Five women who turned their design passion into career success

These Canadian business women are all entrepreneurs who have turned their love for design into successful businesses. They show us how they did it, one exquisite object at a time
By Gobi Kim
Five women who turned their design passion into career success

Janis Nicolay

The eco-design queen

Ami McKay’s interior, furniture and housewares designs have the kind of stylish urban esthetic you would expect to find in a contemporary condo-loft, but there’s much more to them than meets the eye. Ami is committed to using non-toxic and certified-organic materials, such as natural rubber and dyes, organic cotton and hemp. And most of us would buy her products based on looks alone (they’re gorgeous!). She plays with a range of bold and neutral colour palettes, adding in signature nature-inspired decorative details. Her totally eco bedding line (100-percent recycled-paper packaging with 100-percent vegetable dyes and a carbon-offset program) is an industry first for Canada—and she has hit the jackpot in a deal with U.S. retail giant Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Ami's ethos: “I want my line to be beautiful, and for people to be healthy as well as happy when they’re around it. Every material has been considered, so the things you don’t see matter just as much as the things you do,” says the designer, based in Surrey, B.C. Ami has spent the past 11 years as a decorator, sourcing low-VOC paints and less toxic stains. While better products are now easier to find, non-toxic furniture and bedding like Ami’s are still in short supply.

Her inspiration:
An advocate of yoga and meditation from an early age, Ami aspires to create “art that heals.” She started her custom-furniture line when she discovered that fire retardants (used in most furniture) could have carcinogens that may stunt childhood development and have been found in the breast milk of the majority of women in Canada. As the mother of two children, she decided to tackle the problem head-on, making furniture free of formaldehyde, the dreaded fire retardants and other potentially harmful chemicals. So far, her biggest hurdle has been not sourcing materials, but the cost: “It takes one year for a tree to produce enough latex to make a queen-sized mattress. You can’t rush nature,” she explains. “It’s expensive, but worth it.”

What's next: “Everybody deserves a healthy sofa,” she says. For now, she is starting with her Pure Design line of bedding, launching this summer. In the meantime, it’s worth saving up for her big custom pieces.

Ami McKay, eco-friendly, organic, non-toxic, furniture, beddingJanis Nicolay

The celeb pastry chefs

Alexandria Pellegrino and Jessica Smith make flamboyant, exquisite, sometimes macabre—but always beautiful and delicious—custom-designed cakes at Cake Opera Co. It’s not unusual for them to get an ecstatic (sometimes tearful) call from a bride saying their cake made her day perfect. Celebrity-wedding style guru Grace Ormonde adores them, and the duo were chosen to create Nicole Richie’s wedding cake. They devised a white-and-gold, five-tier, Versailles-inspired architectural masterpiece with Tiffany-blue accents and black-diamond patterning, topped by figurines of Nicole and Joel Madden (tattoos and all) in period costume. Although their cakes’ exteriors are dramatic, they tend to stick to simple flavours such as vanilla and chocolate for the insides. The two keep upping the creative ante: As an Easter treat this year, they concocted elaborate chocolate Fabergé eggs filled with truffles.

Their ethos: As the “sugar artist” of the duo, Alexandria is responsible for the design. She started experimenting with edible art as a student at OCAD (the Ontario College of Art & Design). Enamoured of the medium, she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu pastry program in Ottawa, where she met Jessica. Both women graduated at the top of their class. Alexandria split her time between Canada and Italy so that she could see her boyfriend, but she bid Europe a bittersweet arrivederci when she couldn’t find anywhere to work. In 2007, Alexandria returned to Canada full-time and started Cake Opera Co. in Toronto, which quickly became too much to handle on her own, so she called Jessica.

Jessica’s path had taken her to a position at London’s Michelin-starred hot spot Yauatcha—think dim sum and cocktails meet afternoon tea and macaroons—before she returned to Toronto as head pastry chef at the venerable (and now defunct) Truffles. Disenchanted with fine dining, Jessica joined forces with Alexandria, bringing her exceptional pastry-making talents to the partnership.

Their inspiration: “I’m always looking at other areas, like art history, architecture and fashion,” says Alexandria. “Inspiration comes from everywhere!”

