What she does best

By Francie Healy

The nicest thing about Penny Southam’s clients is that they get it.
They go into a relationship with her knowing and expecting their project will be detailed, functional, beautiful and, especially, unique.

Penny Southam, ARIDO, IDC (Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario; Interior Designers of Canada) is the Principal of Southam Design, Inc., Ottawa, as well as the founder and partner of Studio S Interiors.

Her style is contemporary, with fresh, clean lines — not “cold contemporary”, she explains, but more “transitional – a fusion of modern lines with classic elements.” She loves light, unusual detail and the use of glass.

“Getting it” for Southam clients means they are prepared to choose years of experience, talent, and extraordinary, creative design. They understand the importance of establishing the most detailed set of drawings and design package they possibly can.

“Once our clients are on the same page in regard to detail at the front end,” Penny says, “they see the value of the role we play in creating the most unique space possible for them.” She adds they also know detailed design protects them financially and emotionally throughout construction.
Her ideal clients are open to allowing her to do what Southam Design does best: creating spaces that function properly, are aesthetically stunning, and within their budget.

She asks clients, as a first step, to come up with a wish list and to think hard about their maximum budget.
“Everyone has a ceiling,” she says, “and I need to know what that ceiling is.” During her initial walkthrough of their house, she assesses their needs, requirements and style. She studies the structure of the home. She sees the solution. And she knows if their budget is realistic. If it’s not, she tells them right away; then it’s their decision.
Once that’s established, designer and client become a close team where every single detail is worked out long before the project goes into construction.

Absolute organization is one of the keys to the success of the renovation. That means all construction, lighting and plumbing details have been noted as well as all finishes and specifications. “Everything from A to Z,” says Penny, “is specified.”

Such detailed design work costs more at the front end of the project — or it seems that way. But it means that few decisions, if any, need to be made during the construction process, and this is where a good deal of money is saved.

“It’s much easier, for example, to change the design of a dining room on paper than it is in real life,” Penny says. “If the dining room turns out to be two feet too small, and the foundation is poured, then what are you going to do? The more organized you are in the front end, the more smoothly the renovation is going to go on the construction side.”

She adds this kind of attention to detail in design will insure construction is faster, stress-free, and fun. She estimates that, depending on the scope of the project, a well-thought-out $20,000 design can save “about $50,000, if not more” at construction.

Like many people, she hears the horror stories of people who skimped on design.
“They say they thought it was going to be $150,000 and the price kept going up; there were problems and more problems, and they had to stop because they ran out of money.”

How do you avoid such nightmares?

In a phrase, it’s “really tight, well-executed and detailed drawings,” Penny says.
A great admirer of the French designer Philippe Starck, Penny gets her ideas and inspiration from what she sees with her own eyes.
“Whenever I go on my travels,” she says, “when I’m in great public spaces, I’m always looking at the space around me. Every detail is like a photograph that I hold in my mind.” She has been like that all her life.

She recalls such a moment during her design school days. She was with friends in New York City in the lounge of the Paramount Hotel.
“I was in heaven,” she recalls. “The beauty of the architecture and detail took my breath away. And that’s when I knew I was in the right profession.”

Inspiration is probably a constant behind her lively imagination when it comes to creating a new design. She has the sharp ability to see, in her mind’s eye, a plan, an idea, almost instantly once she understands what clients want to achieve.
“It’s when I begin to play with the space that the push and pull begins,” she says. “I turn on my music and my hand begins to dance! It’s my favorite phase of design. Sometimes the direction is obvious and at other times it’s a puzzle that needs to be solved.”

Southam Design projects, both residential and commercial, are as different in scope as they are unique. At any one time it’s one of several retirement homes. Or it’s a custom home. An office. A hair salon. A dental clinic. A multi-million dollar condo – such as the one she just finished. The floorplan was closed, and the clients wanted an open one. Among other solutions, she replaced partitions between rooms with the technologically-advanced Smart Glass, which she loves, and made it especially stunning with colour kinetic lighting. This was one of several such Southam-designed condos.

Penny explains the manipulation of ceiling heights is critical in condo design in order to achieve the illusion of height or to maximize height. Close co-ordination with the mechanical engineers allows her to re-locate ducts, manipulate their sizes, and therefore allow for creative ceiling design.
“It’s just one of the many details to be thought of in the process of taking an everyday space and transforming it into a work of art,” she says.

Life for Penny Southam is busy, challenging, demanding, and exciting. But she has another life, too, as a mother of Kayleigh, 14 ½, and Morgan, 11. She considers her time with them sacred. She almost never works on weekends or evenings. And she keeps herself in good shape. Swimming is her favourite way to relax.

However, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s another area where she doesn’t do things by half measures. Always a high-achiever (one-time winner of “Forty Under Forty” and the recipient of more than 30 design awards), she even has an intense form of relaxation.

She loves to take several big breaths and then swim 50 metres underwater, all the way from the deep end to the shallow end without stopping.
“I’m practically killing myself by the time I get to the end, but I don’t stop,” she laughs. “It’s so calming.”

Penny was once a teen model for Ford Models in New York City. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, of attending Concordia U in Biology and Neuropsychology. Another goal was acting and attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC.

But there was a turning point when she fell in love with design − and never looked back. Her passion for design and confidence in her own ability propelled her to amazing accomplishments.
“I have always known that whatever I put my mind to I would succeed at,” she says. “I’d make it happen.”

Clearly, she did. And does.