In Conversation With Julia Dilworth



Vancouver-based design writer Julia Dilworth started her career as a journalist in daily news at 24 Hours and Metro before becoming an in-house editor at Western Living and Vancouver Magazine. She's currently a regular contributor to BCLiving, Spruce Magazine, and YAM

Julia's new book, West Coast North: Interiors Designed for Living, is out today. With twenty-nine firms profiled throughout, Dilworth's offering is a guide to some of the finest designers in British Columbia.

It's a well-crafted and inspirational book about West Coast living that gives readers the opportunity to delve into the thought patterns of visionaries at award-winning organizations like Leckie Studio Architecture + Design, Falken Reynolds and more, as Dilworth poses questions to each about their motivations and how they work.

Julia and I connected ahead and publication day to talk about the pandemic, her perspective on the future of housing, and what makes this sliver of paradise we call home so unique.

Julia Dilworth by Aly Sibley Photography

Your new book, West Coast North, talks of sustainability in the sense of building a "forever home," meaning homeowners are putting down everlasting roots and working with designers on longer lasting outcomes with key features to support an entire life cycle. 

Essentially, they're looking towards the future. We live in Vancouver, where character homes are still being demolished in favour of mega mansions. What's your take on this?

After covering design locally for years, I am always sad to see a heritage home go, but they go for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it feels a bit wasteful, like the new homeowner just has different tastes and wipes that house out and starts fresh, even if there was something worth salvaging. From speaking with designers and architects, most of these homes are built with wood, and we live on the West Coast which means wood rots and molds and especially back then, things weren’t made as well as they are now. So a lot of times it’s not possible or worth it to save the structure.

When it comes to the size of the home put in place of the old one, it’s hard to blame anyone for maximizing square footage in this economy, and we’re also in the midst of a never-ending housing crisis, so the more rooms built on a single property, the better, in my opinion.

The multigenerational home isn’t something new, and I really liked seeing a different iteration of that and how it’s evolving, like with the Full House project in West Coast North, from Leckie Studio and Gaile Guevara Studio. It’s one multi-gen five-bedroom house that can be also segmented into individual units, based on what the homeowner’s need, from suites for their aging parents to when their kids grow up and want their own place. The empty megamansion draws a lot of ire in this city, again, housing crisis, so maybe there’s hope for those buildings yet—I’ve heard of them being rented out (as rules change) to multiple tenants almost like a big communal apartment, and maybe these places could be turned into a new wave of condo housing that has a more communal feel with its shared gardens and water features? I think in other cities these places eventually become museums and gardens to visit. I guess we’ll see… 

Leckie Studio Architecture + Design (Photo: Conrad Brown)

One project in particular; the Penthouse by Leckie Studio, in the Bjarke Ingels–designed Vancouver House, spoke volumes to the indoor/outdoor design that sets West Coast living apart from other places. What drew you to this firm and project?

That project looks like it’s a house, in part because of the multi-storey glass stairway and lightwell with what looks like an entire grown cedar tree, so it’s pretty amazing that it’s actually a penthouse apartment… And the stair is covered in this exploding stream of copper-wire Bocci lights, it’s really spectacular. I would say it’s one of the most arresting images of the book, that’s why I picked it for the cover. And it really speaks to a moody West Coast aesthetic that is rich and still natural, but a bit edgy (this is one version of a West Coast aesthetic, but not representing it all, just fyi). The whole apartment is dark walnut and black marble—even the bathroom is something out of a high-end minimalist spa, very cool. 

Leckie Studio Architecture + Design (Photo: Conrad Brown)

As an industry veteran, and after profiling so many firms and homes, what other factors make life on the West Coast unique?

