Strictly Canadian

IMG_1380At our cottage, there was a hope and a dream to honour a canoe birch (paper white birch) by installing it within the interior. The tree was miraculously found by our contractors after a major wind storm up north and installed with branches and leaves intact. Which we loved, of course. even if it meant crawling through the branches as if we were living in a forest.


The tree functions as a structural column, strong enough to handle a spontaneous climber.


For any custom built-ins or shelving we’re using Baltic birch ply. It’s light and creamy next to the golden cedar interior of the original 1960s cottage.  Our coffee bar, pictured here, just getting set up now with Danish teak chest from Kensington Market, yellow Italian espresso maker from my friend, Ginetta, and pastel-coloured melamine dishes.


It seems that trees are coming inside more often these days. For a main lobby space at Quality Hotel Expo, Norway, by Haptic Architects, planted trees are set among long communal tables and iconic modern chairs – a dramatic set piece that looks as fantastic inside as it could in a forested park. (Photo Trine Thorsen)

Garden-Tree-House-by-Hironaka-Ogawa-Associates-Yellowtrace-02Garden Tree House by Hironaka Ogawa & Associates.  For this project the Azelkova tree and a Camphor tree from the site were carefully cut then smoked and dried for two weeks to reduce the water content.  They were then reinstalled within the house to serve as main structural elements and central memory totems. (Photo Daici Ano)


The great Norwegian modernist Sverre Fehn (1924 – 2009) might have been among the first to honour living trees within architecture with this unforgettable gesture at the Venice Biennale’s Nordic Pavillion.  There’s no way to dispute the power of nature here.


IMG_0984For the addition to our cottage in one of Canada’s provincial parks, we decided to follow the Japanese tradition of cladding the exterior with charred cedar. The technique, known as Shou-Sugi-Ban or Yakisugi, is said to raise the natural resins in wood and naturally protect against rot and fire.  (Try igniting a charred log and you’ll see what I mean.) Besides the long-lasting benefits,  the moody-black aesthetic of the burned wood convinced us to try out Yakisugi.

IMG_0973Call us crazy (we were) to burn wood on purpose.  Luckily, our excellent contractor (Brinkman Construction) was game.  He supplied us with a massive propane torch typically used to melt ice on roads, and we char-tested Western Red Cedar and Eastern.  The Eastern, primarily because it’s local and readily available, won out. We laid out about 12 boards at a time and went to work. It’s very intense and best done in pairs: one person working the torch, the other ready with a wet brush and pail of water to control wandering licks of fire.

IMG_0965The depth of the charring in Japan varies wildly, from wood burned deeply over fire pits to light charring.  Swiss architect Peter Zumthor charred the interior of the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Germany to create a mystical experience.  We decided to go for the sateen finish of the lighter char to gain some rot resistance and heighten the wood’s natural grain.  It took nearly three days to produce about 400 boards.

IMG_1506We’re thrilled with the result.  In full sunshine, the wood takes on a silver patina.


Our Yakisugi cedar with newly installed black frame windows.


Now we’re counting down the days ’til construction inside and out is complete.  More on that – and the Birch tree installed inside the cottage – to come.  Happy creative summer!

ztjacob6Students at Canada’s Trent University, a masterwork of 1960s modernism, lounging on Swan chairs by the great Danish designer, Arne Jacobsen.   Did they know how cool they were?

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An archival photo of one of the Trent lounges, graced by Jacobsen Swan chairs around an Eero Saarinen table. Built-in furniture and modular wood chandelier by Canadian great, Ron Thom.

img_4134As my homage to the vast collection of mid-century furniture that once flourished then disappeared at Trent, here’s a tribute with some of the chairs I’ve been collecting for a while, and the joy that they bring.


Restaurant L'ExpressL’Express, a Montreal classic on rue St. Denis, where the ambience and bifteak with frites are a rare treat.  (Photo: Andre Cornellier.)

IMG_1371The Building as Sign.  A commercial building renovated 33 years ago, L’Express is an instant stand-out for its glass archway, cream-coloured painted masonry and heated black and white tiles on front terrace that move seamlessly from the sidewalk inside.

IMG_1360Spring flowers at L’Express, planted with a hint of the kitsch and the bohemian spirit of the 1970s.


