Vancouver-based Sophie Burke is truly the quintessential west coast designer: her airy, modern palettes and warm livable spaces feel so integral, so at the top of our local design scene, it’s no surprise that House and Home magazine referred to as “Vancouver’s Design Darling.” We sat down to chat with her about her early days at the esteemed London-based Conran and Partners, the European influence in her designs, and the role accessories play in creating a warm and livable space.
Tell us a little about why you became an interior designer.
I guess I just always wanted to be one. I remember doing aptitude tests in high school, and I always got “interior designer.” And from… I don’t know, age 13? I thought, okay I really want to be an interior designer.
My parents are quite into design, so I guess I grew up in that environment of valuing your home and what you put into it. They loved antiques, so we would go antique shopping with them, and they always got us involved—I remember painting furniture with my mom.
So what was your eventual path to becoming a designer?
Well, I did my undergrad at UBC, a BA in Art History because I just wanted to get an undergrad degree, and I’m super interested in art history, too. After that I went to London and I studied interior design there.
My school, they had a contact and he owned Pret à Manger in London—there’s probably 100 of them now. But he was opening these Japanese sushi restaurants, and so he hired me to do the design for it. I was so green coming out of school—zero experience, although I had worked briefly for Elaine Thorsell in Vancouver, who owns BOTI, Bureau of the Interior.
I definitely got my feet wet doing this project for the restaurant, and then got hired on at Conran and Partners. And that was really cool—it was a big firm and there were graphic designers, product designers, architects and interior designers, and everyone worked really collaboratively.
And then of course, Terrence is a huge design guru and such an influence. And so he would be sitting in his corner office, scaring us all. He’d come out to make sure no one was looking at anything other than their work, and if we weren’t at our desks by nine he’d be mad. “I’m not paying you to make coffee,” he’d say. You’d have to have your coffee made before 9am. And then you were at your desk, ready to work.
But it was a very interesting place to work. The offices were right down from the Design Museum and we were just exposed to a lot. So that kind of cemented my love for design.
And then I moved back to Vancouver and started my own firm. Which kind of happened… not really by accident, but while I was looking at where I might work, a few people asked me to do smaller things for them. And then I had enough of those little small jobs that I thought, well, maybe I’ll just run my own business.
And I wouldn’t say that, truthfully, the business side is what I love. I really love the design side, so that’s why I’ve kind of tried to keep the firm a little bit smaller, because I don’t want to just be managing a business. I really love design—that’s what makes me excited and happy.
How did that experience in Europe inform the work you do here on the West Coast?
When I worked in London, they just had a more global perspective. And you kind of understand—you see buildings that are 400 years old, and you see how things evolve, but also that they can be timeless. That was an interesting shift for me, and I feel like that did inform my design sense: this integration of classic design with contemporary.
And you know a lot of the restaurant or hotel projects I worked on, we were working within buildings that had been there for a long time. So you’re working with that more classical architecture, and then injecting it with a more modern sensibility—finding that balance.
I think Canada, we have an amazing design scene too. It’s really fresh, and people are doing very cool things. Even since I’ve moved back, I’ve seen it’s changed so much, and it’s so fun to be a part of it. Canada really also has its own design vocabulary, which I appreciate a lot.
What do you think that vocabulary is?
Well, I think on the West Coast, it’s been really interesting to see people starting their own businesses—with furniture, lighting, ceramics, who have this approach or attitude, knowing we can make world class, beautiful pieces here, using local materials or using local craftsmanship and knowledge. So for me that’s the really most exciting thing, to look at all these companies, like Barter and Union Wood Co. and Lock and Mortice, and there’s a million others that have opened up here—they’re all manufacturing in our city. Down the street from my office, Bocci is right here. People are buying this from around the world and it’s all happening here.
So we can take our local influence, which might be nature or whatever it is for the different makers, and then we can make a global product.
Are there any of your commissions or designs you feel particularly proud of?
One that stands out in my mind, we worked on this project at Whistler and it’s called Buckhorn. That one, it just had this really beautiful, lovely feel about it in the end. You walk into it and you just feel a more tangible sense of what the design has done for the space. The clients were great to work with—they were really invested on an emotional level with what the house was going to be. So for them, they made very careful decisions and they also gave us latitude on the design. And we worked on everything, including all the styling elements, getting pieces from Janaki Larsen, interesting bedding and pillows—everything that really makes it all come together.
You’re really known for layering, too—I think some people don’t always appreciate how important those final accessory choices are.
I think people don’t necessarily understand how critical it is. Accessories play such a huge part of the final pulled-together look. You can have all the furniture in and the beautiful design, but if it doesn’t have that extra layer, it just feels unfinished. And clients, they can’t necessarily put a finger on it, but they just know that there’s something not right about the space. And that’s always our last step, to accessorize with our clients—and sometimes our clients can’t quite believe it, because it just adds all the layers, the character, the textures, and makes it feel more personal. For us it’s really critical, and now we put it into our budgets, right from the very beginning.
And truthfully, Provide has been a lifesaver for us, because we just share a very similar aesthetic. They have such beautiful pieces that you can tell hass been thoughtfully and artistically made, and so it’s been invaluable to us to be able to source from them.
They’re also so lovely to work with. We can say to them, we’re accessorizing a house, can you send us photos of what’s on your shelves right now and then we circle stuff and send it back. Their willingness to go above and beyond, for us, it’s just super helpful. They really work with the design industry—and it feels really nice, like we’re on the same team.
Do you recall how you first found out about Provide?
I know I remember looking at Western Living and paying attention to the sourcing, to where some of these accessories were coming from. I think it was a Battersby Howat house, and everything was coming from Provide. I remember thinking—what is this Provide place? I need to go there! And because accessories can be hard to find, I was paying particular attention thinking, okay, where are these really nice pieces coming from. And oh my gosh, I feel so grateful that we have that store in our city.
Thank you Sophie for taking part in Provide's Conversations series!