Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

How to draw inspiration from your travels to design your home

design

How to draw inspiration from your travels to design your home

Calgary interior designer Nam Dang-Mitchell’s desk features an African shield from Lisbon, flea-market keepsakes from New York and a Danish mid-century chair bought while in Toronto.

Travel can enrich your mind, heart, and potentially, your home, if you're able to translate the colours and patterns you see abroad into a different setting

Even on vacation, Montreal interior designers Maxime Vandal and Richard Ouellette pack a measuring tape. "Staying at a nice hotel can be an education," Vandal says. "Every hotel room is a prototype. If it's well done, I want to understand how it's assembled."

Quite often, the payoff to their method will surface weeks or months later, when they're back home in Montreal and the notes, photographs and various mementos from their vacation will provide inspiration for either a work project or even their own home. "Eventually, something will just spark. We don't have to force it," Ouellette says.

While most of us might not think to pack a tape measure in our suitcases, it turns out many Canadians are in fact taking design notes while away. According to recent research from Booking.com, an aggregator for accommodation fares, more than 50 per cent of us are inspired by our hotel rooms to redecorate our homes, and more than 30 per cent of us like it when our homes remind us of time spent abroad and the art, designs and cultures we encounter.

Story continues below advertisement

Over the years, Vandal and Ouellette – co-founders of design and construction company Les Ensembliers – have developed their own methods of maximizing visits to their favourite destinations. Once checked in, and before setting out to see the sights, they determine what makes their hotel room work, or not work, which includes studying the physical layout of their room and noting the scale and size of the furnishings. The pair have also come to rely on several of their favourite cities as reliable sources of inspiration: "London for a boost of creativity, Paris for nostalgia and New York for a rush of energy," Ouellette says.

Translating that inspiration from vacation to home can be tricky, though. Sometimes, the colours and patterns that pop in sun-drenched Marrakech look like a mish-mash in Montreal. European baroque might be too grandiose for Grand Prairie. Most interior designers are experts at avoiding such mistakes. The Vandal and Ouellette approach requires a bit of rigour (and packing a tape measure), but the results are invariably more authentic than, say, festooning a room with Tiki torches and conch shells and hoping it looks like Tahiti (it probably doesn't).

For designers, the first step toward expanding a creative world view involves simply getting out into the world. "The most important advice we give emerging designers is to explore," says Toronto's Glenn Pushelberg, whose studio, Yabu Pushelberg, is one of the country's most celebrated design firms. "Travel often, and keep your minds and eyes open."

Maxime Vandal and Richard Ouellete used a photo of mangrove roots from a trip to Belize as the artistic inspiration for their living room wall screen. Andre Rider

Once back home, don't rush to renovate. For Vandal and Ouellette, taking their time postvacation is essential to getting the best ideas. "We take a lot of pictures when we travel," Ouellette says. "And the photos we like most, we put on a mood board, in our gym at home." When the couple works out, they remind themselves of their travels day after day.

Sometimes, such reminders can pay design dividends. On a recent trip to Belize, Vandal and Ouellette kayaked by a mangrove, and snapped a photo of the roots reflecting in the ocean water. After glancing at the photo from their treadmills, they were struck by the interlocking patterns of the wood. The pattern now pops on a golden wall screen in their living room, a sophisticated reminder of their time down south.

By deriving inspiration from such an exotic locale, the wall screen makes a strong statement, but there is nothing wrong with going big. "Too many people stop short of bravery," says Toronto-based interior designer Colette van den Thillart, whose approach is bold but, critically, never literal.

Colette van den Thillart's mantle was inspired by one she'd seen at a bishop's palace in the Czech Republic. Colette van den Thillart

Case in point: In van den Thillart's own home, she has a plaster mantle that was custom-made based on the flowing lines of a marble mantle she had seen at a bishop's palace in Kromeriz, Czech Republic. Although most people might be hesitant to attempt something so overtly baroque, the abstraction into white (as opposed to brightly hued stone) makes it look more versatile and less Versailles.

Story continues below advertisement

For those world travellers disposed toward DIY decorating, van den Thillart suggests starting out with manageable moves. "Smalls are easy," she says. "Like little tchotchkes that you can mix into book shelves and table scapes, or pillows that you can use as an unexpected accent." Over time, those small objects can add up to something greater: a space richly layered with personality.

Jean Stéphane Beauchamp's bedroom was inspired by the colours of the Majorelle Gardens in Morocco.

Calgary interior designer Nam Dang-Mitchell has such a room in her home. "The desk area in our conservatory – an addition that was itself inspired by conservatories we'd seen in England – is probably the best example of the influence of travel," she says. "It features an African shield brought home from a trip to Lisbon, flea-market keepsakes from New York, and a Danish mid-century chair bought on a visit to Toronto." The room radiates beauty, and, because the effects are all tied to personal stories, has more durability than any fleeting decor trend.

It's worth remembering, of course, that not all interesting objects discovered in another country will necessarily work in your domicile. "Sometimes, you bring something home and it disappoints," says van den Thillart. But unless the object is a bank-breaking antique or some rare anthropological find, it's simply not worth stressing over.

Here again, distinctive design benefits from world-traveller experience. One of Montreal designer Jean Stéphane Beauchamp's favourite destinations is Morocco, particularly the Majorelle Gardens once co-owned by Yves Saint-Laurent. "I would not so much describe travelling there as inspiration but liberation," Beauchamp says. "It freed me to use the bold colours and patterns that I love."

That said, whenever Beauchamp has brought an idea back from North Africa, as he has done for many rooms in his own home, he has had to contend with the fact "the quality of light is very different," he says. "The light in Montreal is much paler. So if you want to do something that looks Moroccan, you have to adapt it. You have to decrease the tones by a factor of three or four."

In Canada, we might not be used to the volume of that colour, but we can make the hues at home here, too.

Story continues below advertisement


Visit tgam.ca/newsletters to sign up for the Globe Style e-newsletter, your weekly digital guide to the players and trends influencing fashion, design and entertaining, plus shopping tips and inspiration for living well. And follow Globe Style on Instagram @globestyle.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.