From the moment they emerged from their rental car in rural Vermont, interior designers Eric McClelland and Peter Lunney knew they were out of their usual territory. The first sign came in the form of two giant wolfhounds bounding across the fields towards them.
The men were frozen in place when they realized that the shaggy beasts were just exuberantly friendly. Once they got past that introduction, the designers were able to take in their surroundings on 15 acres of rolling farmland leading down to the shore of Lake Champlain. Directly ahead was the water, beyond that, the Adirondack Mountains.
"All they see is the lake and the mountains of New York in the background," says Mr. McClelland.
The clients – a husband and wife moving from Manhattan to this parcel carved out of a former Vanderbilt family estate – brought in the Toronto-based designers to create a house that was formal enough to showcase their large collection of art and sculpture while comfortable enough to accommodate relaxed country living.
Mr. McClelland and Mr. Lunney, the principals at Fleur-de-Lis Interior Design, would make the journey from Toronto to Vermont many times over the four years it would take to plan and build the 8,400 square foot house.
Back in their mid-town studio recently, the designers recalled an unusually long planning process.
The designers also spent a lot of time at the beginning measuring and planning for the clients' collections.
The couple had assembled a sizable horde of Inuit art and the wife – an artist who works with fabrics and textiles – had picked up hundreds of woven baskets in her travels. She had also gathered carved turtles of every imaginable material, including glass, onyx and marble.
The turtles, they all agreed, would go in the master bedroom.
"We were going to these lengths four years before they moved in," says Mr. McClelland. "We knew where her art pieces were going."
The designers worked closely with a Vermont-based architecture and building firm, but they found initial designs provided by the builder too traditional.
They knew the clients preferred a more modern and open design because the couple had contacted the designers after they purchased a second home in Port Credit decorated by Fleur-de-Lis for the previous owner.
"They were playing it very safe," says Mr. McClelland, "whereas we knew, in the townhouse, the shower was in the middle of the master suite."
The designers reconfigured the layout and opened up the rooms. The result is a house that's modernist in approach. The privacy of the site allows the residents to have lots of large windows from which to take in the views.
The lighting defines the spaces and provides interest in the ceiling while keeping the appearance clean and uncluttered, the pair says. One chandelier is made up of 500 balls of blown glass bubbles.
In the entrance hall, three 15-foot long fixtures are recessed into the ceiling. The effect is of glittering stars.
"It's quite stunning at night," says Mr. Lunney.
Throughout the house, the designers used limestone and exotic woods as they would in the city, but some finishes, such as fossil stone on the countertops, are more suited to the countryside. The wolfhounds, for example, influenced their decision to use more stone on the floors than they would in the city.
"We opted for rich materials that were also a bit more rustic," says Mr. McClelland.
Dark hot-rolled steel surrounds the windows on the interior and riff-cut walnut lines the walls.
One of their favourite rooms is the potting room, where reclaimed barn boards from the property were combined with stainless steel to make a work bench.
"It was an interesting play between the property and the house and using a very rough, natural material as a sleek and high-end finish," says Mr. McClelland.
A unique focal point for the room is an antique wooden vessel that the client uses for mixing garden soil.
"We couldn't figure out what is was at first," says Mr. McClelland. "We kept calling it a sink. She kept saying, 'it's not a sink, it's where I mix my dirt!'"
The living room is another carefully-considered space where the palette of natural tones, with blues and greens and a hint of red and orange, was decided before the wood and stone went in.
The room is anchored by a wool-and-silk carpet, which was commissioned by the designers and hand-knotted in Nepal.
"She was fairly fashion-forward and willing to take risks," says Mr. McClelland.
In the dining room, the designers decided not to place a traditional chandelier over the table.
Clients like the ability to change up the look in their dining rooms, Mr. McClelland explains. They may use tea lights or candles for example. With a giant chandelier in place, it's harder to do that.
The dining room table has a long groove in it that also allows the homeowner to be creative. Most recently she filled it with river rocks, but at another time she might use sand or leaves.
"If clients are artistic, they will use those things. She was the type of client who would go out and press leaves and put them in the trough of the dining room table," says Mr. McClelland. "Some clients are just not going to do that kind of thing."
There were challenges during construction, but that's when everyone could rely on the unusual level of detail that went into drawing and planning at the start.
"Definitely doing site work from afar, you have to be very focused and you have to remember what your concept was for the house," says Mr. Lunney.
But the rigorous planning meant being able to refer to a 300-page set of drawings to ensure, for example, that plumbing for a wall-mounted bathroom faucet was installed precisely six inches from centre to compensate for the same depth of millwork that would line one wall.
Mr. McClelland adds that clients also need to spend more on the workmanship needed to carry off the designs in wood and stone. Wood cabinets, for example, are mitred and seamless and floating on stainless steel.
"It's not the finishes that make it expensive, it's the work," says Mr. McClelland. "They have to treat the project as an investment."
When the house was finished, the designers made another trip to Vermont to unpack the turtles, baskets, vases and works of art. They placed collections into the niches specially designed to hold them.
"We spent hours and hours putting these things into shelves," says Mr. Lunney. "It was fun."
The finished design was awarded an award of merit by the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario.
Mr. McClelland says the difference between an ordinary house and an award-winning one is the detail that goes into planning. In this case, the client's creativity and involvement also inspired the duo.
"In a residential project it's so much easier to let the client get involved," says Mr. McClelland, adding that it's not enough for the designers to feel satisfied with the result. "We wanted it to look great and we wanted her to love it."