Last week we started our interview with Elaine Cecconi and Anna Simone, founders of renowned interior design firm Cecconi Simone, on the occasion of their firm's milestone 30th anniversary. We wrap up this week with Part 2 of The Interview.
Lately you’ve been working on some townhome projects in a close radius around your West End offices here. For the designs you’re creating, the new owners will not have to bring quite so much furniture with them, as you’ve created a place that really resembles a perfectly appointed handbag, where there’s a place for everything.
A: That’s a beautiful way to put it!
E: We’re going to steal that analogy. Thank you!
With the thoroughly thought-out built-ins, you’re creating spaces that embrace the residents far more than blank walls do.
A: I think Elaine and I have always had a love for residential design, but one of the reasons why we weren’t initially so attracted to it was because it was very decorative. Designers were only being used to apply finishes and furniture, but we knew that it should have a lot more to do with design than it does with the cosmetics. It is really about creating the infrastructure of it.
When we started doing high-rise development we realized that the suite designs were very fundamental. It wasn't just the two-dimensional aspect—not just square feet, but cubic feet—and developing designs pertaining to the kitchen, the bathroom, the doors, storage, I mean every single detail you can think of. We created such a sophisticated and informed market with the high-rise developments that when these people were looking to upgrade to townhomes or detached homes there was virtually nothing out there.
A: So we tried to convey that to the developers, but for some reason none really bought into it. Elaine and I thought that maybe then the only way to really drive this home was to do a development on our own, which became Lippincott Living. We were the developers along with architect Brad Netkin and a silent partner who happened to be a client of ours who believed in what we were doing, and Lippincott emerged. It started a whole other level of product in the marketplace that did not exist, and it’s taken off like crazy.
Many people are trying to understand it, and they’re applying themselves with a little bit of the traditional method, with a bit of what we’ve done, but they’re really not getting the formula, or not even understanding it. Their projects are not as successful, so they’re coming back and looking at the Lippincotts, the Trinity Bellwoods, the blocks, the Edition Richmonds, all of these projects that are emerging. They’re wondering why they’re all around a million and they’re selling out. Why are we able to do it and they’re not? Because there’s a lot more to it than just putting up a home and making it look beautiful.
It’s the practice, the amount of time that you’ve spent thinking through these problems. Let’s look back to that practice, and the condo market where you have been honing your skills for years. I think of the kitchens at Tableau, the full wall of built-ins at the Massey Tower model suite. For me those two projects are standouts. For Tableau it was the flexibility of the space that surprised me.
E: I think the beauty of Tableau as demonstrated in the model home is that it really brought flex space to a whole new level. The only room that was completely enclosed was the bathroom. All other rooms could be opened up or shut down so it gave a tremendous amount of fluidity as to how someone could live in their space and whether they want to feel enclosed or feel like they were encompassed so that they could feel more calm, or open up space with more daylight. Totally and completely flexible, and I think that’s one project where we pushed that concept to the very limits. Part of that whole approach was that in order for it to be truly flexible we wanted the kitchen to go away as well because we didn’t necessarily want it to be a part of your everyday space. We went through a lot of engineering and design acrobatics to figure out how to do that.
A: Within a certain price point.
E: Well it’s always priced well no matter what we do. Everyone always says that our projects are high end, where in fact they are medium to luxury range but they’re certainly not at the high end of the spectrum as you might see in a custom home.
You’re bringing a level of tailoring that people have not expected at these price points.
E: The other trick with the kitchen at Tableau is that the closing of the doors had to kill the power because there’s a code issue with that. To the credit of Urban Capital and David Wex who said that he really wanted to push it to the extreme and make this work, so between engineers, ourselves, and the architects, it was a case where we had a common goal and we just put our heads together in the blurring of the disciplines and said how are we going to make this happen and make a truly unique model home.
Is that blurring of disciplines, that coming together in this particular way atypical in the industry?
