Ami McKay, the president and principal designer of Pure Design, has had a furniture line, a bedding line, and a TV show. And that’s just the beginning. We talked to the self-described nomad and top Canadian designer about what makes a space “healthy,” her version of heaven, and how she found her forever home.
It feels like you’ve lived a lot of lives. Could you tell me about some of them?
I’ve been a scene painter, a florist, a costume designer, a production designer, an interior design assistant and a waitress. I had a weird stint where I lived in a fire tower by myself for three years. I wanted to go into the healing arts or the visual arts, and a wise woman told me, “Why don’t you make art that heals?” So I started taking classes in England on creating healthy homes, which wasn’t really a thing here in North America. It blended all those elements of my life. The teacher referred me to her niece, who hired me to do her whole apartment when I was 24.
I read every book in the library on interior design, and then I thought, I’m quite theatrical. So I went to school for theater, and that’s when I started doing costume and set design. But I was more of an entrepreneur because I kept saying to the professors, if I got a job working on music videos and films, can I get credit for that? If I do production design for this film, can I get credit for that? I was trying to make a living and go to school.
Can you pinpoint exactly when you knew you wanted to be an interior designer?
Yes, when I was 17, all the graduated students were interviewed for their life goals. My aunt sent me the clipping a couple of years ago. It said, “I want to run a successful interior design studio, and more importantly, I want to be happy.” I still can’t believe how on-point young Ami was. For years I picked up every bit of design experience I could get. I was heavily into the theatre world working insanely long hours when, at 26, I ended up getting pregnant. It was a complete surprise, and I was so ill that I couldn’t go to school anymore. One of my girlfriends in costume design had a friend who was looking for a designer to do their house in Whistler. So four weeks after my son was born, I put him in a sling and created a healthy home. It ended up taking two and a half years, and I managed the project as well as the design. I brought in stains from Germany that were completely nontoxic, which was very hard to get at the time. It was so exciting and satisfying, I realized I was onto something. That’s when I went, that’s it.
How have your travels informed your design?
I’ve traveled extensively and lived in India, and I know that’s why I love hints of color now. When I was living in a village, I was so in love with that whole natural, neutral landscape: the lovely tan color, the brown dirt roads. There was no grass, no cars. But the chickens and goats and dogs would be painted up for holidays with polka dots, and then you’d watch the women walking down the dirt road carrying water in the most exquisitely colorful saris. That’s where I got my first take on hits of intense color with the natural background.
Also, living in India helped me abandon all my fears because, as a Canadian women, I realized I’m not bound by the caste system. It showed me that the only person in my way was me, my fear. Their success is based on where they were born. That’s how it really impacted me as a human being.
Do you feel like you’ve accomplished your goals? Have they changed over the years?
At one point I was making these cool 5-foot-tall sculptural light fixtures with paper I bought in Thailand, and I thought, maybe I’ll be a furniture designer. And then I started a furniture line called Pure that didn’t off-gas and was fire retardant–free. While I was in India volunteering, I thought, these fabrics are so neat, I want to design a bedding line. I was 23. Then the VP of Bed Bath and Beyond in Canada saw my furniture line and asked me to design a bedding line. When I was working on my first interior design project in London, I was watching the British interior design shows, and I thought, I’m going to do a TV show. Years later, I was on a TV show.
You specialize in “healthy” spaces. What does that mean?
It means trying to use materials that don’t off-gas. The inside of our houses are more toxic than downtown L.A. We have so much fire retardant and formaldehyde; the average kitchen off-gasses formaldehyde for 20 years. So I design kitchens that don’t have substrates that off-gas. All my kitchens and materials are healthy. It’s easier to do now. I’m in no way an expert, but my mill worker and I learned together, and we’ve been working together for 17 years.
What role does tile play in a healthy space?
Tile doesn’t off-gas, it’s completely inert. Tile is my paint palette. I have the nickname “Tile Queen” because I put tile in unexpected places. I love putting them on stair treads. Honestly, I can’t tell you how much I love Ann Sacks tile. The first time I saw it was in Seattle, and I thought, this is heaven! This is the best tile store I’ve ever been in! They had such a range of styles and genres, and it’s just really well done.
What makes a space warm?
Definitely adding wood or warm tones helps. I love layers of materials; those help make it warm. Gray and black and white interiors are fine, but I always know they’re off when the lighting isn’t warm enough or there aren’t enough natural breaks—baskets or cutting boards or something to add another layer into the space. Everything we do is warm contemporary. Even if it’s traditional or rustic, it’s always going to have that warm contemporary element. You can have shiny kitchen tile in a nice wood kitchen. To me it’s all about the balance. I call it visual math.
Could you describe how you work with clients in the initial stages?
We always start with an inspiration package. It saves so much time and energy to show them our vision. And then I move over to the initial design meeting, which is when we start marking out floor plans. If they are open to pattern on the tile, that’s when we have fun. And then we have all the elevations done of the house, and we haven’t completely selected the tile yet, but we lay it out on a big table and show it as a whole with lighting and flooring. That way their eyes don’t get obsessed with one item at a time. And if they don’t love the tile we’ve chosen, we have a wonderfully stocked office with samples. We pull out our favorites, and then we have our secondary tile tucked away, because that two-hour meeting is already so much for the brain.
Why do you think you’ve received so much media attention for your designs?
I actually know the answer to that, and the reason I know is because a photographer told me: Every house I do is completely unique. Once upon a time, I was up for another interior design show, and I said my style is fluid; it depends on the human, the house, etc. They didn’t like that. I think that’s why I’ve been as successful as I have, because I really interview the clients and walk around the house. My job is to marry everything, and the reason publishers are interested is because my work is different constantly.
Where is home now?
The community is called Lions Bay, and it’s amazing. There are only about 1,200 people here, and a lot of them are writers and musicians. It’s like living on an island, but we have a highway to go skiing or into town. I have an office in Vancouver, which is half an hour away. The location is magical. I live in heaven, literally.
I used to dream about one day having a house with a partner and renovating it together. And now my partner, who’s also my construction manager, and I have taken on a dilapidated old house—ceilings falling down with mold, sinks leaking down into the floors—and made it into this incredible nest. Our main floor is on top, and then our house is built down the mountain, so we have ridiculous ocean views, but we’re are in the treetops. I feel so blessed. Who knows what’s down the road?