We sat down with Elaine Cecconi and Anna Simone who recently celebrated a major milestone at their eponymously named interior design firm, Cecconi Simone. The firm is well known to UrbanToronto readers for their extensive résumé of projects in this city in partnership with many architects for the best developers.
I want to start out with the biggest faux-pas I can think of: 30 years!
Elaine & Anna: [Both laugh].
I don’t want to blow smoke, but I didn’t even believe it when I heard Cecconi Simone was 30 years old! Who’s counting, but that’s an incredible accomplishment!
Elaine: We can’t believe it either! We’re so immature we can’t possibly be that old.
Anna: We feel probably more invigorated, more inspired, we’re at our prime, and the fact that we have a team of people that are like-minded is truly a gift to us.
I have talked with each of you on several occasions now, and it’s obvious how much you still enjoy what you’re doing. The average lifespan in a job for most people these days is maybe 6, 7, 8 years. Most everyone who reads this will sit back and think “I can’t imagine thirty years” and yet you have a thriving, vital, business that you’re both still excited about and invigorated by, and you just took the entire staff to Italy!
A: That’s right! We just felt that we wanted to show how much we appreciated them. It’s been a dream of ours to be able to share how we see a part of the world with the people that help us get to where we want to go every single day.
I heard your employees were just flabbergasted and thrilled that you were doing this, and it was just a wonderful, amazing team building experience. (I apologize for the number of applications that are about to cross your desks!)
E: It’s funny, we had two reactions after the trip was announced. We did have résumés come in, while others asked us to tell their employers what we were doing, to put the idea in their heads!
A: We really didn’t know how the trip was going to unfold, but I have to say both Elaine and I agree that it was one of the best decisions we ever made. A week before we told our clients if you’re driving along Dundas Street and you see a building levitating, it’s because there’s so much energy and excitement just knowing that we’re going on this trip collectively! We could all do it individually, but to travel with like-minded people that just want to learn from each other was a gift in itself. We all underestimated what we’d get out of it, we truly did.
So let’s go 30 years back, or should we even go further back before that, and look at what brought you two together to create Cecconi Simone in the first place.
E: I think it’s important that everyone knows we were 10 years old when we started! Anna and I met while working for a company called Marshall Cummings. They were probably the de-facto interior design firm in the industry then. They did all the high-end corporate offices for banking institutions, law firms, accounting firms, brokerage houses. It was a great foundation, a great training ground for us in terms of learning about the industry. I think we found a kindred spirit between the two of us, that we wanted to break out and do work at many different levels, not simply one specialization of interior design. We were interested in doing retail design, showrooms, residential… everything really. We realized we would only be able to do that if we broke out and started our own business.
Are there any specific early projects that you think of as foundational for the company?
A: I would say that you know that the reason why we’re here is really Elaine’s fault. Elaine’s sister, who works with SRO…
E: …a music management and record company that’s managed Rush for the past 38 years. When they were looking at new offices and I brought the project to Marshall Cummings and I said ‘Look, I know this is not what you usually do because it’s really quite small.’
A: About 3500 square feet.
E: It was tiny, and Marianne basically said ‘No, we wouldn’t entertain it.’ So we basically said whoa, well what do you think, should we take it on ourselves? And so we decided it would be a good decision to do that.
A: Hence that was the beginning. We started doing the project and realized, you know it was also during the recession of 1982 and Marshall Cummings had slowed down considerably and were encouraging a lot of the staff to find work elsewhere. They were only guaranteeing a limited amount of hours. It wasn’t that we were not loyal or unethical in our approach. It was only with their permission did we pursue the direction. From one opportunity another emerged; Alfred Sung came to us and wanted us to do the first Alfred Sung shop in Hazelton Lanes, and from there we started working with the Monaco Group, who managed Alfred Sung at the time, and did their showroom, and many other retail stores. It just felt that it was the right thing to do. We gave notice to Marshall Cummings at the time… and that’s how Cecconi Simone started!
So despite the recession, with the Monaco Group you have a solid base of work that people can see, but it must have been tough in the early days. How long did it take before you guys were growing, before the company was more than Anna and Elaine?
A: It’s always interesting because for the first 10 years of our business we were so passionate about what we did that so long as we had the opportunity to design and to design in a manner which we felt we could give back, and that design was exploring new avenues and different ways of doing things, really heightening the bar in Toronto at the time, that’s really what was important to us. It wasn’t about the monetary aspect of it until one day we woke up and realized we couldn’t even afford to lease a car, and thought okay, there has to be a business component to this. It wasn’t until a good 10 years into the business that we started treating it more as a business and less as passion.
E: We realized we were establishing ourselves as a viable and recognizable business within the industry, but we also realized we needed to manage ourselves better and our projects better in order to be responsible to ourselves from a business perspective–and to our staff as well.