A: I think part of our success has been where if there’s one thing that we believed, is that when you look at successes around the world, not just in your own backyard, and you try and understand why Europe is so forward-thinking and innovative in their product, something that both Elaine and I recognized is that you have the designer and you have the craftsman. They come together and they’re equally important to each other, so one may conceptualize while the other makes the concept become a reality. We felt that we just didn’t have that combination in Toronto.
When we were doing the Merchandise Building we went up to K N Crowder and we said listen, we want to do sliding doors and we have to make them affordable. Will you work with us in bringing that price point to where we need it to be, and we worked together. Then we looked at customizing sinks in bathrooms. It's your kitchen and your bathroom, that's what is extremely important to people. We engaged an individual that we had pursued that was able to work with Corian in a way that many others would not entertain. We started applying ourselves to certain designs, and he would build them, and then the key was to get them within certain price points so that we could deliver them to the masses. That again started to differentiate us.
A: Then it came to kitchens; we were very frustrated with the whole process of working with many kitchen manufacturers that worked within modules. We would come up with these amazing kitchen designs only to be told that we had to step back and work within the module. We sought out a certain individual who created a factory that was completely automated, and that could do our kitchens within the price points that were required. Again now, what did we do, we found a manufacturer that could customize our kitchens, we found another manufacturer that could customize our bathrooms, we found a few that could customize our doors and hardware to ensure that at the end of the day, they could all be affordable and brought to the masses.
A: The key to this was bringing the creative together with the skilled hand of the craftsman. By doing that we have been able to take design to a whole other level. Without that I don’t think we would have been able to get there.
That comes back to Toronto again, now having grown to the critical mass which has allowed all of this to happen. Not only did that critical mass bring you two together to create the right company, the city is made ready for it too. We now also have developers and architects that are understanding it and all pushing in the same direction. The creative community here has great possibilities because of this whole city behind them.
A: You know the best compliment you can receive… Elaine and I were in Vancouver, maybe eight years back, working on a particular project with an architect there. We went into this meeting and he’s telling us about how they want this project to be really unique, and the floor plans to be a certain way, that they had done their homework and they wanted to show us particular floor plans in terms of the approach that they wanted us to take. He left the meeting and came back with all these plans, put them in front of us, and Elaine and I are looking at each other and thinking is this guy for real? These were our floor plans, and he’s trying to explain to us the whole thought process behind these floor plans!
We let him talk for a good 10 minutes and then we said, 'you know, forgive us but you do realize that these are our floor plans that you’re talking to us about?' His face went completely red; he had no concept that that was our work! He hadn’t done his due diligence, didn’t realize that we were the designers that had crafted the floor plans and we knew quite intimately the whole thought process behind them… so we kind of had to stop him in his tracks and say well yes, we do understand them!
Ha! He was copying one of your Toronto projects? Did he understand the floor plans well?!
A: He actually did not! It was amazing, quite the experience for Elaine and I to be sitting there, listening to this. I think it made us realize that you can copy as much as you want but if you don’t understand why certain things were done you’re never going achieve the same thing over again.
Often imitated, never duplicated.
Did that project ever come to fruition?
A: It did, actually. I think for us at that point it kind of made us realize that we were starting to have an impact in Canada and certainly internationally.
Do you attribute that increasing success to anything in particular?
A: I think it really is about being awake. I think more often than not the majority of us go through life sleeping. We don’t see what’s around us, we don’t even know what’s around us half of the time, we don’t even think about it. I think that if you truly want to be effective as a designer you have to be completely awake, so aware of what is happening around you, what you experience, and not just what's in your own backyard.
It sounds to me like you’re leading up to an epiphany you had.
A: It’s like walking down the street, day in and day out, and never really seeing it. One day you walk down that street and you see things that you never thought were there. Then you learn to see, truly what is unique around you, and through your travels, through different cultures, you learn to embrace it all and embrace diversity. Not being judgmental but realizing that there’s always something to learn through all of it.
