Robert Bailey's elegant, richly layered interiors reflect the designer's natural optimism and love of warm, coastal modernism.
"Certainly not, no," say Robert Bailey. "No doubts. Zero." I've just asked Bailey whether he ever wanted to be anything other than a designer. From his perch on the 26th floor of the Hudson tower in downtown Vancouver, this year's Interior Designer of the Year (designer-dashing in thick tortoiseshell glasses and a tight sweep of silver hair) runs his two-man studio with the confidence of someone who's been in this game a long while, and the energy of someone relatively new. In fact, Robert Bailey is both. Bailey grew up in a mid-century home in the secluded woods of North Vancouver's Deep Cove, where he often took it upon himself to fix his mother's decor—rearranging it on a regular basis. "My mother would come in, see that it was better and leave it that way," says Bailey. "I guess I was a bossy child, in fact. My mother seemed to look to me for approval and direction on matters of interior design." When an aunt, a fashion editor at The Province, hired an interior designer to do her Kerrisdale apartment, six-year-old Bailey realized there was a potential career in all this. "It was uber chic, with gilded lamps, purple velvet dining chairs, gold silk sofa," he says. "The kind of thing a little boy could get excited about." When he graduated from Douglas College's Interior Design program in 1979, however, few Vancouverites were getting pro help with their interiors. "There simply wasn't as much wealth, there wasn't a large class of people hiring interior designers," says Bailey. "You basically had Robert Ledingham, who blazed the trail for modern interiors in Vancouver, and that was it." Bailey was emotionally tied to his hometown, though, and eschewed the chance to move to a larger centre in order to work. For almost three decades he worked on commercial interiors at Architectura, a large, 140-person firm, instead. "A lot of retail work, a lot of airport work." Then, eight years ago, Bailey felt he had a chance to pursue his original dream ("my original, naive dream," he calls it). When he left Architectura, he had a multi-residential project to work on but that job fell through just two days after he opened his new office. "It was a bigger risk than I realized." Working on the interiors of Vancouver's finer homes appears to have been his fate, though. In the years since Bailey jumped ship, he's developed a strong following and an impressive portfolio. There's a compelling breadth to the work itself, but there is a through-line: Bailey is always invested in quality and refinement. Judge Sandrine Lejeune of Ledingham Design Consultants noted his "flawless detailing, sensuous choice of materials, textures and colours." And Calgary designer Douglas Cridland was happy to find that "while others may choose the right fabric or the right carpet, Robert's work truly shows you the layers—the work—that goes into making something great." Bailey strives to make his work reflective of the West Coast without succumbing to what he calls "cedar-infatuated" clichés. "I think you can take Carrara marble and make it West Coast," he explains. "I think we can create an abstracted snapshot of this location. One that's interested in the particular light of this region—there's a sea haze here, a muted quality." There's another West Coast quality that creeps into Bailey's work, and that's his abiding optimism. "You have to be an optimist to be a designer," he told me. "You have to believe that things can always be better, that there's a way to improve someone's situation. You have to believe that life is about constantly trying to get it right." Next steps? Bailey and his sole employee, designer Massimo Lanaro, are moving into a new place, a raw white box of a space that will soon take on its own Bailey form. It seems that one of the city's finest boutique firms has, at last, come home. But Bailey himself is far from satisfied. "I'm never going to stop working," he says. "I will be carrying around swatches until the end." WL