With staff comes so much more responsibility…
A: That was really our motivating factor. It wasn’t so much about ourselves as much as it was for the people that were working for us, and we felt we had a responsibility to them and their families. We had to really start looking at this also from the bottom line standpoint, without compromising design. That was a real balancing act for us because design has always been in the forefront and we’ve always wanted to continue to grow as designers and always feel that we were improving, and that in turn not only was it beneficial to us but to our city, and to be able to express ourselves globally. There was a lot to juggle at that time. We made a five year plan and we managed to attain what we had set out for ourselves in three years. We knew at that point that we could really do both—we could be good business people and we could also be great designers—that’s when we felt that there was no stopping us at that point.
Let’s talk about your relationship with the city then in that time. We have had a few hiccups, but Toronto’s growth has been unparalleled over the last many years. The scope, the size, the number of the projects that have been coming up must have been a very interesting challenge, and Cecconi Simone really hit at the right time for that.
A: I think though that we didn’t fit the mould that was present when we were starting out. Designers were very focused on a specific sector, so if you did corporate design that was all you focused on, similar for retail design. We believed that design applied to all areas, it wasn’t specific to a sector. If we applied ourselves we could have a diversified firm in corporate, retail, hospitality, and high-rise residential. We were actually ridiculed for that, we were told on many levels that it was impossible to be profitable and successful to have so many different focuses.
You were told you would be spread too thinly?
A: Yes exactly, spread thinly. ‘You couldn’t possibly do all of these properly.’ We didn’t believe that. We believed that design is design and that how we applied ourselves would make the difference, and also how we could interweave, how we could bring from one sector what we have learnt from another, and there was the cross pollination that made the projects interesting and made them stand out. And so I think that from that standpoint we became quite unique, and other design firms started recognizing that maybe there is some value in this, and they started branching out as well. I believe that we were certainly leaders in creating a whole different kind of firm within our city.
There is sort of a Toronto designer mould now that others have followed.
E: I would go so far as to say that it goes beyond interior design as well. We get involved in our projects very, very early, so we’re influencing the architecture, working with the building before it has settled down so we can manipulate structure, the skin of the building and this is all in concert with the architects and the engineers. We work on the branding, so there’s a graphic element to it, there’s a visual identity to it. It’s about creating the DNA of a project. That’s something that starts very, very early when the building is conceived. We’re part of those discussions and guiding these projects to be truly unique and to stand out in the market place.
I think there are many who will be surprised to hear that you're involved that early, or that extensively in the projects you're involved with. Do you find that many people confuse your work with that of interior decorators?
When you’re getting involved with such large projects you’re dealing with something that’s often not likely to be built for 6 years; you’re fitting out these spaces far into the future. How do you deal with the vagaries of fashion in that time? Interior design changes a little more slowly than this fall’s Ready-To-Wear, but you’re still dealing with what’s blowing in the wind.
A: It has a lot to do with how you apply yourself with design. The most important thing with design is that you’re addressing a need, and you have to be aware of what that need is. You can’t just go into it thinking of a specific concept and try to shoehorn that concept into the project. The concept actually evolves through resolving the need. When you resolve it with a certain level of principles in mind that are fundamental to the success of any design, whether it’s interior design, architecture, graphic design, any of the artistic disciplines, you usually find that your approach is going to be unique and timeless. If you’re addressing harmony, rhythm, scale, proportion, balance, if all of these elements are within your design and you’re addressing that need, it will remain timeless, even though there may be those nuances that may pin it to a specific era, it’s always in the forefront of being unique. We always use the expression that we don’t believe in trends because we believe that trends are more for followers and not leaders, so for us as long as we feel that we’re looking at something and resolving it based on its need, that we’ll always be addressing and leading it as opposed to following it.
That’s an evolved approach. Is that something which you both inherently knew from day one, or was there a learning curve to get to that approach?
E: I think that we have very common, similar approaches to how we design, and we are now trying to impart those concepts within our office as well and the people who work with us now think in terms of the way we approach it. It’s really more about the simple principles in how we design, and we don’t want to get caught up in the fashion elements of the projects or what are the trendy finishes because those are the last pieces that go into a project. It’s all about good planning, good access to daylight, what your sightlines are as you move through the space. It’s a three dimensional visualization of space and how to maximize a person’s experience within it. Those are principles. You layer the finishes and the decorative elements over those principles. If you have a great foundation for an interior then the layering of the more decorative elements becomes more of something that is painted on rather than being integrated or inherent in the concept.
A: I think that fluidity of the space is extremely important to us. If we can succeed in having an individual walk through our space and feel that we are guiding them every step of the way and yet not be present, then we have succeeded. When you enter a space what is the first thing you see, how does the space feel, where does it take you, how does the space unfold, is it easy to follow through it, do you feel lost, do you feel compressed. If you’re feeling some of these negative things then we haven’t succeeded, but if you can make a person feel light and a part of the space then you’ve done your job. As much as we can succeed in making a space beautiful, the missing link is the person that inhabits it. Once they can feel that connection then we’ve succeeded.
You mention compression, and I think about all of the comments on UrbanToronto about the size of condo suites these days. People look at the plans and can’t imagine them working. They may even have a visceral response simply to the number of square feet listed. It’s a reality that we’re all dealing with because of the price of land and of building now. In the last dozen years or so you’ve become experts in dealing with these smaller spaces and creating a tailored feel.
