5 Questions With… Fenwick Bonnell of Powell & Bonnell
Over the last 25 years, Toronto-based designers David Powell and Fenwick Bonnell, the founding principals of
Powell & Bonnell
, have earned a reputation for getting into the minds of their clients. The team eschews trends and flash and instead designs residences that are uniquely tailored to specific personalities and spaces. “We have many repeat clients because of our individual style and the discrete way we ‘manage’ clients’ personal lives,” says Fenwick Bonnell. “We have literally turned people’s lives around.”
Authentic and enduring but far from staid, their work, like their creative partnership, is built to stand the test of time.
spoke with Fenwick Bonnell about the pair’s lasting creative partnership (they still share an office) and how Powell & Bonnell has evolved from a scrappy duo to a 15-person firm.
Interior Design: What originally drew you both to interiors? And what attracted you to working with residential clients in particular?
Fenwick Bonnell (standing in photo): David had a serious need to stop milking cows at 6 a.m. and I was simply trying to find an education in an artistic field that would eventually allow me not to starve to death (as an architect friend of my family suggested). Though I was trained in design through Ryerson University (then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute), David’s talents were “God given,” so to speak—a combination of being in the right place at the right time and a natural understanding of line and color.
David and I have been friends since the ’70s when I was still in design school. At a particular junction in our individual careers, we were both working as architectural illustrators for large international interior design and architectural firms. We had become quite disenchanted with the quality of work we were being asked to illustrate, and one day I happened to say to David, “I’d think I would rather be designing for real clients than illustrating the ideas of other designers.”
Residential clients have personality and you have direct contact with the decision makers. Designing for a committee is a less direct relationship and often the concept gets watered down to suit the collective idea. This wasn’t fulfilling to David or myself.
ID: An individual’s living space is by definition very personal. In order to do your job well, you must have learned quite a bit over the years about human psychology, right?
FB: Particularly in the interview process, it is important to get a sense of the client. Sometimes it’s simply to push them to see if they have a sense of humor, because no sense of humor means “no fun.” Not that we’re frivolous about what we do. We understand that it is a substantial investment for the client when they engage us in a project. But we are most creative when we are relaxed and having fun. Naturally, this is good for the client as well.
We might ask a client how many shoes they have in their collection and who has more—him or her. What would they think if we wanted to paint their bedroom entirely black? Or, when they travel, do they pack light or need a Sherpa to get them to the airport? We might also surreptitiously go to the window after they have departed to see what type of car they’re driving. That can give you some real insight too.
We would never suggest we can cure clients of their particular neuroses, but I do feel the somewhat probing—sometimes out of left field—questions we ask our clients can set us in a very defined and targeted direction toward a solution.
ID: How has your design philosophy evolved over the last 25 years?
FB: I don’t think our design philosophy has changed since we started the company. Straight forward, solution-driven design has always been our motto. That said, as the company has grown, there have been influences, whether from a purely business perspective or ideas from others who have joined the firm. Clients have also been a tremendous influence, both in the size and complexity of the projects and the level of sophistication needed to address their desires.
Money, I am pleased to say, has never been a deciding factor. We have turned down very large and lucrative commissions because we felt the justifications for the job weren’t completely realized by the client, and we worried the job might be in jeopardy creatively before it was even started. Design suicide is never fulfilling, no matter how much money you might rake in before the last gasp.
ID: How has your company—and the industry as a whole—changed since you started?
FB: When we started it was just David and myself. The first several years were really about getting noticed and developing a reputation. I now understand that what we were doing was building a “brand.” Our firm really didn’t start to grow until the late ’90s, with our first employees, some who are still with us today. At the moment we have 13 full-time staff members, not including David and myself.
In the late ’90s, we also began developing our furnishings line. As we started to take on more projects, we found that nothing was in stock because of the recession. The best way around that was to design it and have it built for our clients instead. And we have been fortunate to collaborate with wonderful local artisans who all bring something new to the table—whether it’s their unique skill, their ability to interpret the nuances of our designs, or an expertise and knowhow we wouldn’t have considered in the design. The line has since grown into a considerable entity unto itself.
Residential design has also come into its own in Canada since we started our company. We’ve always been behind the U.S. in terms of diversity of design, client base, and sophistication of the domestic market, but that has changed. Whether it has been the globalization of the market, design as entertainment, or the broadening reach of our brand, it is difficult to say, but there seems to be an energy and excitement about residential interior design.
ID: You seem to work very closely without much conflict. How have you maintained such a successful creative partnership for so long?
FB: Over the years, and with perhaps a scotch or two too many, we’ve learned about our unique abilities and weaknesses and, through true teamwork, discovered how to capitalize on our collective strengths. I have a natural curiosity for technical details with regard to materials and generally how things go together or work. This helps in the development of new products and the resourcing of new artisans and subcontractors. David is a reference library of historical detail on two legs. When it comes to proportion or traditional detail, the knowledge is always at his fingertips to share freely with staff, clients, or trades. He’s also the only designer I’ve seen perfectly execute a perspective drawing upside down while in front of a client.
We have always shared an office, so there are no secrets in our partnership. I believe the almost enforced accountability and honesty of our partnership has helped us to find others of a similar mindset who we can collaborate with, which has only helped to build our business.