Marching to her own beat

Ottawa designer and style maven Henrietta Southam finds inspiration from fashion, art and decor

Taking a sip of a frothy café au lait at the Union Street Kitchen Café, a haunt located near her New Edinburgh home, Henrietta Southam waxes poetic about her budding interest in psychology and human behaviour and how they relate to her design business.

“The first thing I do when meeting with clients is to assess who they are. With my background in art, history and design, it’s important to find out how they want to feel in their home. Clients need to live in their spaces.”

Refreshingly honest and down to earth, the fun-loving philanthropist, who has a penchant for speaking her mind — even sharing the most personal details on social media — is winding down three projects and gearing up for more.

With an enviable design portfolio and client list, Southam, who also offers fashion advice to politicians and business leaders, is sought after for her attention to detail and unique decorating flair. She doesn’t advertise, relying on word-of-mouth to land assignments. While the bulk of her work is residential, she enjoys the challenge of commercial and restaurant design and is spearheading the second expansion of Social restaurant on Sussex Drive.

“I’ve been working non-stop this year. I proved to myself in 2016 that a woman can do it all and still be a good mother,” says Southam, who has two sons and a daughter. She credits her growing interest in human behaviour for enriching her design practice and helping to interpret her clients’ vision.

The daughter of Hamilton Southam, founder of the National Arts Centre and driving force behind the Canadian War Museum, and his second wife, Gro Mortensen, Southam grew up in Rockcliffe surrounded by artists and politicians, including the likes of Margaret Trudeau and godmother, Geills Turner, wife of former prime minister and leader of the Liberal party, John Turner. Her parents divorced when she was nine years old and Southam moved to Paris with her mother and younger brother. She credits her mother, now 77, who has Alzheimer’s and is living in Ottawa, with her deep knowledge of art and antiques.

“My mom really taught us to appreciate galleries, museums and the history of art. I know the difference between a Louis XV and Louis XVI because of her.”

Southam attended French Catholic high school in a suburb of Paris before returning to Canada at age 18 to attend McGill University in Montreal and later the University of Toronto. She studied art, history, international relations, wrote poetry and penned a food column for the university newspaper.

Keen for adventure, Southam moved to New York City in 1993 to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts immersing herself in art, fashion, acting and photography and hung out with Hollywood actors, including Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Leonardo DiCaprio. Working as a casting and photography assistant, Southam moved to Miami where she became part of a tight-knit circle of friends intent on bringing an eclectic interior design esthetic to the city.

“I spent a decade there. It was an incredible time to be in Miami Beach. Even as a young child, I was designing things in my head — decoding every room that I walked into.”

Southam fell in love with an Italian model and had two sons by her late twenties. When her relationship ended, she returned to Ottawa in 2006 and moved in to care for her ailing father. The former diplomat and journalist died in 2008 at the age of 91. “Home has always been a safe place for me, as it reflects who you are. My experience abroad has helped shape who I am as a designer.”

With her feet firmly planted in her hometown, Southam launched Henrietta Southam Design (, offering clients conceptual design services, as well as sourcing products and mixing antiques with contemporary decor.

“I’m a total geek and bookworm. I really love following fashion trends, as they are influenced by art, movies and history. History keeps repeating itself, especially in fashion. As an avid watcher, I’m ahead of the curve when it comes to colour, style, texture, form and decor.”

3 design trends for 2017

This season, Southam is noticing three distinct trends inspired by visual motifs from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The first trend celebrates mid-century design and is showing up in the sexy, curvy silhouette of retro-looking furniture — a look she calls “Rat Pack meets Jessica Rabbit” — with winged-back chairs and loungers. The second trend is a nod to Hungarian/French artist Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), who is considered the creator of optical art, a style of abstract art that uses optical illusions.

“Three-dimensional tiles and surfaces are something we’re going to see more of. It’s a throwback to the ’60s era and it’s coming back,” says Southam. The third trend — and Southam’s favourite — is the return of playful pops of colour from the ’70s. Think ultraviolet blue, gemstone hues and neon shades in bright yellows, pink and minty green. “London is awash in these colours right now. Stella McCartney has unveiled a whole fashion line devoted to pop colours. Ottawa may not embrace this wholeheartedly, but you can add accessories to your home to achieve the look.”

Watch for Henrietta Southam’s trends column in the November issue of Luxe.