They were called “worker cottages” or “working man cottages,” and in the 1800s, thousands of them were constructed to house the influx of immigrants who were flooding into Toronto at the turn of the century.
Over time, most of these pint-sized homes have been wiped out by modern construction, but in some pockets of the city – including Christy Thompson’s neighbourhood of Roncesvalles – a few have survived. She and her husband, Garth Johnson, snapped one up in 2008, charmed by its Victorian quirkiness.
“But my god, did it need a lot of work,” Thompson says, adding they had a minuscule budget for fix-ups and did the work themselves.
“The kitchen, with its pink wallpaper, mint green wainscotting, sloped floor and dropped office-ceiling with fluorescent lighting, all had to go,” says Thompson, head of collections and exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a board member of DesignTO, an annual celebration of the best in Canadian design, which ends Jan. 26.
But priority No. 1 was to call in pest control; the house had a mouse problem. Then they stripped off wallpaper and painted, tore out an old linoleum floor – only to find an even older one underneath patterned like a Persian rug – and installed new IKEA cabinets, a breeze for Johnson who is a carpenter and owner of Circle Crates and Fabrications, a company that makes art crates and fabrications.
“It was great for 10 years,” Thompson says. Then in 2018, when she found out she was pregnant with their first child, she decided it was time to go at the kitchen again. “Of course, I got the nesting bug and decided to rip the house apart, which is absolutely bonkers.” This time, however, they brought in professionals.
They levelled out the sloped floor, filled in a dirt crawl space under the kitchen with cement and seized the opportunity to add heating coils under the brick red hexagon tiles. “It’s no longer freezing cold,” Thompson says, “which is a real treat because we live in this room.”
They restored the original wainscotting and painted it with Farrow & Ball’s Etruscan Red to match the honeycomb pattern of the porcelain floor, a shape that’s also mimicked in the backsplash and that Thompson has long admired “because it seems to honour the Victorian integrity of our little house.
“I also often travel to the Venice Biennale for work and I’ve always admired their intricate tile floors, which are always so warm and inviting. It’s a shape, being in the arts, that just makes sense to me. I love the geometry to it. It can be simple or used to create wonderful mosaics that are, in themselves, beautiful works of art.”
They also enlarged the island to incorporate as much storage as possible and to clear under-counter space for a dishwasher – Thompson’s first.
For lighting, she originally wanted French bistro-style white globes but could not find them – ”Everything was so razzle-dazzle in the stores and I was like, good lord, give me something simple" – so she opted for black pendants lights, which she loves. As an added bonus, they seem to transfix her 11-month-old son, Albert, who happily stares at them while she makes dinner or answers emails.
But the pièce de résistance in this tiny abode, and this particular room, is the old school map – yes, like the ones teachers used to pull down over a chalkboard – that her husband gave her the year they bought the house. “I loved those maps growing up,” she says. “We like to hang that crazy old map because it’s a pop of colour that feels genuine to who we are.”
Get the look
Ton Design Team Salt counter stool; $345 at Design Within Reach.
Hexa tile; $10.99 a square foot at Ceragres.