If design and décor magazines are any indication, we all aspire to live in modern, monochromatic loft conversions—preferably with exposed brick opposite a wall of glass. (A deep-shag area rug over a finished concrete floor is an optional, but advisable, addition.) Aloof, coldly attractive, and unattainable, there’s a reason these images are called home porn.
A centrefold of an oversized grey couch presents a distorted and manufactured image of beauty that we are told is desirable. No books. Who reads anymore, anyway? Definitely no tchotchkes. A lone, strategically placed object will suffice, or an artful grouping of three pieces if you absolutely must. No colour? Well, grey is a colour, right? In the right light it can even look purple. Definitely no dogs or cats or kids or red wine or cooking smells. Looks great. Lives poorly.
As with all design, the pendulum is starting to swing back from the sterile, knife-sharp interiors of the past decade-plus. Current design trends are moving away from the impersonal home-as-hotel-suite toward something more personal, more daring, and more eclectic.
According to some professional designers, the best and most economical way to imprint yourself into your home is with soft home furnishings, the technical term in the design trade for throw pillows, draperies, and upholstery.
“Drapery is the fastest way to get a big impact in a room,” says Heather Draper of Calgary-by-way-of-Victoria’s Heather Company. “It packs the same visual wallop as wallpaper, but with the added benefit of not having to rip your wall apart and resurface it if you want to change.”
Draper, who married into her occupationally correct last name, had been working as an interior designer and boutique owner for over a decade when she founded the textile side of her business in 2012 to fill her own professional need for bold fabric patterns and colours. Available both online and in boutiques across Western Canada (South Granville’s Peridot [1512 West 14th Avenue] is her Vancouver brick-and-mortar retailer), Draper’s panels and throw-cushion covers are sourced from around the world, with a particular emphasis this season on bright florals and ’70s geometric prints.
“If anything, people are too conservative these days,” she says on the phone from Calgary. “They’ve been so conditioned by the solids and subtle prints we’ve seen everywhere for years that getting them to take a chance with a bold pattern or colour can be an uphill battle.”
Draper tends to start her reticent clients out slowly, by introducing a vibrant focal point in the form of a throw pillow. “It’s a small investment in terms of money that can have a huge impact in a space,” she explains. She often counsels clients to purchase two or more sets of covers that can be switched out to give the room a seasonal feeling. In her own home, she swaps out the chocolate-brown silk dupioni cushions on her sofa for hot pink in the spring and summer.
Another entry-level trick Draper has employed is using a bold pattern sparingly on substantial pieces of furniture. “The client wasn’t comfortable with too big a statement, so we used a mismatched print on just the backs of the all-white linen dining chairs for a medium-strength impact.”
While Adding completely new elements to a space is a viable way to inject some visual interest, Vancouver designers Ivan Quintana and Erica Schmidt of Medina Design House are making the old new again with updated upholstery. The pair, who have been working together since 2009, have garnered a reputation as masters at updating furniture with fabric. “If you have a good, solid piece of well-made furniture, why try to replace it when for the same amount of money—or less, even—you can fit it into your lifestyle and have something authentic and unique?” says Quintana in the showroom of Gastown’s Montauk Sofa, where he is also the store manager.
Quintana points to images of an 18th-century straight-back armchair the duo refurbished while redesigning the interior spaces of a house in Shaughnessy. “These were the pride of their [the clients’] collection. They’d had them shipped from England but they were not in usable condition,” he remembers.
“The horsehair stuffing was popping out in clumps,” Schmidt adds. But the piece had excellent bones. So while the chair’s frame was being stabilized, they researched period-appropriate fabrics, finding a modern, red-and-white interpretation of a classic French interlocking pattern.
Of course, not everyone has captain’s chairs from the 1750s gathering dust in their storage room. Last year, Schmidt gave a decidedly less expensive, but arguably more valuable, chair a new life.
The chair in question would not have looked out of place at a Salvation Army thrift store, but its back story made it irreplaceable. The unremarkable upholstered rocker was purchased from Sagers’ Maple Shop in West Vancouver by Schmidt’s grandmother in the late 1960s. It was used by Schmidt’s father to rock her to sleep when she was a baby. Worn-out, dated, and broken, it was rescued from the family basement. Schmidt stabilized the frame, added a new rocking mechanism, roll arms, and wings, and reupholstered the updated frame in a waxed leather that will distress and take on a patina over time. She then presented the butched-up baby soother to her father for Christmas. It now takes pride of place in his living room.
“There really was nothing special about the chair except for the sentimental value,” she says. “But that was more than enough to put the effort into making it usable for him again.”
Whether it’s an auction-worthy antique or a nostalgic knockabout, “the end result of refurbishing will be so much better and more personal than buying a comparable new replacement,” Quintana says.
“There’s still a place for new, modern pieces, obviously,” he adds while looking around the impeccably styled, modernist Montauk boutique, “but what makes for a great showroom doesn’t necessarily have the warmth of spirit or the longevity to be lived in.
“And our job is to make houses into homes.”