Truths My Mother Taught Me…
Looking ahead with David Powell
By Shelley M. Black
David Powell and Fenwick Bonnell started their gilt-edge design firm during the recession of the ’90s. Twenty-five years later, the successful pair is the first call for top-drawer clients on the hunt for uncluttered, elegant design that makes for easy living. The understated duo has also created their own proprietary line of furnishings, lighting, mirrors and textiles that reflect the same refined sensibility as their interior design work.
With his charming trademark modesty, Powell reflects on his partnership with Bonnell, and waxes poetic with Homefront on why the partnership still works, the wonderful influence of his beloved mother and what the future holds.
Q. This year, you and Fenwick, or should we say, Powell & Bonnell, are celebrating your 25th anniversary. You’ve achieved a great deal, but what are you most proud of?
David: I’m most excited perhaps by the fact that we’ve been able to foster a company environment that nurtures individual and collective creativity. We really don’t have a hierarchy, so labels and titles are discouraged.
To be completely honest, we never anticipated that the company would grow to the size that it is today. There are challenges in that, of course, but it’s a big accomplishment for both of us to have grown the company.
The success of the product line has made a wonderful contribution to the depth and breadth of our work. For an interior design firm to design and market its own line of furniture and lighting throughout North America and beyond is quite extraordinary. We didn’t start out to do that.
Q. Tell us about the early years.
David: Fenwick and I just hung out our shingle; we did not have a grand plan. In fact, this business can be quite unpredictable and when the banks hounded us for a business plan, rather than fake one, we simply gave up on borrowing money from them.
As we started the firm in 1990, the economy was going straight into a huge recession. Thankfully, we were too stupid to do anything else, so we just did anything we could get our hands on. We took on party planning. We designed stuffed toys for Kodak. I was an illustrator, and believe it or not, we didn’t pay ourselves for the first seven years.
Finally we got a major first pro-ject from a fabulous couple who were very social and extremely well known. They had been looking at design firms in London and New York and, as luck would have it, they heard about us. They took a real leap of faith and that assignment put us on the map.
Q. Looking back, what advice would you give your younger selves?
David: Don’t sweat the small stuff! We obviously do agonize over the details when we are designing, but designers can’t always control all of the variables, especially when there are so many.
I have learned a lot from Fenwick in that regard. He is fair, has principles and stays very calm under pressure. I remember one situation where we were hesitant to accept a project from a particular client because word on the street was that they were “very difficult.” Upon reflection, Fenwick’s perspective was simple: “Maybe they just haven’t found the right designers.” Turns out, miraculously, he was right.
Q. When you talk about ‘getting into’ your clients’ lives, what do you mean by that?
David: As designers we have to know our clients extremely well and often it feels like we ‘move in with them’ for a while. Sometimes we’re like psychiatrists getting inside their heads and under their skin, so to speak, in order to understand how they’re living or want to live.
Q. You talk about educating clients so they understand that you do more than ‘just the curtains.’
David: Yes, Fenwick and I are happiest when we can take the lead early in the process and create some ease in a busy client’s life. Many regularly consult with us on their real estate purchases and then, of course, there are the modern-day challenges of family and work life and multiple residences. We’ll run with everything…from planning with the architects and the landscape designers on the exterior and interiors, all the way to buying a client’s linens and flatware. Of course, we’ll also be trying to seamlessly integrate things like routers, charging stations and 100-inch televisions!
Q. Are today’s clients more involved in the process?
David: They are. Our clients are much more design-savvy and that makes our job easier. We don’t have such a struggle to earn a client’s trust and convince them that we’ll be able to guide them to make ‘proper’ decisions.
Q. How would you describe your design philosophy?
David: It is about being appropriate: not cookie cutter or predictable and, at times, with a hint of surprise.
We look at all of the aspects that come into play: location, architecture, the building, the purpose and all the individuals who are sharing the space.
I hate the word timeless…. I prefer to consider longevity. Sometimes a client calls us for a “refresh” after 15 or 20 years, and we go back and
are astonished that it still looks really good.
