David Powell and Fenwick Bonnell started their
firm in 1990 on a shoestring, and, as Powell
has said, did everything from party planning to
designing stuffed toys in an effort to stay afloat.
But, talent, artistry, dedication, and hard work
have since made Toronto-based Powell & Bonnell
an international player, with an ongoing legacy
of sumptuous, elegant, and extremely livable
The firm also has a much sought after line of
furniture, lighting, and textiles, which showcases
the signature Powell & Bonnell talent for
combining chic, practical, warm, and beautiful.
The firm has received multinational accolades
for interior and product designs in Canada,
the United States, and Britain, taking numerous
ASID “Best in Competition” awards over the years.
Both men are from the Canadian provinces—
Powell from a small town in Ontario and Bonnell
from the Maritimes—and met in Toronto, where
they both live.
i+D: Fenwick, how often do people
mispronounce your name?
Bonnell: It has to be spelled and re-spelled all the
time. I won’t tell you what I’ve been called because
people will call me that again.
i+D: When taking on projects, you’re aware
of people with disabilities.
Powell: My mother was quite handicapped,
particularly later in life, which made me aware of
the complications involved in daily tasks. Creating
beautiful, sophisticated interiors that belie the
fact that they’ve been done for someone with
a handicap have, over the years, been the most
gratifying projects we’ve worked on.
Powell: Bathrooms are tricky. We had a
client who didn’t want people to perceive that
his environment had been overly adjusted for his
disability, so we put in grab bars as part of the
architecture, so they appear to be floor-to-ceiling
stainless steel posts. We designed a toilet paper
holder that is also a handgrip.
i+D: How did you two meet?
Bonnell: David was sharing studio space with
an interior design professor of mine and she hired
me in my second year at Ryerson University.
David was working as a rendering artist, sitting
at a desk, which I shared. He took me under his
wing and showed me the ropes and all the things
I wasn’t learning in school.
i+D: Did you immediately hit it off?
Bonnell: I’m a difficult person. It took forever.
Well, several months. We both had a strong liking
for scotch. That helped cement the relationship.
Powell: (Laughing) Interesting to hear Fenwick
say I took him under my wing. I had no schooling
whatsoever, barely a high school education, but
I had the ability to draw from the time I was a
child. I was an illustrator of interiors. We taught
i+D: You still share a desk. Can you describe
what you see when you look up?
Bonnell: Each other. We’ve always been across
from each other, to discuss everything. There
are no secrets.
i+D: Do people say you work too hard?
Powell: Most people say that, but I don’t feel that
way at all. I’m doing something I yearn to do.
I grew up on a farm and loathed it. I left when I
was 15. It didn’t suit me. I just wanted to draw or
arrange flowers. As a child, I’d stand at a row that
needed to be hoed or picked and think: What
is going to become of me? To live in a world of
design and beauty has been a dream.
i+D: What was the first thing you designed?
Bonnell: The family rec room when I was 14. I grew
up in a middle-class environment and was lucky—
my mother and father gave me free rein. Everything
came from Sears and everyone loved it. It was
spectacular. Thinking about it now—it was horrible.
Bonnell: But, it was a success.
i+D: When you interview someone to join your
team, what is the key question you ask?
Bonnell: We ask them to do a little project for us.
We also ask them to describe their living room, to
see how they live. It’s a way of understanding how
they relate to design.
Powell: On occasion we’ve had individuals who
refused to do it. We pointed out to them, that it’s
only the Meryl Streeps of the world who don’t
have to audition.
i+D: What will you overlook in a colleague?
If a person is extremely talented, for example,
but always late, is that a concern?
Bonnell: It’s never bothered me because that’s
the way I behave. I’m always late. I practically was
wearing pajamas to work.
Powell: (Laughing) It got really bad.
Bonnell: My weirdness was overlooked. We don’t
judge people on anything like that.
i+D: What are you reading?
Powell: Florence: A Delicate Case by David
Leavitt. I lived there for a year in the mid-80s.
Bonnell: Three books currently. The Secret Lives
of Trees, Fear, and The Complete Guide to Running.
i+D: You’re a runner?
Bonnell: I’m supposed to say yes. I’m doing
a half-marathon next month. So, yes.
i+D: You’re known and celebrated for residential
design. What about commercial work?
Powell: We’ve done some. Residential clients
have involved us in their business projects—
some large offices. I was involved in the design
of funeral homes for a client. We’ve all had
experiences in funeral homes—I had more
than my share in the ’90s. I thought there
was a potential for change. It’s a very difficult
industry, very organized and protectionist.
I felt the experience should be akin to a five-star hotel, where whatever you wanted could
be accomplished with ease in a beautiful
environment. We created funeral homes that
have changed the industry. It’s about light
and lighting, textures, a manipulation of emotions
to create a calm place.
i+D: How do you diplomatically disagree with
a client’s choices and opinions?
Bonnell: It doesn’t come up that often. We’ve had
clients we just didn’t feel we were making progress
with because they were resistant to any concepts.
We’ve had to say we can’t work with them anymore.
i+D: Did you do it as often when you were
starting out as you do now?
Bonnell: The first seven years of our business
we barely did any work at all. It wasn’t because
we were uncompromising. In the beginning, we
definitely felt that clients took advantage of us,
creatively and monetarily. It never makes sense to
try to make your clients happy when you know it’s
not going to work.
i+D: Would a client be surprised to see
your Toronto apartments?
Bonnell: More so with David’s place.
Powell: I live quite modestly, but stylish and
organized, in 400 square feet in the city.
i+D: Are either of you collectors?
Powell: I was a collector—I collected beautiful
objects and art. But, I got to a certain age and
thought: I don’t need anything more in my life.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.