A: Our city is endlessly layered, so multilayered with nature, people, transportation, buildings, sidewalks, I mean it never stops, and suddenly you realize that there’s more to life than just getting through the day. There’s so much to experience at different levels. And once you've learned how to take it all in, you have to respond, you have to create from what you’ve experienced.
E: We’re both Toronto lovers, and we love that we’re working on state of the art high rise projects that are pushing every level of architecture and design, the whole gamut, but I think for us personally it’s the neighbourhoods that really make Toronto what it is, that make it truly unique. This area is a great example—we're in a Portuguese neighbourhood with some beautiful new contemporary condo projects popping up along Dundas Street—and that’s what we love about the city: the contrast, the way we hang on to culture and different ethnic groups. We don’t try to homogenize in this city, it’s a very neighbourhood and culturally-driven city. I think the contrast that you see, between the older row townhouses in this area and the contemporary infill is unique. These are the kinds of things that drive us and make us feel a love and desire to contribute to the city for its diversity.
So now you want to communicate what you’ve learned.
A: Formal education is important—there’s a process that you go through, and it’s very rigid in terms of the different years of training—and for Elaine and I our ultimate dream is to have a school. Whether that comes to fruition or not, that’s our dream right now. Ideally, if it could be in a place like Italy, it would give us tremendous joy. Somewhere we can continue to harness the creative spirit in a place where people are taken out of their element and injected into new surroundings, where their senses are so attuned and responsive, because they haven’t become totally dormant from over-familiarity!
To us, we want in our coming years to maybe focus more on that, to give up some responsibilities and to start mentoring younger designers. Part of the downfall in our industry is that there never has been a mentoring system. The same things continue to repeat themselves over and over again. Ideally what we would like to do is to create a board of some sort where designers of our era will start to mentor young designers and guide them through design's many aspects, through relationships, how to interact, how to promote, we want to be there at that level. We feel that we could make a huge contribution to our industry and to the people that will be coming forward. That’s ultimately where we’d like to be and what we’re striving for. We don’t plan to retire—retirement does not exist in our vocabulary!
Not when you love what you’re doing. You're already giving back in other ways, including bringing more attention to the quality of architecture in Toronto through the Pugs.
A: It’s something that we collectively believe in. Although I’m its face for Cecconi Simone, Elaine is equally a huge supporter of the Pugs, certainly active in the background. We also believe in educating and informing people at a much younger age, hence Pug Ed. It allows that generation to develop a level of design that could only benefit us in the long term.
A: Bringing architecture to the masses where people don’t feel that it’s been edited, but that we’re trusting them to have a voice in how our city is evolving. That is also extremely important to us. That was something that Gary Berman of Tricon Capital also believed in, and we felt that collectively, as two companies from very diverse backgrounds, that coming together we could have a strong influence in terms of how we could grow and develop the Pugs in a way where they become a household name.
A: We wanted people to be dialoguing about design everyday, that it’s not something exclusive to an elite group, but that it becomes part of the whole vocabulary that the masses are having on a day-to-day basis. Only then can we aspire to greatness, when we collectively consider our city in a way that can then benefit it from the broad public realm down to the design of the smallest items, all the aspects that we talk about. Bilbao is a great example, a mere speck on the map until they embraced design through architecture, public realm and transportation, only then did they start to receive international interest in people wanting to go and experience it all. The best way that we as Canadians can attract people to our city is if we take all this very seriously and understand that only through our creative involvement and spirit can our city achieve greatness.
Recently the Absolute World towers in Mississauga were added to CNN's list of great buildings worldwide, and CNN's report about what’s going on there was entirely design focused. Mississauga does not normally get international attention otherwise.
Another area where Cecconi Simone design is having an influence is in something synonymous with Toronto: streetcars. People are passionate about them, and we are getting new ones. Elaine, what was your involvement there?
