August 25, 2017

A cathedral of art

Trained as a concert pianist at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Bruce Munro Wright still loves to tickle the ivories every day.

Bon vivant Bruce Munro Wright’s passion for the arts,  entertaining and philanthropy is reflected in his eclectic Arthur Erickson-designed home

Story: Laura Goldstein
Photos: Janis Nicolay

What appear to be silver Mylar helium balloons with mandarin orange streamers left over from a celebratory party hang from the soaring 30-foot ceiling in Bruce Munro Wright’s front room.

“Those are actually sculptures by Berlin-based artist Jeppe Hein,” Wright says with a big grin. “It was a real pain getting up there to hang them, too, but you know, that’s one of the things that sold me on this house. Where else could I find museum-height walls and ceilings in a private residence?”

“I’m an obsessive and serial collector,” says Bruce Munro Wright of his collection of 160 paintings, sculptures and other artworks

Affable, self-deprecating and possessed of an encyclopedic memory for anecdotal details, Wright is like a big kid in a candy store. He lives in what is known as the Choklit townhome, one of three modernist glass and steel structures designed by renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson in 2005.

These Sportsmen marching up the staircase are replicas by Russian avant garde artist Kazimir Malevich that Wright bought at the MOMA gift shop in New York.

It’s the perfect, tastefully theatrical 2,793-square-foot stage from which to view Wright’s eclectic collection of 160 paintings, sculptures, Art Nouveau glass pieces and fascinating ephemera. “I’m an obsessive and serial collector,” says the world traveller.

Aside from collecting interesting artworks, his greatest joy, it seems, is to host a fundraising event for the arts in his home each month, with performances by concert pianists, singers and 

dancers. In fact, Wright brings new meaning to the phrase “bringing your work home with you.” A partner with the law firm  MLT Aikins LLP, he’s the former chair of the Vancouver Opera and Vancouver Art Gallery and current chair of Frontier College. He sits on the boards of Ballet BC and the Nature Conservancy. “Dear to my heart is the Health Arts Society and Concerts in Care. The brainchild of David Lemon, Health Arts arranges for paid performances for elders in care facilities in B.C. and throughout Canada—over 13,000 concerts to date,” he explains. Wright is also chair of the upcoming Splash Gala in support of Arts Umbrella, which takes place Oct. 14 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.

Wright has been friends with Vancouver artist and author Douglas Coupland for many years. Coupland’s wall art (above) Trying Too Hard to be Normal (2014) and sculpture, A Deep Meditation About Plastic (2012), are placed beside shelves filled with small sculptures and books on opera. The bells (lower right) are a full set making up a handbell choir, a gift from Wright’s mother in Ontario.

Viewing the home’s cavernous light-filled interior through heavy glass front doors is like stepping into a cathedral of art: Floating staircases, like an M.C. Escher lithograph, lead to higher echelons, each with its own dizzying array of art.

At the street level entrance, a large, mercurial abstract by Vancouver artist and friend Barry Weiss hangs below Wright’s Scottish family crest with the motto Audaces Juvat: “Fortune favours the bold.” “I believe that’s absolutely true for everyone,” says Wright. Chinese activist Ai WeiWei’s Handcuffs carved from huali wood are physically and metaphorically encased in plexiglass. Concrete floors throughout are warmed by a Traces d’Aubusson carpet and Zanotta high-gloss red pedestal table from Inform Interiors, a favourite treasure trove of Wright’s for mid-century modern furniture.

Climbing up into the next level of the boxy layer cake, the living room space is dominated by a harpsichord hand-made by Vancouver’s Craig Tomlinson. It’s an exact replica of a 1792 Tasker instrument right down to the wood from the Black Forest. The custom artwork painted on the lid’s inside cover by Marco Tulio is a scene created from the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas right before Dido sings her famous lament. “This is the first opera I ever saw when I was a teenager,” recalls the Toronto-born Wright.

A dramatic wrought iron and crystal chandelier hangs over the living room. Painted on the inside lid of the harpsichord handcrafted by Vancouver’s Craig Tomlinson is a scene from the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas painted by Marco Tulio.

He enjoys cooking in the expansive kitchen where light streams through deep 15-foot skylights, bathing Jack Shadbolt’s series of monoprints and Gordon Smith’s ode to Monet’s Giverny in ever-changing hues. He and Smith, a long-time family friend, travelled to England for the opening of Canada House in 2015 and met the Queen. Family heirlooms are also on display: The dining table and chairs he inherited from his family’s farm just north of Caledon, Ont., and a sterling silver tea urn given to Wright’s grandfather (a director of Eaton’s department stores) add traditional touches to an otherwise mid-century modern aesthetic.

Even bathroom walls boast great art. In the lower level’s powder room is one of Andy Warhol’s pop art Reigning Queens portraits, Queen Elizabeth II. “When I was chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery, HRH Prince Edward and Sophie visited British Columbia in 2014,” Wright explains. “One of the curators and I took Prince Edward on a tour and I happened to mention that I had the portrait of his mother in the loo! He’s a really charming and funny guy and he just rolled his eyes.”

Up 30 steps from the kitchen level (it’s a great workout, but Wright is considering installing an elevator) the master bedroom is a contemplative sanctuary. Immense floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors open onto towering cherry trees that are “absolutely gorgeous when they bloom in the spring,” he says.

Beneath the floating staircase leading up to the rooftop deck is a painting of a soaring tree done in bitumen, a technique mastered by artist friend Attila Richard Lukacs; Sharp Top (below) “is by Ottawa abstract artist Melanie Authier, who is fabulous and many people are collecting her work,” says Wright

The Zen-like atmosphere continues in the master bathroom: imagine soaking in the free-standing oval tub and being mesmerized not only by the glittering 1920s Parisian Art Deco chandelier, but by Wright’s collection of colourful antique glass by Daum, Gallé, Tiffany, Loetz, Schneider (Le Verre Français) and Degue. “I buy something every time I travel to a major city that has an Art Nouveau connection,” he admits.

The guest room was his main renovation: “A previous owner had split it into two loft-style kids’ rooms and I had it converted into one.”

The pièce de résistance, however, is the jaw-dropping view over False Creek and the mountains from the 60-by-60-foot rooftop terrace. “This is the other reason I wanted this house,” says Wright. “Do you know we’ve had 120 people up here with dancers performing from Ballet BC? And that’s where Bjarke Ingels’ twisting Vancouver House is going up at the end of the Granville St. Bridge,” he points out. Divided by clusters of informal open-concept dining and lounge areas, potted fig trees and dwarf Japanese maples, masses of unruly geraniums, grasses and succulents, it’s a hidden oasis in the city. “I love gardening, usually with a neighbour of one of the other townhouses.”

Says Wright, “You know, as much as I love art, I think of myself as just a temporary custodian. I don’t get attached to stuff—only to people. And really, that’s how it should be.”

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