I Want Your Job: Stella Salvador, Condo Showroom Designer
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I Want Your Job: Stella Salvador, Condo Showroom Designer

Designing creative, functional, and appealing spaces for the universal client.

GCiampini SalvadorPortraits 9838

When Stella Salvador was in high school, her grandfather told her, “You know, Stella, people always need somewhere to live.” His words stuck with her, and, after a brief flirtation with architecture, Salvador found herself drawn to interior design—or, as she calls it, “the people space.” Salvador is the head of Tridel’s interior design department, where she oversees a team of four designers and two installers in designing sales-office demonstration suites and the model suites built on site at new condos.

Salvador, who is in her early 40s, worked briefly in the sales office at Tridel before approaching her bosses about putting her new Ryerson design degree to good use. About 10 years ago, she told them that if there was a way of creating a design department at Tridel, she wanted to be a part of that. “And my bosses on the other end came back to me and said, ‘You know, we were thinking the same thing.’” The design department, of which Salvador is now the senior manager, was born.

In the future, Salvador would like to focus more on the environmental sustainability of interior spaces. The suites are, she says, “the people’s space: it’s what they breathe in; it’s what they see.” She’s already on her way: “We did a concept suite downtown called The Eco Suite, and we set the bar really high. I wanted every single piece to have a sustainability story, whether it was made from recycled materials or sourced locally, and it was beautiful.” That suite won the BILD Model Suite of the Year in 2012.

Our conversation—about the evolution of condo design, how to keep your neighbours on your good side, and the power of a coffee-table book—is below.

Torontoist: Tell me a little bit about the process of designing and decorating a showroom. Where do you start, and where do you get your inspiration from?

All developers are different. You always have the demising walls, which is the outside of the suite—you can’t touch that. But within that, you look at the space, and make sure the spaces flow correctly with the constraints that are given. It is a condominium, so you might have fan-cool units, you might have bulkheads. So we look at the space planning, and we look at the furniture planning—funnily enough, it seems like it should come later, but it doesn’t. For us, furniture planning comes much sooner, because it’s how people use the space. I go through the kitchen design, and the kitchen must be absolutely functional because every square inch counts. We use built-in items, just for functionality. Then I’ll select the finishes for the suite, and then finally the furniture. And then you get this show space.

We want to maximize space. Oftentimes, if you can’t go out, you go up. It’s wonderful when they give us these 12-foot ceilings, and they make for a really dramatic space, but then you have to make sure there’s a way you can access that space! [laughs]

Design evolves, and things change. Once upon a time, dark floors were the norm, and now things are getting much lighter. Furniture suppliers and trades like flooring and tile all follow that as well. I subscribe to quite a number of design blogs, and there are so many images out there on the internet to influence you as well. We also have good relationships with our tradespeople, and they bring us new stuff as well. I’m open to things, and I don’t know if that just comes from doing thousands of suites, so you get confident at putting things together. A question I like to ask a lot is “Why not?”

The rooms in sales offices are springboards for people’s imaginations, but they’ll never be lived in. What is it like designing rooms that no one is actually going to live in?

This represents what we’ll be putting into a building. When I’m designing, I don’t have a particular client in mind, except everybody. The universal client. Whatever we do, it needs to have a broad enough appeal that people can walk in and say, “Yeah, my stuff would look great in here.” We keep it design-forward, but we don’t keep it personal. Somebody might love fuchsia floors, but we’re not going to go to that extent. We want to make sure that what we choose is a classic, design-forward backdrop for their stuff. That’s what I’m thinking when I’m choosing the finishes—but when people purchase, people can start to add in the design elements that are uniquely theirs. The last thing I want to have is a finished suite and have someone not buy it because of the finishes. So they’re kept classic, neutral, and practical.

Condo showrooms, with their expensive furniture and their glossy coffee-table books, tend to be quite aspirational. Do you find that this is how people live in the suites, or is this a departure from their day-to-day lives?

As far as aspirational goes, when people are coming into a model suite, they don’t want to see the ordinary. They want to open the door, and they want to be wowed. If people are going to take the time to come see these model suites, I want to make sure that they’re extraordinary. That being said, they’re extraordinary because of the finishes or the accessories, but it also allows people to see things in a new light. Maybe they’ll see a floor plan and think, “Oh, what is this little niche?” And we’ll highlight it, we’ll mirror the wall, we’ll add built-in millwork, and all of a sudden, people want the space because of that niche. You get to see things in a new light. We do shop locally when we shop, so if somebody wanted that coffee table or that coffee-table book, it is accessible to them. And how many people love couture fashion but don’t necessarily wear it? They’re inspired by it, and they take from it and make it theirs.

Designing for a condo seems different from designing for a freestanding house. What should DIY designers keep in mind as they move into their suites?

Your neighbours are close, and they’re all around you. This can be a great thing, because it can build community. But if you wanted work to be done, maybe do it before you move in. If it’s a new condo, you can have things done through the developer. We just take care of things turnkey. Our trades will go in before occupancy, and they can measure up and install, and it can all be done for you. We know there are certain tradespeople who work better in high-rises, and not everyone understands what needs to be done, or the quiet factor, or that elevators need to be booked, or that things need to fit in an elevator in order to get them up. If you can get things done ahead of time, it’s all taken care of for you.

Toronto has a leading condo market, and it’s been going on for so long and shows no signs of stopping. We’re getting used to smaller spaces, everything being built-in, our homes not having stairs in them. What does this growth mean, from a design perspective?

It’s become pretty clear that a condominium home is a lifestyle choice. No one’s waiting for the shoe to drop on the family home, and this is another lifestyle choice—and it’s one that a lot of people who come to Canada are already very comfortable and familiar with. We’re getting used to small spaces, because inevitably, space is at a premium. What I find with condos is that they give you the option to live in some of the greatest parts of the city.

It’s also good for people with varying economic backgrounds. Do you need something just to get you into the housing market? Something entry level? There’s something there for you. If your kids have left and you’re more of an empty-nester, there’s something there for you as well. I don’t know what it is, but I find a lot more creativity in the design. So if you want to find where the latest finishes are in the newest homes, I would look at condos. Single-family homes tend to be a little more traditional and even maybe a step behind. Maybe it’s because it’s smaller, and it makes you feel like you have more freedom: if you’re going to change the floor, it’s 700 square feet. It’s not two levels; you don’t have to worry about your stairs. People get a little more experimental.

What’s your favourite part of this job?

I have to say, it’s a process getting to a finished suite or space, and there are lot of people involved, and sometimes, we butt heads. But it’s always for the betterment and best of the suite. When it’s finished, it’s like all the pain is forgotten. I’ve created this place of beauty. It’s why I wanted to get into interior design in the first place, to create that on the people scale.