Q&A With Louis Duncan-He
Casaza: How did you get your start?
Louis Duncan-He: I kind of fell into this industry by accident. I like to tell most people that this industry found me. My background is in corporate advertising. Early on in my career, I worked in the PR department of a large interior design firm and got my first taste of good design. Fast forward approximately twelve years later and a fairly successful career in advertising, I found myself again flirting with the idea of interior design. I was at a crossroads in my life. I knew I wanted to do something different, something that would better utilize all the tools in my box and ultimately be more personal.
I got my start in this industry by helping one of my girlfriends design her home. She was going through a difficult separation at the time, and I desperately wanted to help her feel more like the beautiful and powerful woman I knew her to be. As a creative person, offering to re-design her home was the most honest way that I could think of helping her and to give her a fresh start, and so I did just that. By the time we were finished, I could see how much lighter and happier she was. It was like she was a new woman. Naturally, when her friends would visit they would comment and ask about her new space. Within a year, I had over fifteen projects in the works, all through referrals, and the rest is history.
As a visual communicator, I really enjoy the technical aspects of design. However, it’s the way I’m able to empower people to live more openly, honestly and beautifully that still gives me the tingles. I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do because designing someone’s home is such an intimate process. It’s a privilege to be able to impact how people live their lives.
C: How would you describe your style?
LDH: Being raised on the West Coast (beautiful Vancouver), I’ve always been drawn to a sort of relaxed and easy sophistication. I love texture, I love organic elements and layering tone on tone to create depth and interest. I like natural lines and usually wear things that juxtapose a level of sophistication and effortlessness. I love cooler shades of wood that still have a little warmth and depth like walnut and teak. Overall, I always try and design from the narrative of my client, but I like for spaces to feel airy, relaxed and most importantly livable. I think that’s the golden thread you will see in most of the spaces I’ve designed.
C: Where do you get new ideas and inspiration?
LDH: I get the most inspiration from my clients. I’m probably one of the most naturally curious people you’ll ever meet. People fascinate me. It’s not uncommon for a discovery consultation with a new client to go 2-3 hours sometimes because I just don’t want the conversation to end! I genuinely want to understand who they are, how their experiences have shaped them and how they like to live. I believe that everyone has a point of view that can be translated visually and into a design narrative. The difficult part is being able to describe it tangibly, and that’s where my job comes into play. Being able to connect to their authentic aspirations is usually the catalyst for me. Once I feel like I have a truly clear understanding of who they are, that’s where the real fun and inspiration starts for me. I’m able to project a version of them into my mind with very clear parameters and start to explore, play and make decisions, while still pulling from my overall understanding of design.
C: Favourite room in the house?
LDH: My favourite room is the living room. I’m not talking about a conversation room or great room (which are both great rooms). I’m talking about a real living room where people actually sit, spend time together and live! I often find a lot of people don’t use their living rooms as much as they could because it might feel inaccessible or sometimes overly designed. I know most people say the kitchen is the heart of the home, but I think a well-designed living room is where you actually live and is usually the first space you see when entering someone’s home. I also think the living room sets the overall mood and direction for the rest of the home. My living room has always been my personal sanctuary. When life has beaten me down a little, the living room is usually where I want to spend my time, curled up in a blanket.
C: Design rule you don’t subscribe to?
LDH: I don’t really subscribe to rules in general. As someone who isn’t formally trained, my approach to design is more rooted in my interpretation of the client, instinct and intuition. I’ve had many clients tell me that they have felt intimidated by the process and working with a designer in the past. Designing your home should be one of the most fun and empowering things that you do! It should reflect you, and it’s our job to make sure that happens in the most beautiful and balanced way possible.
Artwork also tends to be a stressful area for many people. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a rule, but I think there is a misconception around artwork and that it needs to match your home in a certain way. Art is personal and should always be personal – it should elicit some sort of a feeling or emotion and that is so subjective. If having a giant custom commission of a pink unicorn is what brings you joy, then I’ll find a way to make that work. I would never tell you to get rid of it or not use it; what I may tell you is that it might be the wrong scale for the wall, or instead of a single canvas, you need a tryptic. Design is so fluid to me and shouldn’t be taken so seriously.
C: A recent project that inspired you?
LDH: I love how this recent contemporary oasis project I worked on turned out. The design brief called for a very modern and open space that pulled inspiration from the Guggenheim in NYC. In addition, it needed to be child and dog-friendly and seat up to 20+ family members on any given day. Working very collaboratively with the client, we were able to come to a place that felt fresh, modern and also inviting at the same time. With such minimal lines and a stark white palette, it was probably one of the most contemporary spaces I’ve ever done. But finding a way to deliver a functional and beautiful space that felt so expressively theirs is what keeps both myself and my team happy and inspired.
C: Favourite texture/pattern/colour?
LDH: One of my favourite textures is actually leather, or rather the look of leather (whether it’s real or faux). I love how leather instantly injects a level of polish, but in such a natural and effortless way. People are often scared of leather and think that it can be too overpowering, and I would say in some cases it’s true. But there are so many different ways you can work with the material. You don’t need to commit to a tufted 8-person leather sectional, you can just as easily add the same feel with a footstool or single armchair. I have a soft spot for creamy and light leathers in grey, tan or taupe. It just strikes the perfect balance between natural and easy sophistication.
