Saturday, May 1, 2010

Designing minds: Michael Courdin

Design details, art and accessories were found during shopping trips to Montreal and New York City, adding vibrancy to the Rockcliffe home.
Design details, art and accessories were found during shopping trips to Montreal and New York City, adding vibrancy to the Rockcliffe home.Michael Courdin shows me around the Rockcliffe house with pride. It's not his, but belongs to a client. Still, he knows it well. Courdin has been working with this client for years -- so long, in fact, that he and her family have become friends.

Courdin likes it when business relationships morph into friendships. He says he's had it happen many times in the 30-plus years he's been working in Ottawa as a designer.
"The most important thing for me in my career is the longevity of my relationship with my clients," he says, adding, "I'm now doing my clients' children's places."
Eventually, we settle in the comfortable main-floor family room to talk -- about the house, about design, about clients and the best places for shopping.
How did you get your start?
"My first job was at Taarn Torontow Interiors, downtown near where the old Rideau Club was. I had studied art, and I needed a job. I walked in and they hired me." He was fortunate, he adds, because one of
the designers on staff mentored him, teaching him about scale, proportion and colour.
When did you go off on your own?
"When they closed in 1977, they gave me the clients and the samples, and I started working out of my apartment in Sandy Hill. I brought in associates as I got busier."
Which designers do you most admire?
Courdin says he likes the work of Christian Liaigre and Philippe
Starck. Both are French designers. Liaigre is known for his minimalist, soothing interiors; Starck, sometimes called the Bad Boy of French design, is more modern. His Ghost Chair is a classic.
"I like the eccentricity of Liaigre, his uniqueness. He is not afraid of mixing components and styles. I like Starck for his inventiveness and his simplicity."
What is good design?
Good design, he says, is something that lasts forever, be it modern or traditional. Scale and proportion are always important, he adds, and furniture has to work within the size of the room.
What gives you most satisfaction as a designer?
"I think it's the end result, the pleasing of the client. Putting everything together like pieces of a puzzle so that it all balances. It's kind of like creating a painting -- getting the right combinations of colours and textures and patterns."
How do you know when a room is done?
"In the case of the living room in this house, which I refer to as 'traditionally eclectic,' it took two years for me to put it together."
Finding the right pieces involved what he calls treasure hunting. "I went to New York to find the Persian rug, and to Montreal to find the andirons for the fireplace and the Biedermeier secretary. At one point, I couldn't do anything more to it."
What makes for a good client?
Openness to new ideas and a willingness to communicate, says
Courdin. "I don't like being allowed free rein. I prefer it when the client has a huge input. I ask my clients to do homework. I give them a stack of magazines, and I ask them to go through them and mark the pages for feeling, style, colour, ambience, and show me what they like about each room. So then what I do becomes their personal style."
Have you ever had any design disasters?
Courdin recalls putting up an iron curtain rod and hanging white linen drapes on rings. "After about a year, I had a call from the client saying that black finishing from the rod had flaked off onto the drapes. Well, the drapes had to go into the garbage."
He credited the client.
What's your favourite room at home?
"My favourite room is my living room, but I don't live in it. I'm a collector, so I collect things I like, no matter what style or period. My
living room is absolutely eclectic. It has a Chinese Deco rug, a 40s chrome lounge chair, a Venetian mirror on the mantel, and Italian vases and lamps. I like the visual stimulation of the pieces."
What, in your opinion, is really awful design?
"Sometimes, I see colour combinations that are totally wrong. For example, if you've got too many colours at once. That can jar me."
Where do you get your inspiration?
"My favourite magazine is The World of Interiors. I don't think most of my clients would like it, because the esthetics are quite bizarre. A little tilt off the ordinary really pleases me."
Where do you like to shop?
New York's the best place to go, he says, explaining that he loves to go to the Decoration and Design Building, 979 Third Ave., New York City, one block down from Bloomingdale's. It's got about 16 floors of showrooms.
"I also like Notre-Dame Street in Montreal. There are great treasures to be found there, and the stores are not as expensive as up the hill in Westmount."
Do you have a signature style?
"No. My work with every client is different."
What colours are in right now?
"Magenta and turquoise. But I love colours like that in small doses. Often, if there are pieces of art in a room, I will pull the colours out of that. Art is really important. And it doesn't have to be on the walls. I can see a rug possibly as a piece of art."
What trend would you never like to see emerge again?
"If I think back to my beginnings, orange and magenta and pink were hot. I still like them, but in small doses. These days, we're all overwhelmed. I don't like trends. Trends don't transcend." Good design, Courdin states, is something that lasts.

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