Balancing rock-star glamour with put-your-feet-up comfort
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.”
Photography: Virginia MacDonald
A marbleized glass coffee table acts as a glamorous centerpiece in the living room. “One grand gesture can really elevate the status of a room,” notes Colette.
Silver fabric at the windows adds a polished appeal to the moody Dutch still life-inspired dining room. Sconces are from NH Design.
“Some rooms are just meant to take abuse,” says Colette. “In family rooms, I often use slipcovers and easy-to-clean wool rugs.” The mohair on the ottoman is from Rogers & Goffigon.
In the library, a pedestal table by NH Design was chosen to multitask as a desk or a dining table.
The traditional white-on-white kitchen gets a graphic update with geometric patterns. Charming tin lights are designed by Colette and painted a chalky Swedish blue. Painted chairs are from The Conran Shop UK. Details on the following slide.
The valance and sink skirt fabric add balance to the kitchen with darker tones and a tenacious pattern.
An overscale lantern from Vaughan hangs above a sculptural black metal table in the breakfast area. Ikat drapery fabric (the same pattern Colette used in the family room) is from Robert Allen.
A sitting area within the master bedroom doubles the comfort and elegance. The lilac-and-white bedroom was inspired by Canada’s northern light. The headboard was custom designed by Colette.
Both pretty and utilitarian, the complementary lilac-and-white draperies are backed with blackout lining—“something my husband and I could never live without!” laughs Colette.
Colette found the vintage zinc tub at Christopher Butterworth Antiques in London, its deep lilac hue a perfect focal point nestled between twin sinks. Sconces are from Vaughan.
Soft tones continue into the guest bedroom where a high headboard of Bernard Thorp fabric stands watch over a beautiful floral Gluckstein bedspread.
Colette extended the cedar shake roof “to make it a proper mansard style,” she explains.
Colette van de Thillart stands in front of her comfortably grand Toronto home.