Two globetrotters create a home base that keeps them coming back, no matter where they go.
By Sarah Ligon | April 8, 2014
Sitting in Larry Louie and Joanna Wong’s sleek living room in Rossdale – carefully curated with their collection of fine art, photographs and artifacts collected on their travels – you might feel you were sitting in the lobby of an international boutique hotel.
But that’s just what these consummate globetrotters were looking for in a home. In addition to being an optometrist, Louie is an award-winning documentary photographer and, over the years, his work has taken the couple to places like Nepal, Tibet, Jordan, Mali and Indonesia, just to name a few.
“The minimalist look, simple lines – that’s what inspired us to create a more modern-looking house,” explains Louie.
Far from impersonal, though, the home they designed and built – and dreamed about for the past 20 years – has their personality etched into every square inch.
Wong bought the property, with its original 1917 bungalow, back in 1993. She was 24, had been working for a year and hadn’t managed to save any money, so she bought the house for a song, with its views of the North Saskatchewan, as an investment, with an eye toward retiring there. (She likes to plan ahead.)
After she and Louie married in 2003, they lived above his shop on 124th Street, saving for the day when they could build the home of their dreams.
From the outside, the Wong-Louie house – which was a finalist for a prestigious Canadian Home Builders’ Association award of excellence – stands in contrast to its neighbours, mostly sedate, two-storey Victorians. Its cedar panels and acrylic stucco exterior is composed of different geometric shapes, which shift and pop over five levels of relief. Inside, grey walls and grey floors create a monochromatic backdrop, with occasional bursts of colour: A lime green wall, a bright orange occasional chair, cobalt blue pendant lamps.
In many ways, the home is like one of Louie’s own black-and-white photographs: A rich range of grey tones, perfectly balanced and meticulously composed. His images often capture a fleeting moment: Birds alighting from a temple in Kathmandu; a child labourer in Bangladesh, pausing from his work making latex balloons. He has won an IPA Lucie Award, the National Geographic Photo Essay Award and the Humanitarian Documentary Grant with World Photography, to name a few, and he has been published in the pages of magazines such as National Geographic Traveler and Black & White magazine.
“Larry doesn’t snap 100 shots and pick out one,” explains Wong. “He already has the picture in his mind of what he’s shooting, what angle it’s coming from, how the image is balanced. It’s the same with houses.”
To help him execute the image that was in his mind’s eye, Louie worked with Habitat, the same Edmonton architecture firm that had helped him custom build his optometrist shop and photography gallery on 124th Street. To outfit the interior, the couple relied on Orlando Milite, owner of Le Belle Arti in Edmonton. Milite helped them track down one-of-a-kind pieces, such as the living room rug, which is stitched together from swatches of antique Turkish and Tibetan carpets, hand-dyed to achieve a watercolour effect.
“I thought by the time the house was done, I’d have some say in furniture,” laughs Wong. “Well, when we went to pick out the sofa I got five choices: All in black and all this very simple shape.”
Her contribution was the kitchen, which both say is their favourite room in the house. It features top-of-the-line appliances, including a Gaggenau combi steam-oven and Capital culinary series range unit, as well as miles of counter space so the couple can entertain on weekends for their very large extended family.
While most of the house reflects Louie’s own artistic vision, the kitchen was his promise to his wife when they married.
“He said it would take three years,” jokes Wong. “It took 10.”
Having just moved in last year, they never want to move again. As a result, many aspects of the house were designed with the long view: Arthritis-free drawer pulls and faucets, and anti-slip grating on the ramp leading to the backyard. There is room to add an elevator, should they ever need one. And they have eliminated a lawn in favour of a Zen rock garden, which requires less maintenance.
“We have our own businesses, we do a lot of travel, we don’t want to spend a lot of time maintaining a house,” explains Wong, who is a pharmacist. “We want to come home and be able to relax and meditate. This is our oasis away from the chaos.”
In addition to a basement gym and screening room (with a couch so deep it could sleep 10), the house also has special rooms designated as each person’s private retreat. For Wong, it’s a yoga and meditation room – where she practises everyday – adjacent to her upstairs office.
For Louie, it’s the third-floor aerie, or “man cave” as Wong calls it, with windows overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. It houses his collection of photography monographs and more than 5,000 CDs, stored in a system of sliding bookcases designed by Wong.
“My favourite thing is to sit up here and look through a photography book while listening to music,” says Louie. Like photography and design, music is a passion that runs deep. His grandfather built pianos and violins back in Hong Kong, and his cousin is Julliard-trained concert pianist, Angela Cheng, who has been featured on numerous classical recordings and was the first Canadian to win the prestigious Montreal International Musical Competition.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much time to enjoy such moments yet. The couple has been known to jet off to Shanghai for a three-day weekend. “It’s been pretty busy,” he admits, eyeing an entire shelf full of CDs still in their shrinkwrap.
Although neither is planning on retiring any time soon (Louie is 52, Wong, 43), they would like more time to devote to the things they care about most: Travel, photography and the charitable work that has grown out of that. Having turned his photographic eye on some of the world’s poorest people, Louie has become committed in recent years to raising funds for the non-profit organizations that serve them.
He has a long-standing relationship with Seva Canada, which works to prevent blindness in the developing world, and he has documented the organization’s eye-care programs in Tanzania and Nepal. Currently, he is providing financial support to a non-profit organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that teaches life skills to street children. In the future, he plans to volunteer as a photography instructor with the organization.
Whether it’s their music or photography, careers or non-profit work, this couple is serious about everything they do. “If I do something, I want to do it as much as I can,” explains Louie. “I don’t dabble. I want to push it to the limit. Whether it’s music, or travel or photography, it’s about discovery and sharing that. The whole point of life is sharing.”
Bench by Orlando Milite, from Le Belle Arti. (16844 111 Ave., 780-454-0677, lebellearti.com)
Chinese herbal medicine cabinet, collected during their travels.
Etching by David Blackwood.
Painting by Imadenyana Batuan, Bali.
Trilobite pottery vase from the Alberta Art and Craft Council. (10186 106 St., 780-488-6611, albertacraft.ab.ca)
Traditional Chinese cloisonn bowl, collected during their travels.
Orange Piccola Papillio chair by Naoto Fukasawa, Dieses coffee table by Antonio Citterio, Pad love seat and chair by Bruno Fattorini, and Mash Up rug by In House Group, all from Le Belle Arti. Fireplace stonework by Bossio Stone Imports & AB Tile. (11116 156 St., 780-483-7318, bossiostone.com)
Fireplace from Northern Fireplace. (4926 99 St., 780-437-5114)
Painting by Alessandro Papetti.
Flo table by Marie Massaud, Solo chairs by Antonio Citterio, Koshi light by Manuel Vivian, all from Le Belle Arti.
Counter tops by Bossio Stone Imports & AB Tile.
Time cabinets by Lucci Orlandini, Pam stools by Dondoli & Pocci, and blue pendant lights by In House Group, all from Le Belle Arti.