Friendship by Design

Cloud Nine Soars Above

Written, produced and styled by Henrietta Southam

Photos by Marc Fowler, Metropolis Studio

This light-filled slice of heaven is a testament to the fruit that lies in wait for those who bravely walk through their darkest days with the faith that their silver lining is somewhere on the near horizon. How the design of this home came to soar cannot be counted in knowledge of sources, management of trades or an eye for beauty. Instead, it simply came about as a direct result of a true and lasting friendship that begs to be told, in part, here. 

Volledig means “The Fullness of Emptiness” and, according to design master Axel Vervoordt, conjures the space of the future out of the fullness of past taste. To me editing, paring down, and eliminating the wasteful and unnecessary, enhances the beautiful remains no matter how small and simple. The former owner chose the teak floors herself. They were hand-hewn in place and hammered in with wooden dowels, a level of craftsmanship and detail rarely seen. The floating brass disc by Gervasoni had stopped me in my tracks when I was visiting the Wynwood Arts district in Miami. The oak table and custom blue velvet slip-covered chairs are available through Cadieux.

I came to Ottawa from Miami just slightly more than 12 years ago to help my ailing father as he grappled with the passing of his wife and his failing health. Unbeknownst to many, it was also an opportunity for me to slowly start afresh: I was leaving my husband and had no other home to go to. I soon discovered that being a young divorcée was quite isolating, but my sons made some good friends, and, in turn, their parents became my friends. One person, in particular, became one of my best friends—and while I didn’t know it at the time, would soon be someone I would desperately need.

Divorce has a way of derailing a person. Your best-laid forever plan lies in tatters at your feet, and you are floating untethered in a parallel world you never thought you would be a part of, an unrecognizable player in an out-of-body experience you fervently hope you will wake from at any given moment. This loss of Self, coupled with the loss of Home, compounded by the death of my father two years later, led me to make bad decisions with life-altering consequences. It was in the darkest hour of these years that my doorbell rang and the best friend I never knew I had was standing at my doorstep. In her hands were two pages, neatly typed. “You’re going to need these. Let me in and read them to you.” 

A custom-made sofa designed by Henrietta along with Hagar Millwork is long enough to fit the length of the owner’s tall varsity rower son and covered in a heavy salt and pepper bouclé fabric from Knoll. The small chandelier and teak windowpanes are original to the previous owner and are flanked by two Tom Dixon “Beat” sconces available at The Modern Shop on Sussex. The EQ3 table was customized by the designer with a soapstone top. Swivel chair also by Eq3. Area rug by Ikea.

In chronological detail and Hemingwayesque simplicity, her words described why she had the authority and knowledge to unequivocally say I was a good mother. That was all, and that was everything. Two years later, the beacon of light she handed me that day became a judgment that upheld her belief and faith in me. 

Those pages turned my life around. I stayed in Ottawa and started working in design once more from the ground up. One last thing about finding yourself prostrate on the ground in a puddle of hurt: Kiss it. It will be the very foundation to lift you up when you find your feet once more.

A couple of years ago, this beautiful above-mentioned friend of mine called to ask if I would come and see an apartment with her. As it turns out, the sale of this apartment was a news item that had caught my eye, as it was right underneath one featuring my own home in the National Post. A Canadian icon had put her storied home up for sale. 

The relaxed atmosphere was translated into casual lines: the pinched slipcovered swivel chairs covered in custom indigo batik velvet play off the deep seated Belgian linen sofa, both from Lee Industries. The brass reading light and custom console are from Cadieux. The veranda furniture is from West Elm and the light is the owner’s find in Vancouver.

It was as a friend—not as a designer—that I first stepped into the lair of a legend. And, as a friend, I failed: Instead of being a proper wingman and finding fault vocally and loudly in front of the real estate agent for future bargaining ammunition, I stood rooted to the spot, awed by the view and silenced by the palpable serenity of the open space in front of me. To seal my fate as the worst house-hunting sidekick ever, when eventually I did find my voice, words poured out in a torrent of ebullient praise in mounting effervescent pitch and volume.

Mercifully, my feverish love-at-first-sight was shared. My friend who had guided me through loss of Home and Self was about to acquire her own home and hand me the reigns of actualizing the Self she had never fully been able to express before.

I was raring at the opportunity to give back the love, care and compassion so freely handed to me many years ago and, armed now with a deeper knowledge of local trades and sources, as well as a sharpened focus, I was ready. 

The previous householder’s love of Hindu temples went unchecked by us: the original hand-hewn woodwork is beyond unique and was instantly treasured. Lee Industrie’s stools in fawn leather beckon the owner to write in quietude and are available through Cadieux. Pendant lights by Lambert et Fils available through HS Design. Custom millwork by Hagar Architectural Millwork. Countertops by Arban Stone and mosaic glass tiles through Ceragres.

My friend’s only wish was to “de-wood” the place. The former owner had relinquished the apartment with all its contents and one caveat: Nothing was to be sold. Together, we chose the pieces that would stay and the many that would be gifted away. It was paramount to keep the unique and the original. In a serendipitous twist, not long before I stepped into the apartment for the first time, I had met the artist and musician who had been tasked with managing the first incarnation of the space.

