PROVIDE CONVERSATIONS: Denise Ashmore of Project 22 Design
After nearly a decade working with the legendary late interior designer Robert Ledingham, Denise Ashmore launched her own with her firm, Project 22 Design, back in 2009. Her timeless, modern designs have translated into projects as modest as a 360-square-foot laneway studio, to 6,000-square-foot-plus homes – and a body of work that awarded her Western Living’s Designer of the Year award in 2017.
We caught up with Denise to chat about the client-designer relationship, the challenges of remote design, and how she works with accessories in her projects.
Tell us a little bit about how you became an interior designer.
Oh, boy, that’s a long road now. About twenty-five years ago, I was in Toronto, hunting around for things to do. When I finished high school, I looked at architecture schools, wondering if that was my thing. And then realized that those projects take a long time, especially the big commercial ones. But the Ryerson program [in interior design] had a really good feel for me. So I ended up I ended up pursuing that, and working in commercial design for the first half of my career.
And when did you move to Vancouver?
I moved to Vancouver the long way around – I actually went to Australia and worked there in commercial interiors for a while. I just love Australia. But I ended up here, working at Karo Design and doing more commercial work, things like exhibits at the Aquarium, and car dealerships, and all kinds of projects. And then I landed a job with Bob Ledingham, after begging him to hire me. He finally did, and the rest is history. I worked for him for seven years, and when my daughter, my youngest, went to full-time school, it seemed like a good time to move on and do my own thing – that was in 2009.
Your early interest in architecture seems to really show itself in your work—you’re a very architectural designer.
One hundred percent. I have lots of respect for architecture. How you perceive a space from the minute you arrive at it, to just sitting down at a table, and then enjoying a meal. Architecture is a huge interest, and we do get involved coordinating materials inside and out, depending on who the architect is, and what the client desires.
Why Project 22 for the name of your company?
That was a learning from Bob. I didn’t want to have a company that was named after me, because I know that it’s really not about me. The team that works with me and the designers that I’ve been lucky enough to have with me – the collaborations are really what make these projects, as well as our clients. So I didn’t want it to be named after me. And then the 22 part is the first project that really launched us – it was my house on 22nd Avenue.
Is there a project that you’re sort of most proud of?
That’s really hard. I kind of fall in love with all of them for different reasons, because the clients are so passionate about them. But I just recently posted about Boundary Bay, which is a project that took quite a long time. It was a Panabode house that we ended up renovating, which is largely unrecognizable now as a Panabode. The clients are super passionate about it – they had a great vision when they came in, and they were really great to collaborate with. Those kinds of projects are always interesting.
Tell us a little bit about your process. What does it look like when you’re first starting to work with somebody?
Well, we do an interview process, both for them and for us. And we just get a feel for if we can work together. Have they done other projects? Why did they come to us? What are their goals? Timing? All that kind of stuff. We do a questionnaire with all our clients. We’re very much listening. We look at the architecture that we’re given if it’s a new house or a renovation. We do a lot of discovery, and figure out what we’re not going to keep, and how to bring a project together.
The process is really slow to start with just learning. And then conceptually, we jump into it and get into doing 3-D sketches and selecting some base materials so that we can get feedback from clients on the general concept and direction. There are 3-D views that we do of the kitchen, living, dining, and then the primary bedroom. Those are the heart-of-the-home places that people are going to resonate with, or that they’ve probably given the most thought to.
So that’s the beginning of our concept phase, and it’s a very iterative process. After that we talk to the clients, we get their feedback, we modify things and make changes, maybe swap out materials. And then it’s just very process driven. We select plumbing fixtures, actual lighting and get down to nitty gritty of, for example, this child’s going in this room. We get into much more detail. It’s a very approachable process that has worked for us very well.
What do you think makes for a challenging assignment?
Remote projects are always interesting and challenging, just because you’re trying to get materials to and from sites. We have a bunch of projects that are remote, and we struggle to get materials. And keeping the flow of the project going is tougher, because you’re shipping materials to and from one of the Gulf Islands, for example, and going to site visits for renovations is tricky. But fun, too – you might get there in a helicopter!
What’s the role of accessories in interior design, and in your own projects in particular?
They’re the jewelry, and they can really speak to the personality of a space – they really soften a space and make it the client’s own. Typically, our projects are neutral in their architectural form—not always, but often. And so when it comes to accessories and art, that’s when we get to have some fun. And it’s changeable – it’s something that can have a character for this season, or it can have a character for a few years.
I like the investment piece: the really beautiful cushions that that last for five years, that look good and are timeless. And Provide is one of our top shops for accessories – we always go there.
And why is that?
The quality of the materials in the artists and artisans Provide works with is consistent. And the staff is very good at supporting us if we need an extra cushion, or things were not quite the right size, so we can exchange them. They’re very flexible for us, and we really appreciate that.
What are some of your go-to lines at Provide?
The Teixidors line is fantastic. And Martha Sturdy’s lines are always lovely, along with Henry Dean, Guaxs and Sien & Co. And I’m excited to use the Totum and Origins lines they’re showing in the new Provide Deign Gallery.
Have you been by the new space?
Yes – it’s exciting to see. The artisans and the furniture pieces are really exciting. We’ve proposed them for several projects that are a long time from now. But even when we’re doing our concept, we might put a chair into a concept to start leading that conversation, or at least introducing the conversation. And we use art, and I think that the Design Gallery has got some great artists. I mean Brent Comber’s work is so interesting. It’s very west coast, all of it.
Thanks to Denise for taking part in Provide's Conversation series. Visit Project 22's website to see more of their beautiful interiors work.