Designers at Home: Ben Leavitt’s Eclectic Gastown Apartment
For Fox Design Studio’s lead designer, a life well travelled calls for a condo to match.
Yes, there is a polka-dot Bambi curled up next to a six-foot-five terracotta warrior across from a wall of African masks and palm-leaf drapery—but this Vancouver condo started out much like any other.
“When I first moved in, I decided I was going to decorate the apartment very neutral, with all earthy tones, because that’s kind of the Vancouver style—to use white on white on white,” shares interior and product designer Ben Leavitt. Three-going-on-four years ago, the Fox Design Studio co-founder fell in love with the water view from this heritage Gastown one-bedroom, and so began the great restoration. “I bought all new rugs and I bought a white sofa and I bought all this stuff—and then I literally hated it,” remembers Leavitt. “As soon as I put it in, I rolled it all back up, sold it all and then started over.”
Oh, the joys of decorating your own space. Yet somewhere in between plastic-wrapping area rugs and wheeling out the sofa, a fundamental shift had taken place. “I decided that I was just going to have fun with my apartment,” explains Leavitt. “I don’t care if it’s trendy—I don’t care what anybody thinks.”
He didn’t care if it was a rental, either. In this rectangular-shaped 800-square-foot apartment, part of the bedroom was separated off the main room with a pane of frosted glass, but Leavitt felt it was too open, so he built a wall. “It did make my bedroom a little dark and gloomy, but I needed more space for artwork,” says the designer. In the dining area, he drilled into the concrete ceiling to retrofit his own grand (and temporary) plug-in chandelier. He also painted walls, wallpapered in grasscloth and installed bars for drapes to frame the million-dollar-plus view. Each move was another unfazed kiss goodbye to that Gastown damage deposit. “If I’m going to live here for three or five years, I don’t want it to be ugly just because it’s a rental,” he says. Similarly, for aesthetic reasons, a big, black flat screen doesn’t make the cut. “TVs are ugly, so I don’t own one.”
Such an item would take up too much wall space, anyway, and Leavitt needed that for his expansive collection of artwork and exotic treasures amassed from more than a decade of travelling around the world. “I wanted every square inch of my apartment to remind me of somewhere I had been,” says Leavitt. A challenge made far easier by the fact that he vowed to visit 30 countries before he turned 30 (and he succeeded).
One of the home’s most striking features is a wall of distinctly shaped masks, frozen in all kinds of expressions, sourced individually from Leavitt’s own travels. “I fell in love with masks when I was really little because of Picasso,” explains Leavitt, who actually studied photography at Emily Carr. “Picasso said that he got his inspiration for all his paintings from African masks, so I just became obsessed with African masks.” He subsequently travelled to Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, picking up masks and artifacts as he went, expanding to Borneo, Cambodia, Tibet, Vietnam, Peru, Papua New Guinea—and the list goes on. On one of his favourite trips, half his masks were sadly incinerated by customs agents after weeks of packing them around while camping in Namibia. “I will go back to Africa and it is not to see another damn elephant. It will be, literally, to buy more masks.”
Inside a Colourful West Coast Loft Space
His stately Buddha bust that sits atop a 1950s airport desk is carved from one piece of wood, the former an item Leavitt procured in an alley in India. After a visit to the terracotta warrior museum in China, the designer decided to buy his own replica—something he had to get shipped here twice, after the first 800-pound warrior smashed in transit (the head lives on in his bedroom). The majority of his vintage communist prints (which he loves for their bright and poppy colours) come from Vietnam, but Leavitt likes to shop his own backyard, too.
The fire hydrant is vintage City of Chilliwack, Leavitt spotted the deer lawn ornament in a Hope resident’s front yard, and his dining room picnic table was a $60 find off Craigslist, all demonstrative of one of Leavitt’s favourite things: taking the outdoors in. Likewise, the designer turned palm-leaf Tommy Bahama patio fabric into drapes, which add a splash of “tropical loveliness,” but also sub in for greenery, as long trips mean he often can’t keep real plants alive.
Everywhere you look, there’s something new that piques your interest, some curio that elicits a hilarious story, but what’s equally impressive is how Leavitt has managed to tame such a wild collection into a cohesive space that could have easily been total chaos.
His secret? “Just put it all in there and play with it.” Group items together, stack pieces on top of each other, hold up items individually to see what looks good next to what; this is how you’ll see which pieces are working and which should get the chop. And from there, you just need a few common threads throughout the whole house. For Leavitt, that’s his use of white. He chose all-white frames for his artwork collection (which he hung on alabaster walls), and repainted his furniture (picnic table, coffee table) and sculptures (Bambi, fire hydrant) in neutral white—little modifications that help break up all the colours and tie things together. Because in an apartment that doesn’t play by the rules, there’s only one rule: “If I like it, I’ll make it work.”