This week, I was warmly greeted into the apartment of Michael Derlath from Germany and Guillaume Trahan from Montréal. Michael is a former intensive care nurse now working as a marketing manager, and Guillaume an interior architect. This couple shares their apartment with Michael’s sister and lives with their dog, London in a lesser-known district in Berlin. Approaching their building from outside you feel an air of mystique. Two structural round towers sit either side of their top floor apartment giving you a sense of the architectural thrills that await you inside this castle-like exterior.
When Guillaume and Michael open their door, It is hard not to feel elated. This feeling is not that of victorious origins of having reached the top. Rather, it comes from the striking amount of light that greets you; an artfully rude reminder of the commanding power of nature. Their living room space is completely walled on one side by windows. Each bedroom is positioned in a tower; a curved snug to sleep in with beaming that creates abstract shapes overhead. A striking display of daylight and shadows trick the eye as forms and contours are fashioned on the impressive four-meter high walls and ceilings.
We begin our interview by discussing how this couple styles their home. Looking around, I see a balanced and sophisticated level of design executed to an astute degree of moderation. This moderation seems to be influenced by a mixture of the building itself, and the impact the outside world has on their inside world as Guillaume and Michael explain how they believe light is the only thing you cannot invent. They reveal you can always find an answer to a badly organised apartment by creating clever storage solutions, but you cannot get more daylight into a dark space as “the light has to be right from the start.”
Michael and Guillaume choose to leave their windows bare without textiles, which they believe acts as a barrier between them and light. It is the architects’ job to place the building in such a way, to control as much light as possible. Guillaume comments that architecture is usually revealed in these spaces such as windows, where when you see the window, you see the detail of the architecture. To hide this behind curtains would be to loose its beauty as the room becomes a white box, deprived of its borders that catch shadow and light so charmingly. Being exposed to the outside world in this way doesn’t faze them, as they casually admit, “they must see us, at night we become a lantern”.
However, this absence of privacy is no price to pay for the display the rising and falling sun offers them. As the sun rises on the other side of the building, the morning does not blind them. Rather, they are gently awoken by daylight’s sensitivity, slowly streaming on top of them. Michael passionately describes how evenings are the cosiest times for him when the golden light of the dwindling sun floats around the room until its last beam retires. Amazingly, this is not the only light seducing them in this space. Lying in bed at night, the headlights of the outside cars circle in patterns on the high, curved ceiling of their tower, offering them a spectacle of illumination.
This relationship between the impression of external light (both organic and manmade) and an admiration for architecture has resulted in Michael and Guillaume taking a respectful approach to styling. Michael likes to reduce matter. When he sees too many details he will eliminate in order to diminish the complexity and weight of things. Guillaume, on the other hand, is a collector. He enjoys found objects like rocks and small collectables and when space looks too empty, he will add on to a vacant scene.
The disparity between the two amuses me. It feels like the sun plays tricks on this couple who are frantically adding and reducing matter, as light and shade occupy and vacate each corner.
However, the couple explains, “It’s not like cat and mouse where we go against each other, it is just a balancing act”.
Certain pieces like dying plants and burnt out candles, Guillaume likes to revive, while Michael prefers to arrange their funeral. However, this is not a source of contention for either of them. They find their happy medium through an understanding of each other’s habits. Neither in the relationship are too precious about the order of things which allows for a great balancing act to result in a triumphant equilibrium. Michael and Guillaume painted their bedroom walls last year to create a new variation to the room. A very delicate, yet effective grey is painted next to white, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was this couple’s unconscious imitation of the light and shade that surrounds them.
Signs of the characters of this duo are seen subtly planted around the interior. Their ‘Ceci n’est pas un bar gay’ poster was picked up at their local bar where they had a few posters to give away; an unexpected find from a quiet evening beer. Small frames are positioned around the bedroom with clippings from magazines or movies inside, belonging to Michael. When he comes across something he likes he often likes to place significance on it. Guillaume is less opportunistic when it comes to artwork and while he doesn’t decide he needs to fill up a spot, he takes pleasure in searching for his favourite pieces. An example of this is the self-portrait of Francis Bacon hanging proudly above their sofa.
Among the bought items in this home are also an amount of homemade items nicely balanced to the mix.
Guillaume enjoys making pottery seen through vases and abstract cone shapes with experimental blotches of paint. A portrait of Michael is propped on their living room sideboard which Guillaume made as a gift out of chopped up pages from National Geographic.
Michael comments that he loves to read, and brings my attention to the bookshelf in their bedroom. When Michael moved to Berlin from Copenhagen he had with him only a desk, sofa and mattress resulting in books piled on the floor and all extras standing just, somewhere. He explains it takes him a long time to make a commitment, and whereas when he was in dire need of a bookshelf, he did not invest in one until he found his perfect design which came from HAY. He enlightens me with his policy that an unread or partially read book never earns its space on the shelf. It goes there only if it has been completely read. He refers to himself as a neurotic book reader and tells me his books must remain good-looking and in pristine condition to enter the shelf. It became apparent to me that within this methodical practice of book maintenance, and the patience possessed to wait for quality born from a need, Michael sets himself up for long lasting pleasure with a sense of pride for the condition and quality of things.
This sentiment seems to be shared by both Guillaume and Michael, seen through their Eames chair project; a growing collection of DAW chairs around their dining table. They aim to slowly replace their ordinary chairs with a much-loved DAW, to achieve a complete collection of mismatched colours in time. To Michael and Guillaume, it is well worth the wait as they feel when quality is good they are guaranteed enjoyment for a long time.
Not only is this couple prepared to wait for as long as it takes to find and afford their perfect furniture, when they do find it, a process of labouring takes place. They will visit the piece several times over a series of weeks and if they are still in love by the third visit, it is at high risk of being initiated into the family. They like to go on day trips to shops like Vitra or Minimum on the weekends, observing species of furniture in an imitation of their natural habitat as they consider taking them into their environment.
With Guillaume’s architectural background and Michaels quest for beauty in simplicity, it comes as no surprise to me that their favourite elements of this apartment are the windows, light, and high ceilings. It seems that this couple honours a code of quality with an appreciation for the beautiful, the functional, and the slow release of pleasure. I admire their perseverance to take their time and to put their object choices to the test, to ensure their further standing in the test of time. A lesson can be learnt from Michael and Guillaume in that commodities in their abundance do not mean everything in the quest for aesthetic balance. While they believe in paying good money for the value they receive, they teach us that money cannot buy everything, nor can human talent overpower the beauty in the setting nature styles. Negative space is just as important as filled space, and shadow is just as important as light.
The act of reduction to seek simplicity creates a harmonious place to live amidst the complexities of life. Guillaume and Michael play a game with nature letting the intangible shapes, lines, and vignettes it forms tiptoe around them as they pay homage to the building, homage to the sun, and homage to the architect. It would be a crime to over-style such a beautifully formed space that invites so much of the outside in, and Michael and Guillaume have applied their sensitivity, intuition, and taste just so. I have always believed in the expression ‘if you have something to say, say it well’, and I believe this couple make the best, understated statement through their preference for quality that screams out a thousand words, modestly.