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A North Vancouver family's adventures in West Coast modernism.
When film set decorator Hamish Purdy bought his “tree fort in the woods,” he was 29 and in a bit over his head—“It was probably more than I could afford,” he says—but it just felt like home right away.
“It’s kind of ridiculous now that I’m married and we have three kids,” says Purdy of the split-level West Coast modern home that sits perched above Mission Creek in North Vancouver. “I don’t think it was ever really designed for that.” Built in 1972 by architects Barry Griblin and Robert Hassell, the home seemed made for a time before people had a lot of stuff. With the couple’s 15-year-old son and twin 10-year-olds, it’s been a challenge finding space for the ski clothes, helmets, old art and other knickknacks that accumulate around family life.
“Through the years I’ve sort of cursed Barry and the whole West Coast modern movement because of its shortcomings,” laughs Purdy over the lack of closet space and the drafty louvred glass and single-paned windows. But in the plus column: an open plan tailored to the view. “The whole south side of the house is almost all glass, so it feels like I’m sitting in the forest,” he says. Cheaply built but beautifully designed, with its smell of rough cedar inside and out, and the constant rush of the creek just outside the home, the house scores a few more points for the West Coast modernists.
Despite his exposure to a lot of set props and decor at work (his past films include The Revenant, the latest Predator and now an “untitled Robert Zemeckis project”), Purdy has designed his home to be surprisingly spare. “The expression I like to say is, ‘The cobbler’s children have no shoes,’” jokes Purdy. Inside you’ll find a few keepsakes, a wall of the kids’ art, but not a lot of attention paid to furnishings. “I try to reduce the amount of stuff in my life, because I’m a decorator,” he says. “Ironically, the house never looked better than when it was completely empty. Nothing looks better than looking out a plain window to the forest.”
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“I don’t have curtains…I like to be able to see and feel the forest,” says Purdy, seen here with his wife, Jane, and twins John and Kate. “It’s just calming.”
Rough cedar and open-plan views to the forest amplify that in-the-woods feeling. A recent renovation, where the Purdys worked with the original architect, Barry Griblin, added entrance overhangs and expanded the basement while staying true to the 1972 West Coast modern design.
In 2005, Hamish was racing a sailboat from L.A. to Hawaii when a crew member dropped a jockey pole in the ocean. Ten years later, he found the exact same custom carbon-fibre pole among the logs while beachcombing on the Scott Islands, north of Vancouver Island. One of the few pieces of art in his home is the pole, mounted next to its original printed-to-scale specs that match the one-of-a-kind artifact exactly. “It’s amazing that it was found. That I found it is insane,” says Hamish.
The landscaping around the family’s home was happily left to its own devices—save for a Tarzan swing 10-year-old John makes use of among the forest’s Douglas fir, cedars, ferns and huckleberries.
In the dining area hangs a Douglas Coupland print bought through Artists for Kids, a collective that supports art education for kids on the North Shore.
The set decorator doesn’t hold on to much from past projects, but he has kept a small box of historic replicas he had made for The Revenant. Among the keepsakes: a clay pipe (no, this one was not smoked by Leo), a trader’s journal and a turtle pouch that, in Sioux tradition, children wore for protection.