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How this designer paired modern furniture with warmth and character in a small space

When Theresa Casey opened her award-winning, architecture and interior design firm in Toronto two decades ago, she drew on her extensive education in art history, fine art and design. She continues to build on that knowledge with frequent travel as well as her ever-growing library of art and architecture books. This may explain her facility in creating such distinct looks – from traditional to contemporary – for clients. Yet, as she stresses, clients who know themselves make their own mark: “I just help them to get there by encouraging risks, innovation and individuality.”

Here, she walks us through a recent project.

The Lucite coffee table allows the carpet to be completely visible, which is important in a small space. (Michael Graydon)

The design brief: Although our typical projects are full scope in nature – i.e. architectural, permits and interior designs – this project was a little different. I felt an affinity to this couple that rather than have us come in at the beginning of a project, they talked to me about the furnishings phase of the project. They had been renovating off and on for seven years and ran out of steam and inspiration for the final push. The living room was bare except for two temporary garden chairs and the dining room table had been purchased a number of years ago. The aim was to enliven the space and meet the different needs of the couple. The husband wanted collectable modern iconic furniture, but needed guidance in scale and proportion, and his wife wanted to ensure the home had an atmosphere of warmth and character.

The challenge: To seamlessly marry the architectural furniture while still maintaining character in a small space. I incorporated comfortable furniture from the ’50s, geometric patterns and the bold use of colour. The geometric pattern and light background of the carpet play off of the cozy navy sofa, and the Lucite coffee table allows the carpet to be completely visible (important in a small space) and in keeping with the client’s desire to incorporate clean, contemporary elements. A pair of original Hans Wegner 1950s chairs were found and upholstered in a geometric fabric. The toss cushions are in a pinstripe men’s fabric. The four drawings above the fireplace are architectural in manner but the terra cotta colour adds a softness and counterbalance to some of the stronger elements.

What worked well: In the living room, the green accent paint created the “wow” factor the couple was looking for, especially when layered in front of a multi-divided white bookcase from Avenue Road and a textured console table on the other side of the fireplace. In the dining room, this is achieved with the orange molded plastic chairs. Most people are a little hesitant to go for such adventurous colour; however, I always do samples and once people can see it up close, they usually are more comfortable. Colour is a powerful tool in my “toolbox” of design because it can infuse a space with a variety of emotions, from drama to serenity. I encourage my clients to go through the process with me of figuring out what their goal is for their home – sometimes this can be achieved with a can of paint.

Adventurous colour, such as these orange molded plastic chairs, can add a huge ‘wow’ factor. (Michael Graydon)

Your design rule: Keep the integrity of the project at the forefront of all decisions. Make sure each element complements and supports the design goal.

The design rule you were happy to break with this project: There’s an old design rule that says everything should match, which I never adhere to. Discordant elements, like the green paint, used skillfully, add personality to a room.

Design pet peeve: Making choices based only on budget. I often will advise clients on where they should spend their money and where they should go for a more budget-friendly choice. Creating a home is a minefield of emotional decisions and my job is to keep the project on track, keep it real and grounded, but also incorporate elements that make it extraordinary.

Any advice to for people embarking on a design project? Hire a design professional to plan the space. If it doesn’t work spatially, no amount of “decorating” will make it function.

This has been condensed and edited by Kathryn Hayward.

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