C: What is “good design” to you?
LDH: My criteria for good design mainly revolve around two aspects. The first is the functionality. Is the home designed in a way that is actually conducive to how the client or family lives? For example, if there are children around and having toys on the floor is a constant battle, then there probably shouldn’t be a lot of open shelving and storage in the design plan; closed may be a better option. I don’t think it’s difficult to design a visually pleasing and beautiful home, but to design a space that looks spectacular and can be kept and maintained that way for the client is a different challenge. As a designer, you really need to put in the time up front to dig deep and understand how your clients really live.
The second piece is how much of the client you actually have incorporated into the space. It’s not always easy because as designers, we have so many design-y terms we use that can sometimes bulldoze a conversation. In fact, many of these words mean absolutely nothing to clients. During my design briefings, a lot of our time is spent going through images (one-by-one) to get a sense of what “modern” means to them versus what it means to me. I would say at least 50% of my job is spent trying to be a really good communicator. The biggest compliment I can receive is when friends of my clients tell them that the space looks and feels exactly like them. That’s my personal benchmark for “good design.”
C: Pack your bag! You’re moving into a famous home. Whose is it?
LDH: I had to think long and hard about this… There are so many homes I love. Two homes that come to mind are Meg Ryan’s New York City Loft and Jennifer Aniston’s Beverly Hills Retreat. Between the two, the loft is probably the closest to my natural aesthetic, however, I am so intrigued by Jenn Aniston’s space. The colours are richer than I would use for myself, but there is such a relaxed easiness and softness to the space that is incredibly appealing to me. Even though there are a lot of bold jewel tones and plays on different metallics and patterns, the overall feel is very Zen. I would imagine that the second I stepped foot into that space, it would open its arms and wrap them around me. I always prioritize the overall feel over the smaller nitty-gritty details. It’s so easy to swap out a pillow, a piece of art or change a light fixture, but if the entire tone is off, that’s extremely difficult to fix.
C: What’s your rule when entertaining?
LDH: My rule is so simple. Have fun! What’s the point in throwing a fabulous party if you’re pre-occupied the entire time? I’d say unless you’re the event planner, you should be interacting with your guests and enjoying the party.
My biggest tip is to focus on the experience rather than the specific details. No one is going to notice if the napkins don’t have the perfect gold chevron border you wanted. What they will remember is whether enough space was provided for interaction, whether there was good music and what the overall lighting and ambiance felt like.
I’m actually obsessed with Nigella Lawson. She’s a British self-taught cook that has a super casual approach to entertaining, and I very much echo this in my own entertaining style. One of my favourite things to do is to buy really good frozen pizza, get it piping hot and crusty and cut it up into bite-sized pieces. Throw them onto a beautiful serving platter and walk around the party, passing them around at the 11 pm mark. I promise you, people will think you’re some kind of superhuman host.
C: Best advice for DIYers?
LDH: The best advice is to have a good attitude, do some baseline research (YouTube is great), and know when it’s time to step away and realize when something is just out of your wheelhouse. We all have different areas of expertise. Designers rely on tradespeople all the time because they have technical know-how to bring our vision to life. It’s great to want to take on a smaller project on your own but know when to ask for some professional help. It can end up saving you a lot of time, money and help keep your sanity.
C: Best advice for those hiring a pro?
LDH: Do a little bit of research, look at some of their work, and trust your intuition. A good designer should be able to work with anyone, however just like everyone else, we do have an overall point of view. Some designers are just better with more opulent and boundary-pushing designs while others may just naturally be better at minimal and clean.
You also should always trust your gut. During your design consultation meeting, get a sense of how they like to work, their billing structure, their communication style and how they make you feel. If you feel uneasy or intimidated to ask questions, then they are not the right person for you.
C: What is one design trend are you most excited about this season?
LDH: I think with the leaps we’ve made in sustainability, I’m excited to see how more and more designers utilize that in their ideas and designs. There currently isn’t a huge vegan selection of certain materials and textiles. It would be interesting to see if the demand from younger generations will create an increase in production.
From a trend standpoint, I would love to see how much further the industry could take this return back to the natural. I love organic shapes and natural materials and colours. What excites me is mixing shapes and textures that are very pure with things that are more stylized and artificial. I think finding that balance between the two creates such a beautiful sense of harmony and drama.
From a functionality and lifestyle standpoint, I’m curious to see how this trend might impact how people actually choose to live. On the West Coast, the indoor/outdoor areas of homes are a much bigger commodity. We have so much access to technology now so it would be really cool to see how much more we could get out of our spaces and homes in the future. How amazing would it be if an entire home could be fully exposed to the elements and we could sleep under the stars if we chose to? In addition to functionality, this would also start an entirely new conversation around design.
C: How do you take your coffee?
LDH: I actually don’t usually drink coffee which is why I’ve ordered a tea! I’m naturally pretty high energy so coffee tends to make me feel a little too extra and sometimes anxious. I remember the first coffee I ever had was an Americano and I literally felt like I was having heart palpitations. My drink of choice is usually green tea or jasmine tea. I do however love the smell of coffee; hazelnut blends especially are my favourite. So, in the off-chance that I do drink coffee, I usually take it black so that I can really taste it and sip away at it slowly. I just won’t be operating any heavy machinery shortly after.