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February 7, 2010

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Architect moulds lane house to suit young family's needs

THE unmistakable clash of Chinese, French, Southeast Asian and tribal influences blend into one surprisingly workable composition at this 1930s lane house tucked away on Huating Road.

In the past six years, French architect Helene de Lataillade has stamped her individuality on the interiors with a harmonious combination of materials and a quirky mishmash of styles.

Following her husband Jean's work transition to Shanghai in 2004, de Lataillade had definite ideas of the house she wanted to rent for the family.

"The location was quickly determined by the fact that we wanted to be in the downtown Xuhui District," de Lataillade said.

"The green surroundings were appealing, as was the 1930s architectural scene with its low buildings. The transport facilities were convenient as was proximity to various businesses including fancy restaurants, fashion and designer shops," she said.

So one day de Lataillade knocked on the door of a local real estate agent with her son in arms and on the same day the agent found her a house. This semi-detached two-story home was built in 1938 by the grandparents of the present Shanghainese landlord. The architect was French and had designed four similar houses nearby.

"The 'coup de coeur' (personal favorite) was based on the 'flow' of the house," she said. "Firstly, the original wood stairways were large, with a width of 1.2 meters. Secondly, when we entered from the north of the building we could get a direct view through the corridor to the garden on the south side of the house. Third, the location was at a quiet end of a nice lane."

The landlord had the good taste to preserve the existing style of her family home: dark wooden floors, black and white original tiles in the kitchen, big heavy wooden doors, and the old windows.

"Only the garden was in poor condition but my husband took good care of it. He created a path with small black and grey pebbles," de Lataillade said. With a supportive landlord, the couple completed renovations step by step, with a goal to achieve more practical space, more natural light.

The semi-detached house was originally designed with two "function quarters": the north part is the "service area" with the kitchen on the ground floor and narrow staircases leading to the maid's area above; the south part is the "family area" with living and dining on the first floor and the main stairways leading to two bedrooms on the second floor.

From her architectural point of view, de Lataillade was keen on optimizing the space, in keeping with its age and style. On the first floor, she converted two windows into glass doors leading to the patio, creating direct access from living room to garden. Before, they could only access the garden from the corridor. Then they created a wooden terrace which expanded the living room.

On the second floor, she converted the original balcony into a separate baby's room since she had a second child in Shanghai. Also, the maid's area was redesigned into an office/guest room.

Oriental landscape

"Living in downtown gives me lots of opportunities to be inspired by many of the details surrounding me," de Lataillade said. "I'm mainly inspired by the Oriental landscape, with no barrier between the inside and the outside, as the outside is a continuation of the interior. This leads me to work with views and perspectives in any kind of project."

However, she approached the house as not only an architect, but also as a decorator and designer. Her role was to present ideas, provoke thought and stimulate imagination. She curated the interior, gathering family favorite objects to make a gallery of furniture, textiles, rugs and artworks, aiming for discoveries at every turn.

"We met and got married just before moving to Asia. We only brought our student stuff such as books, sculptures, carpets and small items with a few pieces of Ikea furniture. We started to gradually accumulate some nice pieces in Thailand, including 1930s items from Myanmar, and a beautiful set of three coffee tables in black lacquer," de Lataillade said.

Moving into this Shanghai house gave her the opportunity to purchase 1930s' Art Deco antiques. "My training as a French architect took me to Art Deco style as one of my favorite references," she said. "I select simply the shape and the color which will fit my interior and the rest will follow, always keeping in mind before buying where the new item will fit in."

It took her two years to find the "ideal" chair to match the Mahjong tables: the traditional seats were too low and bar stools too high. "Finally we ended up with a modern version to enhance the wooden tables, made of metal and white plastic, from the designer Ron Arad. When my four-year-old daughter arrived in the living room and saw the new set of chairs, she said: 'Mum, it is wonderful, you bought some white shells'."

De Lataillade tries to avoid "static spaces." The living room - the largest space - required the most thought. "It is my favorite room that I qualify as a 'living area' because it is easily subject to modifications: once in a while, when my husband comes back from trips, he will find all the furniture reorganized, with even the function areas inverted."

As for colors, she likes Asian shades with a preponderance for Chinese red matched with other favorite colors: grey, dark purple and, most recently, orange. "The choice of orange is influenced by the vintage French 1970s' style, very present in the 2010 summer collection. But I always see it like a painting, where you add some touches here and there to enhance the furniture or space."

An architecture graduate of University of Versailles-France with a postgraduate diploma in historical landscaping at the School of Architecture and Urbanism of Versailles, de Lataillade enjoyed eight years of Parisian professional life designing for residences and industry, including winning a competition for the Athens 2004 Olympic village.

Having lived in Bangkok and Shanghai for the past nine years, she was involved in inspiring projects such as the L'Oreal R&D center in Pudong. Recognizing the need for high-quality bilingual French-Chinese education downtown, de Lataillade joined other French parents to set up French sections in local Chinese schools, with support from Xuhui District.

Today, a French speaking parent can register a foreign passport child at Fonshin School, called Le Phoenix, at 100 Wuyuan Road for kindergarten level, starting at age two, and then walk five minutes to the next block, up to 247 Anfu Road to the prestigious Aiju School for primary levels.


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