July 1, 2012

Rock the Boat: A Canadian Boathouse by +VG Architects-The Ventin Group

There is no Canadian law that lakeside cottages must be built of logs and decorated with paintings of geese and loons. But the tradition is a tough one to break. So kudos go to a financial executive and his wife, a retailer. When the Toronto couple hired +VG Architects—The Ventin Group, to build a weekend retreat with a boathouse on the shore of their private lake, on a 90-acre property an hour north of the city, they asked associate partner Tom Wilson to make generous use of natural materials while reinventing the homespun, country-cottage vernacular. “Contemporary buildings with a rustic feel,” is his description of the request.

The main house, constructed primarily of Douglas fir and locally quarried limestone, has a certain modernist formality. With the boathouse, Wilson let his imagination run wild. This couple, too, had fantasized at first about a pioneer-style log cabin. Solid logs would have been too heavy for the marshy lakeside, though, so Wilson opted for a frame construction clad, outside and in, with clean yet rustic Ontario white-pine log siding—installed vertically rather than horizon­tally like the logs of a traditional cabin. Jutting over the water, the 1,600-square-foot structure sits on steel piles driven alongside existing log and stone piers, a favorite habitat of the lake’s rare species of brown trout. An up-tilted canopy and a diving platform extend from the roof on the lake-facing elevation.

Wilson divided the interior into three zones. Space for rowboats and canoes is on one side. A smaller storage space and a game room share the other side. In the center is the great room, for reading and entertaining. This is the largest of the three zones, and it opens completely to the lake when glass pocket doors slide away. To reinforce the indoor-outdoor connection, flooring and decking are the same cedar planks.

Such distinctive architecture required furnishings to match. To provide them, the owners approached Made, a Toronto showroom that exclusively carries Canadian furniture, lighting, and textiles. Partners Shaun Moore and Julie Nicholson are often credited with reviving the local design community by cultivating a generation of young artisans who reinterpret Canuck iconography-beavers, the Rockies, Expo ’67—with new materials and techniques. Moore and Nicholson had worked for the boathouse couple before, producing custom furnishings for their Toronto house. “They know what they like, and they are invested in the process,” Moore says. Clean-lined pieces with a cottage character and a backstory was the boathouse brief. Nicholson calls it “Canadiana that isn’t stereotypical.”

The Canadiana theme is difficult to miss. Red-and-black lumberjack plaid, commonly found on flannel shirts, upholsters the L-shape sofa that dominates the great room. On the sofa’s throw pillows, a hemp print depicts wilderness scenes, a riff on the lining of old-fashioned sleeping bags. Built into the back of the sofa, Douglas fir shelving holds books. Tree stumps, serving as stools or side tables, also serve the theme. “It’s log furniture reinterpreted,” Moore says. A walnut stump remains bark-covered, while the cedar ones were stripped and partially lacquered in bright colors. “Any more bark would have been too cutesy,” he adds. For lighting, he and Nicholson wired four camp­ing lanterns and attached them to brass plates to create sconces. Each lantern is a different color, from a different decade-another wink at cottage tradition.

Set in an alcove is the bar, in solid Doug­las fir detailed with red plastic laminate. Above the bar is a trio of mirrors shaped like taxidermy mounting plates, plus a fourth mirror on which the antlers of a real white-tail deer are mounted. The opposite wall offers another vignette, with a pine chest placed beneath a vintage wool blanket from the Hudson Bay Company, a department-store chain that began as a fur-trading operation in 1670. Hudson Bay blankets, always woven with eight colored stripes, are a staple in lake cottages.

This blanket—found via “Radiant Dark,” an annual exhibition curated by Moore and Nicholson—had been hand-embroidered by two artisans with text from a 1932 letter that a customer wrote to the department store: “I have, or at least my wife has, a Hudson’s Bay point blanket purchased at the Fort Garry store in 1872. . . . There is a wonderful structure left and gives promise of considerable usefulness yet.” Both a contemporary art object and a historical memento­, the blanket is the perfect symbol for this singular boathouse. 

Greg Pattison; Andrew Smyth: +VG Architects-The Ventin Group. Muskoka Parry Sound Engineering & Design Services: Structural Engineer. P. Custom Design; Timber Systems: woodwork. Riedmann Management: general contractor.

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