Fourteen years ago, designer Richard Ouellette and architect Maxime Vandal took the next step in their relationship and moved in together in a rundown loft in Montreal’s Old Port neighborhood. What the space lacked for decor, it made up for in romance. “We would sit on pillows at the coffee table and have dinner,” Ouellette recalls. “It became a ritual.”
From that simple start the pair launched a life together, and a design juggernaut. Their design firm, Les Ensembliers—named for the French term for interior designer—quickly became a go-to for Montreal’s cosmopolitan clientele. Soon, their reputation extended beyond Quebec’s borders with residential projects from New York to Palm Beach; last year, they debuted a collection of fabric, trimmings, and wallpaper for the U.S.-based Brunschwig & Fils. Vandal also owns a construction company, Gestion Les Ensembliers.
As their careers grew, so did their real estate footprint. After that first loft, they renovated and flipped more than 15 homes before landing in a 5,000-square-foot Victorian in Montreal’s tony Westmount neighborhood that became a showcase for their chic style. “We’re serial renovators,” says Ouellette. They also bought Humminghill Farm, an 80-acre property in the Eastern Townships region south of Montreal, where they launched a line of vinegars, produce honey, and grow dahlias.
In 2019, Ouellette and Vandal found they were spending most of their time at the farm and decided to downsize in the city. They sold their house and, inspired by their first home together, moved into a loft in Old Montreal, a historic enclave dating back to the original 17th-century French settlement. They rented a space in an industrial loft in a 1912 building. “I fell in love with the large metal windows, the scale and industrial character of the space, and the view of the church and trees in front,” says Ouellette.
When the couple sold their house, they held a massive estate sale and kept only the most “meaningful pieces of our story together”—from a red cocktail table by their friend Anne Midavaine, a third-generation lacquer artist in Paris, to a painting by the late Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. They embraced the openness of the loft’s architecture and doubled down on that sense of expansiveness by removing a few walls. They divided the space into zones that would suit their lifestyle. “I knew we wouldn’t be hosting dinners here,” say the designers. “Only cocktails and easy get-togethers.” With that in mind, the existing kitchen island was removed and swapped for a large conference table from their office that’s now used for food prep. “We only sit at this ‘table’ for drinks when we’re preparing dinner,” Ouellette says.
And just like they used to dine at their coffee table, they now take their meals at a low table seated on chairs upholstered in their tropical Les Palmiers pattern. In another section of the loft, they carved out a lounge and library. And another corner houses their bedroom, which is open to the main space but tucked away enough to give a sense of privacy.
One of the biggest challenges was how to highlight their new textile collection, especially with few rooms to cover in wallpaper. They cleverly found ways to showcase the patterns, from pantry doors covered in their painterly, feathered Les Plumes design for a lacquer effect, to a framed section of the Art Deco–inspired Le Tonnerre wallpaper displayed as art in the living area, to their nightstands, which are sheathed in two of the papers, Les Plumes and La Brume, whose atmospheric, gold-touched pattern was given the French name for mist. Meanwhile, everything from floor pillows to armchairs are upholstered in the Brunschwig & Fils Les Ensembliers fabrics.
“In my book, loft living should be artistic and free, uncluttered, collected and easy,” Ouellette says. “For us, it’s like going back to our roots, and that feels romantic to me.”
Ingrid Abramovitch, the Executive Editor at ELLE Decor, writes about design, architecture, renovation, and lifestyle, and is the author of several books on design including Restoring a House in the City.