SmartDesign-Group-5.jpg

SmartDesign Group president Nick Baker says B.C.'s natural landscape inspires Vancouver's successful interior design industry.

With its growing popular appeal,
 interior design has become something that 
anyone and everyone thinks they can now do, 
at home or in the office. But take it from 
Vancouver’s pros: getting it right requires more than just “paint and pillows.”

In
 the current zeitgeist, interior designers are the new rock stars. They have colour-swatched, clean-lined and pillow-fluffed their way through endless hours of home-decor television shows and achingly chic magazine front covers, even during the recession.


Design-renowned Miami has the likes of Barbara Hulanicki, who created the former Biba fashion empire in the ’60s; London’s darling is Anouska Hempel; and in New York it’s Thom Filicia and Julian Schnabel. In B.C. Kelly Deck, Kari Henshaw and Robert Ledingham are household names and part of a local industry that saw its ranks grow from 572 to 793 firms between 2006 and 2008, with revenues rising by almost 22 per cent over the same period.

 

Perhaps no firm exemplifies the burgeoning role of Vancouver designers on the international stage better than SmartDesign Group. The outfit was co-founded by London native Nick Baker in 2000 when his U.K.-based Baker’s Design Group merged with Vancouver’s Sunderland Innerspace Design Inc. (The latter was established by 35-year design veteran Jon Sunderland, who remained a partner with Baker until his retirement this 
January.) Baker expects SmartDesign’s revenue to grow between 30 and 40 per cent over the next two years as it works on projects around the world, including its specialty of airports (Doha, London Gatwick, LAX, JFK) as well as Lansdowne Road stadium in Dublin, Ireland, and England’s Brighton Arena. 


Like many British expats, Baker was lured by the quality of life in B.C. as compared to London. (“Far too many miserable faces and cars on the streets in London,” says the father of four daughters, aged 10 to 17. “And it’s so grey – even when it’s dull here at least you get green.”) Even if barely five per cent of his work is B.C.-based (Whole Foods Market, YVR and Everything Wine are major clients), Baker believes the region helps fuel both the company’s creativity and the sustainability card it often plays. 

[pagebreak]

Vancouver-Interior-Design-3-1.jpg
SmartDesign – Everything Wine, North Vancouver.


“When you’re exposed to such a calming environment, that really becomes an edge and it translates into a lot of our work,” says the 46-year-old president and CEO. “It’s a very positive, spiritual part, and we are a very tactile company. Our sustainability comes from here because we see it with regards to the land and the sea, whereas the office in London is at Tower Bridge, which is very concrete and so much harder.” 


While the data are not available yet, the global recession has undoubtedly forced a makeover of some parts of the profession. SmartDesign, for instance, recently decided to outsource some of the technical requirements (such as construction documents and 3D rendering) as part of a refocused business model. On the residential side, anecdotal evidence throughout the industry suggests that the initial slowing of condominium construction took a bite out of many firms’ bottom lines. On the flip side, however, lower construction costs prompted some homeowners to start major renovations, helping numerous designers to win commissions. Several smaller B.C. outfits revealed that they lost staff during the downturn. Some have joined forces with architects and engineers to form “hybrid” offices, while others face the prospect of being absorbed by one of the larger multi-disciplined organizations with outposts here, such as Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd. and Stantec Inc., both headquartered in Edmonton, or Cannon Design from Buffalo, New York.


Whether small or large, the province’s interior design firms are acutely aware of markets beyond our borders, particularly the emerging markets in Asia, which are perceived as both a boon and a challenge. While there are frequent invitations for local firms to outsource services at a cheaper rate to Mumbai, for example, B.C.’s creative talent is also widely admired abroad.


“Vancouver has a good reputation over in China and Asia for interior design. There are even sites named after Vancouver and other references to the Canadian West Coast,” says Jim Toy, a 49-year-old Manitoba native and former president of the Interior Designers Institute of B.C. (IDIBC) and principal and founder of Vancouver’s False Creek Design Group Ltd. (notable projects include the Vancouver International Film Centre and Vancity Theatre). However, with experience working on five projects in China over the past decade, Toy concludes, “There is a limited window in China for B.C. firms because [the Chinese] are one of the greatest assimilators in the world. Every time we go over there, the pace of development and the improvements in their knowledge base is frightening.”

