Interview with Atelier Barda co-founder Cecile Combelle

  • Talking with Atelier Barda co-founder Cecile Combelle, on establishing their Montreal firm, European design influence and what she has learned about the way people live.

    Antonio Di Bacco and Cecile Combelle, young graduates from Toulouse, France, founded the Montreal-based firm Atelier Barda in 2012. While French speaking, co-founder Cecile Combelle says they soon became privy to important cultural differences in studying the way people live. Clients were quick to point out Atelier Barda’s “French touch”, while they pushed the boundaries away from the average and accepted architecture paradigm. But as Cecile puts it, no matter what the design references are, it’s the emotion – being attentive to feelings – that inspires and interests them.

    Atelier Barda are exceptional storytellers, imagining their projects as the story itself, or the place for which a story takes place. With an urge to know more about the firm’s own narrative, we sat down with Atelier Barda’s eloquent co-founder Cecile and learned how exactly they entered the Canadian design scene. From our chat with Cecile, Atelier Barda’s legacy is clear as day: raising awareness about the importance of good design in our cities and in our daily lives.

    Founders Antonio Di Bacco and Cécile Combelle

    Can you please tell us a bit about the beginnings of Atelier Barda and why you decided to set up your firm in Montreal?

    Cecile Combelle: We, Cécile Combelle and Antonio Di Bacco, both graduates from the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Toulouse in France, founded Atelier Barda in 2012.

    Starting our own practice was something we were already motivated to do during our studies in France. Just after graduating from Toulouse, we worked in offices in Paris. During our free time, our passion for architecture and design drove us to seek all possible ways to conceive various projects. We participated in several architecture competitions, grants and installations. We were quite hyperactive back then I would say! At that time, Atelier Barda was still a collective and many of our friends joined us depending on projects we were working on. We had won several awards and prizes and that encouraged us to pursue our personal practice.

    Subsequently, we settled in Montreal, Canada. At first, we only planned stay here one or two years max. Obviously our attachment to the city, its atmosphere and the many people we’ve met finally led us to settle here. Although we chose to formally establish our practice in Montreal we wanted to maintain links with France.

    We didn’t decide to establish our practice in Montreal for a particular reason. It happened naturally. We first moved here for the challenge. One of the biggest challenges we encountered setting up our firm in Montréal was that we started up our business not long after moving in, without any professional network (which is very precious). We really started from scratch.

    While Antonio was doing his diploma equivalency for having the right to practice, he succeeded in developing a professional network. The main idea was to meet potential clients. Then it organically began to grow with our new projects and clients.

    Villeneuve Residence by Atelier Barda
    Villeneuve Residence by Atelier Barda

    As the co-founder of Atelier Barda, what have been some of your most pivotal design influences?

    Cecile Combelle: In terms of practice, the education we received in France and Rome (Antonio also studied architecture in Italy) largely influenced our design language. We must admit that the majority of our references are from Europe. We had not realised this specificity upon our arrival. We conceived projects the way we would normally do back in Europe, and it was rather through discussions with our clients that made us aware of our “French touch”, whether in formal language, choice of materials, architectural details, etc.

    For many years we’ve been accumulating various references in an image bank. It could be a 60’s bungalow, the picture from a Yanomami’s village in the Amazon forest, or a canva from Soulages. All these references constitute a sort of repertoire alimenting our creativity. Our architecture influences come from the Baroque to the Post-modern. No matter what the reference is, architectural or not, it is the emotion that inspires and interests us.

    Can you please tell me about your connections in France. Most specifically your various collaborations in Paris with agency Antonio Virga Architect?

    Cecile Combelle: As previously said, we both worked in Paris before moving to Canada. Therefore, we established relationships within a network of architects and designers. Some of those relationships are still very strong and maintained. Antonio Virga was Antonio’s first boss; his mentor I would say. Antonio learned a lot with Virga. They collaborated on many projects back then and still today. Some examples of those collaborations are the Chabrol Apartment, Saint-Maur Loft, and more recently the CHAI in Cahors (Centre d’hébergement et d’accueil international), a project for which we collaborated during the competition process.

    What have you learned about the way people live from practicing in Canada, compared with France? 

    Cecile Combelle: Even though we moved to a predominantly francophone city in Canada, we encountered important cultural differences, whether in the practice of architecture and interior design or in relation to the vision of the practice itself. The perception of architecture, its role and its value are not experienced and expressed in the same way from one country to another. What is certain is that we work really hard to convince our clients to push creative boundaries and deviate from local architectural paradigms.

    The climatic conditions of Quebec also foster major design restraints and have to be taken highly into consideration during the early stages of design, knowing that they could lead to complex details.

    Apartment Saint-Laurent by Atelier Barda

    How does your sensitive approach surface in your work? 

