When creative director, writer, and pastry chef Jackie Kai Ellis decided to buy a place in Paris last winter, she was hoping for a sign.
Ellis felt she needed to be pointed in the right direction: Paris hadn’t exactly been the place she saw herself putting long-term roots down, but the winds of chance had other plans for her.
It wasn’t that she was a stranger to Paris’s delights; Ellis, who now splits her time between Vancouver and the City of Light, originally arrived in Paris to study pastry several years ago, returning to her home town in 2012 to open Beaucoup Bakery & Cafe and, in 2017, passing ownership to two team members—and then finding herself back in France. (In March, Ellis published The Measure of My Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris.)
And then, Ellis got her sign, in the strange and serendipitous manner in which signs tend to arrive. “I see feathers everywhere,” Ellis begins, explaining how she chanced upon her apartment, just off the Canal St. Martin. And by chance, her apartment’s former owner was an older woman with a proclivity to collect rather than purge who “had been collecting beautiful feathers and put them beside the [front] door,” Ellis says.
“I was like, ‘I’m obviously not going to buy this apartment based off of a container of feathers,’” Ellis says, laughing.
After all, though the feather connection seemed auspicious, the apartment had real problems: It contained mountainous stacks of curios, hadn’t been renovated since the 1940s, and its layout was a bit of a puzzle; there was no refrigerator and a hallway had been fashioned into a bathroom. “You’d have to walk through this bathroom to get to the second bedroom,” Ellis says. “[The previous owner] had the shower floor on hinges so that she could lift it up.”
But through all that, Ellis saw barely touched hardwood floors laid in a classic chevron pattern, beautiful moldings, fireplaces, and high ceilings with gorgeous plaster detailing, all in the Haussmannian style for which Paris’s residences are so famous.
“Most people would look at this and [say] ‘no way,’” says Ellis, laughing. But as a designer, she saw opportunity where others might be intimidated. It was a creative problem she could find a solution for, a challenge to overcome. She decided to try her luck and put in an offer—and she got it.
Normally, Ellis says, she would renovate a space in a hurry and quickly furnish it. But, this time, after being an itinerant creative for so many years, she decided to take a bit more time. “This is the first home that I’ve had in a very long time,” she explains, noting that she feels like it’s a work in progress and will evolve over the course of many years. “It’s a practice in design patience.”
The building itself is a handsome turn-of-the-century structure, five stories of red brick and limestone detailing. The apartment’s original layout included two bedrooms, dining and living rooms, a kitchen, and two bathrooms, but Ellis devised an entirely new system to open things up. She hired an interior designer to help oversee the a three-month renovation while she was away, and moved in at the end of May.
“I removed all the walls between the living room and dining room, and the hallway that separated the rest of the space,” Ellis says. Then, she turned the makeshift hallway bathroom into a hallway library, and the original kitchen was transformed into a bathroom (“so that I can actually have a bathroom large enough for a clawfoot tub”). The other bathroom became a pantry, and the kitchen was built out in the open living and dining space.
While Ellis and her designer avoided major roadblocks during the renovation, wall removal did cause some slight molding damage that needed to be fixed by a craftsperson. Otherwise, Ellis didn’t fuss too much over the apartment’s somewhat rough edges.
“The thing with old Parisian apartments is that nothing is straight [or smooth], and everything has been painted over like 10 times,” Ellis says. “You have to work around that and embrace all the imperfections.”
When asked, Ellis confides the bathroom is her favorite space in the apartment. It is painted a deep, seductive shade of green—somewhere between hunter and emerald—that reads vibrant or inky depending on the time of day. “Dark green, to me, is just so Paris,” she says. (The color brings to mind the city’s “Wallace” drinking fountains.) The tile floors are custom, made to evoke a pattern Ellis saw in Valencia, Spain. The brass fixtures play dramatically against this dark backdrop, and complement the antique clawfoot tub Ellis found on the “French version of Craigslist,” Le Bon Coin.
“This older woman [who owned the tub] was like, ‘My grandmother used to bathe in this all the time!’” says Ellis. “She had painted the front of it white but the back of it was still black, so we just flipped it around because the drain is in the middle. It’s kind of rusted and just so beautiful.”
She refers to the second bedroom as the Rose Room because of its color. While Ellis’s room is stark-white and simple, essentially just a statement bed and fireplace, she loves the second bedroom since it’s where she keeps her wardrobe and where guests stay when visiting.
“I have a constant revolving door of guests—it’s part of the reason why I bought the apartment,” she explains of the comforting room. “I wanted to create a space for people [who] may not naturally think of coming to Paris but feel like they need a boost of creativity. Paris is so good for that because it spoon-feeds you beauty and inspiration.”
Despite her initial hesitation about setting down roots in Paris—and in this apartment—it’s clear to Ellis that she made the right decision; the box of feathers did its job.
“Every morning, I wake up and look at the moldings and I notice something new about them,” Ellis says of the apartment. “Feeling my feet on the hardwood floors; how at peace I am in my kitchen; how perfectly the light hits in the bathroom at all hours of the day so it’s perfectly moody; how bright the space ended up being—little things like that surprise me. I wasn’t expecting to feel so at home so quickly in the space.”