Designers At Home: Paul Lavoie’s Palm Springs-Inspired Space
Once home to cocktail parties and a vibrant past, a mid-century home gets a second life thanks to designer Paul Lavoie.
With its untouched 1961 architecture and archway on the driveway, the “Bel-Aire Shack”—as it was proudly named on a wooden plaque out front—was an unrealized gem in its posh Calgary namesake neighbourhood. And designer Paul Lavoie had long coveted it.
Timing, of course, is everything. Lavoie and his husband, Doug Olafson, had just sold their own home when a client offered a tip that the owners were thinking of selling—and so Lavoie knocked on the door. “The homeowner answered the door in a perfect white pantsuit, with perfect white puffed hair and a perfect poodle under her arm,” recalls the designer. “I said, ‘I understand you might be selling,’ and she exhaled a plume of cigarette smoke and said, ‘Darling, I’m packing.’”
While the home held a vintage charm, its 50-something age showed. “It was built by people who spent a lot of time in California in the 1960s,” he says. “They brought that California flavour back to Alberta, that mid-century inside-outside lifestyle. We spent so much time in California, I knew what the intention was—I was the perfect person to buy it.”
It was a matter of respecting the integrity of the home, while modernizing the design and transforming it into a residence befitting of one of Calgary’s top designers. Rickety sliding doors that opened to the magnificent backyard were replaced with a 22-foot disappearing Nanawall bifold door. The little-used dining room was moved to the front of the home, while the intimate TV lounge—now a favourite hangout—would get the coveted backyard view. (The TV itself glides down into a cabinet when not in use, transforming the space into a mod cocktail room when needed.)
And though mid-century elements still exist—the original white granite fireplace, the handcrafted stainless railing—the furniture is an eclectic mix that Lavoie has collected over the years. “It’s your house—you need to take what’s there and embrace it, but you don’t need to live in mid-century land,” he explains. “I like a mix—I like something that makes you scratch your head and think, why?”
To wit, the living room includes a buffet from a flea market in Paris, a pair of chairs from a mid-century shop in Palm Springs, and antique gold wingback chairs. Graphic artwork from Graham Gillmore and Richard Halliday adorns opposite walls. The neutral palette of golds, ivory and warm woods gets pops of colour from rotating throw pillows, which Lavoie changes as the mood strikes.
Built-in bookcases on either side of the buffet have a purpose-built space for spare antique chairs. “We pull them out in a big party situation,” says Lavoie. “If it’s there, we use it. If it’s a coffee table, we put our feet on it. Nothing is too precious.”
Upstairs, the master bedroom is cozy in black and white, with a custom, black-velvet-covered bed with a nail-head finish and floor-to-ceiling headboard. The lamps on the nightstands were built by Lavoie himself from vases he purchased at Eaton’s in the ’80s. “At the time you couldn’t buy a cylinder lamp at the right scale,” he says, “so I made one.”
Twin mirrors—gifts from a client—placed on either side of the bed are etched in a Mondrian box pattern. “The mirrors on the nightstands are a signature of ours,” says Lavoie. “They’re a nice way to break up a wallpapered wall without putting art on it.”
The nearby laundry room, laughs Lavoie, slowly evolved into a puzzle room after he and Doug got hooked on jigsaws after a Christmas vacation. “It all started in Palm Springs,” he says. “We’d have one on the table and sit around the fireplace. The best conversations happen while you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle.”
Great conversations also happen poolside in the backyard, where he and Olafson spend most of the summer. Lavoie saved the unusual assortment of trees that had been planted over the years—including Scotch pines—and installed a pool and over a hundred white rose bushes to create a horseshoe of florals around the space. The biggest change, however, was ripping up the asphalt pad that had covered most of the yard. “I’d asked the first homeowner about it, and she said, ‘Darling, when you have a party, you need a place to dance,’” he laughs. “It’s a north-facing yard, so I thought I’d never go outside myself. But the house has been designed in such a way, the roof is so low-slung, that it’s always sunny, it’s always hot.
“It’s perfect,” he says with a smile.