When Gildan Activewear co-founder Greg Chamandy and his wife Chantal decided to build a dream retreat in Mont-Tremblant, Que., they were drawn to the work of Los Angeles architect Richard Landry.
"Every time we looked at houses in magazines, they were his," explained Ms. Chamandy, a pop singer.
They called up Mr. Landry in L.A., hoping he might do a project in Canada. They began by describing the resort area north of Montreal.
He quickly interrupted them.
"I'm from Quebec," Mr. Landry told the couple. "I grew up skiing at Tremblant."
The Chamandys had no idea. Mr. Landry's L.A.-based firm, Landry Design Group, has built and designed more than 500 homes in 17 countries –in cities from Beverly Hills, Calif., to Shanghai – but he remains virtually unknown in Canada, where he's done only a couple of projects.
That's partly because the 58-year-old native of Berthierville, Que., does the kind of homes few can even dream of inhabiting. Mr. Landry's niche is the world's 0.1 per cent, and the famous. It is, by definition, a rarefied global market. In Canada, it's a small club.
His creations are lush, opulent and undeniably grand. Mr. Landry insists that no house project is "too small," but his portfolio, showcased in two mammoth coffee-table books, is dominated by the plus-size.
At 15,000 square feet, the Chamandys' house is supersized by conventional standards, easily dwarfing the 1,900-square-foot average size of a new single-family home in Canada. A home of such scale would cost a customer anywhere from $7-million (U.S.) to more than $10-million.
But in Mr. Landry's world, it's actually nearer the smaller end of the size range than the upper extreme. He's currently building two mega-palaces in China, one for a real estate mogul and another for an industrialist, each in excess of 100,000 square feet.
In the 30 years since he came to L.A. in a beaten-up Honda Civic, Mr. Landry has built a client roster that reads like a Hollywood party A-list. He's done work for Mark Wahlberg, Tom Brady, Michael Bolton, Eddie Murphy, Kenny G, Wayne Gretzky and Rod Stewart, along with a lesser-known, but equally wealthy cast of bankers and business types. He's also designing a home near Boucherville, Que., for Quebec singer and Montreal Canadiens' good-luck charm Ginette Reno, whom he met in L.A.
His homes are fixtures in Architectural Digest and luxury-lifestyle magazines such as the Robb Report, which has awarded Landry's work its "Ultimate Home" prize four times in recent years. The Richard Landry home has become a brand.
It's virtually impossible to pin down Mr. Landry's chameleon-like architectural style, and that is exactly the way he likes it. His designs are born out of the imaginations and fantasies of his clients, everything from English castles and Mediterranean villas to dramatic modernist glass, steel and cement creations. He says his focus is on top-quality workmanship, the finest materials from around the world and attention to the minutest of details, not on dictating to clients what kind of architecture they should like.
"The reason our portfolio is so varied – you see something modern or traditional – it's because it's the client's home," Mr. Landry said over bottled water at the firm's modern open-concept office in West L.A. before we head out to see some of his work. "It's not me that says, 'This is how you should live.' It's me trying to get into their head."
There are seemingly no bounds to what springs from his clients' minds. Actor Mark Wahlberg wanted a full-size backyard basketball court and a gym at his 30,000-square-foot French-style manor in Beverly Hills. Quarterback Tom Brady and his model wife Gisele Bündchen put a moat around their 12,500-square-foot chateau in Brentwood, Calif. The Chamandys' medieval-style stone château on Lac Tremblant features twin turrets, towering exposed beam ceilings, a massive wine cellar and tasting room, a home theatre and a restaurant-size pizza oven.
"I applaud architects who decide they have a signature look. I am a big fan of Zaha Hadid. I love what Richard Meier or Frank Gehry do," Mr. Landry said. "But you won't go to Frank Gehry if you want a French château."
We hop into his Fisker Karma hybrid-electric sports car, Mr. Landry at the wheel, and head to nearby Beverly Hills, where his career took off in the late 1980s. His Honda Civic is a distant memory as we snake through backstreets, avoiding L.A.'s notorious traffic.
Along the way, he points to the first home he designed after striking out on his own – a 10,000-square-foot French villa that he did on "spec" for a developer. Local real estate agents and prospective buyers liked what they saw when it went on the market, generating a steady stream of referrals. "That house brought me a ton of business," he said.
The story of how Mr. Landry, the small-town son of a carpenter, became a go-to fantasy architect for the glitterati is an improbable journey.
Down-to-earth, quick to smile and unfailingly polite, Mr. Landry credits his Québécois roots and his family upbringing for helping him connect with such a diverse array of international clients.
At age 6, he told his parents he wanted to build houses, long before he even knew what an architect was. He attended the University of Montreal's architecture school, and one of his mentors offered him a job teaching when he graduated in 1981.
But Mr. Landry yearned to practise. The economy was slow in Quebec at the time and architecture jobs scarce. Someone he had met while working the previous summer at the National Research Council in Ottawa got him a job at an architecture firm in Edmonton. So he loaded up his Honda Civic and headed West.
By 1984, Alberta was sinking into another oil slump. and Mr. Landry was getting antsy.
"I wanted to be where the action was," said Mr. Landry, who didn't learn English until he was 20 but now speaks the language flawlessly with a convenient hint of a French accent. "At the time, L.A. was booming. So, I thought, 'Why don't I go check it out?'"