E: I was on a panel of four advisors, and I think that we all realized the immense amount of trust that was bestowed upon us as streetcars are such an iconic element of our city. We were brought in to help fine tune some of the details as to what they would look like; what the riders would experience in terms of finishes, lighting, the more tactile elements. A lot of the major design decisions had already been made. It was a very animated discussion for certain elements that were being reviewed, but it was great to see the perspectives of others from different disciplines who had differing points of view, but ultimately we all came to the same conclusion. It was a great honor to be part of that whole process.
A: Our city is evolving, realizing that design is everywhere. I think more often than not we all take for granted that things just happen to be there, and don’t realize that there’s a lot of time and effort being given to so many aspects of our city.
Ironically, when something works properly, people don’t give the design another thought.
A: We’re designing handles, faucets, on and on, all these different products that are in the marketplace today, and why are we doing it? Because it's all part of an expression, all part of how we respond and relate to different environments, to different objects, to different experiences. It doesn’t start and stop in one specific place, it permeates. The more we drive that home, the more opportunities we'll have for design to make a difference in everything what we touch. That’s really the key.
We are running short on time, and there are quite a number of other Toronto projects that we have not talked about yet—in various stages of sales and construction—where you are applying your expertise, so let me propose that readers visit your rather elegant new website. There are hundreds of images, quite a lot that will surprise people I think.
E: Thanks! The improved site has been a long time coming. We're pretty happy with it!
We will have our dataBase links to those projects at the bottom of the page too. So, let's wind up with the fantastic 30th anniversary trip to Italy! It was fun, relaxing, eye-opening, inspiring, I have no doubt. What memories will last the longest?
E: There were so many great moments. Something that unfortunately the rest of the staff missed—Anna, our associates Jude and Gail, and I were given a private tour of the quarry where they mine Statuario marble in Carrara. Just getting there—in a special vehicle designed to navigate the crazy switchback turns - was hair raising. We were literally in the clouds! They take the marble from within the mountain, rather than a conventional open quarry. They tunnel into it through three-storey high by three-storey wide openings while leaving parts in place to support the mountain above. They have to be so careful to keep it structurally sound and are constantly testing to make sure it is stable and safe. It was absolutely fascinating to see how they quarry this beautiful material. We now have such an appreciation for it.
We had our anniversary dinner at a winery and villa named Casa al Vento. Candle lit tables were set up on the grass, the rolling hills of Tuscany was the backdrop. The villa staff prepared a traditional Italian barbecue with local meats and vegetables - amazing. There were speeches, toasts, dancing into the wee hours. A true celebration.
And our last day we called speed dating Venice! We drove in from Bologna, piled into two vaporettos (I think the proper term in Italian would be vaporetti?), headed down the Grand Canal—seeing the reaction on our staffs' faces, for those seeing Venice for the first time—wonderful! Every moment of the day was booked; we visited the Giardini, then the Arsenale at the Biennale, grabbed lunch along the way, went to the home of Giovanni Caboto, he's John Cabot to Canadians of course, did a contemporary gallery, and a lovely sit-down dinner. It was one thing after another and then finally back to Bologna about 1 AM. That was a special day!
And now you are ready for the next 30 years?!
A: It's been a great ride, one we are still pursuing. We made each other a promise that if it comes to a point where we are no longer having fun, then we will talk to each other about closing our doors, but somehow I don't believe that's going to happen.
E: We've been really blessed with a commonality between Anna and myself with our desire to create special things, and we've been fortunate that we've had clients who have trusted us over the years, and we want to just keep doing that in our lives and in our careers. That would go for our staff as well. If you met some of them I think you would see a lot of the same desires, ambitions, and attitudes that motivate us. It's great to see, and without getting overblown about it, it's a legacy that we want to pass on that goes beyond ourselves.
A: We are pretty proud that a third of our staff have been with us ten years plus.
E: The rest are younger than the firm!
And we return to my introductory faux-pas! Thank you, it's been fun to talk.
UrbanToronto thanks Anna and Elaine and their staff at Cecconi Simone in helping pull everything together for our conversation.