    Cecile Combelle: I would say that sensitivity is the delicate appreciation of feelings. And we are very attentive to feelings, especially those generated by the spaces and objects surrounding us. We are particularly sensitive to the sequences of spaces. We imagine projects as stories, or at least as decors in which the stories take place. We would say there is a cinematographic approach to design in our practice. And our clients are the protagonists. We always base our design on the sequences that will shape the way people live in the spaces. It’s a lot about feelings, sensations, atmospheres and the imagination stimulated by the design vocabulary.

    We are not aroused by razzle-dazzle design. We are more into delicate, sober and authentic design. We believe that materials, shapes, and spaces in general should speak for themselves. Therefore, we focus on minimal design. On one hand to make sure each element responds and highlights the others and on the other hand to let space for our clients to live and appropriate the spaces. We believe that everything should evolve with time – change and mature. That’s one reason we prefer materials that will age in beauty: natural wood, natural stone, lime, etc. We are of those who believe that small discreet things sometimes have more impact than flashy overproduced ones, whether in terms of design or any fields. We want to encourage and stimulate appreciation of our immediate environment. Material or palpable beauty doesn’t have to be superficial.

    Could you please talk us through your new furniture design studio Foraine?

    Cecile Combelle: We recently launched a new studio focused on furniture design called Foraine. For us, design should be integral but most importantly, should be shared. We wanted to share our intimate vision of beauty. Beauty infuses thankfulness, and thankfulness brings wellbeing. We want to inspire a feeling of belonging to a global universe of authenticity and harmony.

    We presented earlier this spring one of our first collection at the Salone del Mobile in Milano and aim to also participate next year. We hope that Foraine will continue to grow beside Atelier Barda in order to spread our vision as much as we can. Our furniture pieces are already available for custom orders, but we aim to broaden the production and pieces available.

    What is the importance of foliage and greenery in your design work?

    Cecile Combelle: Foliage and greenery are not in every one of our projects, but when they are we approach them as sculptural elements inhabiting the space in the same way a built element would. Greenery and foliage freely evolve in architecture, interior and furniture design and landscaping. Technically, we love the natural visual partition greenery and foliage can make. Conceptually, we love the particular climate they generate.

    The use of greenery can serve to softly dramatise a space, in the cinematographic manner when mentioned earlier. We love the fact that we cannot have absolute control over plants, on their appearance or the way they will evolve over time. This can bring unexpected interesting scenes and it goes back to what we said about evolving elements that we prioritise.

    What do you find most challenging and on the other hand, what do you find most enjoyable about your work?

    Cecile Combelle: Through architecture, we want to convey heritage; a cultural heritage. The added value of what we conceive is far greater than just the market value. We create stories, ambiances and journeys that reflect unique lifestyles. There is this true notion of heritage to transmit. It is this understanding that we want to value in our projects above all else.

    Paradoxically, the most challenging thing is the most enjoyable: enticing our clients in this beautiful and ambiguous process that is conception. It’s hard to make people understand the real value of our work as architects. It warms our heart when the client at the end of the project realises all the small details that we pushed (hard!) for finally resulted in this harmonious, unique and refined whole.

    The society we are now living in is made to make us consume more and more, faster and faster, no matter what you consume. We want people to appreciate the craftsmen’s work, especially in our projects because when you become aware of the hard work, you become more thankful and respectful of what surrounds you. This is a part of the message we want to convey.

    Gathier Residence by Atelier Barda

    What excites you most about the future of Canadian design?

    Cecile Combelle: There is still a lot to do to raise awareness about the importance of architecture in our cities and good design in our daily lives. However, we are slowly seeing mentalities change. It is a beautiful virgin ground for a lot of experimentation.

    For example, Montreal is part of the UNESCO network for design cities. This creates an extremely beneficial emulation on our work. Recently we had the chance to be selected among few Montreal firms to represent the city abroad, by participating at the Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk alongside Lambert & fils.

    SSENSE Headquarters by Atelier Barda

    Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designers or studios?

    Cecile Combelle:  Montreal is a very vibrant scene for design, especially for lighting designers. Among others, we truly admire and respect our friends at Lambert & Fils and D’Armes.

    Favourite design stores? 

    Cecile Combelle: Amherst Street is full of gems for connoisseurs of antiques and original design pieces. We also have a thing for Pei Mobilier on Saint-Laurent for its 21st century collections. Mjolk in Toronto is a great boutique where you can find quality design furniture and classic design reissues.

    Favourite galleries and spaces?

    Cecile Combelle: The Phi centre, in Montréal, dedicated to art in all forms: art, cinema, music, design and technology. L’Arsenal is a nice contemporary art gallery in a former 19th century shipyard.The SSENSE boutique in the Old Port is remarkable for its perfect blend of fashion and art. The building was conceived by David Chipperfield.

    SSENSE Headquarters by Atelier Barda
    SSENSE Headquarters by Atelier Barda

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