The Art Of Opulence: In Conversation With Brian Gluckstein

When we arrive for our interview with Brian Gluckstein, the house in which we meet — a large and luxurious residence in Oakville, one of Toronto’s most elite suburbs — is a flurry of activity. Camera crews bustle about as contractors work to make finishing touches. The energy is palpable as cell phones ring, last minute decisions are made, and a chorus of power tools fills the air, all in an effort to complete this home by the September 1st deadline.

While the house is buzzing, Gluckstein himself is a still rock in the river. He is calm, dressed in various tones of cream that seem to echo the clean and airy nature of the room in which we sit.  He’s a sharp dresser, and given his keen eye for detail, it’s clear that nothing here is an afterthought— not his coordinating dress-shirt and cardigan, and certainly not the furnishings around him.

This house is a special project, and an unusual one in that there isn’t a homeowner in the picture — yet. For the fifth year in a row, Gluckstein has designed a show home for the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and the home, outfitted in traditional-chic splendour, will raise money for the Centre via lottery. The keys will be handed to one lucky winner sometime this fall.

Brian Gluckstein is something of an institution in the Canadian design scene. Not only does he run a successful firm, but he also spearheads a line of housewares and home furnishings under the umbrella of GlucksteinHome. And, of course, he’s an established media personality on this side of the border.

His journey into the world of design came early. His parents were in the furniture business, and a friend of theirs, who recognized the young Gluckstein’s interest in interiors, would give him endless copies of Italian magazines. At the time, Gluckstein explains, these were impossible to find. Amongst them were titles like Casa Vogue, which he describes as “the architectural digest of the 70s and 80s for Europe.” Gluckstein remembers poring over these photographs of luxurious Italian spaces in his youth, and his interest in design continued to grow. When it came time to attend university, he veered from the path of his peers. Unlike many of the kids he grew up with—who largely became doctors, lawyers, and accountants—Gluckstein set off on a creative route.

He recalls a day in his first week of school at Ryerson University as the moment in which he understood that he’d made the right decision. “I sat there and looked at all these crazy people, who were my colleagues at school, and I thought, this is really where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “I’d never seen people like that…you know, I’d never seen people with purple hair and nose rings and crazy clothes.” He gestures to his own neat attire and quips that his colleagues had probably taken one look at him and thought, the lawyer just walked in.

But despite being “a square,” (“I still look like a lawyer,” he laughs) Gluckstein knew that he was in the right place. It might have been a far cry from his initial childhood plans of being a pediatrician, but Gluckstein was hooked by the projects and the people. “They were all so different,” he says of his fellow students, “but all embraced and loved what we were studying.” 

Following school,  an opportunity arose for Gluckstein to work with a large and established firm. However, the sheer size of the office gave him pause. He realized in the interview process that here he would be only one tiny cog in the machine: one person at a desk, working on tiny aspects of large projects. He understood then that he needed to go small in order to go big.

Gluckstein instead opted for a small firm, where he could play a larger role in projects and learn the workings of the industry. And learn them he did, down to the smallest mechanics of running a business:  how to write purchase orders and confirmations, how to do site visits. And while it’s hard to imagine this refined man ever washing the boss’s car, he was never one to shy away from hard work and a practical education.

All of this served to prepare Gluckstein for when he finally branched out on his own, a move that afforded him autonomy in his artistry. “I think I wanted to control the narrative of what I wanted my design business to be, and what I was going to do,” he reflects. And thus, Gluckstein Design was born.

By one of those serendipitous instances of life going full circle, we learn that Gluckstein’s first foray into television occurred with another show home. The house was to be featured in a television segment, and all of the designers involved were asked to be present for a taping. At the time, there were very few shows geared towards television; this was over two decades ago, long before the days of HGTV and Pinterest — and even the Internet. “So from a TV standpoint,” Gluckstein explains, “it was quite new to see houses.”

Gluckstein had envisioned a sit-down style of interview that would later be edited. But the producer explained that the segment would involve Gluckstein talking about his designs directly to the camera. No questions, no interviewer — just Gluckstein, alone.

Painfully shy, he initially balked at the idea. But the producer encouraged Gluckstein to simply speak to the cameraman as though he was casually showing him around the house. Remarkably, the young designer was a natural, and after this filming—which Gluckstein managed in only one take—he was invited to introduce the project when it aired.

Gluckstein has been making regular appearances on Canadian daytime lifestyle shows ever since.

