Great Spaces: Inside A House Filled With Can-Con

Photo by Derek Shapton

Photo by Derek Shapton

Mary Abbott grew up outside of Guelph in an old farmhouse so secluded that her parents didn’t bother with curtains. “The land around us was made up of fields and forests,” she says. “It was extremely private.” Abbott has since left the rural life behind. She’s a corporate lawyer, her husband, Kevin Gormely, is an executive at a printing company, and they live in the middle of the city with their two small boys. Still, she channeled her upbringing when they rebuilt their home last year. The property is ensconced in the tree canopy of the Moore Park ravine, so she opted for giant picture windows with no coverings. Even the master bedroom is ­drapery-free—Abbott and Gormely enjoy waking up with the sun. The couple, working with architect John O’Connor of Basis Design Build, also kept the ­interiors spare to better showcase their extensive collection of contemporary Canadian art. Spare, but not spartan: O’Connor incorporated natural materials like soapstone, birch and Douglas fir to add rustic warmth. So even though the house looks modern, the palette is as ­elemental as the towering trees outside.

For the rest of this story, please see the March 2014 issue of Toronto Life magazine.

Coveted: Miles Keller’s Kona Lounger

Miles Keller's Kona Lounger

Miles Keller’s Kona Lounger

Currently in Toronto, the emerald ash borer beetle is decimating the city’s ash trees. Over the next 10 years, about 860,000 trees will be felled because of the invasive species. Instead of simply mulching or trashing the trunks, industrial designer Miles Keller, founder of Toronto-based Dystil studio, hopes we can come up with a creative reuse. Turning the logs into art, say, or furniture. (Because the beetle kills the tree by attacking its bark, it doesn’t affect the integrity of the wood.) For his part, Keller has used ash reclaimed from a city woodlot in Scarborough to design a graceful lounger. Called Kona, after the Cree word for snow, it pays tribute to the long history of ash as a valuable construction material for Canada’s First Nations people. Because the wood is lightweight and a good shock absorber, it was used for thousands of years as staffs for spears or frames for dog sleds. Fittingly, Keller’s fine joinery is reminiscent of a hockey stick, and the shape and leather meshing brings to mind a giant snowshoe. From $3,500. Through

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, February 27, 2014.

Bathtubs Are Dead (or, Rather, Dying), Long Live Bathtubs

Photo c/o

Photo c/o

Most kitchens are filled with “good idea” investments – those gadgets, tools and appliances that were a good idea in the store, but which collect dust most of the year because, let’s face it, who’s really going to scratch-make pasta, bread or Belgian waffles on a regular basis?

In the bathroom, the equivalent might just be the tub. Scheduling a moment to draw a bath, let alone soak in one, is a near inconceivable indulgence considering that most Canadians work such long hours (almost two-thirds of us put in more than 45 hours a week on the job, according to a 2012 study). And with our aging population, tubs are increasingly trip-and-slip hazards rather than relaxation devices.

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Toys “R” Cool (Pharrell Says So)

A piece from the Design Exchange's new show, This is Not a Toy

A piece from the Design Exchange’s new show, This is Not a Toy

Anyone who recalls childhood toys as innocent playthings is likely misremembering. Figurines, cutesy or otherwise, are often just avatars for exploring the world, both its good and bad bits. I used to remove my stuffed animals’ appendices (white batting everywhere) in an effort to save their disease-addled lives. And I know people who twisted their Kens and Barbies into compromising positions (fine, that was me, too), well before any ideas of sex were fully concretized.

It’s with this spirit – that toys convey a complex, often adult, set of ideas – that the Design Exchange, a.k.a. DX, Canada’s national design museum, has launched its latest show. Provocatively titled This Is Not A Toy, and co-curated by Pharrell Williams – one of the world’s most influential tastemakers in music, fashion and everything, really – the exhibit is a vibrant, often funny, sometimes grotesque, slightly sadistic (one doll is covered in little needles) survey of limited-edition art toys by innovative, small-batch designers.

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Great Spaces: Inside An Art-Mad House

Photo by Derek Shapton

Photo by Derek Shapton

Astrid Bastin recently gutted her century-old, midtown ravine-side house. Just about everything was updated—except the barn-shaped gambrel roof, which she maintained. Bastin, who was born in Bogotá, runs AB Projects, a cultural exchange program for established Canadian and Latin American artists. She mainly works with avant-garde mixed media artists and often gives them a live-work space in her home for a few months, then helps sell their work; the commissions are invested in the organization. As a result, the first floor of the house is a showcase for experimental pieces. A tiny TV shows a blinking eye, for example, and a series of speakers play noises such as crunching gravel. Even her driveway is an installation, with a piano that plays Chopin every evening from 5 to 7 (the tunes are quiet enough not to irk the neighbours). The ­renovation, by Dean Goodman of LGA Architectural Partners, was tailored to highlight the ever-­changing assortment of artwork. The expansive walls are MoMA white and there’s plenty of room for the crowds of curators, collectors and art lovers Bastin often entertains.

For the rest of this story, please see the February 2014 issue of Toronto Life magazine.

