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House beautiful: Making their own masterpiece (with video)

Artists Bruce Ketterer and Kathleen McPhail have fashioned a new home that looks like it stepped out of another century

A celebration of style on the home front

Writer Grania Litwin and photographer Frances Litman are known for their sense of style and knowledge of outstanding design. They tour homes around the south Island, talking to homeowners, interior designers, architects and artists who influence the way we live.

The house looks medieval and could be the setting for the Hogwarts school of wizardry.

On second thought, it's probably better described as an eclectic fusion of Italian and French architecture.

Or is it maybe English Tudor, with a continental twist?

Even the owners - husband-andwife artists Bruce Ketterer and Kathleen McPhail - don't quite know how to describe the mansion, which has consumed nine years of their spare time and looks as if it has stood its ground for centuries.

"Bruce has narrowed down the style to a combination of English Renaissance and Italian baroque," said McPhail with a chuckle, although she says they also drew inspiration from the Harry Potter movies.

"It started out as a two-year project, but it's ending up more like 20."

Ketterer points out each room is different because, "our taste keeps changing as time goes by, and we get inspired by something new. It has a bit of a Tudor look, it's kind of French and there is a whole European feel throughout.

"The theme in the living room is from the Middle Ages while the dining room is a little newer. More into the 1650s, when the English Renaissance happened, and they started bringing over the Italian tradesmen."

Ketterer, 53, is one of Victoria's most renowned woodworking artisans. The owner of Carson Finishing, a design and architectural millwork firm, he founded Asia West on Wharf street in 1989 and sent high-end pieces, at as much as $20,000 apiece, as far afield as Calgary and San Francisco. Then he closed up and began working directly for designers.

McPhail, 48, a professional painter for a dozen years, draws inspiration not only from her own imagination, but from the classics, so the walls of their home are covered in reproductions of famous works by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian and Dutch masters.

As time allows, the two are creating their own private masterpiece on five acres just north of the Red Barn, off West Saanich Road.

'What connected us in the first place was our passion for art and beauty," said McPhail, whose work is in private collections across North America and whose murals are in commercial spaces, such as the Rialto Hotel in downtown Victoria, where she painted a gondola from an old postcard.

Ketterer has done all the finishing details inside and outside their home - everything from beamed ceilings and knee brackets ("I love them 'cuz they hold things up") to fireplaces, pillars, doors, wood panelling, window casings, staircases, tables, chairs, even an art deco serving tray made of ebony.

The two make a formidable team.

McPhail does all the housekeeping and gardening. She also did all the landscaping design and isn't afraid of trading her paintbrushes for heavy equipment.

"I had a backhoe dropped off one Friday afternoon, was given a three-minute introductory lesson on how to operate it, and then spent an entire weekend moving around rock and dirt. I only tipped the machine over once."

She and her husband are inspired by Italy. "My favourite building is the Casa Bagatti Valsecchi, a residence in Milan turned into a museum," said Ketterer. "Every room is different and every room is unbelievable, totally carved, with amazing finishing, coffered ceilings - we can't wait to go back."

The Victoria-born Ketterer is mostly self-taught but picked up the basics from his dad.

"I grew up in the forest industry, worked in a sawmill, and a veneer mill. As kids, we were a bit rascally and stole sheets of plywood from neighbours at midnight to make forts. My dad was a log inspector and all our neighbours had crummies [vehicles used to transport loggers] in their yards.

"Dad had lots of tools and we would hang out in the garage.

Then I started making furniture and sold some pieces to a store in Vancouver."

The rest, as they say, is history. The couple enjoys poring through antique books, studying classic Italian design and archival photos.

"I find heraldry fascinating," said McPhail, "and wonder, what do people use to define themselves today? Tattoos? Is that heraldry on their bodies, and what have they done to earn it?"

McPhail worked as a nurse for 15 years, but always longed to be an artist. "My parents guided me into sciences and math, and then I met Bruce who was Mr. Art Passion."

One day she came home from work to discover he had filled their living room with giant canvases, paints and brushes. "He said: If it's something you love, then do it!"

Today, this couple's castle is, indeed, their home. Their grand living room alone is a work of art, featuring impressive timber trusses and a vaulted ceiling with arched beams. Stone corbels which he cast himself, hold up knee brackets which connect to king posts - called Norman trusses in the 18th century.

Ketterer built the dining table in a weekend. "It's kind of medieval in style, made of arbutus that was cut down on the property when we built the house. I decided to build a trestle style, but with a lot of gothic accents, and I took some detail ideas off our piano," he said.

The kitchen is another cleverly conceived space with tiling they did themselves, copied from an old Italian villa.

"I'm not one of those guys who just does one thing. I never liked that idea. And I love a home with character," said Ketterer, who recently worked on a house with a two-storey library where he built a big revolving bookcase that opens to a wine cellar.

"We're obviously not minimalists," McPhail said. "We like texture, historic details and the idea of handing down a home through generations."

Their next project is to finish their library and build a small barn for goats so they can make their own cheese.

Designer Jim Grieve has known Ketterer and McPhail for years and was happy to help when asked to add some of his embellishments to their home.

"Bruce has done work on a lot of houses I've done, and Kath has done some large-scale murals for clients, so we communicate in shorthand," he said.

"They are gentle souls from another century whose home shows their dedication to craftsmanship."

The home's floor plan and general character, he added, were already nailed down when he was asked for input.

"The house has a timeless Italian feel, with nothing fussy or ornate. I blocked out some elevations, suggested some exterior details and a few things inside - some beam ends, doorways, passageway details - before you knew it, their vision had form and focus.

"The house has a great feel and the detail work is expressive of hands-on, not manufactured, items that came from elsewhere. It is very sophisticated.

"It feels as if the place has been there for 400 years and is steeped in history, which is difficult to achieve when creating from scratch. It takes a little restraint."

He said people get into trouble when they slavishly adhere to a mental picture and are unwilling to adapt their dream house to a site and its natural light conditions.

"When the stylish intent of a house becomes forced, the result is a clumsy compromise at best - and it's dishonest, no matter what the owner's taste or aspirations."

This couple didn't make that mistake, he said. "Their house has a clear-headed honesty about who they are and how they want to live. - They have created elements of authentic character that are as much gestural as historical."

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