Suburban sanctuary: At home with Susan FirestonePublished on August 19, 2008

  • The living room is one of Susan's favourite indoor spaces and it's a place where she's had fun mixing different styles together. The painting, fabrics, lamp and candles from the Museum of Modern Art on the coffee table give a contemporary feel, but the classic lines in the furniture and accessories establish a traditional atmosphere. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Susan, seen here relaxing by the pool, gives advice about adding value to your home. "If youíre going to invest in pieces for your home, find the things that have very pure, clean, Italian lines because they tend to have longevity or the traditional lines that also add the most luxury and have the longest life in your space," she says. "Dollar for dollar, I think you get the most bang for your buck if you go that way." Photo by Darren Brown

  • The family room, which overlooks the pool and patio, was created with the new addition and has become the perfect place to gather for game night. Photo by Darren Brown

Susan Firestone's aesthetic is hard to pin down: It's classically traditional yet surprisingly modern. The interior designer loves classic lines, tonal colours, modern artwork, family heirlooms and pieces from her European travels. Yet somehow, everything comes together in an effortless look that showcases well-thought-out design and still is a comfortable home for a busy family on the go. As a successful designer, Susan is known for her work at Ottawa hot spots Stella Osteria, Blue Cactus and Luxe Bistro, along with many high-end residential projects. She has called the two-storey house in Ottawa's west end home for the past 20 years along with her husband, Sam, and their three kids, Lindsay, Jessica and Daniel. As the years have gone by, the house has grown with the family and now very little of the original builder's model is left. Susan has transformed the space to include a master suite, finished basement, 600-foot addition and hotel-style pool with a posh outdoor kitchen. She recently took Ottawa At Home on a tour of her 3,000-square-foot home and described the changes they've made, along with advice about how to customize your own place. How has your home changed over time?

Over the years we've made many changes. Pretty much anything that was original to the builder has gone by the wayside - all in stages over time as my family has changed. When my kids were very young, my needs were very different and as they grew up into young adults that changed. Now they travel as a pack and bring over a million kids so you need lots of seating and areas where lots of people can congregate.

Why did you make changes and stay in suburbia instead of purchasing an estate home?

We were a young couple just starting out and we didn't want to go too far east or too far west or too far south and this was a brand new subdivision. Over the years we always thought we'd eventually move and in the back of our minds, it was our first house and we would always move to something bigger. But then our careers got very, very busy and we just never got around to it, so by the time we started to seriously thinking about moving about five years ago, we looked a couple of houses and I started doing the math and realizing what it would cost to embellish those houses. Unless you're really building from scratch you have to add all the charming details because a lot of houses don't have them right from the start.

What was the rationale behind your decision to upgrade?

So then we looked carefully at this house and thought about what we would get in these other homes that we don't have here. The big things were a really nice backyard because we had the basic suburban post-stamp backyard and we had a god awful master bedroom and closet. Plus we didn't have a big enough kitchen, so we did the math to see how much it would cost to add all of those things. When we calculated my wish list and everything I'd ever wanted to do in the house - including all the casings, all the trim, all the windows, all the pot lights, draperies on every window - w came up with that figure and my husband said, "Sold" because we'd still end up so much farther ahead then we would have if we'd started over and moved. So that's what we did because it made more sense. And the reality is that there's an age spread between my husband and I, plus we have a place here, a place at Tremblant, a condo in Toronto and now we're thinking ahead about getting something in Florida so I don't need a giant house. Two of the kids are already at university. Not that this is a small house, but it's small compared to some other houses and I see a lot of 5,000-7,000 square foot homes as a designer, but it's not for everybody and I don't think it's for me. I like the intimacy of small spaces done well.

Where did the major changes start?

Just like everyone else, my kitchen has always been the hub, but in the original house design it was really tiny. We decided we needed to do an addition to really expand it. At first we thought we'd expand into the backyard, but there was a far amount of yard at the side of our house and it never got any sunlight and we couldn't really plant anything that would sustain itself there. So we ended up deciding to run the addition at the side of house and keep the backyard the same size. Plus I had a decision to make - did I want to keep the kitchen all at one level? First we renovated the kitchen first and then put the addition on afterwards. The kitchen remodel was very expensive and quite the investment, so my husband didn't want to replace the cabinets. And what I try to do over the years, as I have done things to the house I don't want to undo them. I don't want to go back and undo what I've already spent good money on.

