North Van interior designer opens window to past

Charlotte Crystal traces with her fingers the intricacies of the 19th century tapestry splayed on her dining room table.

Her eyes closed, Crystal imagines the rich history infused in these threads. Images of Napoleon and the French Revolution are called to mind. It excites her.

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The veteran interior designer recently moved with her husband to the Parkgate area of North Vancouver, by way of Montreal. Yes, B.C. is absolutely beautiful to them, but a little too young in one regard.

Crystal has carved out a niche for herself, turning snippets of heirloom textiles into conversational home decor. Scouring antique stores, estate sales and trade shows for storied fabric is the couple’s primary pastime.

“Vancouver has been more of a challenge because there isn’t the history here,” explains Crystal. “In Montreal, we have a lot of older families who inherited and had things for hundreds of years.”

Crystal opened a window to the past by accident, early on in her interior design career.

“There was one client in particular where she had this huge sectional sofa and we really needed pillows. It was a big room and it just looked so bare,” she recalls.

Never a fan of matching pillows to a sofa, Romanian-born Crystal reflected on her roots and her mother’s love of handmade fabrics and needlepoint. Crystal soon built up a collection of antique textiles, spilling out from floor-to-ceiling shelves in her Montreal basement-turned-design studio. 

Sentimental swatches of fabric – a fanciful trim from a wedding gown, or a grandmother’s lovingly embroidered linen – were also incorporated into custom cushions by Crystal for her clients.

“I got kind of passionate about it. I just thought, ‘Well, this is fun,’” she says.

The referrals – and rare textiles – kept rolling in, until eventually Crystal and her cushions outgrew the basement. She opened a boutique, where Crystal created custom designs and sold raw materials.

In 1997, her innovative decor earned Crystal a cover story in the Home section of the Montreal Gazette.

“This kind of blew the whole thing open,” says Crystal. “I started getting a lot of calls. Nobody could find this in Montreal.”

Crystal continued adding to her collection of “discarded jewels,” used to embellish cushions, chair seat covers, drapes, duvet covers and footstools.

Céline Dion and Margaret Atwood were among Crystal’s clients at her Montreal boutique, which also caught the attention of Architectural Digest and led to a mention in the interior design bible.

Her grand collection of tapestry and unconventional trimmings came along when Crystal and her husband moved to North Vancouver a couple years ago to be closer to their son. Now that she’s settled here, Crystal has started creating antique textile cushions on the West Coast.

“Generally speaking, throw pillows are under-estimated as decorative accessories,” she says. “Besides providing comfort, they can add a lot of ‘punch,’ are very versatile, and relatively inexpensive when someone wants to change their décor. They act like jewelry does for fashion.”

For Crystal, who holds a bachelor of fine arts, knowing the history of the fabric adds intrigue to her designs.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says 70-year-old Crystal, thumbing through a pile of antique tapestries in her condo, on a drizzly spring morning.

The majority of her finds come from the East Coast of the U.S. and Europe. Years ago in London, Crystal snapped up a stunning green textile with gold metallic trim – a tablecloth from the Victorian era – and added it to her collection.                

“The person who bought it was the decorator for Céline Dion. She owns it,” reveals Crystal.

Of course, there are just some pieces Crystal can’t part with, including a matelassé bedcover from France.

“I happen to love matelassés,” she says.

Crystal’s vintage pillows start with a vision. From there, she creates a scale drawing, incorporating antique decorative elements. Then the design goes off to a local seamstress, along with Crystal’s instructions.

The starting price for her pillows is $100. Samples of Crystal’s designs can be found on her website and on Instagram, @panachepillowdesign.

“This is what I find very exciting – the whole world doesn’t have it,” says Crystal, pulling out a handmade, crocheted textile from Norway. “That was important to me as a designer, that I always hoped my clients would have something no one else had.”

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