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Home & Design Designer Alexandra Hutchison on how luxury and sustainability can co-exist

Alexandra Hutchison for Pursuits Q&A

Madison van Rijn/The Globe and Mail

Alexandra Hutchison was raised on National Geographic and longed to be a conservationist similar to Jane Goodall. But science wasn’t a strength, so she went into interior design. Now, she’s the creative mind behind some of the Toronto’s most popular restaurants, including Campagnolo and La Palma, which she co-owns with chef-husband Craig Harding. But she never forgot her original dream and recently launched Studio Marlowe, a firm focused on sumptuous yet sustainable spaces. Here, she talks about what luxury means in the 21st century, how that squares with environmentalism and why Kim Kardashian is an inspiration.

Your new design venture, Studio Marlowe, is focused on both sustainability and luxury, two seemingly incongruous things. How do those things go together?

To me, there are certain aspects of luxury that share characteristics with sustainability, and I’m focused on that overlap.

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How do you define luxury?

I believe that luxury is a rare pleasure. I’m paraphrasing a Dutch designer that I admire, Renny Ramakers, but these days that often means quiet, slowness, space, something handmade – all of which can be sustainable.

These days, my idea of luxury is not having to check my e-mail on vacation.

Well, exactly. That time to turn off, it’s so precious. A more traditional approach to luxury might focus on opulence, grandeur and expense. But that feels dated in the 21st century. Luxury should also have a certain peace of mind to it; the knowledge that you aren’t harming people or the environment.

But you still want sharp aesthetics, right? We’re sitting in a new restaurant you designed, Casa La Palma, and it doesn’t scream frumpy hippie. It’s quite attractive.

People will always want beautiful things and to be in spaces that make them feel special. So it makes sense to explore ways to achieve that while also being mindful of the environment. Casa La Palma was inspired by classic Palm Springs cocktail lounges. But the wood is local, the light fixtures are locally made. The upholstery fabric is mostly woven from recycled materials.

In other words, sustainability shouldn’t necessarily be the equivalent of eating flavourless wheat bran just because it’s healthier?

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Right, which touches on part of my history with these ideas. Several years ago, I was at Hudson’s Bay to pick up some pantyhose to wear to a Jane Goodall event I was organizing that week. Outside, there was a massive lineup of women who all looked like Kim Kardashian – knee-high boots, faux fur vests. So I joked to a security guard, “Let me guess. Kim K is here.” And the guard said, “Yes, she’s launching a new perfume.” It all made me think, how can we utilize the ideas that make Kim so aspirational in order to engage a broader audience about sustainability? How can we have a crossover between the crowd at the perfume launch and the Jane Goodall event?

Are you saying that Jane Goodall could learn from Kim Kardashian?

No, I would never attempt to say what Jane Goodall could learn. She’s an icon for a reason.

I read somewhere that you decided to take up environmental activism on your honeymoon, a time when most people aren’t thinking about pollution. What happened?

Craig and I were in Vietnam, taking a romantic cruise of Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But within three minutes of setting off, I looked down at the water and it was full of pop bottles, chip bags, baby bottles, soothers, diapers, plastic bags. It was so depressing, and didn’t get better as we got further out. I felt I had to do something. So when we got back to Toronto, I called the Jane Goodall Institute, which focuses on wildlife and environmental conservation. Jane was my childhood hero, so I offered to host a fundraiser at Campagnolo. We had 60 guests and raised between $15,000 and 16,000.

Wow, that’s amazing.

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And since that first event, we’ve hosted others and are hosting another in April. We’ve grown the audience by adding elements to appeal to different people. At one, for example, we auctioned off 10 nature photographs from well-known Canadian photographers. I hope to keep expanding the appeal. At the first event, I looked around the room and saw a bunch of people who have the same interests as me. Since then, I love looking around and seeing people who maybe originally just came to for the food, but have learned something in the process.

What gives you so much optimism? I don’t hear the same optimism, especially about the environment, coming from our world leaders.

Well, if we don’t stay optimistic, we won’t do anything. But I genuinely do feel optimistic because I see energy around so many important issues. If there’s anything positive to come out of the Trump presidency, it might be that he’s energized so much resistance. Not to minimize the real trauma he’s caused. But he’s forced a lot of us to wake up, engage and advocate for what we believe in. Sometimes, good things can come from seemingly dark moments.

You, in fact, used to live in the United States under Trump?

Yes, I’m from a small town in Ontario called Fonthill and live in Toronto. But I recently finished my masters of interior design at the Pratt Institute in New York. Coming back made me realize how wonderful we have it in Canada. I mean, health care. That’s a luxury.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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