Maryline Damour is a builder. The Saugerties-based interior designer and co-founder of the design-and-build firm Damour Drake is likely to demur this point, since her business partner, Fred Drake, is the one who heads up the construction and fabrication side of their business.
But what Damour has built on her own has as much solidity as any house: she created the Kingston Design Connection (KDC), a network that unites and showcases Valley designers, builders, and artists, culminating in the region’s first design show house, which opens every year on Columbus Day weekend.
KDC’s impact has gone well beyond establishing the local relationships Damour was interested in making (she launched the organization partly out of her own need find artisans to hire); it has helped thrust Hudson Valley design into national visibility. The rooms have been featured in Architectural Digest and House Beautiful. But it’s the collaborations and relationships created through the show house that are Damour’s inspiration.
“The thing I love most about the show house is the connecting part,” says Damour. The press may focus on the completed rooms, she says “but the reason I developed this show house concept was all about bringing people together for local impact and creating continuing artistic and economic development.”
The show houses have had a clear community conscience from the outset. Admission fees are donated to local nonprofits, a typical show house practice but Damour also lowered the barrier of entry for young people; they focus on diversity when choosing designers, and they partner with local schools to create learning opportunities for students—including branding and marketing (Marist College) and electrical work (BOCES). In 2021, she partnered with Kingston City Land Bank to secure a home—the group revitalizes abandoned properties to create affordable housing—which was then sold below market value to a retired veteran.
It’s a great deal to have accomplished in such a short time—especially when you take into account that interior design is Damour’s second career, which she started only 7 years ago. Prior, she was a global marketing, PR, and business development consultant in Manhattan. “I’ve always been a businessperson,” she says. “I never knew myself as an artistic person. I literally never even doodled until I got to Parsons. I had to learn to doodle!”
She developed a taste for decorating when she bought her first house about 15 years ago, in Kingston’s Rondout, after living in apartments most of her life. “I had to buy furniture, I had to paint, I had all these rooms,” she says. She worked from home long before Covid. “I was there a ton, and I wound up slowly just doing stuff for the house. I really enjoyed it and started reading up on design.” She sold that house after five years and bought an apartment in Brooklyn, where she was living when an earthquake happened that would firmly change her life’s trajectory. A literal earthquake.
Damour was born in Haiti and moved to New York City with her family when she was 8, so when the 2010 earthquake hit the tiny Caribbean island and destroyed nearly 90 percent of Port-au-Prince, she found herself desperate to do something—but she knew her marketing skills weren’t what her home country needed. “I went back to school because I couldn’t think of how else to help,” she says. She didn’t exactly have a goal in mind, but “I knew [I had to study] something to do with design and construction. With that skill set I assumed that at some point I would figure out how I could help.”
And she did. Around 2013, while studying at Parsons, Damour led a feasibility project for a new elementary school, and she took on a couple of other residential projects as well. Those jobs were what lit the lightbulb. “I was like, Ohhh, interior design,” she says. “That validation of people paying me to do that work before I graduated was key.”
Damour also gained something else while at Parsons: an important connection. “One of my projects was in Brooklyn, and at that time I didn’t know any contractors, I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff,” she says. So, she called the contractor she had worked with on her Kingston house—Fred Drake. “He was the only person I knew,” she says, “And he was the best person because he had a full-service firm: all the painters and cabinetmakers and woodworkers and tilers, and I thought, ‘This one guy could help me with the whole project!’ And so he came down to Brooklyn.”
The project was a success, and the meeting of the minds created good results beyond the design. “Fred is now also my life partner,” says Damour, smiling.
“I never knew myself as an artistic person. I literally never even doodled until I got to Parsons. I had to learn to doodle!”
After she finished school, Damour moved upstate fulltime, and set about establishing her interior design practice. “I knew I wanted to have my own business,” says Damour. “I didn’t want to work for somebody else. But moving up here: Where is my local contractor, my local pool of resources? I didn’t get one interior design project for two years,” she says, “because I didn’t know anybody!”
She approached Drake about the idea of blending their businesses, to create a firm “that can construct your house, build out, and decorate your interior,” she says. “We merged the companies and branded it,” says the former marketing and branding executive.
At the same time, she was incubating the idea for KDC. “I embarked on this yearlong research project where I got very strategic about what was happening in the area,” she says, citing the rapid changes in the population between 2016 and 2018 as “creative folk” from the city moved north, even before Covid. “There was a level of energy happening, and it was producing not just great products but a certain ethos,” she says.
“My former career as a business consultant was to analyze and fix things, and generally how you fix things is by connecting the right dots,” says Damour. “There were all these amazing people here doing amazing work. I thought if they banded together, they could make an even bigger splash. I created the mechanism for that in the form of the Kingston Design Showhouse.”
Damour makes connecting the dots seem like an instinctive response, but the truth is the work involved in setting up a show house is huge: securing the home; figuring out the funding; attracting sponsors, designers, and attendees; and thinking through the issues of sustainability and waste and coming up with elegant solutions. “I had no business doing this from a technical standpoint,” admits Damour. “I’d never organized anything remotely like this.” But she says it gave her a certain freedom to dream up her own structure and then draft a board of directors and a development team. In other words, making still more connections, building out yet another network—one that would bring the KDC to life.
Damour recently revealed this year’s show house (the fifth), a 1920s Victorian in Uptown Kingston. And major sponsors are on board again including Benjamin Moore, Stark Carpets, Schumacher wallpaper, and more.
Running the KDC and show house would be enough work for most people, but Damour has energy and passion to burn. She was invited to design a room for the prestigious Kips Bay Show House in Palm Beach this past spring. She says she applied to get a glimpse inside their application process so she could learn. “I took a lot of notes—and then we got in. I hadn’t even told Fred I was applying. I was like ‘Holy crap!”
For that show house, she wanted—of course—to represent the Hudson Valley. She and her lead designer Mel Jones, Jr. (who also makes custom furniture for the firm) “drove a truck down to Palm Beach with a dozen great pieces” made by HV designers to put in the show. The result: a charming toddler’s room (pictured above) with custom art pieces, clever folding children’s school furniture for “learn at home” days, and Damour’s trademark rich color palette.
Damour’s not believing she would get into the Kips Bay Show House says everything about her innate modesty as well as her natural curiosity. It seems fair to mention that she also has a radio show where she talks about the business of design with other creatives (WHCL, Hamilton College, her alma mater), and that she recently turned KDC into a nonprofit to expand its good works. It’s likely there are one or 10 other ideas percolating inside her builder’s mind.
She will admit to this: “My entire life is work, it really is,” she says. “If Fred and I aren’t talking about existing work, we are forever building things for our own properties and designing stuff, and the show house is this bear I haven’t quite figured out how to wrestle…” She trails off, but only for a second. “The lucky thing is that it’s all related to interior design, which is something that I doodle on restaurant napkins” (now that she’s a doodler). “It’s what I do constantly for fun.”