Articles by Rosemary Phillips

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Ray Staples - The Room Doctor

From near death experiences to choosing carpets and colours
- time well spent with Ray Staples

A story by Rosemary Phillips taken from the book "Sliced Bread", published in 1999.

Ray Staples - The Room Doctor
Ray Staples at home - photo by Janet Bailey for Style at Home magazine article March 2004.
JULY 16, 2012 - Ray Staples, The Room Doctor, and dear friend went Home today, peacefully, in Toronto, Ontario. Ray never feared death (see below about her Near Death Experience) just the process. Today she was finally able to go through the tunnel of light - and stay. I, along with her family, friends and associates, will miss her dearly, yet I know that she lives on in our memories, and in that world beyond the tunnel of light. I treasure the time spent with her, and will always remember her wit and wisdom. Enjoy this short journey with Ray; this story is but a mere taste of the personality and life of a truly amazing woman who certainly has made a difference in the lives of many.

Mover and shaker
CBC Outside-Inside with Alex Trebek
Bright colours in brown paper shopping bags
A near death experience (NDE)
A carpet the client won't like - at first
The final touch
CityLine TV
Honest advice

INTRO Spring 2012: I've known Ray Staples now for over 40 years; I admire and love her dearly and feel honoured to call her 'friend'. As eccentric artists we understand each other explicitly (of course she may have something to say about that), and we always have delightful phone conversations (I live on the other side of the country). For many years those conversations were like 'kick ass' as Mama Ray would give me 'what for' and 'sound advice' on many things. That's what I've always enjoyed about Ray, she doesn't skirt around the issue, she gives it to you straight.
On one particular occasion, at the funeral of a close friend of ours in Toronto, I was introduced to Ray's new bookkeeper and said to her, "I consider Ray a mentor." Mama Ray stepped in and replied quite matter of factly, "Don't ever call me that kid (yes, that's what she called me for many years), I don't want to be responsible for the end product!"
At 92 Ray has had her challenges, particularly with the loss of her husband Ev. Through it all Ray still has many stories to tell. And when giving her humble opinion on a subject recently stated, "Humble opinion?" and laughed out loud. I hope you enjoy the following; it is but an introduction to a grand lady.

"If you don't care who gets the credit, you can accomplish miracles," said Ray Staples. "My mother used to say that to me and I'm so glad she did."

Mover and shaker
Ray was a mover and shaker, and a frequent visitor to the offices of the Interior Designers of Ontario on Colbourne Street in Toronto (that was 1971 - IDO eventually became ARIDO). I often assisted Olga Collins, the office manager, with typing, mailings and general office duties. When Ray walked into the office the room was instantly filled with vibrant electricity and colour. Our attention was caught by her artistic charisma, enhanced by her flowing cape, shockingly bright red hair, and outrageous Robin Hood hat that featured a long feather swirling up towards the ceiling. When she spoke her words matched her outrageously eccentric appearance. Direct, bold, and completely honest, her opinions would leave listeners bristling or fading in shock.

"If you can say firmly what you believe to be the truth, how can you offend anyone?" would be her response to my questioning. I often wondered if it was her appearance and being in her early fifties that permitted her to be so downright honest about things. "As a designer people are paying you for your opinion and it had better be the truth. If you're not telling the truth you're not doing your job."

CBC Outside-Inside with Alex Trebek
In 1972 we both started working for "Outside/Inside", a CBC Television show about design for everything from cities to tea pots, even dogs. It aired on Sunday mornings in 1972-3. Ray was co-host with Alex Trebek (before he moved on to California and Jeopardy fame), Shirley Franklin was producer, Chris Paton as director, and Dodi Robb was executive producer. I was the researcher who also typed out the scripts. So, Ray and I spent a great deal of time together doing research, filming, and having lunch. Lunches with Ray were a special treat that I looked forward to. They were long, and while we ate we talked about many things, not just design, but about life, and, with a bit of philosophy thrown in - the kind that's 'out-of-the-box' thinking, talked about life after life. I loved to sit and listen to her stories.

Bright colours in brown paper shopping bags
During an initial visit with a client in Forest Hill, north of Toronto, Ray was invited into the living room and sat down while the client discussed her requirements. "I want everything in beiges and browns, and I want a home that all my neighbours will just love."

Ray looked at this woman closely, observed her bright jewel-coloured clothes adorned with beautiful accessories, and took note of her jewellery-bedecked arm that was draped dramatically over the end of the sofa. Ray then carefully scanned the room with her designer's eye. On her second visit she arrived with a few brown-paper shopping bags full of samples, not display boards full of colour swatches and illustrations like we were taught in design school. Ray spread samples of fabric across the sofa and over chairs producing an excellent example of a very neutral scheme of beiges and browns. The client purred in raptures of oohs and aahs as she touched the fabrics and delighted in their simplicity.

Ray grabbed the samples and as she briskly shoved them back into the shopping bags said, "Well Honey, that ain't what you're gonna get. This is what you'll be having." She reached into another brown-paper shopping bag and pulled out samples of wonderfully bright, brilliant and happy colours.

The client stood overwhelmed, excited and in ecstasy. "How did you know?" she cried out.

"Easy," was Ray's response. "I just had to look at you and your wardrobe."

