The Donovan Building, a boutique gem in the heart of Yaletown, was long admired by interior designer Aleem Kassam. So when one of its two-bedroom units came on the market, he pounced on it, even though his partner, Victor Kazakov, was on business in India and had made their realtor swear he wouldn’t let Kassam buy anything while he was away. (Kazakov would understand; this was the one.)
The take: a 1,150-square-foot corner-suite sub-penthouse with peek-a-boo views of False Creek, downtown and, to the north, mountains, mountains, mountains. It occupied a whole quarter of the 19th floor, so it was also private and had a deck that spanned the length of the unit, and it balanced wall space with windows (they could have artwork and buckets of natural light).
A decade old, the condo featured yet-untouched original interiors that were an ode to the ’90s, with dark-stained floors and cabinetry. There was plenty of potential, but “it was just way too dark,” says Kassam, a co-founder of local design firm Kalu Interiors. “I couldn’t wait to just gut the heck out of it.”
Family matters. Interior designer Aleem Kassam (left) and his husband Victor Kazakov cozy up for some quality time with their Bengal cat, Theos.
But all in due time: Kassam and Kazakov moved in first to study their space. Because this was such a special home and the designer was his own client—and could set his own deadlines—there was no real rush. “I wanted to, kind of, date it for a while?” laughs Kassam. And so for six months, the couple meticulously observed how the natural light came through the windows, where the storage fell short and how the layout worked—or, as it turns out, how it didn’t work. “As we started to live in the unit, we quickly realized how unfunctional the floor plan was,” he says.
Thoughts about a simple surface reno soon transformed into aggressive plans for a complete overhaul that would move walls, doors, islands and closets—starting with the cramped, studio-small kitchen. The original kitchen was less than half its current size, had junior-apartment-sized appliances and, oddly, right off the kitchen island, featured the master bedroom’s only door. “When we had people over and were entertaining, it just felt really awkward if we wanted our bedroom to be private,” says Kassam.
Create moments of rest for the eye. To counteract all the gold embellishments and drama, Kassam’s design firm co-founder at Kalu Interiors, Phyllis Lui, encouraged him to install a white backsplash in the kitchen. This creates a necessary moment of rest, and allow the black granite kitchen island to really sing.
To address this, he closed off that door, extended the usable wall space in both directions, and even created a hidden nine-by-six-foot butler’s pantry (formerly a flex room) encapsulated in the kitchen’s white oak millwork. “And by removing the bedroom door and moving the island, I was able to add that whole left bank wall, which includes magic corner cabinets, a 36-inch fridge, full-sized 30-inch wall oven, microwave, wine fridge, coffee maker and pullout pantry,” the designer explains. “Yes, we love dinner parties.”
On the green. Kassam is a big fan of green spaces, so he used SynLawn to create a lush, whimsical and low-maintenance outdoor lawn. An exterior gas line meant they could custom-build a matte-black outdoor kitchen (from Sherwood Outdoor Kitchens) to fit, and cook year-round.
Incorporate a variety of mirrors. “I think a lot of people tend to find them ’90s-kitschy and tacky, but used strategically, mirrors are your absolute best friend,” says Kassam. He installed custom mirrors above the master bedroom’s pocket doors and on the far wall in the living room to extend the space, but he also included furniture mirrors, like the art deco glam oval mirror from CB2 that hangs in the office, and the ornate gold Louis XIV showstopper that acts as a headboard in the master bedroom.
The couple’s new master bedroom door came via the guest bedroom. Kassam removed the room’s French doors, opening it up to the dining room and kitchen areas, and turned it into a chic corner office, complete with triangle desk. The bedroom is now accessed through a sliding barn door entrance in the office, which also satisfied another of the designer’s top goals: “I’m always a huge fan of just completely open living, being able to walk in and out of a master bath, in and out of the closet, the bedroom, and not have the sightlines given away off the first look,” says Kassam.
Spa life. To create a spa bathroom fit for a west-side mansion, Kassam raised the ceiling, stole square footage from the bedroom’s walk-in closet, swapped out a framed-in tub for a spacious soaker and installed glass shelving on unencumbered wall-to-wall Calacatta marble.
In the master bedroom, the designer installed two black-framed pocket doors on either side of the bed; the left leads to the wraparound L-shaped walk-in closet, the right, to the master bath. “Every day we live with these doors fully open,” he says. “Even in the bathroom, you’ve turned a corner into the bathroom, so you have that open-concept feel and you get plenty of that natural light, but you still have privacy.”
Total trickery. “The hanging storage on the right is actually deeper than that on the left,” says Kassam of his custom design. By mounting the clothing rods in the same central place with back panelling, the cupboards run parallel and appear to be the same size—a crafty trick to steal space for his master bath.
This deft manipulation of the floor plan continued room by room, from the optical-illusion walk-in closet (one cupboard is less deep than the other to steal space for the spa-like master bath) to the ceiling (dropped a few inches to accommodate shallow coffers).
Fit for a king. In the dining room, the Louis XIV chairs were gilded and reupholstered from “hideous striped beige” to black velvet from Maxwell Fabrics.
With the bones reset, Kassam turned to creating a decidedly timeless backdrop of neutral materials and finishes. Functional features throughout, like cabinetry and millwork, were cast in white oak and closely matched to the floors (to create an “endless visual seam”), while focal points drew the eye to dramatic blacks (the granite kitchen island, the all-black bathroom vanity, the velvet Louis XIV dining chairs).
Set a neutral foundation. This sub-penthouse’s interiors might look well adorned, but its modern core is decidedly timeless. “I like to challenge people to imagine the space stripped of accessories, furniture and accents—the gold, the wallpaper—and without all that, it’s just a very clean, contemporary space,” says Kassam.
There’s gold everywhere (the rain-patterned hallway wallpaper, the circle art, the vases and curios), but each piece is a loose embellishment that’s easy to swap out or update as tastes and seasons change. “Even for my space, I don’t want to have to redesign it three, four or five years down the road,” says Kassam.
Objects abroad. “Victor and I travel a lot, so I wanted that artifact, Architectural Digest feel for our home, where our space could say a million words about us without literal photos of us travelling,” says Kassam. Shelves in the living room are adorned with the couple’s souvenirs, like figurines from trips to Bali and Taiwan.
In the living room, the sofa, stools and custom storage bench are all low profile to keep sightlines clear and never obstruct the Vancouver views, but nothing in this downtown condo follows the rules when it comes to being “apartment sized.” (There’s the soaker tub, three-sided fireplace wall, seven-foot dining table and the master bedroom’s “massive-splurge Louis XIV gilded mirror from William Switzer that my husband almost killed me for.”)
“My home feels like a house because I’ve chosen scales and proportions that feel like a home in Shaughnessy,” explains Kassam. “Instead of doing a lot of smaller items, I’d rather make that one piece really worth it.” After more than a decade in the business, a strong ethos has emerged: design for the five-bedroom home you want, not the downtown condo you have. “I’m a firm believer in spaces being aspirational,” says Kassam. “Homes that reflect where you want to be and where you want to go.”