Sonja Bata was a young woman studying architecture in Switzerland when her future husband arrived on her doorstep.
“I wanted to be an architect. That was my dream. And then I fell in love with a shoemaker.”
The shoemaker was Prague-born Thomas Bata and together the couple would turn his family enterprise into a global empire.
Now, more than 50 years after starting a new life in Canada, Sonja Bata is standing 32 floors above Bloor Street, just inside the front door of her suite at One Bedford. She is explaining the placement of a large photograph and the vibrant tapestry that greets her as she comes in the door.
The tapestry of flowers and butterflies represents the garden she left behind at the former family home on Park Lane Circle.
The photo is a joyful portrait of her late husband.
“At night you walk in and you see the garden and the husband.”
Looking beyond the tapestry to the walls of glass, Ms. Bata laments the swirling snow that obscures the expansive views over downtown Toronto and Lake Ontario to the south. She apologizes for one or two unfinished spots where she is still placing the final few pieces of a collection of art, furniture and artifacts she has gathered during a lifetime of travelling. She reminisces about the seven-and-a-half-acre garden she still misses. For the most part, however, her transition from a palatial home to a streamlined modernist condo suite is complete.
Ms. Bata’s latest project began with the purchase of 2,600 square feet of raw space atop a newly-constructed building that she chose for its design, by Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects, and its location, one block east of the Bata Shoe Museum.
At first, Ms. Bata says, she planned to make a few changes herself to the traditional lay-out in order to open up the space and better display her treasured pieces. She would rely on her study of architecture and a long career in art and design. She recalls, for example, her appointment as chairman of the National Design Council in the 1970s – soon after the world took notice during Expo 67.
“We had outstanding talent here in Canada. We were riding very high.”
Ms. Bata went on to serve on the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada. She was honorary chairman of World Wildlife Fund Canada. She learned a lot, she adds, hashing out details with architect Raymond Moriyama during the design of the Bata Shoe Museum.
Not long into the redesign of her suite at One Bedford, however, Ms. Bata decided that the business of taking out walls and rearranging corridors did require the expertise of an architect. She hired Heather Dubbeldam of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design, who had worked on some of her neighbour’s suites.
Ms. Bata was interested in a very functional live-work space, recalls Ms. Dubbeldam. During her career, Ms. Bata had developed a particular interest in fitting human design together with the natural world so it was important that the architects use only natural materials and sustainable products.
Ms. Dubbeldam raised the height of the ceiling and came up with an open plan that uses mediating elements in place of walls so that the natural light and views can filter between rooms. The floral tapestry, for example, is mounted on a floating panel that serves as a screen between the entrance way and the study beyond. Between the living and dining areas, a custom-made walnut cabinet provides a place to store china and crystal and display precious objets. In the study, the wall unit was designed around the art. Another custom-built unit runs nearly the length of the suite along one wall and serves to knit the rooms together.
“It’s animated with my favourite paintings and books. It’s a living wall,” Ms. Bata says.
The white walls and whitened oak floors throughout unify and brighten the space, Ms. Dubbeldam says, while also focusing attention on the art. The walnut adds warmth and character. Soft furnishings are mainly in a neutral palette of white, sand and stone.
“The idea was to have no colour – that the artifacts would stand on their own,” Ms. Bata says.
Throughout the space, Ms. Bata points to particular treasures, as she pauses in front of a Renoir or waves towards a Chagall. She is equally enthusiastic about a sculpture by Marino Marini, a Babylonian carved figure and a rock presented to her by members of the Canadian Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan. Tibetan thangkas painted on silk and smuggled out at the time of occupation hang in the dining area. In the guest bedroom, much of one wall is taken up by an Inuit collection commissioned by Ms. Bata for World Wildlife Fund Canada.
She collected the artifacts during extensive travels to the far-flung Bata operations in more than 90 countries.
“Some have very high values, some have very low values, and it doesn’t matter – they are my friends.”
With her four children grown and with families of their own, Ms. Bata gave away much of her collection – including the pieces of fine English antique furniture that suited her traditional decor in the Bridle Path but wouldn’t suit the condo.
Ms. Dubbeldam was glad to see that Ms. Bata kept her mid-20th-century furniture by Saarinen, Eames and Ponti.
“If you design excellent things, they don’t seem to age – they go on and on and on,” says Ms. Bata, inviting a visitor to take a seat in the iconic Womb Chair designed by Eero Saarinen. “If something is really well-designed, it has a life of its own.”
For the kitchen, architect and client chose Bulthaup for its architectural lines and technical precision.
“She wanted it really crisp,” Ms. Dubbeldamn says.
The bathroom is simple, white and clad in warm marble. The spare design keeps the focus on the view, says Ms. Dubbeldam.
“Ms. Bata is a modernist at heart,” says the architect.
Ms. Dubbeldam spent many years working on modern buildings at KPMB before setting out on her own.
“I trained with the best because they’re very, very rigorous in terms of design.”
Now as the project nears completion, Ms. Dubbeldam finds it freeing, she says, to travel vertically to the 32nd floor and leave the city below.
“I find that just being in this space is very uplifting,” she says. “You’re never blocked in. There’s really nowhere that you don’t get a view. We designed it that way.”
For her part, Ms. Bata is very pleased with the suite and the display of her many beloved pieces of art.
“I like the perfection of design. It’s a pleasure,” she says.
Ms. Bata adds that it allows her to bring together so many parts of her life – from raising a family to serving on the board of directors for major corporations and studying methods of shoemaking in traditional cultures.
Still, she misses the nature that surrounded her house on the edge of a ravine. Condo living is an adjustment, she acknowledges.
“If you ask me what I’m missing most, it’s blue jays and cardinals.”