High-design style secrets from a Canadian designer who breaks the mould

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Couvrette designed the home in collaboration with Jonathan Mandeville and Thomas Evans of Halifax architecture firm Passage Studio. The home is clad in three-inch-wide blind-nailed, clear hemlock boards for a seamless, minimal effect.RILEY SNELLING/The Globe and Mail

Three years ago, Mischa Couvrette decided to build a house. In 2021, at the height of an inflated real estate market, the acclaimed designer convinced his wife, Alison Fosbery, a psychotherapist, to sell, move into a rental with their two children and look for a house to renovate on a quieter street. “I’m someone who needs a project and she’s a very patient partner,” he says with a laugh.

Couvrette’s company, hollis+morris, recently celebrated 10 years in business and is known for hand-crafted, sustainable wood and metal furniture and lighting – the likes of which are installed at Google’s offices, Nobu restaurants around the world and the Four Seasons Resort Whistler. His vision for a new dwelling? A boundary-pushing family home that would serve as “a lookbook house,” says Couvrette – a showcase for his work, which has won gold at the International Lighting Design Awards and been featured in Elle Decor magazine.

But the perfect renovation project didn’t materialize: Everything was too expensive and too uninspired. One day, while jogging on a sun-dappled crescent in Toronto’s Swansea neighbourhood, Couvrette approached a neglected brick house surrounded by high-priced, traditional Tudor-style homes. The home wasn’t worth saving but its footprint and lot – with a canopy of mature trees and idyllic location on a bend in the Humber River – had potential. A new plan emerged. Instead of renovating, he would tackle his biggest project yet: a new build.

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Mischa Couvrette with six-year-old daughter, Evelyn, and four-year-old son, Aubrey.RILEY SNELLING/Supplied

“I just felt this was the right spot,” says Couvrette. “We’d been talking about moving out of the city or even to Nova Scotia, but the 55 trees on the property and 10-minute commute to my studio sealed the deal.”

Couvrette’s next call was to his best friend Jonathan Mandeville, a principal at Halifax architecture and public art firm Passage Studio. The two share a shorthand, having been roommates at Dalhousie University in their 20s and collaborating on several projects in the years since. In fact, hollis+morris is named for the intersection of two Halifax streets where the two lived in multiple apartments.

“Jon and I are so like-minded, and I trust him implicitly,” says Couvrette. “He flew in and looked at the property and we agreed immediately what this house should be.”

“Our approach was to think about a house for a furniture maker,” says Mandeville, of the three-storey, 3,000-square-foot new home built on the existing foundation. “Everything is designed with an understanding of craft; everything has a textural quality and is meant to be touched.”

As an homage to the trees on the property, which the team preserved, and the hollis+morris aesthetic, they decided on a wood-clad exterior with a standing-seam metal roof. “Wood houses aren’t the norm for Toronto, so we looked to Scandinavian style, which Mischa and Alison really like,” says Thomas Evans, co-principal at Passage Studio. “Coming from the East Coast, we certainly know how to do wood, too.”

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White oak flooring and millwork form a cohesive canvas for Couvrette’s furniture and lighting designs, such as the Crest Dining Chairs, Horizontal Link Pendant, and Horizontal Willow Pendant over the kitchen island.RILEY SNELLING/Supplied

The initial plan called for tongue-and-groove panels in clear cedar for a knot-free, refined look, but the team pivoted for budgetary reasons: “Everyone was building decks during the pandemic and the cost of cedar went through the roof,” says Couvrette. Passage Studio suggested clear hemlock, which was a quarter of the price, and sourced the wood through a supplier in New Brunswick. Couvrette custom-mixed the stain himself – it took 60 attempts to find the right blend to mimic the hemlock’s raw colour while offering protection from the elements.

The spirit of collaboration continued inside the five-bedroom house. Mid-process, the windows were expanded to nine feet in height to allow the house to open itself up to the outdoors. When Couvrette and Fosbery insisted they didn’t want upper cabinets in the kitchen, Mandeville and Evans responded with a pantry structure to increase storage. When a quote from a kitchen company was too high, Couvrette hired a former employee to make the curved kitchen island from 360 half-dowels. Cross-provincial phone calls extended late into the evenings to discuss which slab of marble would go where.

The house soon became a testing ground for new hollis+morris products. When Mandeville and Evans realized a different style of sconce would better suit a wall of storage cupboards, Couvrette went to his shop and made it – the fixture is now known as the Oyster Sconce and available for purchase. In total, Couvrette created 12 new hollis+morris pieces, from the kitchen stools to the curved sofa in the living room.

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Three of Couvrette’s sconce designs – Willow, Anchor, and Constellation – add architectural emphasis to an understated primary bathroom.RILEY SNELLING/The Globe and Mail

The biggest and most challenging collaboration was the home’s exterior entry threshold. Dubbed “the Hoop,” it’s a five-foot-deep, 10-by-10-foot square made from marine-grade steel that was fabricated off site and craned into place. “That was a project in itself, and several times we considered dropping it,” says Mandeville. “But it was worth pursuing and has become a place where Mischa and Alison can sit outside when it’s raining.”

Though the home stands out among the more traditional styles on the street, it’s surprisingly modest and recessive – Couvrette’s vision come to life in 3-D. “This isn’t a cookie-cutter, store-bought house that’s trying to look modern. We were pushing the envelope in all sorts of ways, and I think that honesty and purpose lets it sit on this site and own its presence,” he says. “Now, seeing our little ones run around and have a big yard and lots of space to breathe, it fills me with a lot of joy.”


Style Secrets

Three ways to bring Mischa Couvrette’s high-design look home.

1. Limit the palette Sticking with a range of neutral tones (cream, rust, sand) mixed with white oak and metals creates a luxury-hotel vibe.

2. Be flexible Though he wasn’t yet sure how he’d use it, Couvrette scooped up slabs of beige Avorio di Segesta marble when he saw the price: “We got seven slabs for a total of $600 instead of $6,000,” he says. “It was the deal of the century.”

3. Embrace simplicity Couvrette avoided glossy surfaces and layered in texture via low-lustre finishes on walls and wood for their more natural, refined appearance.

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