Laloux, another chic eatery by Laporte where he repeats some of his favourite design tropes:  mirrors galore, black woodwork and wainscotting, cream-coloured walls and arched window.

IMG_1344Arthur Quentin, a glorious housewares boutique in Montreal lined in plywood with custom shelving, first designed by Laporte in 1975 and subsequently as a series of rooms made possible when the owner bought out the neighbours.

IMG_1354Owner of Arthur Quentin,  Renée Fournier, looking out from her boutique onto St. Denis, with L’Express across the street.

IMG_1316Inside Luc Laporte’s live-work studio on Square Saint-Louis in Montreal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood. A space with boat-like efficiency and everything you need: some dishes, sugar and coffee. Most meals Laporte enjoyed at restaurants and cafes. (yes, he was single and without children.)

IMG_1323Books in Laporte’s studio – not surprisingly, Eileen Gray, a great designer of exquisite small spaces, features among them.


The plaque on the front facade of L’Express.  A lot of architects say nothing at all with big buildings.  Laporte said a lot about ways to satisfy our cravings for small social spaces.

Curves reign.  In Chicago this week, Canada’s Marilyn Monroe Tower was named best skyscraper in the Americas by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.  Applause to MAD Architects of Beijing, China for designing the highly-suggestive female forms, dropping these creatures of loveliness in the unlovely bedroom community of Toronto.

I happened to be in Mississauga yesterday when the announcement went public, so I took some shots of the stunning sweep, sashay and twist of the towers.  (The less-complex version of the 56-storey Marilyn Monroe sits slightly to the north on the development) in the heart of sprawling, unwalkable Mississauga.Mr. Salvatore, president of Fernbrook Homes and Mr. Crignano, a principal in Cityzen development, commissioned the multi-tower development, paying a premium of 20 per cent to construct the MAD-design. The design, engineered by Sigmund Soudack, makes concrete look plastic.  It features continuous glassed-in balconies, and a tower that rotates clockwise between one and eight degrees.  Supporting walls run longer or shorter depending on the configuration of the concrete floor plates.

Forty-five years ago, Mississauga was an unspoiled landscape of hayfields, but the countryside has since been replaced by strip malls, shopping centres and unwalkable high-rise neighbourhoods. A six-lane thoroughfare leads you through the ultimate in built banality…but even on a misty morning it’s possible to glimpse the outstanding archi-female form in the distance.

a surprising vista in Mississauga: nature and the sashaying condo towers.

Voluptuous design sells.  The Marilyn sold out in a matter of weeks.   For the record, the Marilyn Monroe, a term coined by the public, though the actual title – which nobody seems to know – is the Absolute.  Ninety-two firms from around the world competed to design the towers.  Obviously the jury picked a winner.

The 23.2 House by Vancouver designer Omer Arbel sits between a couple stands of old growth forest while opening far and wide to a hayfield in White Rock, B.C.  Here’s Canadian residential design that rocks innovation and flaunts an avaricious appetite for the outdoors.  Check the “hockey-stick” white columns.

A chandelier of blown-glass pendants (the 28.3 series created by Arbel for the Canadian design house, Bocci) illuminates the space, giving it an extra dose of whimsy.  Walnut wooden shelving and tables are hefty enough to anchor the space underneath the heritage lumber roof.    A triangulated structure of irregular timber lengths allowed the client and Arbel to retain the wood lengths exactly as they were found in demolished Vancouver warehouses. Then to the outside: an angled wall of glass to allow for an immersive experience of the rural surroundings.

For those accustomed to sleek, minimal lines and contemporary near nothingness, you’ll need to readjust your eyes.  There’s nothing minimal here. Thankfully.  For a change.

This is a family home but it also clearly doubles as a fantastic party lounge.  Which, naturally, inspires many, many soundtracks, such as… Bon Iver through the morning; Skrillex dub step at night.  The Bocci pendant lights are now available in colour – even the video about their making is a small work of art. (Photos by Nic Ledoux.)

More innovation here: The cedar that was used to form the concrete walls of the house was dismantled and re-used as long cedar shingles for the roof.  They appear as petrified lengths of wood…so now you can never go back to asphalt shingles.