Today, Gluckstein’s interior design firm is busy with projects not just in Toronto, but also in Aspen, Miami, Palm Beach, and New York. And it’s in discussing his approach to these varied projects that Gluckstein’s laser-sharp eye for detail is perhaps most apparent. His method for designing a space in any particular city is not just informed by regional style, culture, and architecture, but in the minutiae of who his clients are and how they live.

“If we’re designing a beach house in Florida,” he explains, “it’s quite a different aesthetic than if we’re designing a Georgian house in Greenwich, Connecticut or Toronto.” Gluckstein just finished a house in Aspen, for instance — a project he describes as sporty and casual in its entertaining. “It’s definitely the lifestyle of the client and how they use the space that really informs how I design for them,” he says. And he considers that lifestyle down to the last detail — for instance, when it comes to fabrics, Gluckstein will choose softer upholstery in hotter climates, where homeowners will often wear shorts or go barefoot, meaning that exposed skin will be interacting directly with the furniture and carpets. 

While there are practical considerations in observing the manner in which a client dresses, Gluckstein also responds to the subtleties of personality that fashion exposes. For instance, he explains, an Internet magnate who wears jeans all the time will have different lifestyle requirements than a Wall Street guy whose clothing of choice is a well-tailored suit.

But in all of Gluckstein’s projects, there is a uniformity to his style. Whether he’s designing traditional or modern spaces—he loves both—there is, he says, a “cleanness” to the work. “Even our most traditional spaces have a tailored, edited approach,” he says. He also relies on juxtaposition, introducing vintage pieces to modern spaces and contemporary items to those spaces that veer heavily towards the traditional. “There’s always that contrast,” he says, “between old and new.” Gluckstein selectively curates character pieces that make each space unique and tailored to his clients’ personalities. 

Despite the fact that Gluckstein works diligently to strike a balance in aesthetic, he is far less flexible when it comes to his vision. And that meant being strategic in choosing which projects to be involved in and which ones to turn down. This determination to stay true to his integrity has been a key part of Gluckstein’s identity as a designer, even from day one. Whereas many young designers will accept any job to build a portfolio, get a foot in the door, and—yes—keep the lights on, Gluckstein boldly turned down the projects that failed to excite him. “I had a very focused vision,” he says, “that I was not going to deviate from.”

Perhaps one of the truest marks of a skilled designer is his or her ability to stay relevant, and Gluckstein is constantly seeking out inspiration in a changing landscape. He looks for that inspiration everywhere and anywhere: travelling, fashion shows, Pinterest. He has even stopped strangers on the street and asked to photograph their clothing if he’s drawn to the colour or pattern.

This hunger for growth and change, he muses, is perhaps the great divide between old and young designers. It is integral, he urges, to venture beyond one’s comfort zone and look past the mass-produced pieces and learn about history: the history of architecture, the history of furniture. “You may not like antiques,” he says, “but you’ll find something out there that turns you on.”

It’s this willingness to educate oneself that makes the difference, he explains, of design with soul and design without soul. “You see young designers today that have got a narrow scope of what informs them, and it shows in their work.” He further distills this thought: “It comes back down to: what is our profession all about? You can be a decorator and supply furniture to a client or you can be an artist and create interesting spaces. So which do you want to be?”

Aside from artistic integrity, Gluckstein has an additional secret weapon: his willingness to embrace the business side of his career. While many designers—indeed, some of the most famous designers in the world—prefer to delegate the administrative side of running a business and focus strictly on designing, this aversion makes it difficult, Gluckstein explains, to actually make a living. Gluckstein is one of those rare artistic minds that can find the creative side of anything — even business.

It’s apparent, in listening to Gluckstein speak, that his passion for interior design refuses to wane. “I’m so lucky I pursued this for a career,” he says. His eyes expertly travel over the room as he instructs his staff in last minute adjustments, to swap out one painting for another. At one point he even takes out his phone to share pictures he’s taken of the beautiful architecture he’s encountered on his travels. His excitement is infectious. 

“I just can’t believe that I do this for a living,” he says. “I love what I do. There’s this blend where my hobby and my career are the same.” He looks at our polished surroundings and smiles. “It’s a luxury to be able to say that.”

These luxurious homes may not be what one imagines when they picture an artist’s studio, but it’s apparent that for Gluckstein, the consummate artist, each new project offers a blank canvas. And when it comes to Brian Gluckstein, the artist is always present.

All photos courtesy of Gluckstein Design.