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Tweaking Lawren Harris's art deco home in Toronto

Tim Morawetz's book, Art Deco Architecture in Toronto (2009 Glue Inc.), contains exactly two single-family homes. This, however, is fitting: While the progressive movement was acceptable for gas stations, movie houses and the odd apartment building, Torontonians of the 1930s and 1940s did not embrace the style for their private dwellings.

It is fitting, also, that one of those two houses – the masterpiece designed by Russian-born, female architect Alexandra Biriukova for Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris in 1930 – is now owned by a couple who previously resided in the kind of home that was acceptable to our forbears: a Georgian.

All of this to say that, in local architectural circles, the Harris house is the Hope Diamond. It's magnificent and rare, and, perhaps, even more magnificent after a recent restoration and small expansion by architect Drew Mandel.

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"It's a well-known house in the city," he begins, "so it was interesting to have the opportunity to dance with it." And what a dance: an elegant Foxtrot in one room, interpretive Bob Fosse in another, and a mix of the two elsewhere. In other words, respect was given to the house's restored formal rooms, such as the large oval foyer or the massive living room, while softening them just a little.

And despite the expected informality of 21st-century spaces such as kitchen, breakfast nook, mudroom and family room, even these were "elevated" to speak a slightly more formal design language; a task made somewhat easier by placing most of them within a new 600-square-foot pavilion tacked onto the rear of the home.

Standing in the breathtaking restored foyer, one understands immediately how Mr. Mandel's disparate dancers unite. Under repaired cove lighting, the rhythmic, sweeping staircase (formerly covered with a busy "White House-y" carpet) unfurls to practically hold hands with a Cary Grant-esque ship's bar purchased at a Paris antique market by the homeowners (who have asked to remain anonymous). However, above this choreography is a massive light fixture that resembles a playful, kinetic Alexander Calder mobile. Furthermore, a look through one door reveals the dark wood panelling of a masculine office, while a swivel of the head points the eye down a light-filled corridor to the creamy, woodsy kitchen.

In that large kitchen – which occupies some of the old, small kitchen's footprint but also pushes out into the new addition – Mr. Mandel has given his clients an airy, modern and lighthearted entertaining space that connects to the breakfast room, family room and compact patio. Yet elegance is found over the stove, where a backlit chunk of marble hangs as art, underfoot via black terrazzo, and above the 12-foot Corian island, where refurbished 1960s Regal Constellation hotel ballroom fixtures sparkle.

One step down, the family room achieves intimacy with a low ceiling height as well as humour via a multi-coloured Missoni sofa.

Tying the kitchen, breakfast room and family room together is an open fireplace: "It's got that pinwheel thing," explains Mr. Mandel, pointing out that it also helps to marry the three different ceiling heights. The "restricted" materials palette also works at unification: "It was a strong colour theme of light wood, black and white, with the occasional limestone and marble."

A visit to the formal living and dining rooms – which fill the two wings on either side of the front door – reveals small gestures of informality.

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In the dining room, a photo montage by Diana Thorneycroft is an ironic take on the Lawren Harris painting Davis Strait, while the large living room remains mostly unfurnished so it can be used for yoga classes and, on a few occasions, salsa dancing.

These rooms are "part of this formal geometry and the highlight of the house, but they're fallen out of use," offers Mr. Mandel, "so I think it's great not to let them sit totally abandoned."

Upstairs, the second floor contains the children's bedrooms (one of which has the Harris's original, curved, built-in dressing table) and the third floor – once Mr. Harris's painting studio – the magnificent master suite.

Outside, one bay of the former three-car garage has been converted into a poolside cabana, which also allowed the backyard to be widened.

For privacy, Mr. Mandel designed a covered colonnade/garden wall that draws inspiration from Gerrit Rietveld's 1955 pavilion at the Kröller-Müller Sculpture Garden in the Netherlands.

The home's original steel-framed, single-pane windows have been repaired, which, says the architect, are "a challenge to live with" since, on cold days, "you bring your scraper in from your car," he laughs. Joking aside, the decision to retain them – combined with the fact that Mr. Mandel's excellent addition is not visible from the street – means the house looks exactly as it did when Lawren Harris shook the Northern Ontario dirt off his boots at the front door.

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"This is definitely the biggest house I've worked on," says Mr. Mandel about the restoration-renovation-addition, but he could just as easily be speaking of the home's reputation. And for this challenging architectural choreography, the Ontario Association of Architects will give the project a 2012 Design Excellence Award in Ottawa Friday night.

A way to honour a very rare jewel.

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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