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How King Street East evolved into Toronto’s design district

Klaus Nienkamper in his shop on King Street East in Toronto on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

"This area is never going to turn into anything."

When Klaus Nienkamper set up his furniture store at the corner of King and Berkeley streets in 1968, that was the message he heard from a banker who had refused to give him a mortgage. "The message was very clear," recounts his son, Klaus Jr. "This area of Toronto was decrepit. They didn't agree with his vision at all."

Forty-six years later, things have worked out okay: The younger Mr. Nienkamper presides over the family retail business, one of Canada's most interesting showrooms for high-design housewares, in the same 1845 building. Still, you probably haven't been there shopping unless you are in a very rarefied group of consumers. (Or going to Staples across the street.) Today, King East is still a niche destination, much more chic but surprisingly quiet.

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But a wave of residential, retail and office development is changing the atmosphere – and a group of local merchants and community groups is hoping to lure Torontonians to what they are dubbing the King East Design District. To that end, Saturday's 3d parti Contemporary Design Festival will bring a wave of installations by designers such as Fugitive Glue, artists including Thrush Holmes and architects RAW into 14 spaces along the strip.

In a sense it's interesting that this place doesn't yet have a clear identity. West Queen West, Leslieville and more recently the Junction have all become identifiable destinations for culture, dining and shopping; still, the city's critical mass of high-design retailers isn't found there, or in affluent Rosedale, but on King East, spanning the St. Lawrence neighbourhood and Corktown.

For decades, Klaus was relatively isolated, an island together with their neighbours Italinteriors. About a decade ago, Mr. Nienkamper says, this began to change: drawn by relatively inexpensive leases, high-end retailers such as Studio B and Kiosk followed. Today, between Jarvis Street and the river is a long string of showrooms and retailers ranging from the German kitchens of Bulthaup to a range of European furniture at Kiosk.

In general, this stretch of eastern downtown was left quiet from the 1950s onward, as industry and commerce moved steadily west. City planning helped spur a wave of development in the past decade, largely through condo towers along Adelaide and Richmond streets. The Globe and Mail will move in 2015 into a new office tower being built at 351 King St E, on what was a parking lot for the Toronto Sun – and right across the street from Klaus.

This is an area rapidly, and belatedly, being knit back into the living city. The Distillery District is just blocks to the south, and the new West Don Lands neighbourhood – the athletes' hub at next year's Pan Am Games – will become home to more than 10,000 people.

In this context, what's the benefit of having a design district? "It was quite clear that there was a culture in KEDD that needed a special emphasis," says Al Smith, executive director of the St. Lawrence Market BIA, an organizer of the event. "It's a neighbourhood different from anywhere else. The store owners are connected to a global network; they live design at an international level."

This is true. And in other cities, this sort of place – a nexus for global design culture – has paid dividends for the art world and created a lively neighbourhood. In Miami, a developer, Craig Robins, oversaw the creation of the Miami Design District; starting in the late '90s, his companies started buying up warehouses in a forlorn neighbourhood, 10 miles from the city's tourist hub. They brought in furniture retailers, and cross-pollinated them with artists' studios and galleries who received cheap rents and prospered. And, crucially, they brought good restaurants. When I visited six years ago, it was still forlorn; but Mr. Robins launched the festival Design Miami, playing off the international Art Basel Miami fair, and everything changed, fast. Today the low-rent tenants have been supplanted by fashion boutiques. The luxury conglomerate LVMH has invested in real estate.

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The artist TYPOE, a Miami native who will be coming to this weekend's event, has seen this magic happen. He runs a gallery that was a tenant in the Design District for three years, and happily so; the effect on the city was tremendous, he says. Today, "People like me, I can buy some shoes, stop in at Margiela, go eat, buy some silverware at Design Within Reach," he says. "The people who enjoy that market can come there for many different things." Some artists, TYPOE says, aren't impressed that they were used as real estate pawns. On the other hand, the Wynwood district next door "is alive, it's got galleries, a lot of bars, and cool shops." And these areas, he says, "were places nobody would even drive through."

This sort of premeditated gentrification isn't likely to happen in Toronto's design district. Toronto doesn't have Miami's unique position in the art world, and King East is (thankfully) an authentic piece of city, mixed in its building stock and its population. Great restaurants and luxury retail have other more homes in Toronto. But with a bit of hustle, this might change. Enter this weekend's event, and its installations. For his piece, TYPOE will invade the precise precincts of Bulthaup with a suite of works in neon – a new medium for him. "When I think about public art, neon seems like a natural thing to me," he says: "You're walking down the street, it'll grab your attention, it'll make you look."

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