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Submissions Now Open! Enter Western Living’s 2023 Designers of the Year Awards
Ben Leavitt of PlaidFox Studio brings narrative-rich, bold and fearless design concepts to each and every one of his projects.
Ben Leavitt remembers the moment he realized his latest clients were a perfect match for his firm, PlaidFox Studio. “In the first meeting they asked, ‘Is there a way that we could incorporate a Slurpee machine in the kitchen?’” he says with a laugh. “And I thought, ‘These are my people.’”
Leavitt jests, of course, because that same project is also an elevated update to a historic property in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood—one that celebrates both the original architecture and the homeowners’ impressive Canadian art collection. But the idea of adding a Slurpee machine into that mix does highlight a central tenet in the practice of our 2022 Interior Designer of the Year: every project pairs thoughtful design with a whole lot of fun.
Leavitt launched PlaidFox Studio in 2014 after spending a decade in Asia as a product designer for large international furniture brands. The industrial design work was fulfilling, but even then he knew that interior design could offer more of an immediate impact—he’d be able to directly witness the way a well-designed space could enhance every aspect of a client’s everyday life. And, right from the beginning, PlaidFox started making bold moves, designing spaces that have regularly found their way onto the pages of not only this magazine, but also those of Livingetc, Elle Decor, Architectural Digest and other global media heavyweights.
If there’s one theme that runs through the studio’s broad portfolio, it’s a fearlessness in selecting seemingly disparate elements and proving that they can ultimately work so well together. That Dunbar renovation, for example, brings together rich colours selected by the homeowners themselves—bright cobalt blue in the kitchen, fuchsia on the original staircase—and the quiet influence of Japanese minimalism.
Meanwhile, a modern home in Langley, B.C., is designed to celebrate neutral, black-and-white spaces—save for a bright slash of pink in the kitchen’s eating nook. It’s bold design that represents great trust between Leavitt and his clients—to clad a bedroom entirely in shades of blue and turquoise, for example, or to bring modern furniture pieces into a classic French chateau-inspired space. “I always encourage people not just to take a risk in the powder room and the kids’ rooms,” says Leavitt. “Take a risk in every room.”
The Oceanview project, in West Vancouver’s British Properties, is also the ultimate example of that interdependent trust between client and designer. The home had been “built for resale,” says Leavitt, and was completely devoid of personality. To get it to the brilliant design it is today, Leavitt and the homeowners got comfortable with pushing each other. “There would be times when I would show them something, and they would say, ‘It makes me uncomfortable, but I trust you,’” he says. “And then sometimes they would say to me, ‘You’re not pushing hard enough—it needs to be more exciting.’ It was design ping pong, and it was amazing.”
He also approached that home with the mentality of an artist considering their canvas. “With art, I’ve always said, if it’s really large, it’s amazing, and if it’s really small it’s amazing,” he says. With smaller pieces, he explains, the viewer will want to approach and get close to explore it on a more intimate level, and with larger works they’ll want to stand back and admire. So, he applied this same concept to the home: small details are meant to be admired up close, larger movements can be taken in as a whole.
“We took an anybody-could-live-there modern home, and tried to infuse an element of history and exuberance,” says Leavitt. This can be seen in the dining room, where the walls and ceilings are wrapped in the same warm wood as the floor. The nearby asymmetrical fireplace is clad in Mutina tiles, the concept for which came from one of Leavitt’s sketchbooks. (“I always think my best ideas come from sketching—sketching comes from your subconscious and emotion,” he notes.) Roll and Hill provided the perfect asymmetrical light to pair with the lines of the fireplace.
In the living room, no surface has been neglected. The walls are clad in encaustic concrete, and the fireplace features terrazzo tiles from Ann Sacks. A custom sofa from Vancouver’s Ffabb (also our One to Watch in Industrial Design) pairs with another Vancouver design: a mustard-yellow Lo Turn chair from Bensen. A giant indoor tree from Vancouver’s Kermodi is Leavitt’s favourite element in the room. “There’s something about it when you’re in the space—the height of the tree and the low-slung furniture really makes you feel like you never want to leave.”
It’s work that had judge Juli Hodgson of Hodgson Design Associates exclaiming, “So damn cool. This portfolio of work gets a standing ovation—it definitely stands out and presents a whole new design direction than what we have seen for the past decade.”
From the timber-framed chateau-inspired new build to that carefully renovated Dunbar project, each design sings with unique style, and each is a true reflection of the family that lives there. “Sometimes our portfolio gives me whiplash,” jokes Leavitt. “We have so many different projects on the go, and so many different styles. But that’s what excites me about being a designer.”
What’s your go-to material of choice?
Unlacquered brass—it’s not trendy, it’s flexible with varying styles and, no matter the home, it adds a layer of depth and history that I appreciate.
Was there a childhood moment that hinted design was in your future?
When I was a child, my parents said I could decorate my bedroom. I asked if I could renovate it, including putting in new navy blue and white chequered flooring.
You’re organizing a designer dinner party: which three designers, dead or alive, would you want there?
Martyn Lawrence Bullard, Patricia Urquiola and Jaime Hayon.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
A Man Called Ove, the biography of Elton John and a photography book about a road trip through Afghanistan.
What do you think is the most perfectly designed object?
The Bic pen… loved by essentially no one other than myself. Yet all of my sketching is done with a navy blue Bic pen!
READ MORE: Meet the Winners of Western Living’s 2022 Designers of the Year Awards
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