See Stunning Spaces By H&H’s Designers Of The Year, Les Ensembliers!
Quebecois designer Richard Ouellette and architect Maxime Vandal of Les Ensembliers were named House & Home’s 2019 Designers of the Year in our December issue, and it’s no surprise why. The professional and personal partners have been featured in our pages for years, and their projects are always exciting and visually edifying. They have an innate talent for layering color and pattern to dramatic effect, whether it’s in a country home in the Eastern Townships, a gracious Palm Beach villa or an urban loft in Chelsea, New York. We sat down with the dynamic duo to get a behind-the-scenes perspective of their best spaces.
“When we create, we are always in conversation,” says Richard (left). “Maxime will suggest something and I’ll groan and be exasperated, but 15 minutes later, I realize it’s a great idea.” Maxime adds: “We are partners, but we are complimentary. We do fight, but it makes us better, and makes for a better project. Otherwise, you think you’re right all the time.”
Sleek Montreal Condo
“This home ran in Maison & Demeure in 2009, but it was our first mention in House & Home, it belonged to our neighbors. They are still great clients and called us for a job nine years later,” recalls Richard. Sculptural chairs, a sleek table and an airy glass chandelier give this dining room crisp, contemporary appeal. An ethereal piece of artwork by Joshua Jensen-Nagle ties in with the room’s soft color scheme.
Charlevoix Weekend Home
“This was the home that we thought we would never sell,” says Maxime. “It was on the point of the St. Lawrence and we could see whales breaching.” Richard adds, “This is the first time we played with shabby-chic painted floors. We ordered the chinoiserie chairs online, they were so huge you could seat two!”
Graphic Montreal Townhouse
“The owners of this home in the Plâteau neighborhood were really colorful clients,” says Richard. “Everything was about patterns and color — the more the merrier. We weren’t crazy about the stained glass windows in the foyer, but we embraced it with a Fornasetti wallpaper and made this space a special moment.” An “industrial revolution-style” hall tree adds function; it’s topped with bamboo hat holders. Black-lacquered doors and marble flooring add polish and formality.
This pantry is ideal for homeowners who are veteran entertainers. Checkerboard floors, glass-front cabinets, and marble counters and flooring establish the Parisian bistro look. Ample cupboards house six sets of china, and the long counter is perfect for prep and serving.
“Every room in this house had a little story,” says Maxime. “It was all about recreating memorable rooms that were part of the clients’ past, like the Pierre Hotel in New York or the Georges V in Paris. Those knobs were the starting point: she had brought them from Europe and had been waiting 20 years to use them.”
Modern Ski Chalet
This Mont Tremblant chalet calls to mind the warm, rustic splendor of the wooden ski lodges in Megève, France — but with a contemporary edge. “That photograph really sparked everything,” says Richard. “It was a cold-looking ski chalet with a concrete floor, but the clients didn’t want modern. We put cashmere curtains everywhere, added wools and woods, and a darker floor to make it cozy.” The modern floating staircase was tempered by wrapping each oak tread in warm, thick carpet.
In the grand center hall, two angular stools are a mod counterpoint to the rustic reclaimed-wood harvest table, which does double duty as a buffet or bar in a pinch. The oak bookcase was designed to match the height of the hall’s huge windows, which flood the space with natural light.
The slate floors and floating wood vanity in the principal bathroom are modern and clean, allowing the scenic view to take center stage. A subtly-patterned rug and pouf soften the space’s lines.
In the open-concept principal bedroom, the scenic landscape is the most important design element. On the bed, soft linens layered with a blanket and chunky knit throw provide plenty of cozy texture, while on the wing chair, a custom pillow fashioned from a vintage fur coat is a playful take on traditional lodge decor. “When you walk through this house,” says Richard, “all you want to do is sit on a cozy piece of furniture and read.”
Golden Square Mile Rental Apartment
When Richard and Maxime moved into a 2,500-square-foot rental apartment in Montreal, their landlord gave the couple carte-blanche to redecorate the interior, which resulted in a six-week project. “This was a rental apartment,” says Richard. “Can you imagine the fight? I wanted to put fancy wallpaper all over a rental! This big, bold zebra pattern showed how you can use big scale as a neutral backdrop.” The two pieces of black-framed artwork are by Maxime’s mother, Moïsette Boucher.