A near death experience (NDE)
One day we went to try out a new restaurant that served salads in clear plant pots. It was a bright cheery restaurant with lots of light and flora, a totally uplifting atmosphere. The menu was simple and delicious. We sat and ate slowly, enjoyed the conversation, and drank wine followed by lots of coffee. It was a particularly long lunch and discussion went into an entirely new direction as Ray confided in me her near death experience:

"I had gone to visit the dentist for a minor extraction and was put under gas anaesthetic. While I was unconscious I had the sensation of floating above myself and of moving towards a beautiful light accompanied by a feeling of wonderful warmth and love around me. I was getting closer and closer towards that light then suddenly I was drawn backwards into a darkness. I returned to consciousness in the dentist's chair and found paramedics pounding my chest. The minute I came around I knew I had been moved into a different room. It's a decorator's ploy. I had scanned the place and knew that the drapes were of a different material. My eyes had been trained to do that automatically. The dentist kept insisting that I hadn't been moved, maybe because it was against the law to move someone while they were unconscious, and they were not going to admit that I had died, that they had lost me and had to revive me.

"It took me at least two weeks to get over the incident. I was angry at the dentist for bringing me back from that wonderful sense of peace and happiness, and that place of knowing the answers to life's mysteries. Since then my feeling about death has been that it is simply a transition. I have no fear of death, but I do know that we are afraid of the process of death, of the actual dying, and of being a burden on others in this life as we die."

We continued talking about death and dying, and the continuation of life, and as we talked the waiters began to clear tables and set them for the evening meal, all the while clattering cutlery and dishes around us.

"Do you suppose they're trying to tell us something Ray?" I asked.

"Yes, I think we ought to get moving on," was her reply.

We walked back to Ray's car in the parking lot, a designer's car full of samples of fabrics, flooring and wallpapers. We both still had work to do, so Ray dropped me off at the CBC offices on Church Street and then went on her way while I headed for my desk to type up the scripts for the next show.

A carpet the client won't like - at first
Friendship with Ray has lasted for many years. While visiting Toronto in 1987, I met Ray for lunch and we picked up conversation as though there had been no passage of time between then and the previous lunch of years earlier. I then followed her around as she went in search of items for a new client. We stopped at The Bay, on the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, and looked through huge racks of gorgeous area rugs. Ray picked one, paid for it, and ordered it to be delivered that afternoon.

"She's not going to like it," Ray chuckled. "She won't like it one bit, but tomorrow night she has company coming over for dinner. She'll phone me the next morning and tell me that she loves it and wants to keep it."

Two days later I phoned Ray to ask about the results of the rug delivery. "Yes," Ray confirmed, "I got a call from that client first thing this morning insisting that the rug has to stay. Her guests just loved it, and now, so does she."

The final touch - a yellow vase
That same year I made another very quick trip to Toronto from Vancouver and Ray offered to drive me back to the airport. On the way we made a delivery of a huge vase to a client's home. I carried a mirrored pedestal while Ray carried the vase. We entered an incredibly elaborate condominium Ray had been working on in which she was joining together the furnishings and accessories belonging to separate households of two former clients who had come together and married. As I entered the living room I noticed a distinct flavour of his taste on one side of the room and on the other was hers with a blending of the two in the middle. Ray placed the vase on the pedestal right smack in the middle of it all and as if by magic the room came together in a song of harmony.

"It's like the final brush stroke on the canvas that makes all the difference," was Ray's explanation.

We then proceeded on to the airport where we sat huddled for several hours over coffee and conversation. Her mother had recently gone Home and she was missing her - missing that special someone who she loved and was inspired by all her life.

CityLine TV
"You know, it's funny getting to be a celebrity when you're an old lady," Ray mentioned in a discussion a couple of years ago. "As I was getting off the plane on my trip to the Arctic a few years ago, a journey I had always wanted to take, people turned and said, 'There's Ray Staples!'"

Ray's smiling face was seen regularly across Canada and the Arctic on CITY TV's Thursday edition of CityLine where along with host Marilyn Denis and other designers Ray gave tips and answers to questions on decorating the home. The comment that Ray often heard from people on the street when they stopped her was, "We really enjoy your show, and we love your honesty."

(Coincidentally the one CityLine show I have a tape of, recorded the one day I was home in the afternoon to see it, was of a tour of the apartment that Ray and I had visited that day years earlier with the yellow vase and mirrored pedestal. Isn't life just amazing?)

And here's a special piece of Ray's honest advice: "Don't just do one wall - do them all!"

POSTSCRIPT 2012: I'm gonna miss Mama Ray, but I'm sure she'll still be around giving advice, only now she doesn't need a phone... she has a direct line. On my last visit with Ray and Ev, three years ago, they sat side by side as they had done for years. The chairs and lamps had changed as had other items, but not the coffee table covered in books and magazines, the comfy couch and all the art on the walls. It was all so wonderfully familiar. Ray handed me a little box and inside it was a beautiful ornamental cracked egg. "I'm giving these to those people who are special in my life, and this one is for you." I was choked. Then she handed me a bag with an outfit in it. "I saw it and thought of you," she commented. I pulled it out and looked at it - a cream coloured pant-suit with beautiful bright-coloured floral embroidery on the side of the leg and sleeve. It was definitely not something I would have ever chosen myself. "It's for you to wear while you are performing for children. And you should get them hemmed by a seamstress," she advised, knowing how I do things cheaply and cheerfully. This spring, for Earth Day 2012, I wore it in honour of Mama Ray as I performed with the children of Okanagan Falls Elementary School singing a new song I wrote called "Earth Day All Year Long". Forgive me Ray, I hemmed the pants myself.

NOTE: There are many more articles on this site about great musicians and artists - see Index of Articles.

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