How to spruce up your space this spring

How to spruce up your space this spring

Francesca Albertazzi, a UBC alum turned celebrity designer, shares her favourite ways to refresh a space.

Francesca Albertazzi in her East Vancouver studio. Photo by Nik Molson.

At some point every winter, I give up trying to battle Vancouver’s dampness and greyness, accepting a temporary hibernation within my apartment. However, by the time the days start getting longer again, the familiarity of my space feels oppressive and uninspired enough that I crave change. So this year, I’ve decided to lean into the renewal that spring brings and see if I can renew my apartment as well. Luckily, I’m not completely on my own in this adventure.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with UBC alum and Vancouver-based interior designer Francesca Albertazzi (BFA’03) about simple ways we can refresh our spaces. Albertazzi is an expert in redoing homes — she’s designed for the home makeover show Love It or List It Vancouver, and most recently appeared on camera while reimagining Pamela Anderson’s Vancouver Island property on season 1 of Pamela’s Garden of Eden.  

Our conversation takes place in an airy studio on the top floor of her elegantly renovated childhood home. Albertazzi is immediately generous in sharing her vast knowledge, and wastes no time in explaining how her design ethos is strongly influenced by European styles, both traditional and contemporary. She’s particularly inspired when she spots confident and bold design choices and says she relishes helping clients realize their own unique visions, whether that’s a distinctive couch or a room inspired by a trip to Africa.  

Albertazzi is no stranger to bold creations, having studied theatre design in the UBC Department of Theatre and Film. She tells me that her approach to interior design is informed by her experiences crafting sets and costumes, and that having a strong understanding of the story being told is just as important when designing for the home as it is designing for the stage.

Fortunately, you don’t need a Broadway-sized budget to create a space that tells a cohesive story. Small or gradual changes enacted with some elbow grease may be all you need to bring your vision to life. Here are some of Albertazzi’s favourite ways to refresh a space, as well as what she’s learned along the way to becoming a sought-after interior designer.

Sharing your story through a strong design concept

“If you don't come up with a concept for what it is you're trying to achieve,” Albertazzi explains, “you’re never going to actually achieve it.”

She recommends creating a concept board that lays out what feelings, colours, and styles you’re going for. That way, when you’re out shopping, you’ll know if the pieces you’re considering support your design goals. You might like the dining chair in the store, but if it doesn’t align with your concept, you probably won’t be happy with it long term.

Your concept (the “story” you want your space to tell) can stem from anything that delights or inspires you, such as a cherished piece of pottery or a favourite item of clothing. Albertazzi recalls one client who had given her a reference photo of a cake for a powder room. The finished room didn’t look like a cake, but it was a vivid image that helped inform elements of the space and bring it together. Whatever your inspiration, make sure it’s authentic to you.

From concept to completion: a cake-inspired powder room comes to life. Click on each image to learn more. Images by Studio Albertazzi.

Albertazzi knows a thing or two about authenticity, having successfully followed her muse through the design world. After graduating from UBC, she worked on theatrical productions, then transitioned to designing exhibits for a Vancouver-based exhibit design company. She had begun selling furniture when a director she'd previously worked with asked if she wanted to work on Love It or List It Vancouver. Though she originally came onboard in an assistant role, it wasn’t long before she became a head designer.

Albertazzi tells me that it was necessary to pick up skills fast in order to support the show’s quota of renovating two dozen or so homes a year. 

“Almost every one of them was a kitchen and bathroom," she says, "because they’re the hardest things to do. So that's what everybody wanted done.”

For Albertazzi, this intensive period was really a “boot camp” in kitchen and bathroom design. She called back to her time in the theatre to help navigate the challenges, realizing that there’s a similar need for teamwork during a renovation as there is when building a set. 

Just like in theatre, “everybody needs something and it's that kind of push and pull, give and take that really creates something beautiful and original,” she reflects, something that “feels like it's being built by a community.” 

Creating joy with paint and colour

Gaining experience on Love It or List It Vancouver made it possible for Albertazzi to start her own interior design company. When opportunity came knocking once again, in the form of appearing on screen with Pamela Anderson, Albertazzi dove in. 

Designing for a celebrity client meant “every moment was a surprise,” where Albertazzi had to meet evolving demands for a property with a huge emotional pull for Anderson (it belonged to her grandmother). Nevertheless, the designer found ways to create something everyone was satisfied with — and even managed to convince Anderson, who is partial to lots of white in the design, to incorporate some pops of colour in her home. 

Even if you’re as fond of crisp whites as Pamela Anderson, colour can be an integral component of refreshing a space. By avoiding colour, you may not be allowing your space to reach its full, joy-giving potential. 

Paint is perhaps the most obvious way to remedy this, and Albertazzi shares a variety of options with me, both large and small:

  1. Paint just the trim of your space (such as your windows or baseboards) for a high-impact but budget-conscious change
  2. Apply a burst of colour to a small space, like a front hall, nook, or powder room
  3. Use paint on your cabinetry for a striking kitchen statement
  4. Add some drama by painting just the ceiling — and for something extra bold, use high-gloss paint
  5. Paint all your walls in colours you love for an immersive refresh

If you’re looking to keep things fresh and light but are not sure where exactly to start colour-wise, Albertazzi recommends trying sunny yellows and dusty blush tones as well as playing with harmony and contrast in the colours you select. All of this will keep your eye engaged in a space much longer than white walls will.

