Real Estate / Houses

The Threads That Bind

Inside the Nest of Paula Minnis

BY Rebecca Sherman // 07.09.15
photography Shayna Fontana

For former fashion retail consultant Paula Minnis, a passion for handmade textiles and a love for travel are not only evident at home, they’re a way of life. As founder of Gaia — Greek for “goddess of the Earth” — Paula puts the many textiles she’s collected from trips abroad and local flea markets to charitable use. Her six-year-old social enterprise helps refugee women from other countries rebuild their lives in Dallas by paying them a living wage to create pillows, napkins, tablecloths, purses and other items from vintage fabrics. Stores such as Neiman Marcus, Forty Five Ten and Madison have all supported the cause by selling the beautifully crafted goods, which can also be purchased online at gaiaforwomen.com.

Paula and her husband, Todd Minnis (a commercial real estate investor and partner in Coyote Drive-In Theaters), purchased their rambling house in North Dallas last year. It’s also home to the couple’s 3-year-old twins, Gabriella and Charlie, and part-time home to Todd’s teenage children, Will and Genevieve, from his previous marriage to Caroline Summers, who brokered their house. “Our 1940s ranch has evolved into a little bungalow with the flavor of Colonial Mexico,” says Paula, referring to a large addition to the back of the house done by the previous owners, with its textured plaster walls, stone and concrete floors, colorful tile accents and arches. They plan to renovate the kitchen and dining areas — which feel more mid-century — with a similar, convivial South of the Border flair. “I’ve always been drawn to more natural materials and found objects, and color,” she says. “It’s more in line with my aesthetic with Gaia, and even how I dress.”

It took Paula a few tries before she found her design footing. Soon after they married, the couple lived in a 1975 ultra-contemporary house in Preston Hollow, which “wasn’t the warmest feel,” she says. Then they moved to the “polar opposite”: a four-level 1920s house on Swiss Avenue, where they enlisted help from tastemaker Jon Tutolo, who is now photo art director for The Book and media at Neiman Marcus. “Jon gave it a totally different feel than what we had before,” she says. He warmed things up with Oushak rugs, among other pieces sourced from his now-shuttered store Haven, and had their furniture recovered and repainted. Their new abode was much more comfortable than their previous hard-edged space, but with so many rooms on multiple levels, it was unwieldy. “We felt disconnected from each other,” Paula says. “We were still learning about what our family wants out of a home.” Two and a half years later, when Paula learned she was pregnant with twins, they took a smaller mid-century ranch house in Bluffview that was almost perfect. Its shortcoming was that it lacked a good outdoor space, not only for the children to play, but for Todd — who had grown up spending summers in Kansas at his family farm — to plant a kitchen garden. When Summers showed them their current house near Walnut Hill Lane, with a backyard oasis that includes an organically shaped pool with waterfall, a screened-in porch and — to their astonishment — raised and prepared beds designed for cultivating vegetables and herbs, “we knew it was meant to be,” says Paula.

Paula Minnis
Charlie, Paula, Gabriella and the family’s golden retriever, Murdoch, in the screened-in porch off the master bedroom. Rattan sofa from Lamps Plus. Paula made the macramé planter at a class at Oil & Cotton Creative Exchange.

Gaia’s genesis stems from Paula’s desire not only to help women in need but to put balance back in her own life. By her mid-30s, she’d already had a successful but stressful career in retail that included stints as a buyer for BCBG and with Ralph Lauren, where she was a liaison between the corporate offices in New York and stores. A later gig with a Dallas-based retail-consulting firm required constant travel and endless strategizing meetings. “The level of stress was out of alignment with what we were doing,” says Paula, 40. “We weren’t curing cancer; we were selling dresses.” When Paula and Todd got married, she became a stepmom to his two kids overnight. It was time to reassess. “I’d lost perspective about what was meaningful and what matters,” she says. “So, I quit work, and I took that opportunity to do things I’d never had time to do before. I took piano and tennis lessons, art and ballet. I’d especially always regretted not having the time to volunteer much. Over the years, I’d found myself on committees doing charity work, but there was never really anything connecting me directly to the cause.”

