House Beautiful: World of wonders in Vic West waterfront condo

The Vic West condo looks out to Ogden Point and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Canary Custom Cabinets installed quartz countertops, backed by tiny opalescent tiles.
Photograph By ADRIAN LAM, Times Colonist

Gleaming brass vessels from Nepal and Egypt, blue china pots from Thailand, baskets from Malaysia, a hairpiece from northern Vietnam and a miniature mirror from Syria are just a few of the rare and wonderful pieces that greet visitors who enter this home.

Carol Bremner spent many years travelling, living and working overseas — in Malaysia, Germany, Egypt, India, Nepal and Bangladesh — as a nurse married to a high ranking Canadian military officer. “I was a follow-along spouse who went wherever he went,” explained Bremner.

That gave her a chance to collect extraordinary pieces to bring home. Over the decades, rather than gathering small memorabilia, she focused on larger pieces. “My attitude was always to get something significant, rather than ending up with lots of little things.”

Small wonder her Vic West waterfront home brims with artworks and treasured memories that reflect the decades she and John Bremner spent together. One of the most dramatic is a tall pole mirrored in a slim wall leading to the kitchen. The intricately carved wooden column was once part of a house façade in Old Ahmedabad, a metropolis in the Indian province of Gujarat.

“It spent the last 20 years in our garage in Broadmead, as John and I couldn’t agree where to place it,” said Bremner, who moved into her waterfront condo two years ago after her husband died.

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She explained the pole came from an old neighbourhood called a pol — pronounced the same — where many of homes have porches and verandas. “These areas are very, very old and pillars such as this support the upper balconies. This one is made of teak and very, very heavy.”

She loves the way it reflects in a tall, narrow mirror, so all the carving is visible, and she credits her designer for coming up with the idea.

The 1990 condo was re-envisioned two years ago by Sky is the Limit interior designer Ines Hanl, who had a heyday with her client’s collection and took advantage of the unit’s angles and the intense light.

“What I did was design a canvas for Carol’s collection, a backdrop for everything, as well as lots of new storage,” said Hanl.

“We wanted to avoid it looking completely cluttered, so we show off the items, but keep them separated, too, so the eye has time to rest and quiet down,” between display areas.

For example, in the kitchen, by extending the cabinetry all the way down one wall to the eating nook, the designer was able to vastly increase storage and add open shelves for display.

At the far end, she backed open shelves with a mirror to lengthen the sightline.

“I was a bit panicky about storage,” said Bremner, whose new home is half the size of her previous one.

She and her army officer husband lived abroad when he was a military attaché in India, Malaysia and Egypt, and while he served with NATO in Germany during the Cold War. Everywhere they went, they collected art and unique pieces.

Bremner admits she doesn’t love polishing all her pots with commercial brass cleaner every six months, but she loves it when they shimmer like gold. In every corner, there seems to be a treasure, whether it’s a brass table with a matching brazier to hold hot coals or a large copper pot that used to contain fuul, a kind of fava-bean stew that is a traditional breakfast in Egypt.

Under the television is a carved wooden head from Cameroon; above several doorways are delicate wood carvings from Thailand; on a living-room table stands an abacus from Russia that she had made into a lamp; and in her dining room is a carved easel copied from one she admired in Bangladesh.

All this required a lot of creative thinking by Hanl, whose new concept for the kitchen includes fine custom cabinets in glossy white lacquer, a dozen new pot lights recessed into the dropped ceiling over the work area and a large interior window between living and dining rooms … all to increase and reflect light.

“I’m a messy cook and didn’t want the window to be too big. Ines suggested opening it a little more and I wish I had now.”

Sparkling quartz countertops add sizzle, while iridescent mother-of-pearl tiles echo the colours of the ocean. For behind the stove, Hanl chose large glass tiles applied in a horizontal pattern. “It’s a backsplash versus the tiny tiles which we used on the wall, where it’s more about texture,” the designer said.

New floors are light engineered oak, and below one of the counters is a handy drawer-style microwave by Sharp. “It’s a microwave for seniors,” said Bremner.

Hanl added track lighting to focus on the sculptural pieces and to illuminate a full wall of mostly two-dimensional works in the dining room. “One of the attractions of this condo was this long wall, which we could use as a gallery,” said the owner.

The designer noted the dining wall was tricky to assemble, as there were dozens of elements, including jewelry, small sculptures, tiny mirrors from Syria and Nepal and a small corbel of a carved parrot.

“We laid it out and played with it for about three days,” she explained. At the end of the wall, tucked into a corner to continue the gallery effect, she created a floor-to-ceiling mirrored cabinet, which serves as a vertical buffet

The television is mounted inconspicuously in what was once a rather awkward angle opposite the Indian house post. Here, Hanl devised extra storage with built-in cabinets above and below, finished in high-gloss white laminate like the kitchen.

Besides adding storage, it downplays the television to the point that it almost disappears.

In the bedroom, a paravan screen from Egypt with elaborately cut “Jali” work (perforated or latticed) has become a headboard. In the past, such dividers were used to hide women in purdah, while allowing light and air to pass through, and allowing the women to see out.

As a final touch, Hanl removed all the closet doorframes and added opaque glass ones and sliders.

That adds a modern look while increasing light and space, said Hanl, who has had her own design business for 12 years and trained in interior architecture in Germany.

Having started her career doing sets and costume design, she loves working with unique elements. “I am a theatre girl and I also grew up in a family in Bohemia, with all the flowers and decoration and coloured glass that is famous for. Renaissance and Gothic history were everywhere.”

But she also absorbed influences from the Bauhaus school, and so combined ancient with modern.

“And I always go all out for everything ethnic,” she said. “The combination appeals to a wide variety of people, and so I get to do a lot of different projects.”

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