Royal Circus stocks soulful pieces to make a house a home

By Hollie Deese
Photography by Danielle Atkins

It may have all started with an unrealized dream, but the end result is something that seems meant to be for the growing arts-and-creatives community of Wedgewood-Houston.

Open since August, Royal Circus is the collaboration between Michael Dukes, 59, and Geoffrey Gill, 27. A furniture store with a global theme, the idea is to provide thoughtful shoppers the kinds of things they would want to be a part of the story their family tells about them someday.

But it was almost an Indian restaurant! Three years ago, Dukes and a chef considered opening a restaurant together. Dukes threw himself into the branding and the design, which led him into a rabbit hole of antiques and textile mill labels from British India.

“To me there was a magic about that stuff,” Dukes says. “The colors were interesting and there was just a vibrancy to it, but there was also kind of some whimsy in there too. The same things that light me up about Wes Anderson and Tim Burton just kind of existed in all of that.”

So the restaurant was out, but the beginnings of Royal Circus were in place. Dukes teamed up with Gill, and they began finding sources, eschewing big furniture markets for smaller suppliers unique to Nashville, possibly the region.

Dukes’ background is in advertising as a writer and a creative director. He spent years making TV commercials in Los Angeles before moving to Nashville to chase music while doing freelance advertising work.

Gill started off in visual arts, videography and production design, which is what brought him and Dukes together. Gill also builds and designs furniture, and he taught himself the ins and outs of woodworking and metalworking. Now he builds large-scale fabrication jobs for architects, like big floating steel staircases. He also does large-scale art, with a 20- by 30-foot installation at Burning Man earlier this year.

The majority of their products are made new in very small batches by hand, in either India or Indonesia, and can take months to come in once ordered. “It’s not like there’s a thousand of something sitting in a warehouse in Atlanta,” Dukes says. “When we have enough stuff coming from India for example to fill a container, the order goes out and they start making those things.”

Grand Palace screen prints reinforce the brand and are available to purchase. Eventually the pair aim to design and create Royal Circus-branded pieces, leveraging the manufacturing relationships they’ve made over the past couple of years.

“Finding out how to connect people with your message or make them aware of you is one thing, but if we’re on a mission here, it’s the idea that things are tangible, human interactions, things that are made by people and not stamped out of a machine somewhere,” Gill says.

At Royal Circus that could be a reproduction of a Tibetan cabinet made with the old techniques and materials in China on the Tibetan plateau, real antique Hollywood lights restored by a semi-retired photographer, or a custom leather Chesterfield couch from CoCoCo.

It’s an understanding of how people acquire pieces — collected, gifted, commissioned, chased after — and all of it with a story behind it that eventually helps tell the owner’s story too. All kinds of stories.

“Sometimes the story is ‘We were traveling in Istanbul and we found this light and we brought it back and it was huge pain because we had to protect it from getting crushed every step of the way,’ or maybe ‘I found a dresser in the weeds and the mirror on the top section was worth saving and looks amazing.’”

That’s why creating a space that was worthy of becoming part of the story for that piece, and part of the owner’s experience buying that piece, was so important. And finding the location was not exactly easy in Nashville’s hot market. But when they found it, it was meant to be.

“We feel like this isn’t just a good space for us, we feel like it is our space,” Dukes says. “We felt right about the neighborhood.”

And while they can’t imagine it anywhere else now, it took a lot of forward thinking to visualize what could be when they first walked through. Covered with decades of dust and must, the large street-level windows that now allow light to pour in had been blocked off by concrete for 50 years.

“We wanted the store experience to be almost like an awakening,” Dukes says. “We wanted it to be a stimulating thing to come through here, whether you buy something or not. We aspire to have the kind of place, the kind of experience where if you come in and buy, I mean literally anything in the store, part of that experience is you came here and you bought it from Royal Circus.”

Royal Circus, 438 Houston St., 615-265-6278