I was a judge this year for the Western Living Magazine Awards in the category of interior design. The issue hit newsstands a month ago, and, in it, I joined esteemed designers Robert Ledingham and Paul Lavoie in reviewing an impressive shortlist of candidates with an eye to identifying this year's best.
Alda Pereira is that designer. Hardware is nothing new to her – the 40-something Portuguese transplant has won many awards since opening shop in 1988. And while her portfolio includes hotels and corporate offices, she made her name in the crazed Vancouver condo boom of the middle aughts. In what was rapidly becoming a cookie-cutter market, her design-forward approach challenged developers to raise the bar for small-space living.
Of the five categories on which we graded designers, one in particular may interest readers of this column: Westernness. What is it? Tricky question. Canadians have a hard time locating their national identity without vague references to hockey, socialized medicine, and not being American, and, it turns out, articulating a regional design ethic is just as slippery.
The editors of Western Living defined Westernness as "design that expresses living in the West, furthers a regional design aesthetic, and uses local materials or techniques." As a designer, that makes immediate sense, but I recognize it is – as a non-designer friend of mine said – a bit like defining "spicy" as "that which possesses spiciness."
Terminology aside, there's no doubt Alda Pereira deserves top marks as a defining Western designer. Here's why.
She uses elemental materials in a refined and modern way
The West was founded on extraction – of fish, minerals, and wood – and our lifestyle and aesthetics connect us to the landscape in a raw and relatively unprocessed way. In Western design of the past, this meant bringing timber (even trees) inside and using chunks of granite or river rock for fireplaces and architectural features. Today, the materials are the same, but the bent is toward greater refinement – the wood cut finer, the stone sliced and honed. Westernness is, at root, about truth to materials – the desire to appreciate a natural object for what it is and not overwork or disguise it.
This sophisticated simplicity is evident in Ms. Pereira's design of a West Vancouver interior that came as part of her submission package. The interior finishes incorporate layers of grey stone, glass, and warm wood. On the main floor she used huge rectified tiles of polished limestone, and on the home's rectangular columns a chiselled granite ledge stone that adds ruggedness and texture to the space. The mood is refined, yes, but nothing feels labored or fussy.
She blurs the threshold between indoor and outdoor space
A crucial tenet of Western design is, in my opinion, a desire to be immersed in the environment – not blocked off from it. Whether in glass towers reaching into the sky or cantilevered homes dangling over rocky expanses of coast, when we're indoors, we want to feel as much as possible like we're outdoors. For indications of this in design, look to elements – in colour, shape, light, and texture – that diminish the boundaries of the home, drawing the eye outside.
The raw structure of the West Vancouver home created the perfect opportunity for boundary-blurring, and Ms. Pereira executed it elegantly. Not only do the chiseled stone columns pass through the home's envelope and join the exterior façade, the floor-to-ceiling glass allows the grey limestone floor to blend seamlessly with the concrete of the outdoor living spaces. And the wall colours and furnishings are a wash of dove grey and smoky blues, just like the West Coast sky. Beautiful.
Her designs avoid flourish and embellishment
The European roots of eastern Canada have broadly influenced the architecture and interior design found there. It's common to find traditional homes, fancy details, and an apparent appreciation for finery. In the West, though, more evident is the instinct to pare down to the essentials. Here, an elegant informality takes precedence over complexity, ostentation, and reverence for tradition.
Every interior Ms. Pereira included in her submission displayed exquisite furnishings and poignant contemporary artwork. The pieces were refined, certainly – with luxurious finishes and fine craft and materials. But none was ornate. The sofas are boxy and approachable. The chairs are substantial. And the character of the spaces, if it speaks of anything, speaks of careful editing – nothing extraneous, no clutter.
Unlike traditional homes, which often have too many small, leggy furnishings in different finishes and patterns, Ms. Pereira's approach is a careful curation of form and art. She only strings together enough pieces to hold a space together, and, importantly, there's nothing superfluous in the gaps – negative space is as much a part of the design as the pieces themselves.
As a designer, it's exciting to live in a city where a gigantic talent like Ms. Pereira is working. The Westernness evident in her design is, I think, something that will grow in influence. Why? Because in a world ever busier and more complex, the allure of simplicity and elemental connection can only deepen. More of what's essential, less of what isn't – and with room to breathe in the negative space. Congratulations, Alda Pereira.