Designer Brian Gluckstein gives rich Canadians the safe, neutral look he knows they want—'stylish but not too stylish'

ANNE KINGSTON October 27 2008


Designer Brian Gluckstein gives rich Canadians the safe, neutral look he knows they want—'stylish but not too stylish'

ANNE KINGSTON October 27 2008


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Designer Brian Gluckstein gives rich Canadians the safe, neutral look he knows they want—'stylish but not too stylish'


The Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences presentation centre in downtown Toronto is not only the sales office for the yet-to-be-built $500-million development. The 4,500-sq.-foot space appointed by Toronto interior designer Brian Gluckstein has become a new ground zero for decor porn voyeurs craving a glimpse of how the rich live, or rather, how developer Alan Menkes hopes remaining masters of the universe will want to live in what he calls “the pinnacle of buildings in the super-luxury market.” Prices range from $1.6 million to $30 million for the 55th-storey penthouse, the highest ask ever for a condo in this country. The 9,038-sq.-foot space came on the market in late September. So far, no offers.

With current market jitters, you’d think the lavish showroom would be a mausoleum, yet it’s busy. But many touring through aren’t looking to buy, says sales rep Lisa Searchfield. They’re here to check out Gluckstein’s imprint, which has been torqued to his tasteful max. The entry riffs off the lobby of Paris’s George V Hotel. The stately living room, with a marble fireplace on an upholstered leather wall, also exudes the whiff of a luxury hotel. The dining room could host a NATO meeting. The big creamy bathroom is appropriately sybaritic, the stainless-steel-and-marble kitchen, featured in this month’s Canadian House & Home, clinically elegant.

This isn’t a model suite, per se, Searchfield

explains. Rather, “it’s a showcase of the Four Seasons lifestyle.” Menkes echoes the sentiment: “These are rooms that people can aspire to.” Aspirational is a word that crops up often in conjunction with Gluckstein, Canada’s most popular interior designer. His luxe neutral rooms (which can feature so much beige and soft grey they’re “greige”) have made him a household hero in a country that champions the unobjectionable. Through Gluckstein Design Build, the firm he founded in 1986, which now employs 30, Gluckstein works primarily on high-end residential. But the 48-year-old’s profile and status as a decor magazine darling has made him the go-to guy for anyone with a prestige project to market. Last year, Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel hired him to do Canada’s most expensive hotel suite, its $7,500-a-night Suite 502—18 rooms over 4,200 sq. feet.

Gluckstein is accessible to the less privileged via his weekly appearances on Citytv’s CityLine, where he has been doling out advice since 1994. “I have tried to show the average person what real interior design is all about,” he says. “Brian really relates to the audience,” says former host Marilyn Denis. And the audience relates to rooms that replicate the generic luxury associated with fancy hotels and upscale condo showrooms, photogenic spaces at their best unmarred by human habitation. Entrances are grand, wood is dark, fabrics are sumptuous. His colour palettecreams, beiges, taupes and greys—is more neutral than Switzerland. Gluckstein’s rooms mix classicist and modernist styles in the

tradition of decor legends Billy Baldwin and Albert Hadley, though he credits Christian Liagre and John Saladino as inspirations.

Gluckstein knows what rich people want, which apparently includes spa-library bathrooms, often with fireplaces and plasma TVs. He built one in his Forest Hill house, which was showcased in Canadian House & Home in 2002. Gluckstein laughs off àrquestion about water damaging the'books. ‘Tm not that active in the tub,” he says, Before shift^ ing to TV teacher persona. “You can’t do itv in a small space. And you have to have good -ventilation. Books do well with a certain level of humidity. I wouldn’t put a steam room in, though. That would be a problem.”

Gluckstein’s neutral, tailored, masculine look is also available to the masses through his furniture and housewares line sold at the Hudson’s Bay Company. GlucksteinHome, launched in 2004 with the slogan “Designer Brian Gluckstein: Now he works for you,” has expanded into baby furniture, Christmas ornaments and a “Condo” line.

“Brian has defined high-end for the general public,” says Toronto interior designer Linda Borman, who hired him in 1984, the year he received a bachelor of applied arts in interior design from Ryerson. She promoted him from a junior designer to a project manager before he struck out on his own. He was ambitious, she recalls: “He knew from the beginning what kind of success he wanted and it’s exactly what he has.”

Gluckstein is a brand, says Linda Reeves, the publisher of Canadian House & Home,

I• who’s a big fan: “Brian’s a society designer: people hire him because they like his work, but also because they want his name on their place. They want to show it off. Not in a negative way. They’re proud of it.”

