The first thing John Barnwell noticed were the windows. Leaded glass, original to the home’s construction, which was sometime before 1910. Then he saw the pristine gum-wood wainscotting, the plaster moldings and ceiling medallions, maple hardwood floors, the eight-inch baseboards and large principal rooms that could easily accommodate a crowd of family and friends.
He and his partner love to entertain and they were sold. They found out later their home, on a tree-lined street in midtown Toronto, was one of the first duplexes ever built in this city. They vowed to let the house continue to wear its heritage proudly.
That was nine years ago, and except for updating the kitchen and a couple bathrooms, the men haven’t changed a thing.
They like the old windows – “We just don’t love our gas bills in the winter,” Barnwell says – the seven-foot-high gum-wood panelling and the intricate inlays in the floor. “It’s the kind of craftsmanship you just don’t see anymore,” he says. “We would never get rid of any of the original detail of our home. It’s far too expensive, and difficult, to ever replicate. It’s also what defines our home and gives it character.”
Some people might find the preponderance of wood cloying or dark. Indeed, previous owners had painted all the gum wood white. Barnwell gives a horrified gasp just thinking about it.
“Thankfully, the people who owned our unit before us were antique dealers and they spent weeks – probably months – stripping it all off. Paint everywhere would be awful.”
Barnwell, who has his own interior design firm in Toronto (J.R. Barnwell Design Inc.), is often called on by his clients to blend the old with the new, or rustic with refined. It’s a task he always looks forward to, and in his own dining room, he had fun with it.
Take the eye-popping red of the glass and lacquer Bruno Fattorini dining table, which is a perfect square – “easier for people to converse,” he says – and seats eight. “[The colour’s] a good counterpoint to the traditional bones of the room,” says Barnwell, who calls himself a modern traditionalist or on “the modern side of the transitional spectrum.”
Then there is the jolt one gets from the industrial-looking copper light fixture by New York designer Miles Endo, which bathes the room in a mellow, rich gold when turned on at night. “It’s so unexpected and it’s got cheek,” Barnwell says. “It looks like a truck tire and we always joke that if we ever need to, we can disassemble it, put it in the front yard and plant flowers in it.”
What he likes most about this room, however, is that it has something to offer everyone. “We often have a mix of generations around this table. It can be grandparents, nieces, or the children of friends from across the street. It’s important to us that everyone feels comfortable.
“The older folks can enjoy the demilune side tables and the urns that used to be outside the door of my house in Maine,” says Barnwell, who moved to Toronto in 2002. “The younger people gravitate to the modern touches like the aerial photograph of an intersection somewhere in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s different, and some people might not call it art, but I like rooms that have something original to say.”