Colette van den Thillart’s latest project brief began with a whimsical list. The note, slyly slipped to her by one of her Toronto clients, was simply titled “Things I Love” and included—among other idiosyncratic items—lions, flowers, and books. For most designers, such an amalgam might be too diffuse to inspire an entire residence. But for van den Thillart, who is known for a playful yet consistent style defined by bold tones, gracious proportions, and classical motifs, it was just the thing to get her started. “This home is about the clients’ history as individuals and as a couple, the places they have traveled together, the things they collect,” van den Thillart explains.
The couple, a cultured duo with grown children, had seen van den Thillart’s work at a number of friends’ and relatives’ homes and tapped the designer to overhaul their residence, a 1920s house they like to entertain in. Guests enter the home through a cherry-colored vestibule (the family mostly uses a side entrance). As the visual introduction to the rest of the house, the cerise entrance gives an inkling of the rich colors beyond. Directly off it is a classical, all-white staircase hall from which most of the main rooms—the living room, family room, and breakfast room—are visible.
Van den Thillart devoted most of her design efforts to the sprawling combined living and dining room. “When we started, this room was still a white box, used only for cocktail parties, though it took up nearly a quarter of the house’s square footage,” she explains.
She banished the sterile palette and covered the walls in a Pierre Frey tree of life grasscloth blooming with hints of plum, light pink, and grass green. The pink is picked back up in a graphic bookcase covering the room’s back wall, and the green appears again in a bespoke rug inspired by one in Surrealism patron Edward James’s Monkton House. That rug was covered in a pattern of his wife’s footprints. The one in this home, however, is covered with slinking feline paw prints (the clients did ask for lions, after all). The dreamlike rug swirls around the room, uniting the area around a custom sofa (where the couple’s children can often be found napping) with a small dining table at its opposite end.
Branchlike 1970s Willy Daro tables in front of the sofa and a leaflike Soane Britain ceiling light make the room something of an enchanted forest. The crowning jewel, however, is a surrealist sunburst fireplace surround—“sort of a trademark of mine,” according to van den Thillart —which was loosely inspired by Renzo Mongiardino’s fearsome mantel for Elsa Peretti’s Tuscan tower and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s flame-licked fireplace. “The original mantel let the room down, while this is more of a sculpture,” the designer explains.
In the breakfast room, which connects directly to the couple’s kitchen, a crisp palette of timber-clad walls and stone floors accentuates a set of vintage rosewood dining chairs the designer covered in deep ocean-blue velvet. “I knew we had to do something really special with the chairs,” shares Van den Thillart, “so we covered the backs with a 1960s embroidered textile I bought in the U.K. just because it was incredible.” Now the chairs sing like a siren’s song, around the clients’ sculptural Saarinen dining table.
Other nods to history—and that original wish list—reappear throughout the house, like in the family room, where a new and antique textile–covered ottoman took cues from one in designer John Saladino’s Montecito, California, home. “The clients use this room a ton,” says the designer, “so much so that they wore their sofa out, so we started there.” Van den Thillart left the wall colors as they were, replacing the spent sofa with a punchy malachite-hued sectional to liven up the space. The book component of the clients’ love list shines in this room, with leather bound volumes stuffing the built-in bookshelves.
The entire home, in fact, reads like a novella, with elements of the natural world, travel, and the pursuit of knowledge showing up in lovely and exciting interventions. “I think I’m known for interiors with a narrative quality,” says the designer. “I hope this one tells a story of curiosity and the transportive aspect of spaces.”