A mixed-media portrait of Yves Saint Laurent by André Monet hangs in the kitchen. Through the adjacent doorway is a photograph of Steve McQueen. “The portraits balance each other out in that they’re both black and white, but one is literal, and the other more modern,” says Richard.
Within six weeks of renting the apartment, Richard and Maxime had their suppliers build and reupholster new pieces for the entire place, including drapery, carpets and a silk-covered ottoman that gives the seating area a colorful focus. A black and white diptych by Montreal artist Agnès Ménabréaz adds another dynamic layer of pattern to the mix.
So, what’s with the ginger jars? Richard explains the draw of this signature calling card in their interiors. “Blue and white china is like a great pair of black pants,” he says. “You can mix it up and play with it in any space.” In the entranceway, he layered large ginger jars — some old, some new — to create a moment below a Fortuny light from Celadon. Graphic upholstered stools give the vignette punch.
Colonial Revival Country Home
“We bought this property in Quebec’s Eastern Townships on a Sunday stroll in the country,” says Richard. “We weren’t looking, and we couldn’t afford it.” Maxime adds: “Exactly, it was a stretch. We were going renovate it over time so we squatted in it for two years with just a foam mattress on the floor. We never slept there, we would drive back to Montreal.”
A large abstract painting by Jean-Pierre Lafrance adds color and contrast in the all-white dining room. Reupholstering the antique dining chairs in a bold zebra print adds an unexpected hit of edginess to this country retreat. “I never wanted to stay there, I never liked it,” says Richard. “But once we decided to sell and I started decorating it, I fell in love. And we kept it for four years.”
“This mural was one of the best fixes for crappy walls. They were layered with wallpaper,” explains Richard, while Maxime laughs: “I think it was structural!” Richard remembers it took three weeks for artist Agnès Ménabréaz to paint that mural, “and it was one of the most special moments in that house,” he says.
In the garden, stepped plantings create a wall of green, studded with crimson and yellow tiger lilies, and spikes of bell-shaped, lilac hosta blossoms. Richard recalls how he and Maxime were sitting by this pool, when Maxime said: “‘I love this place, one day we will renovate it and maybe bigger.’ But 15 minutes later, he goes for a bike ride and comes back and says, ‘I found a farm. I didn’t want a farm!'” exclaims Richard. They ended up selling this property to buy that farm, and Maxime chuckles at the memory, adding: “It was the only house we didn’t do a photo shoot for. It was so ugly, a 1970s bungalow with 7,000 square feet on one floor. You could roller skate in it, a really bad house!”
Palm Beach Villa
The owners of this 12,000-square-foot home in Palm Beach tasked Maxime and Richard to make their regal house feel homey. Despite its sweeping size and grand architectural details, the duo hit just the right notes of understated luxury and whimsical elegance. To strike the delicate balance they were after, they carried the palette — crisp neutrals brightened by bursts of terracotta, coral and plum — throughout the entire home, and repeated patterns and furniture silhouettes from room to room to create a unified aesthetic.
“This house was very Old Palm Beach,” says Richard. “Everything had been done 40 to 50 years before. It was a wonderful project – a chance to do a villa? Hello, sign me up! This living room was dark, so the idea was, why don’t we make a huge, handmade orange carpet. I didn’t sleep for months thinking, ‘Is this a good idea?’ When it came in, it was amazing, but also completely the wrong orange so it had to be remade.”
In the spacious kitchen, traditional design moves — like marble counters, glass-fronted cabinets and checkerboard floors — get a contemporary update with the addition of gold-toned hardware and pendants.
Blue and white motifs feel quirky when presented en masse in this sweet breakfast nook, while warm wood furniture adds natural texture to the elegant space.
A stone console with an intricate base grounds this vignette, acting as a rugged counterpoint to a display of ginger jars and ceramic vases. Antique wrought-iron lanterns provide graphic punch.
“This was one of the most published projects we have done,” says Richard. “It was always about a classic white bathroom. People loved this bathroom.”
Symmetrical furniture placement gives the pavilion a formal living room feel. The wool Oushak rug feels cozy, while neutral fabrics and natural textures are crisp against lush landscaping.
