Designers at Home—Martine Ast
The Calgary home of designer Martine Ast is a showcase for how modern and traditional style can live in harmony.
When designer Martine Ast purchased this mid-century home in Calgary a few years ago, she didn’t waste any time getting down to work. “Steve went out for groceries the first day we had possession,” laughs Ast about her partner, “and came home to an opening in the wall between the kitchen and the living room.” After all, the thrill of renovating this place was the reason she’d purchased it, she explains. The home hadn’t been touched since it was built in the ’60s, so it fit the bill. “I would never want to tear out someone’s fresh renovations,” says Ast, who’s a senior designer at Paul Lavoie Interior Design. “I wanted something absolutely untouched.”
The house itself is a classic bi-level: the two-storey foyer opens to both the upper and lower level in the centre of the home. Once a warren of small rooms (the house used to have five bedrooms—Ast reduced it to three), the main floor is now open-concept, with the kitchen facing out to both the living room and an office area, perched over the foyer, that was once a bedroom. “With small spaces, it’s nice to have a variety of sitting areas,” explains Ast. “We wanted to keep the office as part of the main living area, so that if someone’s working in the office, and someone’s cooking dinner, you’re still together.”
The kitchen is a blend of both modern and traditional design: the more traditional island, carved and made of mahogany, is paired with white, flat-panelled lacquer cabinetry. The space is given a little extra glitter with a unique, faceted backsplash tile: though it’s the same colour as the cabinets, the light-catching edges of the tile make it appear almost luminous in the space.
Throughout the home, it’s Ast’s quirky collection of furniture that makes the spaces so striking. “I’ve collected my whole life,” she explains. “It started with my grandparents—they were in the antique business, and I would spend summers with them at their business on Kenosee Lake in Saskatchewan, and go to work with them every day.” Many of the pieces have been with Ast since she lived in California five years ago, when visits to estate sales were a favourite pastime. Many have thoughtful updates, such as a mod black and white chevron fabric on a settee Ast discovered on Craigslist, or the lime-green drawer inserts on a pair of art deco side tables in the bedroom. Some, like the showstopping fuchsia and orange plaid barrel chairs in the living room, were unique to begin with. “I try to keep the overall palette really neutral,” she explains. “I bring colour in with fabric.”
Downstairs, the lounge acts as a media room for Ast and her partner. He’s an avid record collector, and it’s their go-to spot for having a cocktail with friends and perusing the vintage and more recent albums (James Brown and the National are favourites). Ast lined the walls with drapery—perfect to shut out the light from the windows when it’s time for a movie night, but also for hiding the TV and electronics when they’re not in use. “It’s a great place in the winter,” she explains. “You close it off, you have a fire going, and it’s really comfortable.” The windows on the lower level are all above ground, which takes away any hint of it being a basement, and were a motivating factor for moving the master ensuite downstairs. She converted the former rec room into the master bedroom and dressing room (removing a creosote-lined stove that filled the room with smoke when lit), bringing in bold colour and pattern with a botanical fabric on the drapes and an ombre-striped wallpaper. The pairing is unusual—and not for the unskilled layperson—but Ast is a master of combining the unusual. “I like to use a variety of scales,” she explains. “You want to make sure you’re not repeating the same size—you want a small, medium, large effect.”
The dressing room allows for an impressive volume of storage thanks to built-in Pax wardrobes from Ikea, mirrored on one wall and with frosted doors on another. The renovation was a three-year process, in part because Ast maintains a busy work schedule, but also because becoming your own client is more challenging than it sounds. “It’s really difficult!” laughs Ast. “You’re exposed to so much as a designer; when it comes to your own house, how do you eliminate so many great options?” Difficult as it was, Ast is ready to do it again, and soon. “I’m just looking for the right place—something untouched again,” she says. “And Steve’s talking more about it than me!”
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style does not fit the structure or definition of any one style. My preference is to mix a collection or variety of aspects from multiple styles in order to create an interesting, unexpected environment.
Name an up-and-coming design trend you’re most excited about.
I love the resurgence of brass and gold in interiors.
What are the key ingredients for your perfect night in?
Delicious food and cocktails, friends, and my record player. With those ingredients, a great time is always the result!
What’s an item that’s still on your wish list for the house?
There is nothing I’m looking for specifically, however, I’m often inspired to give my place a fresh look, because I am always exposed to new products. Whether it is a piece of furniture or art, or even just a beautiful flower, it is exciting to discover something new that can transform a room.
What’s one design trick you often come back to?
I like to have the option of multiple lighting levels through the use of dimmers and lamps. Almost every light in my house is controlled by a dimmer switch. It’s a simple way to transform a room.
What are three of your favourite design stores in Calgary?
Domaine, Dasan Interiors, Inside Avenue Antiques.
What do you like most about living and working in the West?
The West is relatively new, and not steeped in centuries-old traditions. As a designer, this means there is more of a blank slate to work with, which leads to plenty of variety and unique perspectives, mixing both modern and traditional components.