Setting (typology) : Opulent 1920s residence, Montreal Year of completion : 2012 Clients : A very classy couple of Italian descent, with two pre-teen children

    “This had to be the easiest commission I have ever received, particularly due to my aesthetic affinities with the client. We share a taste for low-key luxury, an interest in art and a love for things well made, all of which immediately had us on the same wavelength. This was the essence of the client’s attitude. He is a man of few words who makes decisions quickly, and he was attentive and sensitive to the merits of my professional arguments. He never missed a work meeting. Of course all of this can be seen in the work. The family moved in after 18 months of construction. Never in my career have I seen a project of this size go so smoothly!”

    René Desjardins’s latest challenge has been to transform a five-level house in the style of Upstairs Downstairs, the British TV series, into a showcase for contemporary art and refined Italian design. This gave him an occasion to take his search for clean elegance to its logical conclusion, creating luxury out of space itself. It should be said that the project lent itself to such a high-wire act; if the decoration had been noticeable, it would have shown a complete lack of understanding of the kind of environment needed by an art collector.

    The work began with the task of eliminating all the “parasites” from the space. Partitions that were keeping the space from breathing were removed, service corridors were eliminated, and changes made over the years by different owners were erased. “Each owner had left his mark, adding inconsistencies with no respect for the spirit of the building. It was a real nightmare!”

    Then room was made for natural light. The second stair was brightened with an immense new skylight, and openings between rooms were realigned to make the most of the view over the city, from the kitchen at the back to the dining room, from the vestibule to the breakfast room. French doors added to the latter open onto a new elevated terrace.

    Throughout the house, zero tolerance for visual clutter meant hiding utilitarian devices. Air conditioning vents and returns have been concealed between the ceiling and the cornices, convector grills slipped into window sills, light switches and electrical outlets eliminated in favour of home automation. Doors now slide into walls, and screen blinds retreat into lintels. It became a very complex (and expensive) exercise of elimination. Building “nothing” requires additional imagination and mastery, treating the smallest details with obsessive precision. Paradoxically, the resulting void became a manifesto for extreme refinement.

    Once space and light had been conquered, a dialogue needed to be established with the history of the house. Where others may have opted for tabula rasa, René Desjardins anchors his modernity in a subtle remembrance of things past. The leaded diamonds of the windows were restored, but the chimneys were rigorously sheathed in Statuario marble. The existing order of the ground floor was maintained, including the living hall and its Art Deco staircase, but it was given new meaning with pearl-grey walls and ash flooring, torrefied to a cocoa colour. It is all simple, clean and terribly effective. More caustically, the master-servant spatial segregation so typical of Victorian homes has been evoked by using panelling to underscore a spatial hierarchy. “I took inspiration from the original wainscoting—some remnants had survived—reworking them in a contemporary way.”

    The living hall has therefore been adorned with architectural mouldings on tall frameless panels, while the wood bases add a touch of luxury to the formal rooms. The woodwork is more low-key on the couple’s private level and completely absent in the upper reaches of the house, spaces that were traditionally for the family’s domestic help but in this instance accommodate a guest room and a suite for the children.

    In the first basement, which has been transformed into luxurious living space with an exercise room and hammam, a support beam displays the grace of age. It dates from the house’s original construction and crosses the second basement to rest on the rock of the mountain. “I saw it as a metaphor for the strength of things that last, a sort of totem.” Clearly there was no question of hiding it. On the contrary, it was given more emphasis by having the steel polished until it sparkled. The beam has been incorporated into the bar, where the precious quality of the marble brings out its brutality and bruises.

    On a lighter note, the palette of colours is reminiscent of Armani haute couture. “The idea came to me one day when the client dropped by our office. She was wearing a chocolate suede coat, a simple soft-grey cashmere sweater and a dove-coloured skirt. Around her neck she had tied a small, pink and violet silk scarf. It was incredibly chic, yet understated. Molto elegante!” The die was cast: Milanese elegance, which stands out by being resolutely discrete, would serve as the common thread through the project.

    The house is a radical alternative to decorated interiors, yet it is unforgettable. In spaces liberated for the play of transparency and light, the art becomes charged with emotion, and the rare pieces of furniture help underscore the quality of the air. A sense of peace reigns throughout, a welcome respite that lets the spirit relax and the imagination wander. Let go, slow down, dream… Hasn’t our greatest luxury become an ability to slow down time?

    Photos: André Doyon