Cake walk

It was the German philosopher Emanuel Kant who posited a creative tension between a prevailing “thesis” and an opposing “antithesis” that inevitably would give way to a new “synthesis” – an idea that Karl Marx made the foundation of his theory of chaotic social evolution. Now it may be a stretch, but if the muffin is ensconced as the upscale snack of the macho fast-paced world of post-industrial society, the designer cupcake has recently emerged as a more feminine antithesis, a richer, sweeter, more playful morsel to be savoured at a moderately sedate pace.

Most existing cupcake emporiums (and they remain limited in number) eschew the trendy post-modern eclecticism of the coffee/muffin bistro for delicate historicism that recalls our false memories of Grandmother’s parlour. But architect Henri Cleigne has taken a quite different tack with Itsi Bitsi, a west-end Montreal cupcake shop close to the banks of the historic Lachine Canal and its still-gritty industrial lands. With the wholehearted support of owner and graphic designer Pascale Guindon, he has combined clean geometric lines with a limited palette of materials that balances rich woods with hard-edged industrial products.

“In our initial conversation with the client,” Cleinge explains, “she made clear her desire to produce a contemporary boutique that would reflect the natural qualities of the products being sold on the premises.” Guindon, a graphic designer, had recently completed a series of postcards using old photographs depicting various sections of Montreal and the city’s industrial history. As I munched on an indecently rich chocolate cupcake, she showed me examples on her laptop and explained that she wanted her shop to be consistent with the local area’s industrial paternity. For the Carleton University-trained architect, this was a welcome brief. Cleinge’s own award-winning house (Canadian Interiors, May/June 2006) and the recently completed Narcisse+Echo hair salon both rely on an industrial aesthetic of hot-rolled steel and epoxy-coated concrete, mediated by a mix of lacquered wood.

Given the long and narrow shape of Itsi Bitsi’s open plan within the existing brick shell, Cleigne first sliced off the back kitchen area with a wall of hot-rolled steel, neutralized by a coat of clear matte lacquer and embellished with the store’s one delicate detail, two ceiling-to-floor graphics of cupcakes and pink chrysanthemums designed by Guindon. Down the middle of the still long and narrow public space, he inscribed a rigorously straight-lined service counter also constructed of hot-rolled steel, but topped with light-toned ash. A minimalist glass display box atop the counter ensures the elaborate cupcakes provide detail and texture. Stretched along the perimeter walls are walnut and ash cabinets set on steel legs and combined with simple, open walnut shelving above. To reinforce the rectilinear plan of the shop, Cleinge has marched a line of large retro – but clearly commercial-style – light fixtures above the service counter.

The desired result, Cleinge explains, was to use “natural materials in their natural state” (he considers steel to be a “natural” material) with bold straight lines. “Our gut instinct was to stereotype the cupcakes as feminine and the architecture and use of steel as masculine,” he says. The result is a satisfying expression of contrasts that includes both the old building shell enveloping a contemporary intervention and, of course, the cupcake’s soft and delicate sensuousness versus the hard character of simple straight-edged materials.