That connection to home

(Published in Rising Tide magazine, Fall 2011) 

One of Canada’s top interior designers got her start rearranging furniture in her parents’ house in Ashby.

Debbie Evans of Whistler Interior Design Ltd. in British Columbia has been creating custom-designed houses for international clients for over 20 years. She has won numerous provincial and national awards from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, was one of two designers to work on the Vancouver 2010 Olympics athletes’ village, and will be featured in a second coffee table book of the country’s top designers this fall.

“When I was growing up, I used to re-arrange the whole house,” Evans said. “So in high school, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, my mother said, ‘You should be a decorator.’”

She graduated from Sydney Academy in 1986, and with that encouragement from her mother Ann, found a program at Algonquin College in Ottawa.

But she quickly realized there was more to interior design than decorating.

“I found this whole other life of architecture and construction that wasn’t decorating at all, and I loved it,” Evans said.

Her father, Paul, a commercial electrician, took a natural interest in her work.

“I’d come home and need school supplies and he’d take me to Canadian Tire for tape measures and glue sticks. It’s like I became the son he never had,” said Evans, who has two sisters.

She completed the Advanced Interior Design program in 1991, when there were few women on construction sites.

“I was involved in some of the more technical aspects of project management and having a young woman come in and start telling people what to do, some people didn’t like that. They wouldn’t take me seriously,” she said.

Undeterred, Evans founded Whistler Interior Design Ltd. in 1996, and a second business, Northface Kitchens & Bath, in 2006. She has earned Registered Interior Designer (RID) and Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Design (CMKBD) professional designations.

Evans said she has many international clients simply because they came to her. Globetrotting financial executives with homes around the world fly in to drop the family off in Whistler for skiing while they continue on to New York or London for business.

“They’re always flying into Whistler,” she said. “I have a client who’s a baron in Scotland and he has five or six homes. His other designer works for Mick Jagger.”

Having such a client base creates some unique opportunities. She once completed a custom-designed home in the Cayman Islands without ever leaving her Whistler, B.C. office. The $2-million project took three months to complete and was coordinated entirely online, with everything in the house shipped to the Caribbean through Miami.

“We’ve set up ways to work through the Internet,” Evans said. “Clients are able to log in to view and approve all their specs online.”

Being at the forefront of online technology has created flexibility in both projects and staffing.

“I have two people in PEI who have been working for me for six years, and we’re about to hire someone from the Philippines,” she said. “Everything is online. We all log in and work through the Internet.”

Evans recently received Built Green certification from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. In addition to lower energy consumption, Evans said building green also means creating ways to reuse materials. Perfectly good televisions, furniture and other items clients sometimes dispose of during renovations are donated to women’s shelters and schools.

The athletes’ village at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics was designed with minimal waste in mind, so the buildings could be renovated quickly and sold locally as townhouses.

This fall, Evans will participate in her fourth trade mission to Italy, where she meets artisans, tours manufacturing facilities and returns with new product options she can offer her clients.

Like many who have left Cape Breton, Evans said she thinks about returning. She is considering land in Dundee and could enjoy extended visits back home by working online.

“They say our biggest export is brains, but people who move away have a connection that draws them back, and you don’t get that everywhere. There’s something really special about it. We just grow up well and happy and with that connection to home.”

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