From growing up with house-flipping parents, to discovery by the Property Brothers, to an eclectic Burlington design practice doing new builds, whole-home and condo renos and redecorating projects of all sizes, Karin Bennett’s “approachable contemporary” design continues to build a wider audience.
You might say design and renovation runs in Karin Bennett’s blood – along with paint chips, fabric swatches, and maybe a tile sample or two. Karin grew up in a family of serial renovators and lived in no fewer than 12 houses during her childhood and teen years.
“My mom studied interior design when I was a kid, and graduated in the late ’80s. But it wasn’t that easy to be an entrepreneur in those days, especially for a woman. So she decided to get her real estate license and became a realtor, and that was her main job when we were growing up.”
Her mom’s particular combination of skills – along with a willingness to invest her own sweat equity – proved to be exactly right for the renovation boom that took off over the next two decades; it became a second career for her and Karin’s dad. “They’d buy a house that needed some TLC, fix it up and make it absolutely beautiful, then sell it and buy another one.”
Despite the family business (or perhaps because of it), Karin confesses she wasn’t that domestic growing up; her passion for decorating didn’t really blossom until she and her husband bought their first house. But once bitten by the decorating bug, she became obsessed – poring over design magazines, watching TV shows, learning everything she could about the art.
Before long, friends started asking her for advice on decorating their homes, and word of her talent began to get around. “At first I was doing it for free, just for fun and as a favour, but it began to take more and more of my time, so I started charging a small fee. And over the next two or three years it began to take off.”
Eventually, when her kids reached school age and she had a little more free time, she took a leap of faith. She quit her “safe” job as a registered massage therapist, and began to pursue her passion for decorating full-time. The work was steady for the first couple of years – “I’d do a home, have a photographer friend take pictures for my website, and then go on to the next one.” Then a career-changing opportunity came her way.
“The Property Brothers approached me and invited me to apply as the resident decorator on their program. At first I wasn’t sure I could handle the work, as I’ve never studied design formally. But a good friend of mine who had a diploma in interior design said of course you can do this! You can just hire people to do technical drawings if you have to.”
Ultimately, the Brothers offered her the job, and she credits her work there and their faith in her with putting her on the map as a decorator. “I believe in life, you should say yes to everything,” she says. “If it doesn’t work out, just move on, but you never know what could happen.”
Today, Bennett heads a five-woman team, comprising four full-time interior designers and an office manager, and the firm completes an average of about fifteen projects a year, ranging from new builds and whole-house renovations to the occasional smaller decorating project.
“We don’t pair you with an individual designer here; we all work as a team on our projects,” she explains. “We organize it so that everyone gets to play to their individual strengths. Some are great at putting furniture and fabric together; others are good at construction packages and the technical elements like drawings. I generally do the specs and buy furnishings.” Together, they ensure that each project has a cohesion that is consistent with the signature look of the firm, which she describes as “approachable contemporary,” with a predilection for calm neutrals, tone-on-tone, mixed metals and other materials, and texture to liven things up.
But she insists the team aren’t purists, slavishly following a particular style or type of design. “I strongly feel a traditional home doesn’t have to be all traditional, and a modern home doesn’t have to be all modern. Ideally, it should have some kind of ‘tension’ somewhere – something that surprises you, that breaks the rules, like an unexpected piece, or a lack of symmetry.” These are the “moments,” she says, that make a room interesting.
“Every time we start with a new client, our first question is, ‘Do you love what we do here?’, and we move forward from there.” It may seem like a basic question, but it establishes common ground from the start. Clients who “get” what they do at KBD will be more likely to develop the trust that is essential to a process as personal – and often, emotional – as creating a residential interior, especially one that frequently involves a considerable investment of time and money.
“I’m first, a realist, even though I am a creative,” she continues. “We have to work within budgets, space planning constraints… but we start with budget first. Next comes the timeline; a lot of people tend to underestimate timelines. And then, after that, we have to make sure you like what we do; once you’re onside with that, we can make your home unique to you.”
The actual design process is less quantifiable. “I’m not someone who has design heroes per se,” she says. “I’m more drawn to the composition of a room, and think why I’m drawn to it.” That may be a particular focal point or architectural highlight, or the way the light hits it, or some other detail. Then she builds out from there.
These days, the firm has a typically eclectic range of works in progress. “Right now, we’re working on two cottage builds – a hundred-acre lot with a large family cottage, and a Haliburton property where we’re replacing an old multi-family cottage with a new one. We’re also building a house in southeast Oakville, as well as two complete condo renovations and three residences in Toronto.”
As if that weren’t enough to keep Karin and the team occupied for the moment, she’s just bought a bungalow in Burlington that needs, as she says, “some TLC” – returning full-circle to the tradition that her parents started when she was a kid.
“I love the diversity of our projects,” she says. “I love modern design as much as traditional. Really, I just love to push boundaries.”