From a young age, designer and television personality Tommy Smythe was encouraged to be independent, creative and 100% authentic. Lessons from his great-grandfather, hockey icon Conn Smythe, taught him the importance of sportsmanlike conduct and balancing competitiveness with structure and fairness.
High school posed challenges for Tommy and his difficulty with math impacted his dream of becoming an architect. Mentored by his grandmother, celebrated designer Dorothea Smythe, he thrived in an inspired and nurturing environment and changed his career goal to interior design. His apprenticeship with Toronto’s most influential interior designer, Youssef Hasbani, owner of the furniture store L’Atelier, connected him with other designers who similarly gave him great advice.
At 47, Tommy has been actively designing for more than 15 years and has worked closely with designer and HGTV television star Sarah Richardson to transform hundreds of homes. They have collaborated on several popular television series which are seen in more than 100 countries. He is a frequent guest on shows such as The Marilyn Denis Show, Cityline and Steven and Chris, as well as a columnist for numerous magazines and newspapers across Canada. His most recent experience is a tribute to Canada’s 150th anniversary as host of the HGTV documentary Great Canadian Homes, which included Ottawa’s Earnscliffe Manor. Tommy shares his impressions of the iconic home with Ottawa At Home.
Describe your thoughts on hosting Great Canadian Homes. This was a privilege and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit thirteen private homes across the country (from Nova Scotia to the Gulf Islands, B.C.), and interview the current residents. It was a backstage pass to enter historic, architecturally significant houses that many of us have never been inside. Canadians shared their homes with us to celebrate this wonderful moment in history – Canada’s birthday, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
What was your first impression of Earnscliffe Manor? This home was built by Thomas McKay and is designated as a National Historic Site. It was named Earnscliffe or Eagle’s Cliff by Thomas Reynolds who bought the home from McKay’s son-in-law Thomas Keefer. It was later purchased by Sir John A. Macdonald. In 1930, the first British High Commissioner William Henry Clark obtained the house for the British government.
When I walked down the driveway and first saw the Gothic style Victorian home, I knew how appropriate it would be for the show. It is grand yet not ostentatious. A succession of interesting people have lived there. It is the quintessential Canadian home and makes perfect sense that one of our quintessential Canadians lived in it. Current British High Commissioner Hugh Drake said he and his family thoroughly enjoyed living in the home and will be sad to leave, not just because of its enormous historical importance, but that it was a really well-designed, cozy house to live in.
Can you share an historical tidbit? There is a charming small bench on the landing, overlooking the entrance to the dining room. It was built for Sir John A’s daughter so she could watch the fancy ladies walking in and out of the room. This sentimental design detail connected me to them. This is when a building stops being a building and starts being about the residents who live there. The bench was a loving gesture from a father to a daughter. It just so happens that father was also one of Canada’s fathers of Confederation.
Define your personal design style. Authenticity is everything. I love classicism, whether it is modern or traditional. I approach a project looking at three different things: inspiration that you are open to new ideas; scholarship in knowing about the things that you are putting into your home and learning their value; courage to go your own way and not change your mind. If you live by these principles in your creative life, what you purchase will be good, what you do will be interesting and the result that you get will be authentically you.
What is your home space like? I am a total homebody and surrounded by every creature comfort in a setting that is an eclectic mixture of different periods. I have many older pieces, and for that I am called a young fogie. For me, traditional and older items are better made, using the best materials and have a history. A lot of what is in the stores today is unfortunately mass produced and of cheaper quality. My home is not pretentious or showy, it is my haven and tells my story.