It’s always tempting to read a designer’s home as an extension of himself. So step into the apartment of John Shnier, high above King West, and you may think Mr. Shnier is an average sort of architect.
Yes, the apartment is beautiful: Its black-stained floors, raw concrete ceilings and matte white walls are almost as handsome as the skyline panorama through the windows in front of you. The furniture is tasteful – Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs here, a nubbly mountain range of grey and yellow upholstery … but what is that thing, exactly, a dismantled couch or some sort of installation art? And where are all the walls to divide this large expanse into bedrooms and dens? Where is the front-hall closet? The kitchen island? The stainless steel microwave?
And so it becomes clear that this is no ordinary condo, just as Mr. Shnier, who shares the apartment with his wife, Patricia Gaviria, is no ordinary architect. As a partner in the boutique firm Kohn Shnier and at the University of Toronto, he has spent 25 years earning a reputation as a contrarian and an original. And this place, an 1,800-square-foot expanse in the Thompson hotel building, does reflect his ebullient spirit. It also shows just how pleasant high-rise living in Toronto can be if you let go the shackles of condominium convention.
The seed for the home was planted about a decade ago, when Mr. Shnier was living solo in a highly customized condo near Spadina and Richmond. A real estate agent friend tipped him that this new building, still being planned, had an expansive unit that could fit his requirements for a long-term home. The price seemed high, but he’d have time to figure out the finances. “I was looking for something on one floor with a view of the city that’s uninterrupted,” he explains, “and I was looking ahead to semi-retirement – where I might spend less time working, and maybe be able to work out of the home.
“And I wanted something that, when you walked into it, wouldn’t immediately say ‘domestic.’”
The building itself is a mixture of uses; the hotel, the corporate office of Freed Developments and, of course, the apartments. It’s a fitting base for Mr. Shnier’s “un-domestic” home, where, following his design, you walk into a large and unstructured living room. That room houses that jumble of upholstery – actually a few pieces of ExtraWall furniture, by designer Piero Lissoni, which can be rearranged into many comfortable configurations. To the right is a dining area; to the left a hidden galley kitchen and a hallway to the master suite.
Yet this is not quite what Mr. Shnier first envisioned, since his domestic life was changing just as it was being built: He was falling in love with the dynamic Ms. Gaviria, and they were soon engaged. Then it was time to finalize the Thompson condominium; it now seemed like a bargain and it had room for two. Mr. Shnier changed the design to accommodate his wife’s needs. A scholar of education policy, Ms. Gaviria needed some space to work, and she got a home office tucked into the master suite.
She also got a love letter in marble, gold and silver, inscribed in the details of the space. Travertine marble, that beige variety that is synonymous with Rome, is present in a few places in the apartment, and for the couple it’s a nod to their history there; Mr. Shnier won a fellowship there, the Canada Council’s prestigious Prix de Rome, back in 1987, and returns often. One of those times was when he surprised Ms. Gaviria with a trip there – and a marriage proposal.
There’s another tribute in the curtains that line the large windows. “The bedroom has silver curtains, the main space gold, and those two colours – like some other details in our apartment – refer to aspects of our lives,” Mr. Shnier explains. “Patricia was born in Colombia and raised in Ecuador, and there is the tremendously important history of gold and silver in those two countries.”
Those curtains, created by Paul Mezei of Relish Design, also make a subtle aesthetic statement. “We asked my good friend Paul Mezei for a balance between something opulent and natural and something that looks really artificial,” Mr. Shnier says. “I was thinking the foil insulation you see on early Mercury space capsules – and for the other I was thinking raw silk.” The material in the end is part acetate and part silk, woven together, and it does indeed look Mercury-like.
Then, take the artificial turf on the balcony. It’s white; made by the company Synlawn and produced for the NFL, it comes in an array of colours they need for the league’s various end-zone logos. Mr. Shnier is not a fan of balconies. “This gives the appearance of perpetual snow on the balcony, which is ironic given our summer,” he says. (Ms. Gaviria’s research focuses on the Arctic, too.)
The richness of this language belies the fact that the apartment is, in its layout, a relatively simple space. It has few rooms and the largest area can be easily divided. It is big, not enormous, but sparse and comfortably so; unlike most high-rise apartments it has the luxury of space not filled by furniture or an excess of tasteful accessories.
The absence of stuff is its most important attribute. But this is not to say the couple lives free of things. Mr. Shnier designed a line of cabinetry down one wall that cradles an informal assortment of objects – vases, candles, sculpture, a piece of pink polycarbonate he selected to clad the Umbra showcase store downtown. Drawers at one end hold his collection of the 18th century Italian artist Piranesi, whose architectural fantasies continue to inspire makers of space. “I have a collection, but I’m not obsessive about it,” Mr. Shnier says. “And we have a number of objects on display, but they could easily go into storage and be replaced by toys and dolls and Monopoly games.”
That is not a theoretical point. For Ms. Gaviria and Mr. Shnier have decided that they have room here for some company: They’re in the process of adopting a child, likely between three and five. And so this ever-surprising home in the sky will be filled with a new set of surprises. And it can take it. “We’re ready for there to be toys all over the floor,” Mr. Shnier says. “I’m perfectly prepared to have a three-year-old scooting through our space on a tricycle.” All that open space will, no doubt, come in handy; so will those cushioned mountains to climb and those stones full of history.