What's next: Alexandria has been asked to judge the new Canadian TV show Cake Walk: Wedding Cake Edition, a competition premiering on Slice network this fall. Their next dream gig? Madonna’s daughter Lourdes’ sweet 16, of course! And maybe a pastry-making session with a foodie-world heavyweight like Gordon Ramsay.

Cake Opera Co., pastry, celebrity, Nicole Richie, Joel Madden, cakeRoberto Caruso

The hip hobbyist

Montreal-based entrepreneur Julia Vallelunga is all about reinvention. And while boho jeweller and European lobbyist are two professions that don’t often appear on the same resumé, her eclectic designs are informed by her passion for global causes. She recycles vintage beads, tassels and chains into modern pieces reminiscent of exotic locales and ’70s bohemian chic for her coveted, colour-infused line of jewellery, La Raffinerie. Made from batches of second-hand finds from warehouses that sell in bulk, Julia’s jewellery is stunning and one-of-a-kind: her covetable Rose earrings are made from vintage gold and feathers, and her Fia necklace is wrapped in purple silk with antique beads.

Julia's ethos: Before her foray into the style world, the peripatetic 30-year-old spent a few years in Paris and Belgium, lobbying for renewable-energy industries. Once she returned to Montreal, where she had grown up, Julia worked in business as a consultant and delved into jewellery to express her creative side. Demand for her vintage-inspired pieces quickly rose, igniting Julia’s entrepreneurial spirit. She left her day job to focus on creating and expanding her line, which has been picked up by stores across North America, including fashion-world darling Yumi Kim’s N.Y.C. boutique.

Her inspiration:
“My pieces reflect my travels,” says Julia. “I love the colours of India; I love tribal style.” In a recent collection, which is named after African cities, vivid jewel-toned silk-wrapped necklaces mingle with asymmetrical chains studded with semi-precious stones.

What's next: “I never saw myself as an entrepreneur,” she laughs, but clearly creativity and business have found a stylish synergy in Julia. Hip retailer Anthropologie has just picked up her Nomad line, and she is creating designs from materials that can be easily replicated for larger stores. They’ll still have that insouciant vintage vibe, though—at least if that’s what Julia is feeling style-wise.

Julia Vallelunga, vintage, tribal, jewel-tone, jewellery, second-hand, AnthropologieAngus McRitchie

The lifestyle guru

Cobi Ladner is a six-foot-tall redhead who bears a striking resemblance to Geena Davis. Instead of toning down her vivid colouring and height, she opts for bold—bright Chinese silk jackets are her everyday look. It’s this gutsy attitude that has helped her create Cobistyle, a vibrant-colour-infused furniture and housewares line. What’s more, she’s taken it from idea to market across Canada in two years, a feat almost unheard of for someone who has never trained as a designer. Cobi creates everything from plush jewel-toned faux-vintage chairs and settees to brightly patterned cushions, delightfully printed chopsticks and Chinese lanterns. “I want to see my designs in regular homes, where people are looking for a happy backdrop to everyday life. If my line makes people smile when they walk in the door after a busy day, I’ll be happy.”

Cobi's ethos:
Cobi held the coveted position of editor-in-chief at Canadian House & Home for 15 years, where she gained insider knowledge about manufacturers and retailers and, most important, developed a keen sense of what homeowners really want. She was thrilled when the minimalist conservatism that dominated home design in the ’90s began to shift to a more decorative esthetic. “I worried that by the time my business was ready, the rise of vintage-inspired design might be over,” she says. Luckily for her, happy shades and pretty touches continue to be the rage.

Her inspiration: Cobi is infatuated with the blue-and-white porcelain manufactured in China in the 1900s for the export market. “It’s very classical, and I love the mix of East meeting West....And then there’s vibrant silk, natural rattan, chunky jewellery—I love it all,” she says. “Friends would see something in my house and ask me where I found it. I’d have to send them to Chinatown or vintage stores, but they’d rarely come back with anything. Unless you’re a designer with an experienced eye, it’s hard to make picks.” With her new line, Cobi makes that stylist-chosen look easier to get.

What's next: “Gosh, I have so many plans—bedding, rugs, tableware, bags, stationery....My list is very long.”

Cobi Ladner, furniture, houseware, vibrant, colours, designerRoberto Caruso


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