Photography by Virginia MacDonald
Written by Jenny Bradley
When discussing tastemaker Colette van den Thillart’s design style, three adjectives are often bandied about. Witty. Fearless. Glam. As creative director for London’s NH Design (and design icon Nicky Haslam’s right-hand gal), such descriptors are hardly surprising. Clients, after all, range from rock stars to royalty. Witty, fearless glamour is standard operating procedure.
What may not be as emphatically acknowledged, however, is Colette’s keen ability to balance that rock-star glamour with full-fledged, put-your-feet-up comfort. Exhibit A: The 1970s Toronto home she “Frenchified” for her family of four—including daughters Hannah, 12, and Ava, 10.
“I wanted this house to have a sense of flamboyance and grandeur,” says Colette. “But at the end of the day, it’s a casual family home, and it’s meant to be comfortable. The architecture isn’t overly formal, so I didn’t want to overly formalize the decor. It’s the whole suitability thing that Elsie de Wolfe taught us so well.”
In a living room of which Elsie would most surely approve (after all, she did famously say, “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint”), comfort doesn’t take a backseat to grandeur. The room’s centerpiece—a back-painted glass coffee table reminiscent of marbled endpaper—“is everything I love,” says Colette. “The Dutch blues and golds, the marbleizing, the undulating serpentine shapes. It’s Hogarth’s Line of Beauty in coffee table form.”
Stark white walls with regal details and a plush faux fur rug may scream “hands off,” but there are no velvet ropes here. A curvaceous sofa and upholstered chair designed by Colette beckon siesta-seekers while letting the antiques take center stage.
“A room should always be a mix of interesting one-of-a-kind finds and simpler pieces,” says Colette. “The finds give you that unexpected charm and grandeur. The more practical bespoke pieces just make everything work.”
A little whimsy doesn’t hurt either. While the upholstered pieces do the heavy lifting, and the coffee table and the antique wood-framed chairs with their arresting blue-and-white print bring in color, it’s the two tables with lambrequins and tassels of painted wood that make Colette smile.
“I love a bit of camp,” she says. “You need a bit of everything—high, low, beautiful, homely, grand, and always a little something to make you laugh.”
When it comes to choosing a palette, Colette turns to the masters for guidance. “I’m sort of obsessed with color,” she notes. “I find that the best place to look for color palettes is in fine art. I look to Cy Twombly and William Hogarth. And I seem especially drawn to the colors of 17th-century paintings—the lighting, the moodiness.”
In the dining room, slate blue walls, a sisal rug, and waxed Belgian oak floorboards chosen for their gray tint bring to mind a Dutch still life—moody and dramatic. As a nod to her mentor (Haslam is known for turning things upside down and embracing the unexpected), Colette shunned a glitzy chandelier and, instead, used silver draperies to draw the eye to the windows. Shapely 18th-century wood-frame chairs partner with larger-scale slip–covered seating that sports ruched caterpillar fringe—both pretty and practical.
“Nicky always says that rooms speak to him. I don’t hear words necessarily,” muses Colette. “To me it’s more musical. Every room has a different score. Here, our living room is more of a pianissimo room with moments of crescendo—like the blue flowers on the wood-frame chairs. The dining room is more fortissimo—dramatic, moody, and eccentric.”
Balancing the home’s tempo is a straightforward kitchen. Its white-on-white design is traditional and spirited, with eye-catching elements—gothic detailing on the cupboard valances, a beadboard ceiling, cutouts on the baseboards. A small baker’s table was added at the end of a large center island for transition and a hint of charm. A window valance, the patterned skirt gathered below the sink, and pistachio-colored café chairs for the girls add a sweet hint of capriciousness to the space.
In the adjoining family room, comfort is king. Flanking the fireplace, shapely sofas were designed by Haslam with a little update by Colette. “I added the skirting,” she remembers. “It’s his design with my twist. The best of both of us.” An octagonal ottoman upholstered in mohair acts as footrest, homework station, and dining table. Virtually indestructible, it’s arguably the most practical piece in the house.
Ikat curtains with a gothic border inspired by a John Fowler fabric found in Haslam’s hunting lodge pay homage to two of Colette’s leading men—Haslam and Fowler. Commingled with a custom-made plaid rug, the patterns also offer a nod to the Canadian-born designer’s adopted country. “When you move to England, you start experimenting with pattern. You start with a chintz pillow and then a floral chair. Before you know it, everything is in pattern,” Colette laughs.
Inspired by the pinks and violets of the northern Canadian light, the master bedroom is as glamorous as it is cozy. A regal lilac-on-white patterned headboard is offset by white-on-lilac curtains. A Belgian-oak settee upholstered with faux fur huddles with tufted slipper chairs. All but invisible Lucite benches add storage space to the graceful (and drawerless) night tables. It’s an expertly amalgamated room, filled with favorite pieces.
“To me, the idea of comfort is as much about adding emotional layers to rooms as anything else,” says Colette. “When there’s a connection—and you surround yourself with the pieces you love—it just shows.”
Interior designer: Colette van den Thillart, NH Design, 243-247 Pavilion Rd., London, SW1X 0BP, England, 011 44 207 730 0808, nh-design.co.uk
Contractor: Den Bosch + Finchley, 416/922-4249, denbosch.ca
Reading lamps by sofa: Restoration Hardware, 800/910-9836, restorationhardware.com
Tiered end table by sofa: antique.
Console table by sofa (antique): Soniat House Antiques, 504/212-0200 x 2, soniatantiques.com
Lamp on console: NH Design, 011 44 207 730 0808, nh-design.co.uk
Art behind console (18th-century engravings): Christies London, 011 44 207 839 9060, christies.com
Gilded chairs flanking fireplace: antique.
Chair fabric: Marvic Textiles, marvictextiles.co.uk. Available through Zimmer + Rohde, 866/627-6899, zimmer-rohde.com
Mantel: custom design by Colette van den Thillart, NH Design, 011 44 207 730 0808, nh-design.co.uk
Coffee table: antique.
Black statue on console: Decorum Decorative Finds, 416/966-6829.
Fabrication: Home Couture, 905/738-1575.
Carpet (discontinued): Reznick Carpets, 416/787-7676, reznickcarpets.com
Paint: Farrow & Ball, 888/511-1121, farrow-ball.com