Enrich Your Holidays with Handmade Designs
One of Canada’s top interior designers shares unique tips for festive decor
“I love helping people as much as finding beautiful artisanal products. Every time someone buys from an artist or an artisan, they’re helping these creators.”
One of Canada’s top interior designers, Ami McKay, believes in creating spaces that bring people joy and harmony.
Her work has been featured in multiple issues of Architectural Digest and other home design publications. McKay was also a host and designer on HGTV’s Makeover Wish, sharing tips for creating beautiful spaces that are unique to each person’s life and space.
She launched her company PURE Design in 2000 and recently opened PURE Design Shoppe, a retail store featuring ethical artisanal homewares.
For this festive issue, we invited McKay to share her story and reveal tips for sparking the holiday spirit in people’s hearts and homes.
When did your love for traditional craftsmanship and artisanal products begin?
It started when I was 23 years old, living in a very poor part of India as a volunteer in a cross-cultural exchange. I would sit and watch the weavers and artisans—usually women with bare feet weaving on the dirt floor—and I was mesmerized by them.
At that time, I wanted to start a shop in the West to help artisans sell their products.
In India, I also realized that the only factor stopping me in my own life was fear. I’m a Canadian woman born at a time when I could do anything I want. In India, the people in the caste system don’t have much of a choice.
The seeds of fearlessness I learned there led to my attitude today. If I have an opportunity, I’ll take it!
How do you find unique products for your online boutique?
I have a passion for discovering artisans doing beautiful work around the world. Sometimes I find them through word-of-mouth or after scouring the Internet for hours. I also travel a lot.
I love helping people as much as finding artisanal products. Every time someone buys from an artist or an artisan, they’re helping these creators.
What unique product are you sourcing at the moment?
I’m designing a home for clients who want an authentic European kitchen, and I’m looking for antique terracotta floor tiles from the south of France. When the old chateaux there are renovated, the tiles are taken out, so I’m sourcing them from that region. I find traditional tiles have such a beautiful patina with a lovely mix of colours, textures, and imperfections.
Have you brought artisanal craftsmanship into your own home?
When I was younger, I envisioned living in a house where everything was handmade. I wanted to make it all myself, including pottery doorknobs and glass-blown light fixtures.
I don’t have time to do that now, but I savour and enjoy the work of other artisans. For example, I have a unique handmade cup I use every day. Someone poured so much passion into creating it that it makes me extra happy.
The handmade pottery and tableware give the table character. Our dining room at home is minimal, but we have gorgeous plates and beautiful handmade linens. It’s like we’re eating off art every day.
Please share with us some of your creative holiday decorating ideas.
There are many ideas. For example, I use handmade stockings from an artisan who is originally from Buenos Aires. I love her natural fabrics and mix of textures—they go well in a contemporary setting.
I also have beautiful handwoven baskets that I acquired from Mexico, various African countries, and Cambodia. I love putting gift baskets underneath the Christmas tree or even placing the trees in baskets.
Another nice tradition is to get wool or yarn in an assortment of colours for my children to make pom poms for the Christmas tree.
For anybody living near or in a forest, I’d recommend going out and cutting any type of boughs, such as cedar or laurel—they work as long as they’re green. You can then arrange a cluster of big and little wreaths on the wall as an art project.
Another idea is to add a ribbon around a bunch of greens and hang them over a doorknob.
You can also overflow a vase with cedar boughs and place it on the kitchen counter. These are some festive Christmas hints that can lift everyone’s spirit.
What’s your favourite holiday tradition?
When our children were young, my husband and I started taking them downtown. We bought 100 burgers, as many as we could possibly carry, and gave them out.
We wanted our children to have empathy for people. I lived in India and saw so much poverty there. It was important to share that concern with my family somehow. We now look forward to this tradition every year.
What’s the most memorable gift you’ve received?
My husband’s aunt used to paint with Emily Carr, an artist I’ve long admired. After reading her biography in my youth, I was inspired to move to Vancouver and paint in the mountains.
When we started dating, my husband gave me his aunt’s handmade paintbrushes—the ones she used when painting with Emily.
The paintbrushes are on my table in a closed bamboo container. No one knows what’s inside, but I do. I’ll never use them—they’re so old and stained, but I love them so much. They’re beautiful to me.
Please share some advice for finding the perfect gifts.
Gifts don’t have to be expensive, just meaningful. For example, my dad used to play the bagpipes. He has dementia now, so I hired a bagpiper to come to our house. My dad didn’t remember playing himself, but he was so moved when he heard the musician play the bagpipes.
An experience like that can become so much more than a gift.