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real estate

Montreal storefront home embraces the street

The home of Mila Bouchereau and Martin Gareau in Montreal’s Plateau area was designed by Atelier Barda.

The converted grocery store takes advantage of light from the monumental windows and uses clever architectural twists to create a sense of progression from private to public

Privacy is a key feature in many home designs. But it's a hard thing to achieve when the home is situated in a renovated storefront. Storefronts, by virtue of their proprietors wanting to sell stuff, tend to have giant windows to display an array of wares. Homes, by virtue of their owners sometimes not wearing clothes, tend to be more concealing than revealing.

When Montrealers Mila Bouchereau and Martin Gareau were looking for a new home, three years ago, they knew privacy would be an issue with their prime target: an abandoned grocery shop in the city's trendy Plateau area. Although it had cloistered apartments upstairs, everything on the ground floor was exposed by wall-to-wall glass.

But the property had something unique for the high-density 'hood. It had space for a generous side yard, in place of a former loading and storage area.

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The promise of a great patio was the clincher, so Ms. Bouchereau and Mr. Gareau decided to go ahead, and, to make it work, find a really good architecture studio. Now, their place "feels like a precious jewel," according to Ms. Bouchereau.

It takes advantage of the light from the monumental windows, and uses clever architectural twists – including a massive pink box (seriously) – to ensure the place doesn't provide a peep show.

To offer the owners a degree of privacy from the street, but still allow light into the home the designers installed a big pink cube just beyond the entrance.

To get there, Ms. Bouchereau and Mr. Gareau engaged Atelier Barda, a studio co-founded by Cécile Combelle and Antonio di Bacco that was only getting started at the time, so they didn't even have a website. The couple found them through "bouche à oreille," according to Ms. Combelle – word of mouth. Ms. Bouchereau and Mr. Gareau were "touched by their delicate work," as Ms. Bouchereau describes it, and their careful, collaborative process. "We like to have a lot of conversations with the clients," Ms. Combelle says, "so they understand and appreciate what we are doing."

In converting the grocery, Atelier Barda, whose practice encompasses not only architecture but interiors and a furniture business called Foraine, initially took the fenestration up front as an inspiring point of departure, not something to cover up.

"The idea of conception came from Edward Hopper's Nighthawks," says François Olivier-Gouriou, one of the designers on the project. "We imagined what the view in would be like at night, through the glowing windows." Instead of a long bar, the studio included a desk. "People on the street might catch glimpses of the homeowners sitting, working," Mr. Olivier-Gouriou says.

From there, though, the studio played a game of "seen and unseen," according to Mr. Olivier-Gouriou. Just beyond the entryway, a big pink cube divides the ground floor. At first glance, the cube unfurls many functions. On the street side, it faces the home office and opens with cupboards where guests can hang their coats. On the flip side, it faces a modern living room and is lined with display shelves. In between, it has a storage closet and a powder room.

The cube is more than just a room divider. On the side facing the street there are cupboards for guests to hang up their coats, while the side facing into the house is lined with display shelves.

But the box isn't so large that it blocks off any glimpses of the living room, and the life therein. That is unless theatrical, floor-to-ceiling drapes, which run along a concealed track in the ceiling, are pulled across the openings, like the drapes in a cinema.

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As such, the home has "a beautiful unveiling," according to Ms. Bouchereau, referring to the sense of progression from private to public. Subtle changes of material mark each transition, such as the shift from the herringbone parquet floors in the semi-exposed living room to the terrazzo in the near totally private kitchen.

"We took a very cinematic approach," Ms. Combelle says. But if the home is a movie, it's not a loud blockbuster. It's more art house. Everything is highly stylized, with soft shapes and beautiful sherbet hues. "We were inspired by [film director] Wes Anderson," Ms. Combelle says. "His atmosphere, his use of symmetry."

And much like a Wes Anderson film, every single aspect and angle is carefully considered and artfully assembled. "We like to take care of all the details," says Quan Thai, another designer on the project. "There is a craftsmanship approach to the building."

The different floor materials in the living room and kitchen help delineate the spaces.

For example, the range hood above the stove doesn't just remove excess exhaust. It's a statement in and of itself: a sleek white tube that doubles as a hanging garden. Another signature element is the sensual, curving handrail that slips down the stairs and does a backflip, like some lithe gymnast, before reaching the ground. "We like it when there is something special in a space, like the hand rail," Mr. Thai says, "something that really pops."

So that every detail stands out, each is balanced out by an otherwise spare surround, such as white walls and ceilings. The balance works well for the homeowners. "The harmony between the character and the sobriety of the design is perfect," Ms. Bouchereau says.

And although the home looks like a pristine movie set now, it's also designed to show its age gracefully. The counters in the kitchen are made from marble, which is porous so takes on a patina as its being used. "We like when materials age with marks," Mr. Olivier-Gouriou says. Just like a great piece of art of a good movie, that means it has a life of its own, one appreciated anew by each person who sees it.

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