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In the den, simple steps create a cozy retreat

All the important ideas of home are opposites held in delicious tension. When we weary people come home, we submit ourselves to the recovery of evening and the company of loved ones, and by this repair we emerge again in the morning with the energy to be among strangers. The charge enables the retreat, and the retreat enables the charge. The setting of our homes, their atmosphere and energy, can crucially promote or retard this shape-shifting.

With these ideas in mind, we recently undertook the design of a den in a large, open-plan family home in West Vancouver. With its broad public areas, the main floor called for a non-bedroom retreat for solitary pursuits, away from the clang and clatter of others. As construction began, it looked as though this room, on the southwest corner, would be an ordinary den. But with a few design tweaks, we were able to deepen the room's air of cozy escape and replenishing quiet.

Why spend $1,200 on a barn-style door?

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This room sits at the end of a long corridor through which you pass the laundry room, home office and dining room. While technically feasible, a standard swing door would have complicated the room. As a matter of clearance, a door swinging into a small space always limits a furnishing plan. To have one here would have shrunk our area rug, taking more than one notch of comfort out of the den.

An additional benefit of a barn door is its minimal header, which permits more light into the hallway, preventing it from feeling like a narrow box, full of doors. It opens everything up. And though we selected the door for its function, its beauty as an architectural element cannot be overstated. The doors, solid white oak, bring a crucial dose of informal elegance to the home.

Is the extra millwork detail necessary?

The simple rule in design is, of course, that more detail equals more cost. That's a good thing, since it contains an injunction to economy and balanced attack. The key is deciding where the extra expense will produce the greatest impact.

In the den, we could have used stock cabinetry and kept the millwork costs 20 per cent lower. But the client gave approval to design special frames around the millwork towers and a fireplace façade that relates to the profile of those frames. And, rather than standard pull-knobs, on the cabinet doors we used recessed hardware, each pull articulating a stainless-steel square on the front of each door. They surprise the eye in the way fine cuff links do. It's the tiny details that tell.

Why expose the television?

Where you put the television and fireplace drives the entire design of a millwork wall like this. Though I always prefer to hide a television, here we were tight for space and it would be silly to crunch it into one of the side cabinets, where only a small television would fit, and awkwardly.

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Instead, we did the obvious, sticking it right over the fireplace. Doing so meant keeping in mind heat deflection, always a consideration when electronics sit above a fireplace. We made sure our façade had a slight lip to push the heat from the unit away from the wall. And we went a step further, recessing the television into the wall cavity big enough to accommodate a 60-inch screen and good-quality bracket.

To prevent the TV from looking conspicuous, we panelled the wall around it in millwork. This brings harmony to the elements on the wall and prevents the television from the being the first thing you see in the room – one of design's cardinal sins.

Aren't the white walls too stark?

We rarely go all white in a home; it's a look better suited to modern, minimalist spaces. But in this home, white provided powerful contrast to the textures of the room's primary materials. The waxed glow of the wide-plank floors, the dappled glaze of the hallway's porcelain tile, the rich grain of the barn door – all are enhanced by the bright negative space white provides. It's then the textures' job to make the space sensuous and inviting.

What do the articulating lights on the cabinets achieve?

Normally, when we incorporate lighting into a millwork wall we use small puck lights within the shelves to showcase their objects. Here, though, we wanted to make reference to a utilitarian theme in the broader home, and add (rather than conceal) an item of interest. Our solution: articulating lights in a colour similar to the millwork. Their quirky shape adds character of the room. When lit, rather than illuminating a single shelf, the lights wash the entire millwork tower in light, creating a library-like feeling in the room in the evenings.

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Chair: Oslo chair, Van Gogh Designs,

Coffee table: Pottery Barn,

Sofa: Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams,

Cabinet and barn door hardware: Bradford Hardware,

Paint: Distant Grey, oc-68, Benjamin Moore,

Cabinet lights: Circa Lighting,

Rug, Burritt Brothers,

Flooring: European white oak, Sullivan Source,

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