Born and raised in Vancouver, Gillian Segal likes to think she’s cherry-picked the best parts of the city’s aesthetic and incorporated them into what she calls her “modern-eclectic” style. Her boutique firm specializes in custom residential interior design. But she’s also branching out into product development and turn-key furniture packages, and she’s written about interior design for Martha Stewart and Gray Malin. Here’s how she balances it all.

Written by Juno DeMelo

Photography by Janis Nicolay and Tracey Ayton Photography, @gilliansegaldesign

What sparked your interest in interior design?

My parents built our family home when I was about 6 years old. I remember walking through the construction site and finding it really interesting. The builder became a close family friend and would bring his clients through our house to show them his work. They liked what my mom had done with it, so she started consulting for him on a very part-time basis. She always had a great eye for design.

In high school, I told my parents I wanted to be an interior designer. They wanted me to go to law school. So I went to university and was actually thinking about law, but the courses I liked were all art-based. After a few years I dropped out and went to design school while simultaneously finishing my degree. 

I did a two-year technical program that was known for being detailed and very focused on hard skills so you could go out into the workforce and find a job. I feel like with design there are some things you can teach—which is what I wanted in my education—and some that come naturally.

What was your first job out of school?

I worked for a firm for about a year that did a lot of high-end residential and commercial projects, then I left to work for a third-generation interior designer. She inherited the business from her dad, who inherited it from his great aunt, so they have this client list of families they’ve been working with for generations. It was just her and I for a long time, so I did anything and everything.

How did you strike out on your own?

When she hired me, I was already doing a little freelancing and blogging about my work. That kind of organically grew until I dropped from full-time to four days a week, then three, then two. I eventually told her, “I don’t think I can work for you anymore.” And she said, “I had a feeling this would happen, so I already thought of a solution. Why don’t you rent half my office space from me?” I did that for a couple of years, until we both grew and I had to find my own space. It gave me a really amazing opportunity to start my business in a supportive way because I already had momentum. I feel very lucky.

What was your first big project?

There were two sisters who each had her own condo across from the other one in the same building. I did both of their places—they had different styles—and then eventually I started working for all their friends, basically. I started with smaller residential projects and grew that into new construction and big renovations and larger furnishing projects and commercial work, and now we do a mix of all of those things. I really like the variety of scope and styles.

Some designers say they have a very strong vision, and others are more of a conduit for their clients. Where do you fall?

I think I fall in the middle. I do believe it’s a client-led process, and I like the collaboration and getting to take their style and put my spin on it so it’s the best version of it we can make. But people come to me because they think my style is distinct. A lot of my work comes through referrals and word of mouth, but the second major avenue is through Instagram, both locally and internationally. People hire me based on the aesthetic.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

I describe it as modern eclectic, and to me that means design that’s influenced by different genres and periods. I use a mix of things to create spaces that feel layered and not necessarily of one genre. I’m not a Scandinavian minimalist or traditional glamour person.

How has living in Vancouver influenced you?

The style here is fairly contemporary, with lots of natural materials and clean lines. What inspires me about Vancouver is the laid-back approach. A more formal living room should still be a comfortable space. Even our highest-end clients don’t typically have spaces where the kids aren’t allowed, and they don’t want to tell their guests to throw a coaster down. The majority want spaces that can be fully lived in, so that’s something I really take into all my work. In terms of aesthetics, I’m more inspired by international influences and have tried to veer away from West Coast modern, though there are components of that in my work.  

How do you help clients choose materials?

Our biggest determining factor is generally budget, because that immediately tells us what we can be doing. Natural materials are my favorite. I always prefer natural marble or stone to porcelain or something else manufactured. But a big part of our process is educating our clients about the pros and cons of materials. People don’t want their marble to stain, so sometimes we end up using manufactured products.

In fact, one of my favorite Ann Sacks tiles is a ceramic that has an organic, handmade quality. And in my own home, I used a bunch of Ann Sacks terrazzo and cement tiles. I think I’m just drawn to things that have a layered or textural feel, a degree of warmth.

A lot of clients say they like work that feels modern but still very warm. It’s important to me that materials have depth. Especially in Vancouver; it’s not like New York or San Francisco, where the buildings have innate character because they’re 100 years old. Our older buildings are from the 1960s or 1970s, so creating that character through new materials takes a little bit of thought.

Do you worry about your work being too trendy?

Of course we’re influenced by trends, as is everyone, but our thought process is less “now and next” and focused more on quality materials that stand the test of time. We want the architectural components that are major investments to look great for a long time. If something is thoughtful and interesting and unique, it will still be all those things in 15 years. With that said, I always tell my clients we will push them a little bit. It’s their home and we want it to feel like them, but we also think that great design happens when you try to do something different. We can get really trendy with a cool side chair or lighting that can be switched out.

What does your future look like?

Residential is my No. 1 love, so I want to continue to do that and take on projects that involve us in the full scope from start to finish. We’re starting to work a lot more in the U.S., and the other goal is getting into product development. We have a wallpaper line, and we’re working with a manufacturer that does wholesale for West Elm. They just picked up a dining table I designed. We do so much custom work for clients, it’s fun to make our work accessible to everyone. I like collaborating with other businesses to explore design.

I’ve also started a business called Saint Lunette. My partner in it was running a luxury concierge service and helping people find furnished rentals, and she was shocked by these $7 million apartments furnished in Ikea, or $10,000-a-month rentals furnished with garage sale stuff. I So we’re working with developers to create furniture and decorating packages that purchasers of new-construction condo towers can opt into. When your unit is ready, your place is fully turnkey, and the package is amortized over the span of your mortgage. I’ll always have my business for people who want something custom, but not everyone has the time, patience, attention span, or financial resources. There are even add-on packages for art and bedding. We’re really trying to disrupt the design market.