Without a U.S. visa or a job offer and only the vaguest of plans, the twentysomething packed up his Honda, again. The idea was to get to L.A., open up the phone book and cold call architecture firms. That proved to be more challenging than he imagined when he learned that L.A. had 13 phone books. So he narrowed his search to West L.A., which he figured was the posher end of town, and therefore a likely place to find architects. He called Mr. Gehry, a fellow Canadian, but never heard back. Within a week, he was hired at a firm that specialized in designing theme parks. He liked the idea of "fantasy architecture," and spent nearly a year researching and designing historical façades.
But he felt lost at a big firm, and nine months later took a pay cut to go work at a small firm doing high-end custom homes. He had found his niche, and 2½ year later, at age 30, he quit and went out on his own.
He never moved home. The 0.1 per cent may be a narrow niche, but it's been a good fit for Mr. Landry. His firm, Landry Design Group, has grown to 50 employees – 46 of them architects and draftspeople. He has dozens of projects on the go around the world, including eight-million-square-feet worth of homes in China, a market he entered after the mid-2000s U.S. housing crash.
He calls his profession his "hobby."
"We are there to help them to create their dream," he explained as we drive through Beverly Hills. "That's why I like doing homes so much. Good architecture, regardless of style, is about understanding how a client lives." But Mr. Landry will push back at what customers want, either because the proportions are wrong or architecturally inappropriate. He said he once turned down a client who wanted a neoclassical home with pink stone columns. And he acknowledged he would do some things differently if he could.
"What I do today is better than 10 years ago," he acknowledged at our first stop – a 23,000-square-foot, Italian-style gated villa and guest house in the "flats" of Beverly Hills, owned by nursing home magnate Lee Samson. "The day I stop learning is the day I quit."
We are greeted by the house manager – because houses like these have house managers. The art-deco interior has the look and feel of a 1920s Hollywood mansion. There is a hand-painted mural of a ship's deck on the walls of the games room, an interior lap pool and adjoining hot tub, an enclosed courtyard on the second floor, an elevator, a five-car garage in the basement and luxurious finishes throughout. A work by modernist painter Marc Chagall hangs in the study.
Throughout the house, Mr. Landry excitedly points out details, from hand-illustrated elevator doors to iron work in the skylight that matches the railings on the circular staircase. Everything, it seems, is meticulously custom-crafted.
From there, it's a short drive into the hills above the Sunset Strip to a newly built modern mansion owned by Hollywood producer Jeff Franklin, who made the Olsen twins famous with his sitcom Full House. Mr. Franklin tore down a small bungalow he bought in 1988 for $1.9-million, and hired Mr. Landry to build a mansion he could flip. The three-storey wall of glass and cement spills down the hillside at the end a cul-de-sac, offering a spectacular 180-degree panorama of L.A., from downtown to Venice Beach. The view can be enjoyed from nearly everywhere in the five-bedroom house, including the moon-shaped infinity pool and the shower in one of the home's eight bathrooms.
"It's an entertainment house," he said, predicting an actor will buy the property, recently listed for $38-million.
Like Mr. Franklin, many of his clients have become friends, including Ms. Reno and Ms. Chamandy.
"I love the fact that he can do anything," said Ms. Chamandy, who has kept in touch since Mr. Landry built the couple's Tremblant getaway in 2005. "He's like a psychiatrist. He asks you how you live, and what you love, and then he makes a wish list of everything you want in a home."
Some critics have attacked his creations as outrageously large and over the top. L.A.'s modernist architectural elites are dismissive of the European-inspired villas on which he has built his reputation.
Mr. Landry doesn't seem too perturbed by his detractors. He refuses to pass judgment on the often grand scale his clients crave. And he's unapologetic about his work, pointing out that he's creating private spaces, not civic architecture.
"The responsibility of an architect is to the client," he insists. "A house in not a public building. It's a private home. You can be architecturally pleasing and functional, without compromising architecture."
Richard Landry, founder of Landry Design Group
Place of birth: Berthierville, Que.
Education: Architecture degree from the University of Montreal, diploma in architecture and urban design from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Family: Has a 14-year-old daughter
What he's reading: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey
Favourite vacation spot: The cottage he built on Lac Maskinongé in Quebec's Laurentians
Favourite cars: Fisker Karma, an out-of-production hybrid-electric sports car, and the McLaren MP4-12C Spider
Who he'd like to have lunch with: Michelangelo, Le Corbusier, Steve Jobs
How he wakes up in the morning: Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, drinking pro surfer Laird Hamilton's favourite smoothie
Favourite TV show: Homeland
Favourite musical artists: Sam Smith, Awolnation, Lana Del Rey, Florence and the Machine
Favourite sports: Volleyball and racquetball
Favourite cuisine: Mom's
Where he lives: Mr. Landry doesn't live in one of his mega-mansions. Instead, he splits his time between four homes – a condo in Los Angeles, a 4,300-square-foot modern beach house in Malibu, a ski home at California's Mammoth Mountain and a cottage he designed for himself in Quebec's Laurentians, where he spends Christmas and a chunk of every summer with his daughter, parents and siblings. The beach house once belonged to Hugh Hefner, but Mr. Landry stripped it down to the studs and created bright, ultramodern spaces to take advantage of the ocean view.
On working for famous people: "There is no difference designing a home for someone who is well known. They are bigger than life when they are on the stage, on the screen or on the field. But they are just normal people. I approach every project the same way. It's about understanding how they live."
What a Richard Landry home costs: Anywhere from $500 (U.S.) a square foot to more than $1,000. At the upper end of the range, a 15,000-sq.-ft. home could cost as much $15-million to build.