Wealthy homeowners fuel luxury design market

International brands, Vancouver artisans meet demand for high-end custom interiors

Versace Home in Gastown is one of the go-to stores for affluent Vancouverites seeking designer brands | Chung Chow

Vancouver’s interior design sector thrives on homeowners who want their abodes to reflect an image. The design could denote contemporary luxury, environmental awareness, or simply affluence, and getting it right usually means working with a team to pick everything from the bathroom tiles to the kitchen stove.

When that requested kitchen stove is the high-end brand La Cornue, which has a retail price of up to $77,000, interior designers like Teresa Cain know they’re working on the upper echelon of expensive homes. Cain’s company, Interior Solutions Design Group, is a small boutique firm that has worked on many high-end homes across B.C.

These projects start racking up high expenses from the onset.

“By the time they’ve hired an architect, a landscape designer, and an interior designer, they’re well over $100,000 alone,” Cain said in a phone interview with Business in Vancouver.

Arguably the most important aspect of a project, she said, is understanding the client’s vision. In Vancouver the requests are wildly varied, with some homeowners wanting understated condos, and others demanding flamboyant mansions.

“The project could follow the trends, like a totally green home which costs an awful lot of money, or it could have more fashion, like turntables for their cars,” she said.

Once the project is underway, Cain works with the architect and landscape designers to find all the right parts. Clients preferring high-end European brands are happy – and sometimes surprised – to find Vancouver accommodating, with Cain pointing to Major Interiors on West Pender Street, Versace Homes in Gastown, and Bradford Hardware in Fairview as some go-tos for clients seeking designer brands.

“There’s a segment of the market that likes to purchase the brands, same in the appliance world,” said Cain. “There’s a label part of it, where they like to showcase their wealth.”

However, labels aren’t the biggest mark of a high-end home for Cain. Instead, the most expensive projects showcase artisanal work, with custom glasswork, light fixtures and wood carvings.

“That’s what really differentiates an uber-luxury project,” said Cain, “A bespoke project where everything is customized.”

Many international artisans recently displayed their work in BC Place stadium as part of this year’s Luxury Home & Design Show. The annual exhibition spanned four days at the end of June and had a range of booths highlighting custom projects, a teahouse where guests participated in ceremonies with Taiwanese pottery, and a fully assembled Italian piazza on the field of the stadium, with stone walkways and fountains.

Wendy Guo founded the design show in 2014 to give affluent, mainly Asian home buyers unique design ideas and options. Over the years it has grown in scope and targeted high-end customers and designers throughout the Lower Mainland. While some might see the exhibition as extravagant, Guo told Business in Vancouver  that the show’s goal is to discourage homeowners from flaunting wealth.

“People still want to show off and show they can spend, but we really want to do the opposite,” said Guo, “We don’t want to promote showing off how much money you have. We feel like luxury is more about heart, and how much heart you put into a product.”

Guo said foreign buyers in Vancouver still default to purchasing luxury brands, but the reaction to the design show has been very positive, especially from the artisans they work with.

“The artisans all feel excited because it’s the first time that they can appear [in the spotlight],” she said. “It’s harder to find those kinds of people in today’s society; they are really masters of their domain.”

One of the exhibitors at this year’s show was Vancouver’s Cantu Bathrooms & Hardware, which carries both well-known luxury brands and lesser-known unique designers. Cain has worked with them in the past and thinks bespoke design in general can help clients stretch their budget. Although artisans may have one-of-a-kind work, their prices aren’t necessarily higher than the common luxury brands.

“Everybody has a budget, even the super-wealthy,” said Cain, “You can take a shower and build it for $5,000 or $50,000 no problem.”

But custom work in what Cain called secondary spaces, like second bedrooms, bathrooms, and especially outdoor areas, is what separates her most expensive projects from the rest.

“Outdoor spaces… really differentiate the wealthy [projects] from the run-of-the-mill.”