Gluckstein has been criticized for rooms that are lovely but bland and unchanging. Reeves sees it otherwise. “Brian has found his look and has stuck with it,” she says. “He doesn’t blow with the wind.” No one hiring him need worry about the shock of the new. “If you’ve been watching the design scene you’ll say T’ve seen this before,’ ” she says. “He’s not a designer’s designer. He’s a designer for real people who are not looking for trends or fads or to be on the edge of the wedge.” What these real people want, she says, is to be comforted by the familiar, not challenged. “When people are on their way up especially there’s a certain insecurity moving into a place that represents a lifestyle you’re not used to. People want it to be expensive because they can afford it, they want it to have luxury and high ceilings and bells and whistles, but they also want it to be safe. I don’t mean safe in a bad way. It’s not off the wall, too avant-garde, wacko.” A design insider puts it another way: “Brian has been able to bring style to very timid people. He’s very Canadian: he’s stylish, but not too stylish. He makes things special, but not too special.” Even those who find his work anodyne and impersonal credit his ability. “He does what he does really well,” says Toronto designer Janice Lindsay, who views large-scale monster home formats as “the SUVs of architecture.” Gluckstein’s showroom look makes her “tired and bored,” she says, though it has broad appeal. “For a lot of people it doesn’t matter how personal it is. It just matters that it’s big and fancy,” she says. “And that it has references to Palladian architecture and bells and whistles. It has worked for what? Four centuries? And it’s still working.” Gluckstein’s success attests to the fact designers need be more than creative. “In the style business, like any business, talent is


just one-third of the equation,” says an industry insider. “It’s talent, self-promotion and business smarts—and Brian has it all.” Gluckstein is a terrific promoter, says Reeves. “He takes the time when he finishes a job to document it and present it to us. He’s very organized.” All of his contracts stipulate the right to photograph a project for his portfolio, says Gluckstein, though not all clients permit the work to be shown in magazines.

Gluckstein is discreet when asked about minimum job thresholds. “There’s not a number but there’s definitely a scale,” he says. “It has to be substantial, only because it’s going to be costly. It’s not where I say it has to be 10,000 sq. feet or bigger; we’ve done apartments in New York that are 2,500 sq. feet.” Whatever his fee, it has allowed him to collect the work of Canadian painter David Bierk and to escape a week a month during the winter to his Palm Beach house. “That’s my sanity,” he says.

He’s ultra-conservative financially, he says, to the point he can fret more about property resale value than his clients: “I’ve had clients who want a 10,000-sq.-foot house with two bedrooms. I’ll say T don’t think that’s a good idea, put in five bedrooms. Use them for closets.’ ”

Such is his rapport with clients that he often designs multiple homes for them. Some

are willing to hand him the keys and have him call when he’s finished, he says. “I say, ‘No, no, no, I want you involved. I want you to see things and touch things.’ ” Currently he’s working on a house in Greenwich, Conn., for the daughter of a former client. “It makes me feel really old,” he jokes, noting he’ll likely do her house in the Hamptons.

Gluckstein’s nice-guy charm has served him well in an industry that can be snooty. Behind it, though, there’s a steely core, says a man who knows him. “He’s as tough as nails, because if you think his clients are all nice to work with, forget it.”

“Some of my colleagues think we’re curing cancer,” he says. “But we’re not. We’re only supplying sofas and things.” (Or, in Gluckstein’s case, supplying sofas to an AIDS clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, a job he did for free and zero fanfare.) Some fellow designers were contemptuous when he went on television, long before HGTV. “But I said, T love design and want to share that.’ Now those same people want to be on TV.”

A $200,000 house can have the same sensibility as a $lO-million house, he says: “They can paint it the same colour scheme; they can have the same wood colours.” The fact that his look is now available everywhere from Pottery Barn to the Bay doesn’t threaten his bespoke business, he says: “When you’re designing for an individual you’re customdesigning pieces. You’re using a different level of material and craftsmanship that is quite unique and I think the private client at the very high end realizes that.”

He’s unfazed by current real-estate doldrums, which he dismisses as a “cycle.” “The fact people want beautiful homes is not going to change,” he says. Plans for a book are in the works. The Gluckstein imprimatur has aided the Four Seasons project, 75 per cent of which has been sold. Selling the penthouse, however, will be a challenge. Anyone with that sort of coin likely doesn’t want the accessible, says Reeves. “If you have $30 million to spend on your empty nester residence or pied-à-terre in Toronto, one would think one would call some exotic designer from another country and do something no one has seen here, something more adventurous.” Then she reconsiders. “But if you’re an investor from Asia, India, China or Russia you might think this is fabulous, this is one of Canada’s top designers, this is exotic.” M