Meet The Designer Making Urban Living Fun

Toronto designer Drole House

School is starting back again, and it feels like a return to our homes after a summer spent outdoors. After all, with school comes predictable weekday routines, followed by shorter days and cooler weather that drive us indoors to cozy up with wool blankets and eat warm family meals.

And while the coziness of home sounds nice, as we watch our children try to fulfill their need for physical activity by climbing on our couches and chasing each other through the kitchen, all this closeness can start feeling awfully crowded for those of us living in smaller, city homes. That’s why when I discovered Drôle House, led by Toronto designer Deborah Mesher, I knew I had found someone who understood the real struggle urban families face. Her playful yet functional approach to design helps urban families live in the city and love their space.

Read on to find out what makes Drôle House a different kind of design company, and Deborah’s tips for making your urban family home, the best space for you. 

What led you to start Drôle House? How does it differ from other design companies?

I was a stay at home parent for more than a decade, so I know the constraints of urban living with children. Having more kids than bedrooms, needing flexible space for in-laws, modifying a tiny yard for active play, needing a workshop and office, and the challenges are on-going. Parents with young children spend an awful lot of time in and around their homes not to enjoy them fully. I wanted to use my architecture background to help families make the most of what they have and build or renovate with adaptation in mind. Drôle House strives to marry usefulness and playfulness in design, from the smallest interior changes, to full scale renovations and additions. Not every solution has to involve custom construction, after all, the greenest building is the one you don’t build!  

Deborah Mesher Toronto Designer

Tell us about your Postcard design game on your blog? How can we get involved?

The postcards are a way for families to access free design help. Everyone has something that bugs them about their home, or a great idea that they just can’t quite bring to life yet. Anyone can play the game by signing up online to receive a free digital copy, and use the drawing space to ask me a design question. I sketch out one or more solutions to each design challenge and then post both the postcard drawing and my sketch response on the blog. Sharing these responses, ideas and solutions helps other families because we’re all struggling with the same challenges

urban backyard toronto designer

You are an urban mom to three children. How have you made your own home adapt to your family’s changing needs? What would your children say is the best part about your home?

Nearly everything modified in my home has at least two uses. We ‘bend’ our spaces to meet multiple needs this way, thinking ahead to how it might change in the next five years. The garage houses an office, a workshop, and accessible storage. The backyard is a climbing centre, a treehouse, and a twelve guest dining area (yes, in 150sqft!). The outdoor bench pulls up to reveal a recycling station. Our rain cisterns are camouflaged as part of a privacy screen.

My kids say the best part of our home are their rooms and the treehouse (no surprise or insight there), but I would say the best part of our home is the excitement other kids have when playing here. I love having the fun house on the block! 

treehouse urban backyard

We love city living but sometimes the lack of space makes us start dreaming of moving to the suburbs. How can a family maximize the space in their home? What’s a small change that really makes an impact?

I think the most powerful change is one of mindset. Start by questioning how you actually use your home. Do you really need to be in the master bedroom? Do you need to use your garage for storage? Older homes were designed for the needs of families from 30, 50, 100 years ago, and we don’t share the same needs  today. Challenge yourself to observe what works for you and what doesn’t. Are you using your home like you want to, or how you think you’re supposed to?

With tiny city backyards, what can families do to create an inviting play space for their children?

Like most urban building, think vertical! All surfaces can be used, not just the ground. You don’t need fancy plastic equipment, you just need to use materials in a way that is discoverable; meaning how to use them is not obvious at first or open ended…that’s play! Also, think ahead to how older children or teens (with more capable and heavier bodies) would use the space

vertical boulder wall urban backyard

We want to take our kids outdoors more but then there’s homework, dinner, and before we know it, it’s dark outside and we’re tired! What are some fun but functional additions we can add to our home  to allow for more indoor physical activity?

You are right, there is no substitute for being outside! Indoor bouldering walls, a simple monkey bar in a doorway, or a partial stair slide can provide a lot of physical exertion with zero cleanup. I believe that a little bit of danger is a good thing, so wrapping your mind around risk in play and slowly challenging them can help kids fully engage and focus in their play.

indoor slide urban family home

How can we involve our children in the design process? 

Asking a child what they want their room to be will likely elicit a variation of “I want a Paw Patrol bed” or “like Elsa’s room”. They are highly influenced by what they see directly around them. Start by first observing play when they are the most joyful, excited or relaxed. Where are they? What are they doing? Think about all of the senses. It’s also easier to discern design needs from feelings rather than with direct questions about space. As an example, when asked about how to design her new space, my middle child drew out her bed with jail-like bars around it, complete with a lockable gate! She was trying to express her need of a private area in her shared room, one that her younger brother couldn’t access– a true space of her own. The idea developed into a simple cloth hammock hung high from the ceiling that met her needs of privacy, enclosure, and could deny him access since he can’t climb to it. It’s cheap, easy and doesn’t take up floor space!

vertical hammock in kids shared bedroom

How is your business going to change in the next few years?

On top of digital manuals, project guides and online how-to’s, one feature that I’m developing now is a short-list construction trade directory (in the GTA), as a resource for families. Finding a brick re-pointer, the best triple paned window, an electrician or a roofer can be daunting in the age of Google! Drôle House will do the work for you so that if you want to undertake renovations yourself, you have a reputable source – and a very short list – to call and find the right support for your project

Toronto design projects for urban families

What work are you most excited about right now?

I’m excited about several design projects I’m working on, including a two storey second suite addition on a home, a multi-use outdoor room, and a recycled container cottage, among others. I love working with families, and I love the excitement and joy that playful design can bring! I’m also excited that my youngest is finally starting school…it’s a new era all around.