The condominium is a modern solution for turnkey living. With no yard and no maintenance it offers easy living for those who'd rather not celebrate the unavoidable homeowner rituals of lugging the garbage to the curb, yard work and snow removal. Top up this worry-free existence with great skyline views and you have what sounds like a city dweller's dream come true. But amenities and conveniences aside, the big challenge I've always faced with the condo living lifestyle is the pervasive element of sameness. As someone who strives to be an individual, I have a tough time swallowing the cookie cutter phenomenon of many copycat dwellings in one place. I can't fault the compelling argument for the ease factor of condo life, so I decided to try my hand at lending style and substance to a brand new blank canvas box in the heart of the downtown core.
Channel a mood
When trying to add personality to your new box, the first thing you need to do is land on a look, a theme, a mood, a direction, or anything that you can use to give visual direction to your new home (which consists of little more than drywall and glass). On first inspection, this bare space reminded me of an art gallery with stark walls, high ceilings and wide-open space. The interior was contemporary, while the fabulous views out the balcony focused on some of this city's oldest buildings, so I was immediately drawn to the high contrast element of the old intersecting with the new. In a desire to embrace this high-contrast influence, I opted to dress the living space in a fusion of black of white (and their trusty sidekick, grey).
Find a new path
If all of your friends and neighbours are flocking to retailers who specialize in brand new condo living décor solutions, why not try something different? Forget made-in-China knockoffs of the modern masters designs (you know…Mies, Eames, Breuer, Le Corbusier), and embrace the idea of curating an interesting assortment of unique finds to create a home that transcends condo cliché. If you can get your design mind wrapped around making the decoration of your home a process akin to a scavenger hunt, you'll be rewarded with a finished product that bears no resemblance to any other on the floor. I'm not talking about collector level antiques or wacky design directions, but I do believe that you can create instant soul in a new home when you commit to pieces with a history.
Target the problem
There are some undeniable common detractors in condos that drive me crazy. Stipple or stucco ceilings are at the top of my hit list, followed closely by poor lighting, insubstantial trim and poor attention to detail. The good news is that stippled ceilings are relatively easy to fix at the start of the project (and a big nightmare the minute you've moved in). My big beef is that they're an immediate giveaway on quality (no well-built home would ever have a textured, spray on ceiling). With a little effort and mess, you can take your ceilings from stippled to smooth and up the custom factor in your home immediately, but an empty space is a must for ease and mess control!
Max out the space
Since condo designs tend to focus on the importance of a single, large living space (often a combined living/dining room), I believe in devising a furniture layout that makes the best use of every bit of available room. If you're living most of your life in one room, it should live as large as possible, allow maximum flexibility, storage, seating, comfort and style. Try to push your furnishings outward to the perimeter of the space so you can define the areas and make them feel spacious and roomy instead of cluttered. Allow the traffic to flow through your furniture arrangement instead of around it, and you'll be amazed at how much bigger your space will live.
Some furniture components are definitely more flexible than others. You can't change the shape and proportions of a sofa (rectangular is generally where it's at), but you can play around with the dining table. Round, oval, square and rectangular designs allow you to delineate a dining area within a mixed-use room to create the impression of a designated room. If daily sit-down dining isn't your style and the table will get only occasional use, I'd suggest that you consider a round table. At the entrance to a large room, a round table can act as a presentation piece that makes a welcoming statement each time you walk in. As an added bonus, a round table helps facilitate flow through the space instead of creating a blockade with sharp edges.
I was off to the races, dreaming in black and white, and imagining floor to ceiling photography to deliver my gallery aesthetic, and then reality set in … visualizing of a gallery-like space is one thing, but fitting a wall of gallery-priced purchases into the budget is another. Ever a believer in the power of a little DIY, I headed out into the neighbourhood on a glorious June day with digital camera in hand, searching for inspiration and architectural interest. I'm not saying I'm a pro, and would never undermine the true value of art, but if you have a tight budget and a willingness to take matters into your own hands, I say do it! Load up your digital with a memory card, learn how to master your cameras settings (most new models allow you to actually shoot in black and white instead of colour), and snap away. Thanks to inexpensive printing and ready-to-go frames, you can create a gallery installation in your own home!
When the agenda is to add soul, charm, character and style to a blank box, you need to embrace the right elements to make it happen. Our first shopping adventure led us directly to a wonderful, simply elegant olive wood coffee table. With just a bit of patina and some street cred pedigree thanks to its Italian heritage and mid-century age, it brought a touch of warmth to our monochromatic mix. At $900 it was hardly a budget buster, but it helped set the tone for all the purchases that followed. All of our vintage finds needed to be at least as interesting as our very first purchase.
The Signature Sarah
Without trim details or architectural interest to lean on, it's tough to up the ante on the raw space in a new condo. Creating an environment that draws you in and helps you transition through the different areas can be a challenge, so I'm always searching for tricks to help make it a memorable experience. By installing a contemporary wallpaper that featured metallic circles against a white background, we were able to establish a subtle, yet effective transition between the kitchen and living area, while leading the eye to the principal space. An area that might have been a missed opportunity became a dynamic vignette of contrast, pattern and texture. Why miss an opportunity when you can embrace it?
Well, that's the end of the first season of Sarah 101. I look forward to sharing more homes and ideas, experiments and adventures with you before too long. Thanks for joining me here on Fridays!
Sarah Richardson hosts Sarah 101, airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. sarahrichardsondesign.com; http://www.hgtv.ca/sarah101
Area rugs, dining chairs & picture frames - IKEA www.ikea.com
Wallpaper - Graham & Brown www.grahambrown.com
Chandelier & coffee table - Filterfilterstock.com
Club chairs, metal stool, teak side chair & dining table - The Queen West Antique Centre 416.588.2212
Black credenza, large ruler & pendant lights - Absolutely North www.absolutely.com
Wood console - Patina Antiques Inc. 416.862.8880
Side tables & crystal candle holders - Chair Table Lamp chairtablelamp.blogspot.com
Wall shelves, decorative pillows, wooden boxes & straw storage bin - West Elm www.westelm.com
Custom glass tabletops - Adanac Glass www.adanacglass.com
Fabric on sofa, drapes, bench & pair of faux bois chairs - Designer Fabrics www.designerfabrics.ca
Fabric on club chairs & piping on teak vintage chair - King Textile's 416.504.1778
Table lamp & gold tray - Ethel 20th Century Living www.ethel20thcenturyliving.com
Floor lamp - Machine Age Modern www.machinemodern.com
Pair of faux bois chairs - Black Pug DMKwww.blackpugdmk.com
Teak side tables, sofa & photography - Sarah Richardson Design www.sarahrichardsondesign.com
Vintage bar cart- Chatelet www.chatelethome.com
Steel bench base - Unit 5 416.214.0933
Upholstering of steel bench - The Big Stuff www.thebigstuff.ca
Vases on dining table, black ceramic vase, cut crystal vase, crystal bowl & dish on coffee table - Eclectisaurus www.eclectisaurus.com
Paint Colours - Para Paint www.para.com sarahpaint.com
Walls & ceiling - Snowfall SR29 (P5223-14D)