A cure for the common rectangle

Toronto — The Globe and Mail

In designing an upscale condo for a Bay Street client, Robyn Clarke desided to create three defined areas in the one narrow space. The space closest to the window was made the dining room. A hanging lamp helped define the area. (Aleksandra Pavlovic)

With the frenzy of building going on in this city, hordes of people are moving into Toronto condominium towers and quickly becoming confounded by the big rectangle - that long, open-concept living space that seems inhospitable to most furniture arrangements.

Designer Robyn Clarke encountered the dilemma when a Bay Street investment banker hired her to decorate his unit at 1 St. Thomas, a luxury building near Bay and Bloor designed by the eminent American architect Robert Stern. The owner also wanted pieces of art and furniture that would imbue the suite with his personality and reflect his zeal for Modernist design.

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It all made for a challenging project for the designer, who founded her eponymous firm 14 years ago.

Part of the difficulty arose from the fact that the client had already purchased a white leather sectional sofa that occupied a large part of the living room. The sofa's L-shaped configuration didn't fit the dimensions of the room. Worse, it blocked the doorway to the adjoining study.

Ms. Clarke was insistent. The sofa was carted away.

"He didn't want to get rid of the sectional," she says. We tried to work with it but there was no way."

Ms. Clarke decided to create three defined areas in the one narrow space.

The first part of the room is an extension of the foyer. An area rug fills the floor space and a large mirror leaning against the wall makes the room seem wider. It also reflects light into the area that is farthest from the window.

A rustic console table of reclaimed wood is positioned so that it's the first thing that guests see when they enter the room.

"Each piece is one of a kind," says the designer.

For the centre of the room, Ms. Clarke and her team designed a new curved sofa that stretched along the wall, then angled away from the doors leading to an outdoor terrace.

The young banker likes to entertain, so he asked for lots of space for lounging. Ms. Clarke added a second sofa and an area rug to create a living area in the centre of the space.

The space closest to the window became the dining area. Ms. Clarke placed a rustic wooden table parallel to the window. A hanging light fixture also helps to define the space.

Throughout the unit, Ms. Clarke aimed to balance the client's love of modern furniture with the architecture.

"It was a challenge to blend this kind of building with these furnishings," she says.

Mr. Stern, 1 St. Thomas' architect, made no secret of his disdain for Modernism.

A founding partner of New York-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Mr. Stern is a historian of American architecture and dean of Yale University's school of architecture. He favours a "modern traditionalism" which, in the case of 1 St. Thomas, pays homage to the grand urban apartment buildings of the 1920s and 1930s.

The previous owner of the unit had chosen fixtures and finishes with an Art Deco influence in keeping with the building.

The new owner did not want to dispense with the Doric columns that separated the foyer from the living room, or the traditional marble clad master bathroom. A second bathroom also had a 1930s-style vanity and light fixture.

Ms. Clarke persuaded the client that a Deco-style desk, for example, was more suited to the study than a more starkly modern piece of furniture. But in other rooms she incorporated some of the contemporary pieces that the client already owned, such as a glass table and red chairs in the breakfast area.

The designer says she mixes high and low when clients don't offer up an unlimited budget. She urges clients to invest in a few statement pieces and good-quality upholstered furniture. For the banker, she brought in the high-end desk from Los Angeles but paired it with a simple, inexpensive bookcase in the study, for example.

"We want the furnishings to last and feel comfortable so we spend more there," she says.

Ms. Clarke also brought in some strong prints and bright colours to suit the client's taste. Large and vibrant paintings stand out against the off-white walls.

"It was fun for me because these are a few of my favourite artists."

Ms. Clarke says the unit's decor will evolve still farther as the banker, who spends long hours at the office, collects more art on his international travels.

Follow on Twitter: @CarolynIreland

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