She found that connection when she began volunteering with the Dallas chapter of the International Rescue Committee, a worldwide organization founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein. IRC provides essential care and resettlement assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster. The Dallas chapter opened in 1975. “I became a mentor with a woman named Katherine who had been in a refugee camp in Thailand,” says Paula. “She’d been in terrible conditions there, only to arrive here and face a whole new set of challenges. Refugees need help with everything from navigating the healthcare system to things we take for granted, like learning how to use a stove and an ATM.” Katherine spoke very little English, so Paula was also helping her learn the language. “One of the vocabulary words we were going over was ‘sew,’ and Katherine went to her room and brought out a spool of thread. I realized that she knew how to sew,” she says. The seed of an idea for Gaia began to sprout. The book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, was also a huge influence on Paula at the time. “I’d been thinking of doing something with IRC, creating some sort of business helping women,” she says. “I researched what a living wage was in Dallas, and it’s about $15 an hour, or twice the minimum wage,” she says.

In 2009, she hired Katherine to make napkins from the cloth she’d collected over the years from traveling, and Gaia was born. “The IRC acts as my human resources division, sending women they think are a good fit,” she says. Currently, Gaia employs 10 women from countries such as Burma, Congo, Iraq and Iran. Paula has never taken a salary, but three years ago she hired a paid assistant, Lauren Jarrett, a recent USC grad from La Jolla with a major in fashion and business and a desire to give back. The extra help allowed her to focus on her new family, along with growing Gaia. “Lauren has been incredible, working with the women, and it allows me to work on the strategic growth and design, sales and marketing. We moved into a studio/showroom a year ago, and I’ve been slowly evolving it into a bigger brand with distribution across the country. The goal is to streamline our production and employ more women,” she says.

Six months ago, with Todd’s encouragement and reassurances from friends with children, Paula traveled alone to Morocco. It was the first extensive trip she’d taken since the twins were born. She spent two weeks trekking and camping out with a nomadic goat-herding family and, like the family, she slept on the ground, sans pillow. The experience “pushed me beyond my comfort zone,” she says. “I learned that the things that often make us comfortable and happy are not what feed your soul.” The trip also provided a rare chance to search for textiles for Gaia at the souks in Marrakesh, where she also found several rugs for their house.

Back home and rejuvenated, Paula was able to focus on Gaia with new energy, along with pulling together their home’s interiors. Filled with handmade items from all over, inherited pieces from both sides of the family and favorites purchased before they met, the Minnis abode is a culmination of the things that matter to them. “I haven’t used a decorator in years,” Paula says. “The imperfections in a home are what make it human.” A Parsons coffee table from the 1970s that once belonged to her parents holds memories. “I’ve taken it with me everywhere. I remember dancing on it in my apartment in San Francisco,” Paula says. Todd’s favorites are also a part of the mix, including a tree trunk table and contemporary paintings he purchased at TWO x TWO for AIDS and Art before they met. Most of their furnishings and accessories, if they were not acquired in an exotic locale, have ties to far-flung places and are eco-friendly: A walnut-sided, Deco-style De La Espada sofa was handcrafted in Portugal; a papier-mâché bull’s head was made by artisans in Haiti after the hurricane; a bone-inlay table from Morocco once belonged to Paula’s mother; a lampshade Paula had made from Japanese handmade paper tops an IKEA lamp; and, of course, most of the pillows throughout the house are handcrafted from vintage textiles by refugees employed by Gaia. Home, work and passions — if you’re lucky, they all dovetail. “I realize that if you have a job that allows you more time with your family, that’s the key,” says Paula. “I love beautiful textiles, and I love providing employment to women in need.”

Home, chic home.

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