The Ren Way

Ren Desjardins is philosophical about his self-styled “zigzag” career over 25 years as one of Montreal’s top interior designers. But then again, that is exactly what you might expect of someone whose career started as a fully certified philosopher. His classical education at the cole des Beaux-Arts was followed by a Master’s degree in Philosophy from his hometown’s Universit du Qubec Trois-Rivires. His first, albeit short, career was teaching the philosophy of aesthetics at the university. But he soon tired of that. “The students just weren’t interested or curious enough and, more importantly, they lacked the mastery of the precise language required to do philosophy,” chuckles the outgoing designer.

This led to the first “zig,” a stint starting in 1980 as a jewelry designer with his own successful boutique in Trois-Rivires. A less successful expansion to Montreal, however, ushered in the next “zag.” While closing down his self-designed Montreal boutique, a friend cajoled Desjardins into helping her finish her new Westmount house. When the house scored significant media coverage, new commissions flowed in to the rather surprised fledgling designer.

A stint in the Universit du Qubec Montral’s design program, Desjardins confesses, proved less useful than summer construction work with his engineer father and the influences of an artist mother. “I am also a horse rider and trainer,” he says, “and the art of training a horse, of controlling its movements and cadence has taught me more about making space than school.” Still, when the Quebec Association of Interior Designers subsequently invited him into the official design fraternity in 1989, he felt a comforting sense of legitimacy.

What really separates designers, he believes, is the ability to explain successfully what a client might otherwise might not appreciate or even see as “beautiful.” But what is beautiful in a philosophical sense, he continues, is not the shallow artifice of the decorative but the ability to express what is good, and what is good is that which is unified into the truth. “What is ‘real,’ that is truth,” he says. A chair must be functional and comfortable to be true and thus beautiful. Similarly, a specific style is never “the truth” because each design must respect the location, the building and the space in which it takes place, while at the same time responding to the specific needs of those who use or live in the space. “I have no idea how to make them beautiful,” he confesses, ” but I can design projects that have purpose, that meet their function and are not capricious.”

If pressed, however, Desjardins finds his mentors in the rationality and spareness of the Bauhaus classics — Mies Van de Rohe and Breuer, as well as Le Corbusier — although a strong preference for natural materials signals his intent to go his own way. “I like what one author wrote, which translates roughly as ‘What is perfect about the desert is that nothing more can be taken away,’ ” he says. Design is thus as much about taking things out as putting things in.

As a designer, Desjardins is wary of falling into a rut, whether it is a signature style or simply recycling the same ideas. “Currently, I am interested in the paradox between spareness and rusticity; between warm if harsh materials and very clean lines,” he says. “I love the tension of the paradox; therefore, I am not much interested in the monochromatic world. Tension between things, in the Marxian sense of the dialectic, produces an imbalance and out of this comes a new equilibrium.”

Children & art

Desjardins has built a client base with some major players in Montreal’s business and cultural communities. One of his favourite projects, however, was the makeover and expansion of a 1960s bungalow in Saint-Lambert, on Montreal Island’s south shore. The clients, a young professional couple with two infant children, mandated wall space for an impressive and expanding art collection, a large open kitchen/living room space for entertaining and an unfussy environment ideal for kids. Working with architect Marc Julian, the design team gutted the bungalow and raised its roof to create a large open space, glazed to the yard. This voluminous public realm is anchored by a totemic two-sided fireplace of stacked slate.

Two single-storey wings were added to create a skewed, U-shape plan. An angled wing containing garages and a racquetball court is separated from the house by a striking glass-enclosed causeway. An oversized corridor — with glazed bays onto the garden — marks the private bedroom wing; this generous space also serves as the house’s main art gallery.

The Saint-Lambert residence is spare without being sterile, allowing the art, fireplace and inside/outside relationship with the garden to provide visual animation. Detailing is meticulous, with mechanical elements carefully concealed. Even the light fixtures for the gallery, by Andr Pallai’s Eklipse, can be pulled back into the ceiling. In the bedroom, the deep rich tones of Brazilian ipe, one of Desjardins’s favourite woods, adds sumptuous texture.

Addition & subtraction

Bos, author of the sometimes raw Fido and Honda commercials, is one of the top publicity agencies in Montreal. Since 1995, Desjardins has designed and expanded the agency’s downtown office, even picking up an Institute of Design Montral Award in 2003. The mandate for Bos’s new 45,000-square-foot head office on the Lachine canal required the adaptive reuse of a historic, six-storey industrial brick building that originally served as a storage facility for Dominion Textiles. A new, single-storey wing was also inserted into the structure. Both elements were completed with architect Luc Lapointe.

Bos’s chairman, Michel Ostiguy — Desjardins reports — respects and trusts the designer. A man, perhaps ironically, of few words, Ostiguy wanted to retain the hard, almost rough-edged image of the existing office because it symbolized the firm’s reputation for directness. He wanted, “No frills, no bull, direct,” summarizes Desjardins. The design team’s response was to start subtracting, stripping away the superfluous layers within the old storage box, with its constraining eight-foot ceilings further compacted by the massive wood beams required to bear the weight of the yard. A voluminous two-storey space was carved out of the original first two floors, while the remaining floors were combined into double-height spaces with mezzanine levels.

Tension is established by playing the rough and heavy feel of the textured brick walls, the old B.C. fir of the ceilings and floors and the heavy wood structural beams against the sleek transparent minimalism of glass partitions that define conference rooms and offices. The glass partitions are carried over into the new wing; in contrast to the original building, its spaces are light and bright, with its relatively delicate and exposed steel structure painted white like the walls. In contrast, the floors are again dark ipe wood. Unifying the complex are desks and conference tables designed by Desjardins specifically to be as raw and direct as the spaces they occupy. Waxed, cold-rolled steel plates backed by plywood to soften noise are combined to create a very simple, functional form without artifice.

Art & nature

Recently, Desjardins bought 50 acres in the Eastern Townships, in what he calls a “Tuscan-image” landscape. With rolling topology climbing away from a river and cut by a meandering stream, the Highwater landscape is intended for development as five-acre properties. This is not about speculative development — “I will be my own client; and I will not construct houses for someone,” the designer says — but he does want a certain aesthetic homogeneity, although certainly not a developer’s cut-and-paste banality. The idea, working with two young architects, is to develop simple modular block
s that can then be arranged to step “ecologically” down the slope in harmony with the topology. It is the landscape that will compose the architecture, says Desjardins. Roofs will be green, a forest engineer is developing an organic, less disruptive site plan, and one of his staff is obtaining LEED certification. Almost certainly, the houses will exhibit a spareness that will rely on the landscape to be the primary animator. CI