A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE

BY LESLIE J. THOMPSON | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

“I had the biggest crush on him when I was 12 years old; you couldn’t believe it,” says Sandra Catlett of her cousin Robert “Bobby” Turner, the most recognized name in wall coverings in Dallas, if not nationwide. Catlett is sitting in a small back office at Robert Turner Associates, currently known as RTA, the business that Turner founded in the early 1970s of which she is now president and CEO. “I would come up in the summers and thought it was so wonderful, what Bobby did. I would go out with him on measures and paste for the guys and hold up fabric,” she says, recounting her eagerness to be a part of the action.

After being awarded the contract to install the wall coverings for the new John Edward Hughes showroom in the Dallas Design Center, Turner’s business took off. He quickly earned a reputation as the go-to resource for exquisite wall covering design and installation; his impeccable eye and commitment to excellence gaining him entry into the homes of society’s upper echelon. Turner’s generosity and charm also led to lifelong friendships with renowned politicians, celebrities, business moguls and industry peers.

Passionate about his work, Turner was undaunted by large projects and rarely took time off. After 40 years in the business, however, his failing health eventually forced him to slow down. When Catlett came to Dallas in 2008 for a family reunion, an ailing Turner asked her to relocate and help him with the business. “He said, ‘I know you won’t steal from me, ’cause I’ll tell your mother,’” Catlett recalls, laughing. She agreed to visit for two weeks and test the arrangement, admitting, “I’ve been here ever since.”

Turner passed away in 2014, and today, Catlett is carrying on his legacy of excellence and keeping it all in the family. Her daughter-in-law, Anita, serves as the firm’s general manager, and her daughter, Mary, is the office manager. Most of RTA’s installers have been with the company for close to 20 years—the majority for at least 10 years—and continue the tradition of accuracy and attention to detail in their work.

Although Turner never advertised, the company recently unveiled a new website (rtadallas.com) as a resource for designers. The online photo galleries of hand-painted silk panels, leather upholstery walls and beautiful banquettes covered in satin damask are but a minute sampling of the hundreds of custom projects completed by RTA, dozens of which have appeared in the pages of Architectural Digest and other magazines. Catlett is careful not to name names, stating that the privacy of RTA’s clients is paramount, but notes that the firm does have secret service clearance.

As for the future of RTA, Catlett envisions the business continuing for another 40 years, with her son and three granddaughters eventually joining the team. She also imagines opening offices across the country. “I was thinking there could be an RTA Los Angeles and an RTA Atlanta and an RTA Chicago and an RTA Miami,” Catlett says, explaining why she chose rtadallas.com for the company’s domain name. “There are certain little pockets where design reigns. You need to know where your market is and who your client is.”

Serving clients with integrity and excellence is at the heart of everything RTA does, Catlett notes, adding that for Turner the work was never about the money. “Bobby was one of a kind. He looked at every job as an opportunity, not as a problem, and he and his designers would sit down to come up with creative ideas,” she says. Catlett pushes a piece of paper across the small conference table and points to the text that appears at the bottom of each proposal. It reads: Our focus is our clients, our clients are our reputation— and our reputation is our future.

“That’s what this business is about,” she says, with a warm smile. With the Catletts at the helm to carry on Turner’s legacy, the future for RTA looks very bright, indeed.

Leslie J. Thompson is a Dallas-based freelance writer with a passion for interior design and profiling notable personalities.