Interior Designer Robert Ledingham Sums up 40 Years of Work

Robert Ledingham has been designing home interiors for more than 40 years and offers insight into his illustrious career

One of Robert Ledingham’s modern condo designs in Coal Harbour

Celebrated interior designer Robert Ledingham highlights of 40 years of career successes

Robert Ledingham is one of Canada’s most celebrated designers.

In his 40-year career he has received more than 30 awards, most recently the 2011 Leadership Award of Excellence awarded by the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), the Interior Designers of Canada (IDC), and the Interior Designers Institute of British Columbia (IDIBC).

He has helped to develop interior design professional accreditation in university programs, and holds an honourary doctorate from University of Manitoba. 

Robert Ledingham Talks Automobile Lacquer, Exotic Leathers and Transforming Spaces that Last

When did you win your first major interior design award?
It was in 1976 in New York: S.M. Hexter’s Interiors of the Year Award for best residence. 

What was one of your most memorable projects?
I designed the Vancouver penthouse of Dragons’ Den panellist, Boston Pizza owner Jim Treliving. His wife, Sandi, wanted a customized interior for the Coal Harbour suite that’s almost 10,000 square feet. I advised that the spectacular view, rather than artwork, be the focal point. The living room fireplace is transparent and the wine room separating the entry from living room is glass and Plexiglas. 

Warm textures were added in makore wood panelling on walls (and a ceiling), glass bead wallpaper, Italian limestone floors, wool and silk carpets, chenille and leather upholstery, and a goatskin-covered coffee table. The master bedroom has a rotunda with curved wood-panelled doors that slide open to his-and-hers dressing rooms. The master bathroom has a limestone vanity and tub, and bronze mosaic tiled steam shower.

What challenges did you overcome when working on this project?
View homes that incorporate a lot of glass walls make it difficult to place paintings and larger furniture. Only the core offered solid walls, so we floated low-height furniture in the centre of the rooms and around fireplaces and left walking space near windows so that people will gravitate toward the view. It was difficult to focus lighting on their dining table due to the glass-domed skylight above, so we customized a network of very fine track lighting with halogen lights, which criss-crossed below the skylight. 

You completely revitalized your own home.

Our 1936 house is probably the best example of Art Moderne on Vancouver’s West Side; its exterior was refurbished to be almost exactly as original. My partner, an architect, and I won a City of Vancouver heritage award for it. We gutted the interior to make it very modern with charcoal porcelain tile floors throughout, and added small antiques – I do like things with history.

A cozy nook in our modern kitchen has a sofa, table and chairs where we have morning coffee, read the newspaper and eat dinner. We often walk by the living room and dining room, look in, but settle in our nook where its design gives us the opportunity to be comfortable.

The three bedrooms were originally upstairs, but we reversed the layout, with bedrooms downstairs and the kitchen, living and dining rooms upstairs to take advantage of the view. The kitchen features a wood island, large skylight and automobile-lacquered millwork in taupe brown, shimmering with iridescent purple. 

Automobile lacquer?
I have used automotive lacquer directly from car companies – whether it’s Chevrolet number 349 or Mercedes number 83 – for over 20 years on ceilings, wall panels and doors. I love the metallics that transform into different shades in varying light. It is factory-sprayed, so pieces must be removable, and doors are hand-polished. It is durable, complements stone tile and contrasts hardwood. 

How do you regard design trends? 

I like open-concept kitchen-great rooms, however, particularly for downtown lifestyles, a cozy “phone station” should be incorporated – most people make more restaurant reservations than prepare food in the kitchen – and a well-stocked bar area for entertaining. 

Today’s very large-scale marble and concrete tiles look fabulous, but they can be difficult to install. I don’t pay attention to colour trends but begin with one material, such as a marble tile, that sets the tone and builds the room’s scheme. I specialize in contemporary architectural interiors that rework space and correct flaws; it is essential to get the bone structure right for everything else to fall into place.

What flaws do you often see?
Homes never have enough lighting. There are often just two ceiling lights or a fixture in the centre of the ceiling. We often drop ceilings to add recessed lighting; this ceiling is taken to the full extent of the space to create a clean, cohesive look. Millwork must be updated and upgraded to allow the kitchen to flow into the living, dining and family rooms and not look separate. This often demands customized millwork. Furniture scale is not always understood. The trend toward big furniture makes it difficult for those who are downsizing; the latest one-and-a-half chair can fill a living room, and it’s difficult to find beds that fit smaller condo bedrooms.

What are your favourite materials?
We often cover doors, furniture and accessories in exotic leathers such as goatskin and shagreen. Shagreen is often dyed in colours inspired by the 1930s, when it was introduced. It is often used as an accent, for example, on the doors of a buffet that has a wood frame. Vancouver artisan Lech Podgorski uses these exotic finishes; for one client he covered a table in linen fabric, then finished it with protective lacquer sanded to a smooth finish. 

I prefer custom hand-tufted carpets: the design may be inspired by a fabric, coloured to coordinate with furniture, or personalized with embroidery. In traditional settings, I will upholster walls by stretching beautiful fabrics over a padded frame, done by Vancouver’s David Greig at Textiles 260. Since upholstery is less hard-wearing, it covers the upper portion of the wall, with painted wood panelling on the lower half. 

You say that restraint and keen attention to detail are important. Are they contradictory?

Forty years of experience has taught me to know how much of both to incorporate. It’s easy to clutter a space, so I draw out a floor plan to determine how much furniture will fit in a space and then slowly build the collection of chosen objects.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I’ve always stressed quality. I am proud when I visit an interior that I did 20 years ago and it still has very good bones and pieces hang together well. A sofa may simply be tired, so I’ll change the shape of the arm and reupholster the piece to give it a new look. 

You buy pieces that inspire you, not always knowing where they’ll go. Where do you store these pieces?
Our office at 125 East Fourth Ave. [in Vancouver] has a showroom/store open to the public, featuring collections from my travels: glass vases from Murano, Italy; leather-
covered tables and boxes from France; pottery from Galiano Island; African antiques; and shagreen accessories. 

Why did you become an interior designer?

After high school, I was either going to be an architect or interior designer; in the end, interior design won out. If I hadn’t, 
I would have become a medical doctor because my father was a scientist, and I’ve always found hospitals fascinating. I even like their smell.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.