Tell me about the addition.

We kept the kitchen the same and opened up the two floors on the side and back of the house and added an expansion beyond that with a family room and dining area. At one point we were going to have the eating area on the same level and not down a level as it is, but my husband made a point that there are a lot of small rooms in this house, it's not a big grandiose house, so if we're going to add 600 square feet then we should make it all one space where everyone can gather on one level. That ended up being a really smart decision for us and I really like how this house works. If it's game night, a lot of people will gather to watch the huge TV and hang out on the couches and stairs. It's a great space.

What's your favourite room?

They're all my favourites, but in the summer it's definitely the backyard because it's a great outdoor living space. The backyard was done in two stages. Two years ago we put in the pool and then the year afterwards we did the outdoor kitchen, with its large barbecue, built-in frig and lots of seating, plus the heated cabana where my husband and I go to dry off after an early morning swim. The roof of the cabana retracts so it's a spot we use quite a bit because it's the last spot to get the sun in the late afternoon. When we entertain and have dinner parties, the deck cantilevers over the pool so that's a very nice feature. It's very dramatic at night with the lighting.

What changes did you make to the upstairs?

It was a big decision because basically I took a four-bedroom house and made a three-bedroom to accomplish my goals. One of my pet peeves was the teeny 18 x 18 linen closet that came with the house and you couldn't put much in there for a family this size. We ended up taking the space that was the master bathroom and closets became all master bathroom and my son's bedroom, which was the smallest of the three, we took over and built a walk-in closet. My eldest daughter's room to the bottom level and we built a very nice bathroom and bedroom for her in the basement and finished off that whole floor. Now we have a gym down there and a full laundry room.

Your master bathroom looks like a dream come true.

Yes, it really is a great space. I used to have one of those moulded plastic triangle-shaped showers where you have to stand like a stork to shave your legs. We only had three drawers and my husband's hair brush would end up with my toothbrush and if you opened the medicine cabinet everything would fall out. We outgrew the space and the new bathroom is all a splurge. After being a designer for 20 years, I've seen the remarkable changes that people have done to their homes to create hotel-like bathrooms and I wanted the same thing. Along with adding a sunken tub, shower stall, two sinks and vanity area, I designed my own cabinets for the room and we used a brown and white marble throughout the space.

What's your colour scheme throughout the house?

I always like to use the colours that occur in nature because they have the most longevity and they're comfortable to live with and easy on the eye. I'm not a stickler for matching. I like things with the same sort of tonal value so I like it when your eye can travel comfortably from piece to piece and not have any jumps in between.

How has your personal style changed over years?

I had started off a little more contemporary and I've become more tradition as time has gone by. I guess it's just like with wedding gifts - someone will give you a crystal vase when you're twentysomething and you think, "Oh my God, what am I going to do with this?", but by the time you're fortysomething, it's your prize possession. Plus I love to mix the styles. In the living room I have Wolford candles from the Museum of Modern Art on the coffee table and they're very contemporary, but at the same time the piece against the wall is a crystal footed bowl from my mother-in-law, which is from an era gone by, but somehow it all works together really well. And it's fun to mix it all together. As I walk around my house nowadays, I think that it's looking a little more traditional, but then so am I.

Susan's tips for changing to your basic builder's home to create a custom look:

1. The biggest thing to do is change all the casings and the trim because it will go a long way. If you go into the older homes in Ottawa people always say they love the big trim work and casings, so it's an easy way to create value and interest. 2. A lot of people live with existing lighting in a house and it's important to change it up and have a mixture of pot lights, lamps and wall sconces. 3. It's important to have your lights on a dimmer because then you can control it and control the atmosphere in the house. It's good to buy the dimmers with the preset choices, so it's easy to use every day.

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