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Designed for an interior design show, this multi-functional space puts a whole new slant on the notion of a retreat

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Ask five leading designers to convey their notion of a retreat and you'll get five very different responses. That is precisely what organisers of the recent Interior Design Show in Toronto did. Four designers were each commissioned to design interiors with a sense of refuge, and one to design an exterior – the only dictate was a standard size of 54m2.

Designer Johnson Chou, whose minimalist design is featured here, says the notion of a retreat invokes more than simply escape.

"We retreat to think and to create," he says. "Away from our day-to-day chaos, we are able to harness the creativity and focus we normally don't have time for."

Chou designed Womb – an acronym for work, office, meditation and base – as a multi-functional space that recognises that a place of refuge must fulfil a variety of needs. Designed to be four rooms in one, the space literally transforms according to requirements. At the same time, its pure white surroundings maintain a constant sense of ethereality, Chou says.

At various stages of transformation, Womb comprises four different spaces: kitchen, work/office space, bedroom/living room, and a zen-like meditative environment.

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"The space can be as spare or as complex as desired," says Chou. "Everything that is not immediately necessary can be moved to eliminate spatial distractions."

The living space is separated from the work and kitchen area by a pool, which is both functional and meditative. The pool is used for bathing, and to create a sense of calm and tranquillity, says Chou.

Both the pool and the suspended chimney in the centre of the room anchor the space as the only fixed and permanent elements. All the other furniture items are movable.

The living area contains a bed that disappears into the floor when not in use. This allows a couch to fold out from the wall. The kitchen unit fits into a wall on the opposite side of the room. When in use, part of the benchtop can be lifted to expose a sink and tap, or left flat for extra bench space. When retracted, the empty space allows a table to pivot around, creating a work area with a view across the pool and through a window. A bathroom is also concealed behind a wall, which opens and closes as needed.

Storage was another major consideration for the space, which was designed to be livable, says Chou.

"Every glass wall conceals a bank of storage. In an uncluttered environment such as this, having plenty of concealed storage is the only way to make it work."

Also central to the success of the project are innovative engineering and the use of special materials and lighting. Chou says all the automated elements utilise the same type of hydraulic system and can be operated by remote control.

A new type of foamed aluminium from Alusion, a Canadian manufacturer, was used for the table top, bench seats and the bed head. Chou says the extra strength and light weight of the product made it well suited to the design. The cold look of the aluminium is contrasted by the warmer tones of the marble flooring and pool.

"The lighting was also designed to transform the space," says Chou.

"Conceived in white as a blank canvas, the walls can be transformed by fluorescent lighting to provide a cool white space by day. At night, recessed halogen lighting creates a warmer, more intimate space. The space is further modulated with fibre-optic lighting that can paint the walls with varying shades of colour."

First published date: 03 July 2003

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Credit List

Location Womb conceptual apartment, Interior Design Show, Toronto
Designer Johnson Chou, Johnson Chou Inc
Project management and main contractor Kellner Homes
Fabricators and installers of mechanical elements MCM 2001
Foamed aluminium Alusion from Cymat Corp
Glass CLO Glass
Marble CIOT Marble & Granite
Home electronics Bang & Olufsen
Bathroom sink and taps Ginger's Bath Centre
Toilet Tessura by Geberit Manufacturing
Electric linear actuator systems Linak US