Ross Rheaume had tales to tell and priceless knowledge of the initial construction. We learned that the teak floors and columns had been laid on a sub-cork floor for sound insulation and hand-hewn on the spot. He had kept the before pictures of an apartment cut up into small and cavernous rooms. The gift of this apartment was how cleverly they had used the columns and beams to disguise air vents and stacks. The columns were visual testaments to the affinity and affection the owner had held for Hindu temples. In her tumultuous alt-rock angst world, she had fashioned a haven of peace that the Dalai Lama himself had graced with his presence. When blue and silver were chosen as primary colour and metal, the concept name was as evident as the feeling that would overcome anyone who walked through the front door: “Cloud Nine” started to take shape.

The light infused bedroom is an oasis of peace. Henrietta collaborated with the owner and Mary Birtch from Elite Draperies on the custom cushions, velvet backboard, bed skirt and roman shades. Streaming watery rivulets and sky blues bring in the predominant elements from outside the windows. The plants and flowers throughout are from Stalk Market on Dalhousie. Knitted throw, vase and pebbles courtesy of the owner’s great taste in luxurious tactile objects.

However, as much work as Ross had put into shaping the rooms, there were many corners cut. These tiny transgressions stood out like sore thumbs to my eye. To illustrate the most offensive one: The filler chosen to separate the limestone tiles and teak floors was a Styrofoam strip. To amend and align with the overall organic materials, out went the plastic and in came a centuries-old trick to accommodate the shifting of wood in variable temperatures: hemp cord. Furthermore, the owner’s intricate 1990s sound system had left holes in walls and floors. Much of the work was to polish up and finish off Ross’ splendid work. He, himself, came to undo a prayer platform where the breakfast nook now sits. We used the extra wood to patch where needed. 

Spring blooms early in Cloud Nine. Asian motifs were interwoven in the home as a means to enhance the exotic eastern flair but also because the owner has extensively travelled through the Orient and has an affinity for its creativity in arts and design. The textiles were curated by Henrietta and Mary from Elite Draperies. The pebbles and birch side table are both from Fogo Island.

The kitchen was completely redone to accommodate my friend, who is as known for her delicious cooking as for her warm hospitality. The marble countertop looks like a foggy river stream and finds a perfect counterpart in the glass mosaic backsplash tile. The nobility of the custom quarter-sawn oak cabinets speaks to the high-end finishes demanded throughout. Hammered silver pulls and levers bring the Arts and Crafts philosophy full circle: There is no detail too small that need be forgotten nor left behind. 

This home was designed to assuage, comfort and calm, and with the proper adjustments, it became an intensely private and personal space where the owner could collect her thoughts, put them to paper and find her wings.

Cloud Nine beckoned to be a lushly feathered nest, and the soft furnishings were chosen accordingly. Chairs were clad in velvets and sheepskin, plush handwoven Tibetan carpets begged for bare toes to sink in. The themes of sky and water run throughout the space as they do above and below outside: The ceilings were painted a pale blue to pull in the skyline and raise the verticality of the rooms; translucent curtains were hung to soften and hold the light, as well as to hide the window edges thus erasing the physical barriers between inside and out. Splatters, rivulets and watery streaks repeatedly interplay from curtains to backboard, counters to chairs. 

(Left) Where sky and water meet: the casual lines of the batik print and pinched upholstery contrast with the luxurious feel of the velvet texture and plush seating. The console was custom made and chosen to let the light through as well as to add curves to the rigorous symmetry of the windows. Even the lamps were chosen for their translucency: this is a home so in touch with the exterior elements that the weather determines the mood: soft as a white day, scintillating as a bright morning. It is as different as each day of the year.

A touch of modernity was added with new lighting: Lambert & Fils pendants in the kitchen sync with Gervasoni’s brass floating drum above the dining room table and Tom Dixon’s sconces flanking the breakfast nook. The oversized lotus flush-mount in the entry announces the meditative quality that permeates the very air of this home. 

Spaces were created to invite creativity. The end of the island was fashioned into a perch with a view where my friend could sit comfortably and write. The media console became a branch above the fray when we added a long, tufted cushion. 

A signature Henrietta Southam style is to tile from floor to ceiling. Here she came up with an ingenious blend of glass, marble and mother of pearl tiles to make stripes out of the more expensive elements which in turn elevate the more mundane. She customized the counter of a cabinet acquired at Boone Mondeau. Barbara Barry “Cuff” sconces flank an oversized mother-of-pearl mirror, both available through Cadieux.

My favourite touches are all hers: For my friend has travelled the world and brought back meaningful mementoes that speak to her tender and enlightened soul. From pewter silverware to Flemish clay ceramic vases, the objects that stood out to me the most came from afar as much as from close. We took her antique Kimono Obi found in Japan and made five beautiful cushions that will be as timeless as they are personally priceless. Pebbles were collected from sea to sea, but again, the ones I love are the ones she found on one of her walks on the wild eastern shores of our country: One is marked with an “x,” and the other has a natural “o.”

It takes someone intrinsically connected to the world’s earthly treasures and tempo to notice a special pebble amongst a multitude of pebbles. This is her gift. The very same gift that found me, lifted me, and thus, by giving me meaning, gave me back life.

“All is best, though we oft doubt.
What th’ unsearchable dispose.
Of highest wisdom brings about,
And ever best found in the close.”
— from Samson Agonistes by John Milton.

Photo: Alex Brault.

Henrietta Southam is a decorator and designer who was born into an art and performance-passionate environment. Educated in Europe, Canada and the U.S., her work has been extensively featured in numerous publications. A champion of Canadian design and art, Henrietta strives to use her work to shine a spotlight on her birth country’s excellence.