By Ted McIntyre
Behind the scenes with Ontario’s über-luxury designers
We’re perusing the portfolio of multi-disciplinary interior design firm Cecconi Simone, when we come across their “Country Residence” project. One image, among many, catches the eye: a solid, one-piece ash table that comfortably seats 14 (pictured at left). Above it are four matching light fixtures, paired in twos—each a bedazzling, multi-globe creation suspended by a masterclass of ropework.
“It’s all blown glass,” notes founding partner Anna Simone.
And the table itself? “It’s topped with zinc and finished in a material that we sourced that will not mark. Not many people even know about this finish.”
Multiple elements in the 10,000-square-foot Ontario home are customized, yet nothing appears ostentatious—which quickly gets us to the heart of the matter: What exactly is luxury?
“I think a lot of people today use that term very loosely,” suggests Simone, who along with business partner Elaine Cecconi have operated their award-winning Toronto-based firm since 1982. “Defining luxury is a common discussion we have, because it means many different things to many people. To some, luxury means labels. It sounds horrible, but I find the nouveau riche or those who have a little more money than normal are often caught up in letting people know that they have been successful. The ones who have been extremely successful, on the other hand, and who have more money than they will ever spend in this lifetime, are usually far more discreet. It’s not important for them to do things in terms of optics, but to have us design something that makes their lives simpler and allows them to enjoy their environment.”
Personalization to that degree often means a unique blueprint. “There used to be very specific programming—X number of bedrooms, X number of bathrooms, a dining room, living room. It was pretty cookie-cutter,” Simone says. “Today that’s not the case at all. We have clients that may not want a dining room—maybe just one big kitchen. People who are spending this kind of money don’t care about the resale value of their home. So for us, luxury is really about having something that is tailored to you, whereas most people tailor their lives to fit the space they have purchased.”
How does luxury builder Roman Rockliffe of Oakville-based Rock Cliff Custom Homes define the term? “When you are doing a project that’s $1,000 a square foot, that’s luxurious,” says Rockliffe. “But, ultimately, luxury is how the client defines it.”
But with bigger budgets comes greater detail, which can entail greater challenges, observes Brian Woodrow, Senior Designer with Toronto’s Tomas Pearce Interior Design Consulting.
“Most of the time, when people think of luxury in terms of construction, they’re considering applied materials and furnishings,” Woodrow says. “But the reality is that luxury is space and light and volume and sound.”
Consider the latter. “We try to be very conscious of acoustics, or what I call sonics only because of the influence of my friends in the music business,” Woodrow notes. “When you walk into a room, you can quickly tell the difference with a really well-built space. Instead of 1/2” drywall, we’ll have 5/8”. And behind that we’ll probably also have some good solid studding, with probably some ¾” blocking if you’re going to hang anything from important artwork to TVs and millwork. And then, depending on the nature of the build, we like to separate sound from room to room, so using sound attenuation blankets is not unusual.
“I’ll be very frank: If you’re sitting in the dining room and there’s a bathroom upstairs and the toilet stack is running into the lower level, which happens to be adjacent to the dining room, you don’t want to hear that toilet flushing. So you have to consider more than just the layout of the room, but also what’s behind that wall and how you’re going to treat it so that you do not hear things like that.”
Just as it’s about what you hear and don’t hear, so too is it about what you see and don’t see, Woodrow explains. “When you have a luxury project, you don’t want to look up at the ceiling and see a heating vent. So that requires a great amount of coordination. And it’s more than just a drawing. One of the biggest challenges of any luxury interior design is to really understand the systems you’re working with and how they’ll get incorporated into the designs so that they can still be easily accessed for maintenance purposes, be it through a hidden touch-latch wall panel or built right into the moulding.”
“Luxury is being able to address problems like these that are common in even many high-end homes, while retaining experts who can help you mitigate these sorts of concerns,” Simone observes. “We are not talking about interior decorating; we are really talking about interior architecture. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge required.”