I’m on the hunt, often, for the ultimate in cabin experiences. Which might help to explain my fascination with the blog, cabinporn.   Recently posted is this image of a sunlit interior at Rackwick Bothy (also known as Burnmouth Cottage) on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Wood and stone never looked so authentic and right.

There are a couple pre-requisites for an enduring cabin:  authentic materiality and an indoor-outdoor room to inspire the writing of a great novel, season after season, year after year.

Ideally, a great bar to help inspire the great novel. (This one at the 350-year-old Hermitage Plantation set up high on the island of Nevis in the rainforest.)

And morning wake-up tea to sip and contemplate one’s amazing escape from the city.

I can highly recommend Stanley Mitchell Hut, a wood-frame jewel of a cabin built in 1940 and set in a meadow about 6,825 feet in the Little Yoho Valley in Yoho National Park, BritishColumbia.   We signed up to be custodians of Stanley Mitchell Hut one summer and played host to climbers from around the world.  Contact the Alpine Club of Canada if you’d like to do the same. (Photo by Paul Zizka.)

Where there is a cabin there are almost always piles of sweet-smelling wood.  In Sweden, wood piles are exquisitely designed.  So, let’s remember that for our ideal cabin.

The Bergman-Werntoft House by Johan Sundberg, near Malmo, Sweden.  The wood piles are in the back.

Or perhaps you were thinking of the ultimate indoor-outdoor, more outdoor than indoor, cabin. So long as there are books and a place to write, I wouldn’t mind.

Now that the leaves of the crabapple have fallen to the ground, I have a direct view out my window to my neighbour’s old growth Norway Spruce.  She rises more than 80 feet and  towers over the houses.  Branches lifted upwards. Adorned with masses of pine-cone bling.  All embracing.  She’s one of the tree spirits living in my Beaches neighbourhood. So, no, I rarely feel the need to travel north to connect to nature.

Although it sure feels great when you finally do arrive there.

Christmas shines a moonbeam on the intrepid evergreen.  To pay homage, we come out to the world’s great public squares to worship at the foot of the Christmas tree. in NYC, people have been flocking to the lighting up of the Rockefeller tree since the 1930s.  This year’s 75-foot-high Norway Spruce at Rockefeller is almost as tall as the one I’m looking at right now through my Beaches window…but, sorry America, mine’s taller.

 This year, on a brilliant sunny day, we rejected the evergreens tightly swaddled in the grocery store parking lot and went in search of an authentic Canadian icon. Piled the kids in the van and drove north of the city in search of a tree farm, and hot chocolate and –critical ingredient —  the ironman bonfire.

We ended up at Tufford’s Trees.  A solid family place.  No pre-fab shacks selling maple fudge.  No horses pulling wagons while frothing horrible white stuff from their mouths.

We were looking for something about 10 feet tall to set down in our Canadiana room.

Something to peer into, with an intriguing interior life.  A forest within a tree.  This one is light and airy and the crooked trunk will make a splendid scratching post for Hercules.

The thought was that with the help of some silver and gold balls, hand-stitched Canadian igloos and polar bears, miniature white lights…Enough daydreaming…We sawed it down. And later discovered the painful perils of the Scotch Pine and the delights of hanging ornaments with leather gloves on.

Our friends, Helen and Nigel, needed a really, really tall tree to fill their double-height living room. And, designers that they be, they were armed with a measuring tape.  Mr. Tufford looked dubious when he was given the required dimensions.  Then he remembered the big red pine that he’s been trying to sell for years.   (By the way, Tufford plants about 400 saplings every year to keep his farm healthy.)

Here it is: Red Pine’s proof of age.  An honest look back through a lifetime of fast and slow growth. Imagine if this was how humans revealed their age.  Brutal honesty. Joan Rivers might not like it.

In this act: a family van disappears under aforementioned red pine.  Not sure this is the next generation AirStream.    But makes an excellent air freshener for any home.

Back to the Beaches, and an evening walk along the Boardwalk where 15 trees are lit up like multi-coloured extravaganzas.

The sun was sinking low into the winter sky.

That’s my version of an Illuminated Xmas Tree Manuscript.  I have to go now and plug in my lights.  Merry Christmas !!