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House Beautiful: Sanctuary from the big city

One of the most fun and funky of the eight homes on this year’s Young Life Home Design and Renovation Tour is a former Fernwood church that has been resurrected as a decidedly distinctive home.

One of the most fun and funky of the eight homes on this year’s Young Life Home Design and Renovation Tour is a former Fernwood church that has been resurrected as a decidedly distinctive home.

It belongs to artist, set decorator and film production designer Francois Milly, who worked on the Highlander series and specialized in toy commercials. Milly bought the de-sanctified space last summer after moving here from Vancouver and has filled it with a wide assortment of paintings, sculptures, artworks he has made himself, mobiles, painted driftwood and groovy gewgaws.

There is nothing sombre or dull about this designer, who used to live in Kitsilano when it was home to hippies, but felt he had to leave when it was overrun by yuppies.

Everywhere you look in his home, there is some unexpected joke or eye candy.

At the front gate, which leads into a small front garden, he has arranged baskets of tiny white vases in lieu of potted shrubs, while by the front door is a donation box with a sign that reads: Thanks for visiting the Maritime Museum — a not-so-subtle hint about what’s to come.

Inside the front door is a floor-to-ceiling melange of colourful scarves, camouflaging the opening to his broom closet, and on three walls are dozens of crosses and crucifixes — a fraction of his former collection.

“I sold about 250 of them a while ago. I like the tackiness of them, all the gold and decoration, and I sometimes paint them.

“The fun part is, every time a grandma or aunt dies, my mother asks me what I’d like [from the estate] and I say: ‘Her crucifix, please.’ My mother says it makes it so easy,” said Milly, who was born in France and recently lived for 20 years in Vancouver, and before that in the Caribbean, Toronto, Montreal and North Africa.

After working in the film industry, he ran a high-end guesthouse for eight years in Vancouver but got worn out.

“It was a 24/7 job and at the end I was just drained. You are never by yourself — you’re always smiling and happy and you get calls at three in the morning from Australia.”

When he decided to leave Vancouver — “I was tired of the traffic, the crush of people” — he contacted a Victoria real estate agent and said he wanted to buy something offbeat.

“I said I was looking for a train station, a post office, a funeral home or a church. I didn’t want cookie-cutter.”

Twenty minutes after catching a plane over to view the unconventional, 2,700-square-foot Fernwood house, Milly knew it was perfect. He put in an offer, but by the time he was back at Harbour Air, a competing offer had come in. He instantly came up to full price with no conditions, since he had already sold his home in Vancouver.

“I knew this was a great place the minute I walked in. It was something about all the fir floors, the energy. It had an incredible feeling that made me feel right at home. The space is simple, but not pretentious.”

When he first toured the home, he found it too starkly white inside, too bright.

“It’s still very bright in the summer and when I have a party, I keep a bowl of sunglasses on the island — but on a gloomy wintry day, I understand why there are so many windows and skylights. It’s great on a grey day.”

Soon after moving in last July, he began to fill the space with bright art, colourful furniture and texture. His favourite artist is Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, who lived in Nova Scotia and painted vibrant canvases with paint right from the tubes. He finds her work compelling and has created several knockoffs of her paintings and hung them in his guest bathroom.

“I’ve always, always loved colour. It doesn’t scare me. I was born with a love of colour and I also like thrift stores and second-hand stores.”

Eclectic hardly begins to describe his collection of curiosities. He sees interesting pieces everywhere.

“At the end of the month, I drive through back alleys and see stuff that people are giving away.”

He was walking his dogs on Pandora recently and saw two ugly blue chairs — “I mean they were really ugly” — but he liked them, so he ran home, jumped in his truck and went to pick them up.

“I stripped them down to the wood and recovered them in red velvet. I love to sew and always have to be doing something. Right now, I am making mobiles out of driftwood.” Several are arranged on his kitchen island and he is currently negotiating with an art gallery in Tokyo that may want as many as 20 of them.

He found a Japanese pinball machine in Langford’s Habitat for Humanity ReStore, has discovered cabinets in junk stores and interesting antiques at auction, and collects everything from globes to salt-and-pepper shakers and big keys.

“Every now and then I have a yard sale and sell off some collection or other.” .

“I’m building fences out of driftwood now and using old wire plate holders to make mobiles of people and animals. I recently found a whole bag of wire holders for $1.20 at the St. Vincent de Paul.”

When he was house-hunting, Milly didn’t want to see the restyled church at first because he wanted to do a place up himself, but then he thought: Who needs the aggravation? Who wants to spend years dealing with builders? “And this had been very nicely done,” by the Citizen Design Build team, he said.

The owner agreed to be on the Young Life tour, “after checking out that it was not a right-wing organization,” he said with a chuckle. “There is a little bit of faith involved, and I’m OK with that.”


What: Young Life Home Design and Renovation Tour

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday April 29,

Tickets: $25, call 250-634-3223 or see a complete list of ticket outlets at

Where: Eight unique Victoria-area homes


The one-day self-guided Young Life Home Design and Renovation Tour is full of surprises this year.

It features a 1930s renovated character home in Cook Street village; a relocated, waterfront heritage home on Dallas Road; a large reno in Uplands; a new oceanfront residence on Ten Mile Point and more.

Some of the homes have state-of-the-art green technology, while others boast spectacular views.

The event supports a non-profit organization that works to create meaningful mentoring relationships with teenagers in Greater Victoria.