Great Spaces: Four of Toronto’s Boldest, Boxiest New Homes

(Photography by Derek Shapton)

(Photography by Derek Shapton)

Torontonians are finally rejecting fussy Victorian architecture and going bold. In almost every neighbourhood, there’s a house or two that stands out. They’re tall, modern and boxy—the new Toronto aesthetic. Here, a look inside some of our favourites.


he people: Alireza Saeed, a structural engineer, his wife, Azi Lessani, and their two kids, five-year-old Deniz and two-year-old Doreen
The place: Tetris House, a 3,200-square-foot home near Avenue and Lawrence

A few years ago, Saeed commissioned the architect Reza Aliabadi to build a gleaming modern house in North York. It was perfect—except for the school district it was in. The family only lived there for a year before they decided to move to Avenue and Lawrence, where the kids could attend the public schools Ledbury Park and Lawrence Park Collegiate. But Saeed loved his first house so much he wanted an exact replica in his new neighbourhood, so he enlisted Aliabadi to do a repeat performance. The resulting place is 1,000 square feet smaller, but all other specs remain the same: a home office, basement guest suite, walk-in wine cave and party space, all stacked neatly on top of each other like pieces in a game of Tetris, which gives the house its name.

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Coveted: Geof Ramsay’s Steps Seat

Geof Ramsay's Steps sat

Geof Ramsay’s Steps sat

Geof Ramsay is a modern Maritimes designer. He was raised in Moncton and lives in Halifax, but learned his craft in Detroit, Ottawa and Amsterdam before setting up his eponymous studio in 2009. His witty Steps seat reflects both his East Coast roots and international influences. The piece is a play on people’s tendency to sit where they’re supposed to step – something that happens on front stoops and in foyers around the world. The actual construction of his mini stair – which is proportioned to act as a bench, footstool and side table in one – was inspired by what you’d find under the carpet or tiling of a typical Canadian home. The treads and risers are made of construction-grade plywood and supported by a simple stringer. The only thing missing is a banister rail to toss a winter coat and hat over. From $1,350. Through

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, November 7, 2013.

Coveted: Françoise Turner-Larcade’s Fragmented Mirror

Françoise Turner-Larcade's Fragmented mirror

Françoise Turner-Larcade’s Fragmented mirror

Before Françoise Turner-Larcade moved from Paris to Toronto in 2000 to marry her Canadian boyfriend, she was a jewellery designer with a boutique on Avenue George V. The change in location inspired an artistic change in direction. Instead of crafting bobbles for the body, the French native decided to create jewel-like home decor. Her Fragmented Mirrors series has the shimmer of a sterling necklace studded with precious stones. The casing is made from raw steel—which has a warm, slightly weathered patina—and inset with clear, coloured and grey reflective glass. Each section of the mirror is set into the frame at a different depth, so that every panel reflects light and motion in different, unique way. $4,000–$9,000. Through, and

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, October 17, 2013.

Great Spaces: Five Garage Conversions to Swoon Over

Geoffrey Roche in his North York pool house (Derek Shapton)

Geoffrey Roche in his North York pool house (Derek Shapton)

Torontonians don’t like compromise. We want to live in the city, and we also want guest rooms, art studios and dens. The answer? Convert out unused sheds, garages or pool into precious square footage. Here, five drool-worthy makeovers.

Photo by Derek Shapton

Photo by Derek Shapton

Who: Geoffrey Roche, a 60-year-old entrepreneur and former ad executive, and his wife Marie Claire
What: An 800-square-foot pool house with an office, dining area and sleeping quarters
Where: North York

For over 20 years, Roche was one of Canada’s top ad executives, but in 2011 he left the business to start a social media company called Poolhouse. He keeps an office at Yonge and Eglinton but often works in his backyard pool house, which is the perfect place to hold meetings, impress clients or steal away for a few hours of solitude. When he bought the property, the pool house looked like something out of That ’70s Show. Architect John Tong redesigned it with vibrant orange walls, two fireplaces (one inside, one outside) and a bar area, giving it the playfulness of a Silicon Valley start-up. At night, the place can be used for parties or poolside cocktails. And tucked in the back are a Murphy bed and bathroom for guests who’ve had a few too many to drive home.

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Slow Furniture: Heidi Earnshaw Takes Her Time for Timeless Quality

Heidi Earnshaw in her downtown Toronto studio

Heidi Earnshaw in her downtown Toronto studio (Michelle Siu)

As a reaction to mass manufacturing, the burgeoning slow furniture movement is a painstakingly careful, anachronistically plodding way to produce chairs, desks and credenzas. Everything is made using time-honoured carpentry techniques, out of elemental materials, without computer-guided machines and routers.

Acclaimed, Toronto-based Heidi Earnshaw is an advocate of the trend. Her designs have the subtlety of a Robert Frost poem and have been recognized by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Awards.

Next month, she’ll be participating in IIDEX, Canada’s national design and architecture expo in Toronto.

Here, Earnshaw talks about her roots as a chainsaw artist, the miracles of vinegar and the importance of taking things slow.

A lot of people are unfamiliar with the term slow furniture. What does it mean to you?

Slow furniture is basically an offshoot of the slow food movement, which started in Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to the first McDonald’s opening in Rome. For me, it’s about creating furniture in a thoughtful and environmentally sustainable way while supporting local economies and using local resources.

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