It all began innocently enough. Architect Maxime Vandal was indulging his penchant for real-estate porn when he came across a listing for a circa-1890 Second French Empire–style home in the historic Westmount neighborhood of Montreal. A week later, he and his husband, designer Richard Ouellette, made an offer on the property. Never mind that the pair had sold their Craftsman house in the same tony suburban enclave not even a year earlier, and had spent the last nine months renovating a co-op apartment in downtown Montreal. “We were pretty impulsive,” Ouellette admits.
As partners and co-owners of the design-and-construction firm Les Ensembliers, the pair is always up for a new project. “Some women buy shoes. We buy houses,” Vandal quips. But with the Westmount house, they took their time, living in it for a whole year before changing a thing (and then setting up a tent in the living room to sleep in during the renovation). “We’re drawn to things that have history and character and soul, but we’re also builders,” says Ouellette. “We love the renovating process.” Here, that meant stripping back a 1980s refurbishment to restore the structure to its former glory.
The kitchen and bathrooms were completely demolished to make way for more modern conveniences, and moldings were added to match the originals; walls were moved and floors were painted to hide inconsistencies. “It wasn’t one of those disaster renovations,” Ouellette says. “It was more about finding ways to show a collection of stories about our life together.”
One of those stories is the couple’s relationship with art. In both their personal and professional lives, Ouellette and Vandal have championed little-known and emerging creatives, acting as ambassadors for young talent, and then utilizing those works to elevate their own. Ouellette installed Paul Villinski’s butterflies in a project for a client, but he loved the lifelike little sculptures (made from recycled aluminum cans) so much, he had the prototypes flutter up their entry stairwell. A wiry blue piece by Canadian artist Shayne Dark, which has traveled with Ouellette and Vandal throughout their real-estate adventures, juts out from the wall in the service staircase, surprising guests—and also the homeowners. “Originally I said, ‘Over my dead body,’ ” Vandal recalls, “but it grew on me.”
Cultivation of the unexpected is a big part of the home’s appeal. The house has become a place for artistic experimentation, where architect and designer can test the limits of a contemporary aesthetic through a traditional framework: Furniture is placed slightly askew in the living room, resulting in a dynamic space that feels more like a salon than a suburban gathering place, and the kitchen’s open shelving continues right across the windows. In fact, much of the house’s design was driven by the duo’s existing range of fabrics for Brunschwig & Fils (their collection of wallpapers is soon to launch), creating a sort of living showroom. “I’ve always loved the idea of living in an atelier,” Ouellette says. “I feel like our creative process is expressed in these walls. This is really the sum of us.” The question, then, is: Will they stay?
“We form an attachment, but once the renovation is done, we get a little bored,” admits Ouellette. “However, now we’re surrounded by a lot of elements that we love,” adds Vandal. “This is one of the first houses where we can truly say we’ll be here for the next 20 years.”
Shop Les Ensembliers' Montreal Home
Producer: Doretta Sperduto