2016 Kips Bay Show House
There is no bigger signal that a designer has arrived then being invited to join the crème-de-la-crème at the Kips Bay Show House. In 2016, Les Ensembliers’ stirred up major buzz for the sumptuous dressing room they created in that year’s show home, a $50-million limestone mansion in Manhattan. “We still have scars,” jokes Maxime. “We weren’t prepared: we were Canadians without a network of suppliers, no P.R. people and the worst exchange rate. But we invented things in that room. Our wallpaper collection came from the pattern we used on the cabinetry.” Richard adds: “Kips Bay was life changing and one of the best investments we ever made. But it was heart wrenching.”
Chic Toronto Condo
In their 600-square-foot condo in the heart of Yorkville, Richard and Maxime went bold with dark colors and rich layers. In the bedroom, plush textiles evoke opulence, while black walls create drama. “People are scared of black,” says Maxime. “They think it makes a place feel small, to us it accentuates a space and makes it feel expansive.” Richard adds, “Instead of two small nightstands, the chinoiserie dresser is a more beautiful piece of furniture.”
Les Ensembliers leave concrete figurines by Laurence Vallières in each one of the homes they sell and finished projects. “Laurence was a starting artist, so we bought a bunch of her gorillas and rhinos,” says Richard. “They are such fun little moments.” Maxime adds: “We leave them behind as a bonding gesture. Laurence is an international star now and makes monumental sculptures.”
Historic Quebec City Brownstone
As beautiful historic brownstones go, this century-old version was almost perfect — but the 4,500-square-foot dwelling lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. The traditional kitchen had no panache, and overall, the home seemed a bit flat for a stylish couple who collected vibrant artwork. “The homeowner felt her house was bland and uninteresting — and she loves color; she’s fearless about it,” says Richard. To give the foyer a more current look, Richard chose a purple-smudged rug that acts as a playful foil to the room’s stately moldings and elegant banister.
“The owner of this renovated Quebec townhome always hated her kitchen,” says Richard. “She said, ‘Make it modern and fun.’ The starting point was the faux-finish patina of the gold.” The homeowners wanted a streamlined look with personality — a hand-worked patina gives the metal on the waterfall island and vent hood an artisanal quality. Special-occasion dishes and glassware are stored in a freestanding armoire (far right).
A Venetian Fortuny silk parasol chandelier adds opulence. “It was the starting point for the bedroom design,” says Richard. Soft tones of barely-there purple and putty grey have a lulling quality in the luxe principal bedroom, which features an upholstered bed and matte-lacquered nightstands, both by Les Ensembliers. The Chinoiserie-print linen drapes energize the soothing palette.
Victorian Westmount Home
“It’s one of our best kitchens,” says Maxime, but Richard quickly elaborates: “In an ugly house, with bad architecture and the worst layout! We took everything out and I added floating shelves since the window is in the wrong place so we couldn’t have uppers.” Maxime points out the $400 table from Kijiji represents the best budget find, but “my splurge was the stove, which is the most beautiful piece!”
Chelsea, New York Flat
Maxime and Richard’s airy flat in an 1840s townhouse is blessed with original moldings, parquet floors and 12-foot-high ceilings. “I wanted the dream of living in New York, and I loved it but it’s out of my system,” says Richard. “Maxime said do whatever you want. I just wanted to be surrounded by things I love because I was going to be there more than he was.” Maxime was incredulous on moving day. “It’s a 600-square-foot apartment,” adds Richard. “He filled a 40-foot truck. There were more boxes on the road outside than in the townhouse!”
“It’s got Liberace (top photo) and Steve McQueen (black and white photo) juxtaposed, the macho and the theatrical,” says Richard. “The masculine and feminine. It was a magical apartment. All of these moments made it the perfect space.”
Contemporary Shingled Farmhouse
Les Ensembliers renovated a traditional farmhouse with a clean, modern interior. “The client wanted a modern farmhouse with character that still felt like it was speaking to a history,” says Richard. ” That tray ceiling is especially challenging in an open space; the floors had to be reinforced to support the black marble console.”
“We revised three bedrooms to make one large principal suite,” says Richard. “The clients wanted total darkness, with lots of storage. So you have to create boxes and these constraints become design elements. I love that there is edge and rock element to it.”