What I really love is to do something unexpected—even provocative. In a recent home, we paired 18th-century chairs with an ultra-modern dining room table of our design, featuring a minimal solid steel base. For the client’s office, I found a very contemporary piece of art with neon and put it behind an antique gilded George III desk made by a prominent cabinetmaker. The contrast between the desk and the art is intentional and totally unexpected, but it works. He had to trust us.
Q. Is it true that you and Fenwick still share both an office and a desk?
David: Yes, ours is an extraordinary partnership. From the very first day, we worked together at a big desk. Even when we moved into our spacious offices on Davenport Road, we decided to continue sitting across from one another. By working so closely together we just pick up things and we have fun. It keeps us in touch with each other and the projects.
Believe it or not, we have never had an argument. We cajole each other all the time and I tend to roll my eyes a lot…. Fenwick will come up with what I think is a crazy idea and then, as we work through it together, he spurs me on. He’s more adventurous creatively. Eventually, we come up with the right idea or solution together. It’s wonderful.
Q. You recently received an award for your work and leadership in accessible design from the Canadian Abilities Foundation.
David: Yes, it was a complete and utter shock, and profoundly moving because my mother had accessibility issues throughout her whole life. Because of her, I am very aware of how we need to accommodate people who have difficulty with not only mobility but other disabilities and frailties as well.
My mother was born in 1913 and she weighed a pound and three quarters, so it was a miracle for her to survive in the first place. She had six children and led a farm life, and eventually ended up needing a wheelchair. She lived to be 93 and she was a hoot. Her incredibly positive outlook on life made all the difference, and when she passed away, people commented to me that they had never heard her complain. She was inspirational and gracious in how she accepted her situation. My mother was in a home and relied heavily on the caregivers, and they adored her. When I came in, I would most often hear laughter in her room from the nurses and her. She always wanted to do something for her caregivers—she was helping them doing clerical work in her 90s!
My personal experience has made me keenly aware of disabilities and how to think ahead in designing for anyone with a disability.
Q. How do you integrate accessibility into your design?
David: As with all my clients, I try to put myself in that person’s position. What is it they need that we can provide without making it look overly compensated for? In one case, we designed a toilet paper holder that also functioned as a grab bar. In a home where a wheelchair is used, we recess the carpeting into the floor and make sure there are no obstacles such as rugs or awkward furniture placement.
On a recent project where the home-owner uses a wheelchair, I used this amazing woven vinyl wall covering that I love. It is great because you cannot mark it or cut it and it looks elegant.
Q. How has the aging population affected your work?
David: People are talking openly and looking ahead, and I encourage that. They can see the positive aspects of staying in their homes for as long as they can and want to make changes in advance.
We are increasingly dealing with clients who are past raising their families and are now moving to condos. They are thinking of downsizing from larger homes and eliminating the stairs. Perhaps they’d like to renovate to include an elevator, make doors wider to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs, or require more specific lighting.
Accessibility and accommodating disability or frailty has simply become part of our design culture.
Q. Who is your ideal client? How would you help your clients get the most out of working with you?
David: The ideal is a client who is curious and informed, well travelled and well read. We are not trendsetters or trend followers. What is current and hot does not fit into our philosophy at all. I love a client who understands the classics but is curious about the future.
In most projects, there is a point where we have to say, ‘You have to trust us.’ Clients should be prepared to be pushed a little bit outside of their stylistic comfort zone.
Q. What is coming up for Powell & Bonnell that you are excited about?
David: I am excited that, out of nothing, we have created this Canadian-manufactured furniture line that is really strong and now we have the ability to move it to another level.
It started because we were designing so much custom furniture, we started building on it. The furniture line has a common sensibility that runs through the whole line. The growth has been organic and I am pleased that we can now market and brand it more aggressively.
Q. What do you value most in your own home?
David: The thing I value the most is the tranquility and peace I find, surrounded by the things that I like, particularly in my house in the country. Guests tell me they feel so calm there.
Shelley Black’s career has spanned a unique range of editorial and corporate roles with Flare, Maclean’s and BMO Financial Group. She enjoys writing about all forms of design, travel and food.
Photos: Ted Yarwood and Margaret Mulligan