people that work here, and the community is truly wonderful.
301 West 21st Street
Norfolk, Virginia 23517
The Palace Shops & Station Shopping Center
Hampton Roads Block Party & Pridefest 2015: June 26 & 27