Interior Designer of the Year 2017: Denise Ashmore
Designer Denise Ashmore brings both a relaxed and refined coastal elegance to a body of work spanning two decades.
When designer Denise Ashmore decided it was time to shift her career from the world of commercial design into residential, she didn’t even consider starting slow—it was legendary firm Ledingham Design or bust.
After a year’s stint in Australia post-design school, she’d spent seven years designing public spaces, exhibits, residential sales centres and stores in Vancouver, but she was reluctant to get into residential design until she’d had the life experience to reflect back to her clients. “I felt I had to learn how to live in a house of my own,” she explains. “The experience you get as a person, as you age and work through your life, as you have kids, it just gives you a different sensibility and sensitivity about design, especially for the people you’re designing for.”
And when she was ready, she was determined to prove to principal Robert Ledingham that he needed her on his team. “I really respected him as a leader in design, and I just knew that’s where I wanted to work. I tried a couple of times to get in the door,” she recalls. “I already had that architecturally minded training, but I had to beg him to give me a job, because I really wasn’t a residential designer—I was showing all these snippets of my commercial portfolio that seemed residential.”
The late, great Bob Ledingham did see that residential spark: her years of multidisciplinary design in both Vancouver and Australia had shaped a coastal-influenced aesthetic that was a good fit for the firm, and the pair worked together for the better part of a decade. “Bob taught me that, architecturally, you need to get the bones of a house correct,” says Ashmore, who, with the support of her mentor, launched her own firm, Project 22 Design, in 2012. “He always taught us you don’t really need to decorate if you’ve designed the house properly—that’s something you can add to make something more comfortable or to personalize it, but a house works well when it’s well designed.” It’s a sentiment that DOTY judge and designer Douglas Cridland saw reflected in our Interior Designer of the Year’s current work. “I loved her ability to take the architecture of a space and not just embellish it, but layer onto it,” said Cridland.
Since creating Project 22, Ashmore has designed more than 20 residences, which range from a 360-square-foot laneway studio to a 6,000-square-foot home, all with that relaxed-yet-refined coastal aesthetic that still permeates her work.
One of Ashmore’s largest projects is also her most personal: her own family home. (It’s also the naming origin of her firm—coincidentally, the house sits on lot 22 of West 22nd in Vancouver.) She and her family lived in the existing badly renovated 1923 home that was on the property for a couple of years before plans came together for the new home, which she developed in collaboration with Measured Architecture. Where the previous house was closed off from views to Douglas Park and the mountains, the new three-level home feels like a tree house, lofted above the park, with terraced outdoor spaces in both the front and backyard that capitalize on the setting.
It’s also the location of her office, in a laneway house in the rear, providing the perfect on-site lab for clients to see how materials work in real life. “It’s great to have this home as a model, to show clients this is what concrete floors look like, this is what a reveal is and this is how marble ages in your kitchen,” Ashmore explains. “I chose all of those things very specifically to use as an education.”
And Ashmore holds client care as one of the central tenets of her business—she tries to take away the surprise that can sometimes come from poorly communicated design processes. “I think that the design process can be overwhelming and scary,” she explains. “We’ve developed a process for walking clients through the project from start to finish. We have a questionnaire, and we do it in baby steps.” That questionnaire focuses from the more obvious questions—Do you work from home? How often do you entertain?—to more specific, but just as important ones: Do you need space for a Christmas tree? Are you right- or left-handed? (The latter would affect how a single-lever faucet would be placed in the bathroom, for example.) The process leaves clients feeling as if they truly know what the house will look like before they even walk in the door.
It’s that trusting relationship with her clients that seems to have created such resonating work. “There are no shortcuts to establishing a high-quality professional design practice,” said judge and designer Robert Bailey, “and Project 22’s work shows a depth of knowledge and ability, gained over time through thoughtful project engagement.” Cridland agrees: “Her clients must love her. She has a great sense of who she is and who the client is.”