Knowledge of the client, first and foremost. “There’s always an information-gathering process, which often takes anywhere from nine months to a year,” Simone says. “A lot of it involves simple day-to-day things like, ‘When you go to bed tonight, what is your routine? Do you go to the bathroom first? Where do you keep your pajamas? If you take medication, where do you keep it? Do you have boots that go above the knee?’ You have to get to that level of detail to create the proper space.”
“Those are very intimate conversations,” echoes Woodrow. “I half-joke with people that within the first hour of meeting them I’m going to go through their closets.”
And it’s difficult to do that sort of research on a Zoom call, Woodrow admits. “You need to be visually connected to your client to pick up the nuances of how someone is thinking, how they react to something they see, or a fabric they touch.”
Detailed as that process might be, those are the easy puzzle pieces for firms like Tomas Pearce and Cecconi Simone. “We may be the designers, but we need to inform the architect, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and any special consultants we bring in,” Simone notes. “It starts with the vision, but then as layers are added, you have to make sure one isn’t compromising another—for example, that your structure and rafters won’t interfere with your lighting. I know people love to see the big reveal when a project is done, but it’s the process that informs the reveal.”
WHEN THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
So what’s it like to be given a bottomless budget? “Even with our billionaire clients, there is a budget expectation,” says Woodrow. “They want to know what something costs—not necessarily because of the cost, but to confirm that there’s true value in what they’re buying. And, of course, everyone values things differently. So I think budget is sort of a misnomer. For projects of this level, we don’t really talk about the cost of something; we talk more about someone’s needs and desires.”
Simone concurs. “I think the idea of carte blanche is a myth,” she says. “We’ve had some truly significant clients where money is indeed no object. But even those clients are still very careful about how they spend their money.”
But how could one adorn an abode that costs eight figures or more to build, should the opportunity present itself? The contents of mega-star Drake’s $100 million Ferris Rafauli-designed mansion in Toronto’s Bridle Path include a $390,000 mattress. The Grand Vividus, designed by Rafauli in collaboration with Swedish company Hastens, includes materials such as horsehair, stingray skin and bronze-accented compressed leather.
“You can get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for any object,” Simone assures. “You could spend $500,000 or $1 million for a single Dale Chihuly blown glass light fixture. Designing a pattern on a tile and then having moulds made for it so that the tile is exclusively the client’s is costly—assembly lines are shut down to do whatever is required for that project.
“I’ve walked into the Baccarat Showroom (tableware, lighting, decor) in New York City and put together a $2 million custom order,” reveals Woodrow. “We had gilded doorhandles created for clients that fit their hands for one project—all hand-cast, finished and polished to match other items in the home, and shipped from Argentina. It was around $600 to $800 for each cabinet pull in the kitchen, and $1,600 to $1,800 for each of the escutcheon plates that went with them. And we’ve had custom sconces done in France from companies that have been around for 350 years. Those pieces are invaluable.”
One of Tomas Pearce’s most exclusive showpieces is a Yorkville penthouse. “A beautiful, sophisticated Parisian palace in the sky—a full floor of about 5,000 square feet—every square inch of it custom,” Woodrow describes.
“One of the most extraordinary pieces is the range hood,” he highlights. “The Lacanche range itself was custom ordered and built in France, but the hood was created in Toronto. Sheet brass—machined from solid brass stock—that was bent, welded and brazed into shape and hand-polished. The guys who created that hood likened it to building a sports car.
“In the centre of the great room there’s a 101” drop-down projection screen that you cannot see until it is put into use,” Woodrow continues. “And the stone columns were carved and shipped from overseas. It was about a five-man job to erect each one. It’s the difference between walking into a cocktail party and knocking on a column and hearing a hollow sound or leaning up against it and realizing it’s 14 inches in diameter of solid stone.”
Then there are requests that require more unique planning.
“I can recall a time when Mel (company partner Mel Quilatan) and I did a huge custom tub—the size of a large hot tub,” Woodrow recalls. “Now, the bigger the tub, the longer it takes to fill. So we worked with mechanical engineers to install extra boilers and extra-large water feeds to have the tub be able to be filled in eight minutes. That’s an engineering feat in and of itself.”
