In Toronto, few people do serious renovations of apartments. When architect Donald Chong found such a job, it came with two other rarities: a true loft space, and homeowners ready to pursue design ideas down to the last, custom-fabricated, acutely angled detail.
He calls the result the Vessel Loft, after its most unusual feature - a curvaceous shed of white oak that wraps around the apartment's doorways, home office and bathroom. Built with the watertight precision of a hull, it rests in the middle of the space like, yes, a ship. "It sort of slips in there and docks itself," Mr. Chong says.
Mr. Chong's clients, Tim Thompson and Matthew Campbell, were inspired by homes they have seen in other cities. In particular, the couple admired the many brick-and-beam warehouses in Old Montreal that have been turned into apartments - and set out to find one in their home town. "In Montreal, these spaces are like pigeons," says Mr. Thompson, a banker. "But we can't live in Montreal, so we said, 'Let's replicate that here.'"
In 2007 they bought a top-floor, corner unit in a condo building near St. Lawrence Market, one of the few developments in Toronto that deserves its billing as lofts. Built in 1915 as the factory for an optical company , it was converted in the late nineties and given a conventional, cheaply built condo interior. The couple had big plans for the space; They bought the apartment next door at the same time, and sought an architect to combine them into one, 2,350-square-foot home.
Mr. Chong soon signed on. As he recalls, the first conversations didn't make clear how big their ambitions were. "Their main idea was to preserve the brick and beam nature of the space. The question was: How do we keep this what it is?" The architect, 40 - who worked for architects KPMB, Hariri Pontarini and Shim-Sutcliffe and taught in Switzerland before founding his office - rose to the challenge. He's best known for a skinny, glassy house in Roncesvalles that fills a gap in its block while respecting the area's traditional house forms.
Here, he decided to work once again with the materials at hand: Starting in 2007, he created a design that would leave the brick and timber shell of the building completely intact, and place the boldly modernist vessel inside it. "We effectively added a building within the original building," he says. "The quality of the construction was a nod to the original structure." The design language, however, is utterly different. It's a sleek structure of white oak that presents a curvy, sculptural counterpoint to the squared-off rhythm of the outer walls.
As you walk through the loft's front door, you're pulled south straight into the vessel; a tight ceiling comes down above you, oak panels line the corridor on two sides, and windows open up to the kitchen on the left and the home office on the right. Keep walking, and you pop out of the vessel into an open living room on the south side of the loft. From here you can see the edge of the vessel meandering from the kitchen, in one corner, to the bedroom in the other. In between, the white oak wall tapers at different diagonals to define views and spaces along its length. "You gravitate to different levels of privacy," Mr. Chong says. "It's almost like a city street in that way."
One detail: Stand in the kitchen, look through a window into the corridor, and your eye goes along a diagonal wall to the furthest corner of the loft. Look too closely and it'll induce vertigo.
This sort of move - a bold reconfiguring of interior spaces - is much more common in New York, where people of means often live in multiunit buildings. Messrs. Campbell and Thompson could have bought a house, but they selected a loft, a short walk from their offices, and theychose to customize it to the last degree. For one thing the home office, fitted with custom bookcases, desks and drawer units, is dead centre. "We wanted it to be central because that's where we spend a lot of our time," Mr. Thompson says. "The home office is like the new kitchen."
Likewise, the couple embraced openness. The vessel neatly contains the separate rooms they need while letting light and a sense of spaciousness into every corner. (Mr. Campbell, in particular, insisted on leaving some room on top of the vessel for sunlight to sneak in.) "We really wanted to use the entire space," Mr. Thompson explains. "Growing up in traditional households, we both had rooms that were never used."
This can be confusing to family members, who wonder why they've taken nearly all the walls down. Mr. Thompson: "My mom said, 'There's only one bedroom!'" Mr. Campbell counters: "My mom said, 'There's no bedroom!'" (For the record, they put up house guests in a nearby hotel.)
But it's in the details that this place distinguishes itself. Near the front doorway, the walls turn around two sharp corners - in each case, two planes smooth themselves into rounded bullnose corners and brush together, millimetres apart. This quality of workmanship is rare in Toronto, but it's consistently achieved here by woodworker Kang Lee of KGA - who, conveniently, was a boat-builder in his native Vietnam - and builder Derek Nicholson.
Mr. Chong also gives Mr. Thompson and Mr. Campbell much of the credit. "Every architect would love to have clients like these guys," Mr. Chong says. "Not just the wherewithal, but also the belief in the ideas: They want to make it all fit into an entire experience."
This month, Mr. Chong was putting the finishing touches on the space by completing custom furniture with the same white oak - rift-cut, for a smooth grain - and the same details. In the bedroom, an arc-shaped chaise longue fits into a small lounge area in the corner. Its back curves in three dimensions, leaning inward as it arcs around. The closer you look, the more complex it reveals itself to be. "This is a pain, but it's exactly our vision," Mr. Thompson says. The bed, also, has the same rounded "bullnose" details as those walls of the vessel. These are expressions on the smallest scale of Mr. Chong's architectural language, joining modernist ideas about openness and expressive form with natural materials, traditional craftsmanship, and a sense of how 21st-century city people - or at least a couple of them - really live.
"A professor of mine once told me, make your home a tool for living better," Mr. Chong says. "And that's what this aspires to be."