[pagebreak]

False-Creek-Design-3.jpg
Jim Toy, principal and founder, False Creek Design.


All of these worldwide challenges to interior designers have heightened the need to professionalize the industry. 
That’s why the IDIBC is proposing a merger with the Architectural Institute of B.C. (AIBC), and why it’s currently lobbying the provincial government for legislation to grant it legal status as a self-governing profession with the authority to oversee accreditation. If the 200-member-strong IDIBC 
succeeds with its plan, B.C. would follow Nova Scotia to become the second province in Canada to enact legislation and grant interior designers such authority. Just as the title “registered massage therapist” can only be used by those approved by the College of Massage Therapists 
of B.C., so “interior designer” would be restricted to those approved by the IDIBC. (A spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development, Corinna Filion, confirms the discussions with interior designers, although she adds that there are no immediate plans to introduce legislation.)


While the proliferation of media attention has brought increased consumer awareness, especially on the residential side of interior design, Toy thinks it has also resulted in a “skewed perception” of the industry. “Much of what we do really involves much more than ‘paint and pillows,’” says Toy from his Homer Street offices where he works with a staff 
of 12. “As projects grow in size and complexities, so does the demand for properly educated and trained interior design professionals who can address these issues and offer expertise.”


Sure, it’s all entertainment, but the magical transformation of a space as depicted on television without collaboration with the client is not accurate and does not serve the industry well, explains Carol Jones, a principal at Kasian’s Vancouver office and past president of both the Chicago-based International Interior Design Association and the Interior Designers of Canada. “It does a disservice to the actual design process and creates a deception that design can be effectively accomplished in the blink of an eye and with almost no money,” she says. 


As it stands, anyone in B.C. can set up as an interior designer without recognized qualifications, creating confusion in the general public as to the differences between designers and decorators. “Between a designer and decorator, the former also has to have an understanding of structure and building technology as well as professional ethics to be mindful of,” says Toy. A designer must know the material requirements for fire-rated wall construction, say, or the allowable widths for stairs, handrails and doors, while the decorator’s main focus is on esthetics. According to Toy, hiring the wrong person can leave a client open to liability and has often led to False Creek Design being called in to rectify poor jobs. He cites a recent case involving decorative panelling in a public area that did not meet fire code and custom furniture that was too large to fit in the elevator: “In short, a costly remedial exercise for the client, who had previously engaged a drafting service with an ‘in-house designer’ on staff.”

[pagebreak]

Carol-Jones-3.jpg
Carol Jones, principal, Kasian, Vancouver.

Adds Toy, “The recession has accelerated the need to answer the big question: How can we establish – and maintain – our worth?”


The lack of regulation in B.C. explains in part the wide range in consultancy fees across the industry. The cost of an interior design commission can range from $80 to $250 an hour, depending on seniority. For corporate office design, fees are often calculated on a square-foot basis, depending on the size and complexity of a project. On average, it costs around $4 to $5 per square foot for 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of generic office design, with clients paying more for more specialized projects, such as a research lab or broadcast facility. 


Maintaining a competitive edge – without undermining the value of an interior designer – is the biggest concern among designers trying to quote a winning price. “Just as restaurants will charge less for a meal to get you in the door, so I have heard of commercial firms charging far less for their design services,” says Robert Ledingham, a 40-year veteran of Vancouver’s design scene. His 13-person Ledingham Design Consultants, which works in both residential (Intracorp’s Stirling House at UBC) and hospitality (Whistler’s Westin Hotel), may have been relatively unscathed by the worldwide recession, but he is fired up by the current undercutting. “Reducing the cost,” he explains, “does not help to keep up the standards of the value of an interior designer.” 


Carol Jones, who has spent a similar amount of time in the industry, mainly designing corporate offices, insists that that value is similar to any other consulting business: it’s ultimately about what you know, not what you do. “The challenge for designers has been to establish and promote the value proposition for design,” she says. “Design is not a commodity. It’s not ‘give us the money and here’s your new house.’ The real value is in the consultative process with the client and the knowledge and education that interior designers have which affect the environment.” So anything, such as a legislated practice act, that helps to further legitimize the profession is “helpful.”


Putting an actual dollar figure on an interior designer’s worth is often easier in the commercial sector – a stage rarely under the klieg lights of reality television or popular magazines – than it is in residential design. 
 [pagebreak]

Todd-Towers-3.jpg
Todd Towers, president, Farmboy Fine Arts.