“We’ve done indoor badminton courts, which was providing a pretty high ceiling,” shares acclaimed Ottawa architect Christopher Simmonds, whose varied portfolio includes a 20,000-square-foot mansion with riding arenas and stables.
“An indoor 20’ x 40’ ice skating rink,” offers Rockliffe. “And we just finished a home with a full basketball court in the sub-basement. We went down 46 feet to put in a regulation-size court, poured the foundation and then put a real basement foundation on top of that!”
HIDING IN PLAIN SIght
The level of detail for luxury designs is not always so obvious. It could be a hidden passageway to a command centre-like safe room, or something in plain sight.
“One of the most challenging things with custom homes is the shift from one material to the next, and how you treat those transitions,” notes Simone. “If you have a wood wall transitioning into drywall, and then you have the baseboards, and they are going to come together at some point, how do you treat that? It seems like a really simple issue, but it’s often a complicated one. These materials expand and contract differently, and if you don’t have the knowledge of how they physically (and creatively) come together, it can destroy the flow.
“Most of our work is about sightlines,” Simone adds. “A lot of people think if you’re inside looking out, that’s a sightline. But no, sightlines are anytime you’re turning a corner, what is it that you see? Is it pulling you in? Is the transition smooth and well thought out?”
While the client’s wishes guide the initial process, the creative juices and artistry of accomplished designers and architects often inspire what follows. And it can sometimes begin with the most basic of gestures.
“I had one client show me two small pictures that he’d taken out of magazines—one an image of a Balinese pavilion overlooking rice fields; the other of a vaulted room with a skylight,” relates Simmonds. “In another conversation, they said they liked Japanese architecture and log cabins. So you sometimes have to read between the lines to understand what might be to their taste. If they say they like log cabins, you can infer they like an element of rustic warmth. And if they say they like Japanese architecture, they appreciate an intimate connection with the landscape and a refined sense of detailing. So for me there’s an opportunity to work from these clues to create something original that suits the context.”
But the project in question, Hilltop House in the Caledon Hills, continued to morph long after shovels had broken ground, tasking Simmonds to maintain harmony and flow in a design that eventually surpassed 10,000 square feet.
“Partway through, the client said they’d like to have a subterranean home theatre. Further into it, the client, who was a widower, said they had a new partner with three teenage daughters, so we needed a new wing on the house.”
As it evolved, the client had difficulty envisioning the project through drawings, so Simmonds created physical 3-D models. “They loved them so much that they always wanted to take them home!”
The initial vision is encapsulated with a stretch at the end of the master bedroom where a vaulted-roof pavilion stands with skylights above and a hot tub to the side. “Off the new bedroom wing, we created a series of decks with glass panels in the floor so they could see down the hill and over the landscape,” he says. “There were so many phases. We were probably involved in that project for over four years.”
We scan through Simmonds’ portfolio, arriving at “Muskoka Cottage,” with a wall of glass—meticulously crafted by the Loewen windows and doors plant in Manitoba—opening to the lake below. “There are four panels that stack up to one end and the screen system comes down on tracks and closes it all off,” he notes. “There is a full concrete wall underneath, and what we discovered was that some of these big doors weigh so much that they have very little tolerance for any deflection. So we have to design a structure with theoretically zero deflection in the door assembly—stiffening it all up with massive amounts of steel in some cases.”
The wood interior? “All Douglas fir—a truckload shipped in from B.C.”
Next up is Simmonds’ Moraine House. “Here we were offered a chance to develop a landscape around the house, including a waterfall. One of the kids was a pianist and a singer. The whole family had grown up with his jam sessions around the piano. The idea was when the children visited, they could re-create that experience, singing opera, jazz or whatever. So one of the details here is the acoustic ceiling. The rounded plaster form provides acoustic deflection and also helps diffuse the light from the high-level windows down into the space.”
There’s now almost a giddiness to the voice of Simmonds, who relishes such über-luxury opportunities, particularly if he and his client can create something original—but not gaudy—together.
“If someone wants a castle, I’m probably not their guy,” he says. “I don’t like designing things for show. I like designing homes that people love to live in.”
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