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Designer Robert Ledingham brightened spaces – and lives

Bob Ledingham, pictured with his beloved Scottie, Ginger, was a benefactor of many cultural institutions and a friend to all his clients.

Robert Lemon

No matter whether it was a project for a wealthy client whose home overlooked Vancouver's waterfront or pro bono work at the Dr. Peter Centre for people living with HIV and AIDS in the city's West End, Bob Ledingham's world was filled with streamlined spaces and lots of glass.

As one of Canada's premier interior designers, he looked out and welcomed the world in, working with architects such as Arthur Erickson and Mother Nature. Since he used a mostly muted palate, the quality of light made his interiors ever-changing: bright and playful, stormy, gentle, or cool and grey.

Anyone can hang a shingle on the door and pronounce himself an interior designer. Mr. Ledingham was different. Literally a "doctor of design," with an honorary PhD bestowed upon him in 2006 by his alma mater, the University of Manitoba – he understood that design was at once an art and a science, something that couldn't all be learned with books but which should be nurtured through a strong education.

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He was a gentleman of the old school who knew how to listen and could read a room in mere seconds. He also happened to have impeccable taste, imagination, an eye for detail, a vast knowledge he was constantly updating and a laugh so unexpected and disarming that you immediately wanted to be his friend for life so you could hear it over and again.

"It was a persuasive laugh. He could convince you to change things and always for the better," said retired Vancouver architect Barry Downs, one of the foremost practitioners of West Coast Modernism. "Bob was very enthusiastic, very diplomatic and very hard to deny – one of the great interior designers of the nation."

Architect Joost Bakker, who met Mr. Ledingham through his work with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, went even further. "Bob's contributions should be celebrated in the same way as [architects] Arthur Erickson and Ron Thom."

On May 2, Robert Ledingham died after suffering a brain hemorrhage from a fall. He was 70. A few weeks earlier, he'd been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. For one who always moved with grace, precision and purpose, travelled extensively and could discourse easily about even the most obscure of operas, it was a devastating diagnosis.

Still, he didn't let it get him down. With his partner of nearly 32 years, architect Robert Lemon, he flew from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota straight to Chicago, where he walked slowly and in stately fashion though the length of the cavernous Merchandise Mart to check out the latest in trends and fabrics.

"Back in Vancouver, he continued to visit job sites," Mr. Lemon said. "We'd walk down the street with him hanging onto my arm. I can't imagine him withering away in a bed."

Maxine Davis is the executive director of Vancouver's Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, named for Peter Jepson-Young, a Vancouver physician who, after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1985, taught the public about living with the condition in 111 television episodes that were broadcast on CBC.

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After the doctor's death in 1991, Mr. Ledingham went to work in a big way, Ms. Davis said. First, he turned the original centre – an old, shabby nurse's wing of St. Paul's Hospital that had actually been used as a psych ward for a movie – into a place that was at once colourful and calm. Then, he co-chaired a capital campaign to raise money for a new centre right behind the hospital in Vancouver's West End and again contributed his design services.

"We couldn't afford to hire a top design guru, but here he was, involved right down to choosing the wood of the Venetian blinds in the heritage part of the property," Ms. Davis said.

When it came to raising money, she recalled how Mr. Ledingham was concerned about securing funds to cover weekend care for people who were sick.

"He knew it wasn't enough to be there five days a week," she said. "He didn't want people to feel that they were forgotten on the weekends. In addition to Dr. Peter's legacy, Bob's legacy lives on here as well."

Robert McKee Ledingham was born in Ottawa on May 11, 1942, the younger son of George Aleck Ledingham and Georgina Eleanor McKee. Early on, his father, a scientist and world expert on wheat rust, moved the family to Saskatoon, where he headed the National Research Council's Prairie Regional Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan.

Often, young Rob, as his family called him, and his big brother, Al, participated in lively, esoteric discussions around the family dinner table with scientists visiting from around the world.

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Those dinners instilled in him the importance of listening, of asking questions and drawing people out. Even though he knew he'd go in a different direction from his father, the scientist's sense of precision, of how even the smallest measurement could make a world of difference, was ingrained in him from the start.

He studied interior design at the University of Manitoba's faculty of architecture, graduating in 1964 with a bachelor's degree. For the next two years, he worked for the University of Saskatchewan's department of buildings and grounds before pulling up stakes for Vancouver, where he fell in love with the city's light, topography and changeable moods.

There, he was free to do what he was passionate about, be it build stage sets for Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park or work as an interior designer at Thompson, Berwick and Pratt alongside architects such as Barry Downs and Arthur Erickson – a behind-the-scenes kind of guy who created sets and spaces that were at once solid, quiet and cutting edge.

In 1975, he opened his own interior design company, Robert M. Ledingham Inc. Soon, his client list included a monied who's who of Western Canada, including politicians, power brokers and property developers. There were commercial properties, including the University of B.C.'s Eye Centre, the Westin Whistler Resort and Spa and Victoria's Laurel Point Inn on the waterfront.

Besides the honorary doctorate, he garnered no fewer than 29 other awards throughout his career for his own work and his contributions to interior design in general. In 1998, in recognition of his help in developing a stringent accreditation process for university-level interior design programs across North America, he became the first Canadian to receive the International Interior Design Association's Leadership Award. Two years ago, the same association gave him its Leadership Award of Excellence.

Mr. Ledingham was a benefactor of myriad cultural institutions in Vancouver, Seattle and Winnipeg, including the Vancouver and Seattle Opera companies and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

His clients were fiercely loyal, friends more than anything else.

Jeanie Hodgins was living in England in with her husband and recalls when Mr. Ledingham and Mr. Lemon came to visit at an old farmhouse they had leased in Dorset. They had recently moved in with furniture that Mr. Ledingham had picked out for another of their homes.

"After lunch, I went upstairs to nap for about an hour," Ms. Hodgins said. "I was about to come down and Bob called up to ask if I could wait 10 more minutes. So I did – and when I came downstairs, I found that they'd moved all the furniture and paintings. It was perfect!"

On Mother's Day, 1981, Mr. Ledingham met Mr. Lemon at a bar in Vancouver. They were yin and yang, the interior designer and the architect who would become the city's senior heritage planner, one quiet, the other, not so much. They travelled the world together and they stayed at home, a 1936 Art Moderne-style house they renovated together, including a rooftop deck from which they could sit, sip a good wine and look out at the view for hours.

Mr. Ledingham leaves Mr. Lemon, his brother, Al Ledingham, as well as a niece and a nephew.

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