Take SmartDesign’s retail project at Seoul Incheon International Airport in South Korea. The firm’s redesign of Incheon’s duty-free space involved the interior designers re-examining their client’s retail business plan, according to Nick Baker, with the aim of finding ways to boost profits.


“We redeveloped hundreds of thousands of square feet on a retail model and strategy that was all about merchandising and knowing how passengers shop,” he tells me in early April, shortly after returning from an industry conference in Brussels where he spoke to 3,500 attendees on enhancing the passenger experience and building brand equity at airports, using Incheon as an example. “Within two years of us implementing this new program, [the Incheon airport] went from generating a billion dollars in duty-free sales to $1.4 billion – a 40 per cent increase. We’re incredibly commercial and understand why our clients want to make money. Many designers cost clients money; we actually generate income for them.”


In the hospitality trade, however, the figures are less concrete, according to Todd Towers, president of Gastown’s Farmboy Fine Arts Inc. Farmboy is a major player on the fine art-decor supplies side of the interior design world, with an exhaustive client list that includes hotel chains such as the Wynn (Las Vegas), Sheraton (from Atlanta and Boston to Virginia and Wisconsin) and W (from Korea to the Maldives to Mexico and across the U.S.). The firm has also just outfitted more than 2,000 rooms throughout seven hotels built and financed by the developers Aldar Properties PJSC on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. In ballpark figures, one or two custom pieces by Farmboy for a lobby or restaurant command a four- to five-figure price tag; a full consulting package, with manufacturing services of the artwork included, can run upward of seven figures. 


The 37-year-old Towers, originally from Alberta, admits that it’s difficult to gauge the success of a designed environment based on emotional response: “It’s hard for a CEO to write a cheque for 10 million dollars just because someone says, ‘This feels good.’” However, the environment – the art, the lighting, the sound – is clearly designed to encourage people to stay in a particular hotel. “So it’s all consumed,” Tower explains, “and even though the numbers are squishy, they know it all contributes to the bottom line to a certain degree.” 

[pagebreak]

Vancouver-Film-Centre-3.jpg
The International Vancouver Film Centre designed by False Creek Design.


Carol Jones sees interior design as continuing to be a growth industry, primarily because of its ability to affect human experience. “There is a growing consciousness of the importance of ‘experience’ in architecture and design – the experience of students, patients, shoppers, office workers, passengers,” she notes. “Interior designers are well positioned, through education and expertise, to optimize these experiences.” 


Vancouver-based Mitchell Freedland, named designer of the year by Western Living magazine in 2009, is equally optimistic. Compare design firms in Vancouver, he suggests, to similar-sized ones in, say, Cleveland or Pittsburgh, and there’s no buzz about those cities from a design perspective. “Yet there is about Vancouver because we have the whole mix: the architects, the urban planners, the interior designers,” says the 47-year-old founder of Mitchell Freedland Design. Freedland leads a 13-person office near Vancouver’s Olympic Village and has worked in Japan, Europe, Chicago, L.A. and Miami, where the Ontario native has been focusing on private residential work for the past four years. “We’re supposed to be just an outdoorsy, sporty town, but somehow we seem to really get architecture and urban planning, and it trickles in to a good reputation for interior design,” he says. 


Not that there are necessarily enough good people to be found in “small town” Vancouver, according to Nick Baker. SmartDesign is constantly looking for staff – it currently employs 25 in Vancouver, 20 in London, 18 in Los Angeles and two in Hong Kong – and Baker says he regularly has to recruit globally to fill positions for Vancouver-area projects. He even jokes that he shares staff “half of the time” with Stantec, the firm Baker considers his closest competition. 


Among all these challenges – and the ongoing IDIBC campaign for a practice act – the opportunities, especially the global ones, appear to be on the rise for B.C.’s interior design industry. International corporations are increasingly tapping into their softer sides via the expertise and flair of B.C. firms, while residential folk worldwide are liaising with this province’s designers to create the best living spaces. 


The next challenge? To raise the level of design and take more risks, says Baker. “Generally, people are far too careful here,” he says of his adopted home. “There are some great designers in this city, but I wish the clients trusted them a lot more and opened their eyes.”