I think Casual is our defining word here on the West Coast. Our restaurants skew more casual, with our daily attire, we’re well-known for our West Coast Casual, and it manifests in our design as well. I don’t want to paint everyone in the city with the same brush, but it’s a big lifestyle city, where people love to get outdoors, go running with the dog, hit the mountains, go hiking and that comes out in the design. These aren’t ostentatious fussy homes, we’re not all about that presentation when it comes to the home: these are homes for living in, for kids, pets and for feeling comfortable, we’re big on the refuge factor. Which I think is for the best, it’s a lot of expense to design or even furnish a home and then for it not to feel like you can relax, or spill something—no, thank you! Homes designed well have a connection to the homeowners themselves and that’s something you can see and feel.

When I was at Western Living running the shopping section, we had a running joke about the headline Into the Wood, or Into the Woods, because it really worked to describe so much of what products and design we were featuring. On the West Coast we love wood! Natural materials in general, which bring in warmth, and bring the outdoors in, this is constant. We’re either framing the outdoors views and making them part of our interior environment or trying to bring them in through the materials. There’s such a respect for this gorgeous natural environment we have and I think that really comes through in the designs you see in this book and all over the West Coast. 

Another thread to mention is also that our design language here is really evolving, I love that it’s all different styles and colour palettes and time periods, instead of just one aesthetic. We’re a global city with a ton of influences and we don’t have one look or on set style. 

Measured Architecture (Photo: Ema Peter)

Through reading West Coast North, I came to see a consistent theme of materials used throughout homes, whether sourced locally from designer Omer Arbel's Bocci, or the use of natural and treated oaks. Did you notice consistent buying patterns? I'm curious if firms are supporting Canadians, or outsourcing to international designers?

Bocci is really popular, you’ll often see at least one piece in a lot of high-end homes. It’s great that it’s locally designed and part of our rich maker story on the West Coast, and there are lots of others like Barter or Martha Sturdy, or Brent Comber, Matthew McCormick, Jeff Martin—we’re spoiled! From ceramists to lighting to woodworkers, and that’s a great opportunity to shop local, try to narrow that footprint, but it’s not always possible.

We have to import a lot of things in Canada and it’s expensive to do so. When it comes to wood flooring there are some great Canadian companies as well, and I think it’s positive that designers are advising clients on how to pick/source more sustainably for their projects.

We also have such a global design appetite here, so bringing in designs or products from Europe or Asia is really common as well. A lot of original designs (I’m eying the Muuto oak stool in my apartment when I say this) need to be imported from overseas and purchased at local shops like Vancouver Special or Inform Interiors. Of course ‘need’ is maybe not the right word, I could have shopped local and bought a stool from someone here, but you do have a more limited set of options to what’s available, and design is all about the details. 

Falken Reynolds (Photo: Ema Peter)

My partner and I, and many of our friends were constantly rearranging our homes through the pandemic. Whether it was rehanging an art piece in a different room or at times stripping down to the bare essentials and taking the time to account for what we owned.

As two people now working from home in a one-bedroom with two pets; our apartment has become our living space, office, and a place to entertain all at once. How did your own mindset shift and how did that play out in your home?

You are not alone! I feel like this was a lot of people’s shared story over the pandemic, and I was exactly the same. My guest room became my full-time office and it was such a sad place, I really hated doing work in there and that hurt my productivity and mood! I speak about it in the intro of the book, but what designers told me over and over, and this becomes really clear when you live it (like during a pandemic) but your interiors have a huge effect on your happiness and mental health. So if things aren’t functioning, if your walls are drab and sad and the space is cluttered, it’s going to bring you down a little bit day after day.

So for me, it got to the point when I had to build myself a new desk, invest in and design wall organizers and shelving, I put up art and illustrations and photos, everything I could do to make my office bring a smile to my face when I walked in, and that’s how I was able to get into a groove with the book! I couldn’t have gotten through it without fixing my space first, it was a huge block for me. That’s typical with writing though, it’s hard to let the mind quiet and get to writing when you have cleaning or clutter to take care (at least for me, anyway!). I’m a big procrastinator, I’ll clean the whole house before I can finally sit down to write so that could be a me thing! 

West Coast North is out today and is available for purchase from Indigo or Figure 1 Publishing