All in the family

 It has been at least three decades since the upstart heretics of postmodernism openly challenged the then-entrenched modernist theocracy. The battle that pitted Meis’s “less is more” against 

Robert Venturi’s “less is a bore” raged for a relatively short period as po-mo was appropriated into bland corporate architecture and irony proved a limited muse. But all was not in vain. Out of the debate came a realization that architecture was not about some zeitgeist but about creating appropriate tools to assist real human beings to dwell successfully. Scale, texture, colour, materiality, a sense of place – even whimsy and historical continuity – emerged as legitimate underpinnings of successful contemporary design. The result has been the rise of a delightfully eclectic architecture and interior design that both represents its time and place while frequently borrowing, without irony, from what has worked in the past.  

Just such a project is La maison du boisé, a major house interior realized
by veteran Montreal designer René Desjardins for a young and decidedly growing family’s home on beautifully treed land just north of the city. The result is modern but not minimalist, sophisticated but solicitous to the playfulness of young children, and reserved in its neutral hues but alive with flashes of colour. Despite its contemporary core, there is more than a hint of classical framing in the moldings, entablature and coffered ceilings. Harmonious silk-grey walls play off rich dark Sucupira (Brazilian chestnut) floors throughout. His approach, Desjardin says, dances between tired traditional design’s fondness for clutter and sterile minimalism’s “anorexia of design.”

Such an approach comes naturally to the seasoned designer whose initial degree was a Masters in Philosophy before his dislike of academic teaching sent him back for a design degree from the University of Quebec. “I have never paid attention to momentary fashion,” he tells me. “I like to listen to my heart.” But beyond this romantic ideal, he confesses, his philosophy training has aided in achieving a balance in which aesthetic decisions can be analyzed, discussed and eventually explained rationally: “It is an approach that over time has encouraged clients to trust the decisions I make as a designer.”

These particular clients, Desjardins says without restraint, were perhaps the easiest he has ever had. At the same time, the couple, both working pharmacists, also had very clear objectives. She wanted colour; he sought timelessness, “a design that would last indefinitely.” But the overwhelming concern for both was how the house would accommodate children. At the start of the design process, there were two with one on the way; but this has now mushroomed to three – plus twins expected soon! Family was paramount.

But for Desjardins, a child-friendly house is not about producing cloyingly cozy space stuffed with objects and overburdened with colours. “What do children need?” he asks rhetorically and answers promptly: “They want space with the room to run and jump.” The core for this elegant yet child-friendly house is its double-height living room complete with a Bianco Carrara marble fireplace and overlooked by a broad, second-storey mezzanine defined by a glass balustrade. But it is the striking floor-to-ceiling glazed wall that pulls in the colours and textures of the site’s splendid natural landscape that truly animates the space. The children are more than welcome to use this “great room” as a play area in which, he says, the stylish Italian Flexform sofas can act as forts or in the service of other capers. A slim wood rocking chair, reminiscent of classical Danish design but crafted in Quebec, is the preferred spot for breast-feeding under the soft glow of Hope, Luceplan’s new globe chandelier.

The living room gives onto a formal dining room equally defined by cool whites and greys but most significantly by two glazed walls opening to the trees. But the true heart of the house is the adjacent kitchen. While reminiscent in its expansive size of traditional Quebecois kitchens that served as the family’s social vortex, it is a sleek and modern iteration save for a touch of traditional ceiling moldings. Again, white and grey walls and cabinetry dominate, set off against dark, rich chestnut flooring, but with a playful jolt of colour in the “hard-candy” mosaic backsplash. A huge quartz-topped island with five upholstered stools from Herman Miller seems poised to eventually accommodate five kids bent over their homework, while mom and dad prepare dinner with built-in, high-end appliances from Bosch, Sub-Zero and Wolf. Or, they may play a board game around the large kitchen table surrounded on three sides with padded banquettes and tucked into a nook overlooking the terrace.

The terrace itself can be considered an elegant interpretation of a historic seigneurial manor’s summer kitchen, a semi-outdoor retreat during warm summer months after one of Montreal’s long cold winters. But just to be on the safe side, this quasi-rustic space with Spanish cedar panels and stone tiles has a heated ceiling, screens against bugs, transparent windscreens and state-of-the-art barbeque appliances. The last sits in front of a glistening wall of one-inch-square stainless-steel tiles. Philippe Starck’s ubiquitous Louis Ghost chairs in mauvish Plexiglas counterpoint a large, very weighty wood farm table. The intent, says Desjardins, is to generate a “contrast of strong/delicate, smooth/rough and massive/transparency [that] yields an exemplary modernism that stands the test of time.”             

The child-welcoming theme extends to the parents’ second-floor bedroom, with a large furnished area tucked into a corner with glazed walls opening into the trees. Like the rest of the house the colour scheme is quiet, the floor rich Sucupira and the ceiling coffered, albeit with a cheeky chandelier. But the corner lounge with its contemporary yet comfortable seating is intended for snuggling through story time.

The bedroom also boasts a very large scratchboard artwork by Quebec artist Stephen Spadzuk. While this graphic work of etched images introduces only muted colour, other artwork in the house, all from the province’s vibrant art scene, is a key vehicle for introducing the client’s insistence on strong splashes of colour.  Using art, along with exposure to the outside, is the designer’s preferred approach to introducing colour. This has been extended, however, to three glass panel doors of blue, yellow and plum in the bathrooms as well as violet Maxalto chairs in the dining room.    

La maison du boisé succeeds as an expression of an apparent oxymoron: child-friendly elegance.  cI