Call it "artist's intuition" mixed with serendipity. Or call it a mysterious force, but something prevented Professor Beate Ziegert from selling her Cabbagetown semi.
Teaching at Cornell University in the 1980s and '90s would have been a good time, or perhaps afterward while at the University of Papua New Guinea. When she toured the Far East, writing a paper on the similarities between the Bauhaus and Japan's Mingei movement, or when she spent time in Switzerland visiting her brother would've worked, too.
But that force . . .
It showed up early, too. In 1979, as a matter of fact, when the fashion-design teacher at Ryerson University first laid eyes on the place. The end cap of an identical row of tall, sturdy brick Victorians, her future home was distinctive because of its most unusual modern interior. It reminded Ms. Ziegert of the work of Viljo Revell, the master Finnish architect who won the design competition for Toronto's New City Hall in 1958.
It had the right elements: a grand entryway followed by a low, sheltering wooden ceiling that emphasized horizontality, a dramatic black checkmark of a staircase running across the back width of the house, sliding walls covered in burlap, and about a dozen other little Nordic details.
Ms. Ziegert had grown fond of Mr. Revell's work after a study of his iconic Toronto building for an architecture class she had taken years before. Long story short, she was smitten, though her friends weren't: They warned her it was "far too modern" and she'd never be able to resell it.
Lucky that force told her not to listen. While Mr. Revell never did a second building in Canada, she owned the next best thing . . . she just didn't know it yet. But that force would soon bring the pieces of this curious puzzle together.
In 1988, the first piece arrived in the form of Bruce Fletcher, home renovator. Although Ms. Ziegert was still at Cornell, she was in town checking on her tenants at the house, which was beginning to need some repair work. She noticed Mr. Fletcher's trucks across the street at another project, so she asked him to come have a look.
Mr. Fletcher was floored. He'd been here before, he told her, as a little boy, when his father Joseph had worked on the interior for the young, hip modernist couple who bought the house in 1966. And, hold on, he had a 1967 Chatelaine magazine article on it somewhere, which he'd lend her.
That's when Ms. Ziegert learned that Mr. Revell's daughter, Sonja, and her furniture-designer husband, Michael Stewart, had created this three-level interior.
But it gets better. Fast-forward another dozen years: Ms. Ziegert has decided once-and-for-all to stay in Toronto, and has even earmarked a little capital to really freshen the interior.
A chat with heritage architect Catherine Nasmith revealed that Michael Stewart was still in business. Ms. Ziegert decided to approach Mr. Stewart with the idea of working on his former residence.
Of course, the mysterious force moved Michael to agree, but it didn't have to push very hard. Who gets to revisit their first home after more than 30 years and reinterpret an original design for a sympathetic client?
"I would have thought somebody would have moved in here who would have decided they hate modern and they want Victorian," says Mr. Stewart, who lived in Finland and admits to being influenced by his late father-in-law.
He's seated with his elegant wife at Ms. Ziegert's dining room table a year after accepting her offer. The project, he says, "really started off more or less renewing the kitchen."
Not only did they deal with the kitchen, designing new cabinetry and an island that occupies the footprint of the old one, they dealt with everything else, too:
On the main floor, a bathroom was put in where there once was a foyer closet, and to replace the storage space, low shelving was installed in an alcove;
Lighting was updated;
The Stewarts' dark sisal was replaced with a lighter wool carpet;
Mr. Stewart designed a new "floating" sofa, which occupies the same place his and Sonja's did;
Wood floors were installed on the second level;
The master bedroom's amazing wall of closets (that stretch into the hallway) were restored;
The small third floor, where Ms. Ziegert has her sewing station, got new lighting. Throughout, the idea of floating recurs, something Ms. Ziegert adores. The new kitchen cabinets, just like the old ones, don't touch their frames, and the walls on the second floor don't meet the ceiling. That includes those in the "fishbowl" bathroom (the top of its walls are glass), where even the vanity doesn't touch the wall. "[The]corners of these vanities always get grungy . . . so this way the water just goes down onto the floor," Mr. Stewart explains.
Bedroom walls float open to allow sunshine to penetrate during the day, but close to create warrens of privacy at night.
It's a house that, while painted in neutral greys, explodes with colour and life: from Mr. Stewart's woodwork, past and present; from textures (the couch is upholstered in judo-jacket fabric, and long drapes in the front hall are T-shirt material); and from the rich textiles collected during Ms. Ziegert's many travels, or created over her long career "swinging a needle," as she calls it.
As for the force that made it all happen, maybe it's not so mysterious after all: It's a love of modernism, pure and simple, that has kept this interior alive.
Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Sunday mornings. Inquiries can be sent to .