Hanover, Ontario-based Designer Heather Smillie On Tradition And Trend

As a designer who works all over Southwestern Ontario, designer Heather Smillie, of House Rules Design Shop in Hanover, Ontario, works in homes that range from lakeside vacation or year-round properties, subdivision homes, ski chalets, condos, bungalows and borderline mansions. But it turns out that no matter what home is for them, many clients look to Heather for the answer to one big question: “Heather, what do you think my style is?”

A formally trained designer, Heather can list architectural and interior design styles like an academic, but she says that sticking strictly to one school of design thought is almost unheard of on her projects. She is about comfortable, impressive yet liveable fusion, often starting with a base of what she calls classic design.

She says that working with a fusion approach is harder, not easier, but for her, it's all about the success of her final project and she loves the challenge. 

As she and I played a round of 20 design questions in a recent interview, I pressed her, asking if classic was, in fact, traditional. Her answer was, “Yes, but traditional has a dated connotation. Think of the work of Canadian designer Brian Gluckstein for example. His work is somewhat traditional, but I would classify it more as classic because it also feels very fresh and modern.” And this is where the conversation veered off. How to achieve that fresh and modern feel was my question and starting with a foundation of traditional/classic and incorporating trends was essentially Heather’s answer. 






Heather’s solid training in classic design was evident in her work on the TV series Antique Style, where she worked specifically within strict traditional styles of architecture and design. But don’t pigeonhole her as strictly traditional or classic, as her work has also been featured on numerous TV series including HGTV’s Property Brothers. This designer knows when to add trends to her designs. Heather says trendy can be fun and add energy to a space, but that she often suggests ‘traditional bones’ as a starting point because of its ability to stand the test of time. She stressed that step one is to understand what traditional or classic is, as many younger clients immediately turn their noses up at the term.





I asked for a quick tutorial and here's what she had to say:

“Traditional can make some people think of grandma’s house,” Heather said, “but for designers it opens a door to a layered ‘curated’ feel, often looking like it’s been collected over decades, if not centuries. It’s inspired by the classic shapes and elements of the 18th and 19th centuries. And right away I envision symmetry, classic mouldings and trims, warmth and richness. There is a sense of elegance but not stiffness. The best part of traditional is that, because you are building on design styles that have stood the test of time from across hundreds of years, it will never go out of style.” 

After speaking to Heather, I am beginning to understand that it really is knowing when, where, and how to incorporate today’s design fashions. Clearly an essential consideration is your budget; how much you can afford to spend on the big pricey basics and how long you expect to have to live with your choices. Heather explained that the attraction to traditional/classic design is that it provides you with a solid, financially responsible base. 

You need a gifted designer to know when to mix it up and when and where to add the element of surprise. Adding a touch of trend can be as simple as adding funky light fixtures to an otherwise traditional space. It’s like adding trendy costume jewelry to a classic look; you suddenly look fashion-forward without a huge commitment. It’s both a smart and stylish way to go. 





Heather loves to integrate traditional with a bit of trend in unexpected ways. She gave me the example of an entranceway floor that she recently designed for a client. “The project here was inspired by a traditional kitchen floor that I saw while living and working in Costa Rica. I gave it a touch of Canadiana by adding natural hardwood, a touch of trendy but still classic hardwood.”  Heather went on to say: “You should have seen the side-eye I got from the installer! Not everyone understands the concept of mixing traditional and trend”. 

At House Rules Design Studio, her shop in Hanover, Ontario, Heather spends a lot of energy and time counselling her clients. Providing design services is a huge part of her business but her store also sells everything from flooring and paint to furniture and fixtures to bring those designs to life. Heather has volunteered some of her best design tips for how and when to go traditional and when to indulge in trendy. 






  -  If you are designing from scratch, consider the comfort and versatility of symmetry. It is one of the hallmarks of traditional design. No corner fireplaces, offset cased openings between rooms or off-centre built-ins. 

  -  Go classic (traditional) and neutral on big-ticket items such as kitchen cabinetry, bathroom vanities and fixtures, moulding and case work. You can add trend in accessories. 

  -  Heather’s favourite trend tip for a front door: go BOLD. Paint it a bright colour that makes your house stand out and make a statement. It’s just paint, and you can change it when the next colour trend catches your eye! 

  -  For new builds, making design choices can be challenging if for no other reason than because there are so many of them!  If you choose one traditional style as your north star it will help in the decision-making process. You can always ask yourself ‘would this fit into a Georgian style home or is this appropriate for Italianate?’ Then layer the trend on top with elements that can be easily and reasonably updated. 

  -  Traditional design is about mixing your much-loved pieces with extraordinary or eccentric finds. Think of yourself as the curator of your home; mix, layer and collect. Everything doesn’t need to match! At House Rules, Heather has found that accessories, linens, light fixtures and drapery are all popular items for updating traditional looks. 

  -  Set off your traditional pieces with bright or trendy wall cloours. It’s only paint! 

  -  Don’t be afraid to mix styles. Take Heather’s approach to fusion design. Even when you are starting with classic or traditional, don’t expect to do it overnight. Take your time and enjoy the process. 

Heather also suggests that an out-of-the-box surprise can bring a trendy feel to traditional/classic design. She cited an example of putting a traditional built-in bookcase in an unexpected place on a client’s landing, giving the stairway a fashion-forward feel but still keeping with the traditional bones of the house. 





Traditional/Classic design might sound safe and staid, but when it comes to investing in designing or redesigning your home, it can be the foundation that will last you for decades.  The little black dress of interior design styles, traditional or classic design provides the base that allows you to, with accessories and accents, indulge in trends that may be here today and gone tomorrow. Where to go traditional and where to go trendy? This is where Smillie excels!  

To learn more about Heather’s work visit House Rules Design Shop or have some fun watching her projects come to life on Instagram or Facebook  


If you’re interested in various classic styles of architecture and design, have a look at these pieces from Houseporn.ca: 

The Stodders House - A Queen Anne Revival In Manitoba
Unionville, Ontario: A Historic Canadian Village
The Power Cottage Conservation Project By Halifax’s DSRA Architects




Theresa Kowall-Shipp is a TV producer, director and writer. Her interest in home design grew from exposure to her family’s construction and architectural woodworking firm and producing or directing dozens of hours of design TV. 

Posted In: Ontario

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