A: I like to think that what we’ve done is created an approach. We knew that how one lives within an urban environment is quite different from how one would live in an environment that has a tremendous amount of space. We started looking at a lot of different ways to apply design, and instead of applying it in square footage we really looked at cubic feet. We looked at the verticality of the space to be equally important as the horizontality of it so the two became intertwined to ensure that that space was maximized to its potential. We also looked at how to take advantage of daylight without having to always put bedrooms at the window but to get natural light to come in so we coined the term ‘inboard bedrooms’. We looked at sliding walls in order to maximize square footage when our bedrooms become smaller because when you use a swinging door it takes up nine additional square feet that you may not be able to afford because you only have 24-30 inches at the end of the bed if you’re lucky.
A: There were many things that we started introducing into the marketplace that now people just look at has having been there all the time but we were definitely the first having introduced it at the Merchandise Building. That set a whole other footprint in the market in our city today. We now have been able to take it global as a result of that one project that we did in 1993-94.
So Toronto’s move to smaller spaces I suppose is a textbook case for other cities experiencing the same pressures now. You’re working in India, in the US extensively…
A: In Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, China…yeah, we’ve been working all over!
Do the developers from abroad come to Toronto to see what’s been going on here?
E: The quality of developers in Toronto is truly – I hate to use this term because it sounds cliché – but they really are world class. A lot of international markets look to see what we’re doing here. Not simply at the buildings, but also how we present our projects to the public, what are the sales centres like, how do we image them and brand them, how do we introduce them to the market to garner attention and turn sales of condo units. I think that I’ve done probably 50 tours for developers, as I’m sure Anna has, from different markets just to see how it’s done in Toronto, and we’ve gotten a lot of projects because of that. It’s a combination of great design in the units, small spaces designed efficiently and smartly, and then the whole other side is the amenity programs that have come out of buildings. They’ve become very sophisticated, very evolved, almost like private clubs. People look at that when they’re looking to find a place to live. The whole idea of amenities and how elaborate and how interesting they can be has really evolved in the last 10 years alone with the building architecture.
A: I think that the other thing to note is that we have found ourselves where there are developers that want to bring the so-called “international architects’ and designers to Toronto and what’s been very interesting is that they’re often really behind, in terms of how Toronto approaches the high-rise residential market, they don’t even understand it, the timelines, the process, it’s a learning experience for them. What the developers are finding is that these very talented international architects and designers are learning on their ticket! It’s been a rude awakening for us. I don’t think we as Canadians give ourselves enough credit in how forward thinking we have been, in this particular sector alone, and how much we have to offer the world, not just our own city. As a result of that, I know that as designers we are sought after everywhere. We don’t just get calls to do work in our respective city – we get calls to do work all over the world. When we’re on a project we’re leading that project, we’re not being led. They’re basically putting a lot of the onus on us to take them where they want to go.
With more than 70 projects under your belt here in Toronto that’s a lot of practice and a huge amount of knowledge to impart when working anywhere.
A: And we’re now working on 75 projects at any given time.
You're keeping your 37 staff pretty busy then! It must take 6 years or so to bring most high-rise projects to fruition—which is a long time to see something through. I take it you have a team on each, each designer with their own specialties, with multiple steps along the way to conceptualize, refine, realize…
A: We’ve been very fortunate in having an amazing track record with our projects, and I think it’s had a lot to do with the fact that we’ve always wanted to apply ourselves, not dissimilar to how Europe has applied itself; that is that you never ever know where the different disciplines start and stop, they’re all intertwined. They take an interest in each other’s work, and they ensure that at the end of the day the project is not compromised.
I think that to the point that Elaine made earlier, for us it’s not just about interior design; it’s about understanding the intent of the project, the demographics, how design can respond to that and in turn how we market that. Have we branded the project properly, have we understood the needs of the market or demographic that we’re going after. I think the most valuable lesson that we’ve learned is that we don’t seek the market as much as you are the market. What I mean by that is that many people think they have to seek the market, but if you understand the market you want to appeal to and you design to it, they do come. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
C.S. Lewis famously said that he couldn’t find the books he wanted to read, so he wrote them. Point being that if you’re true to yourself, others will find that truth. So project after project you’re finding the essence of these places and what’s going to be true for each?
A: For us it’s always interesting when a client comes to us and says, “Well, we’re very different than another market”. We’ve traveled a great deal, we’ve been fortunate enough to experience many different markets and we all have one commonality: we want a great place to live and we want to be able to afford it. There’s really no difference, if you design with certain sensitivity and with a level of pride that you’re giving to the homeowner, chances are that you’re going to do really well. That is a common element of every city that we’ve worked in.
Something that still allows a thousand different expressions.
A: Absolutely, we learn everyday. There isn’t a project of ours that doesn’t have its unique DNA that we spoke about earlier. There may be common details and approaches, but overall they’re all quite different.
We will return next week to talk more with Elaine and Anna about specific projects that Cecconi Simone have taken on, and where else their interests have taken them.