If you’re concerned about how a colour will appear in your space, start small and work your way up to something larger. And if you love a darker colour (like a navy blue or smoky gray) and are nervous about how it’ll look up on the walls, take a breath, relax, and follow your heart. 

“I think brightness in the room isn't the be all and end all,” Albertazzi tells me. “It's joy and feeling.”

Of course, paint is just one way to inject joy and colour into a room. Wallpaper is another. You can also experiment with fabric choices for your upholstery, and consider as well what kind of art you want adorning your walls.

Francesca Albertazzi in her renovated childhood home. Click on each image for a close-up and some design takeaways.

Making an impact with art you love

Albertazzi says she grew up in an artistic household, with a mother who painted walls and furniture before moving to canvas, and a father who was a film editor, tile setter, and installer of reclaimed Mexican fireplaces. She describes herself as a “born and bred” freelancer who was able to watch her parents forge their own non-traditional paths. This gave her the confidence to follow whatever opportunity fit best at the time, moving from theatre to exhibit to interior design, as well as appearing on television. 

While it can help to have artists in the family when choosing art for your place, you don’t need connections to have a beautifully decorated home. Try finding “one beautiful piece that really resonates with you,” says Albertazzi. A piece of art that you feel connected to, paired with a well-chosen wall colour, bookshelves, and a great sofa, can be more than adequate for a space to wow. It’s all about taking a “multum in parvo” (much in little) approach, she explains — choosing fewer pieces but making sure they have high impact.

Additionally, you can make your home feel unique by sourcing one-of-a-kind work.

“Please try to buy original work as much as possible,” says Albertazzi, “or at least prints by the artist.” If you’re wondering where to find original work, she recommends local events like the Eastside Culture Crawl in Vancouver, or simply following artists you enjoy on social media. 

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, personal photographs that can be easily swapped out are a great addition to your walls — and “the more candid the better.”

Finding long-lasting quality with previously loved items

Inspired by European sensibilities and her Italian heritage even as a student, at UBC Albertazzi would linger in historic campus spaces like the Chemistry Building and Main Library (the latter is now part of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre). This goes hand in hand with her affinity for vintage and previously loved pieces.

"A really solid, well-made sofa that was made fifty or more years ago is going to give you so much more value than something really cheaply made today,” she says. 

Thankfully, you don’t need a course in carpentry to find well-crafted items.

“I go to shops that I know are upstanding vendors of vintage and preloved furniture,” Albertazzi tells me, highlighting that the best way to source quality pieces is from the experts.

Some shops she recommends are:

  1. Coast Consignment (North Vancouver)
  2. Urban Repurpose (North Vancouver)
  3. The Sellution (Vancouver)
  4. Honest Goods (Maple Ridge)
  5. Thrifty Trendz (online) 

Keep in mind that even a scuffed-up vintage piece can be refurbished — for example, you can easily freshen up a dining chair seat simply by stapling new fabric over it. 

“There’s enough stuff in the world already,” Albertazzi says. “We don’t need to make more.”

Taking control of your space in small ways

If you’re not ready to commit to painting, or want to maximize what you already own, a few subtle changes can be all it takes to refresh your home this spring.

Since our moods can be highly affected by lighting, Albertazzi recommends experimenting with light sources of different heights to add depth and layers to your space. This can include the basics, like floor lamps, table lamps, and candles, or cost-effective options in the outdoor section of a store. “Even a jam jar,” she suggests. “It looks great as a sconce for a kitchen or a bathroom, or just even as a reading light.” 

Next, you might find that cleaning out your drawers and closets might make your space feel more inviting, even if nobody else ever notices. You may even find some pieces to reinterpret as décor hiding behind your old textbooks!

Finally, if you’re looking for a truly transformative, zero-dollar switch, try rearranging your furniture. Not only is it free, but it can completely change the feel of your space while giving you a strong sense of control over your environment.

Staying true to who you are

When speaking to young designers, Albertazzi stresses that they “learn [their] knots.” This can mean literal knots (she tells me about impressing a former boss with a well-executed clove hitch, and tying down materials she’s schlepping around town), but it also works as a metaphor for her varied career and home design in general.

Once she had the essentials down, she was able to transfer her skills wherever an exciting opportunity arose. Even now, after she’s conquered television, Albertazzi still says there are challenging projects she hopes to work on one day, including designing a restaurant and renovating a home in Italy or the UK (or both).

“I’m used to wood construction with drywall. But there, it's all stone. How do you move stone?” she asks, with a gleam of excitement in her eye. If Albertazzi’s success in all the facets of her career so far are anything to go by, she’ll find a spectacular answer to that question. 

As long as you “stay true to yourself,” Albertazzi says, your skills will “always be applicable to some other portion of your career.” I’m going to remember this advice, both as I implement Albertazzi’s insights in my apartment this spring, and as I progress throughout my career. Staying true to yourself, your style, and your story when designing your home just might help you do the same in every aspect of your life.

A range of vibrant interiors designed by Francesca Albertazzi, who’s an expert at using colour to infuse “joy and feeling” into a room. Click on each image for a close-up and some design takeaways.