Unless one is in a forest, with dappled sunlight dancing at one’s feet, birdsong tickling the eardrums and a soft breeze rustling the leaves, calm does not come naturally. Calm is created by design.
That fact is evident in the kitchen of Zaiba Mian, interior design professor at Humber College, and her husband, Jeremy Mendonca, an interior designer at Diamond Schmitt. Here, during a recent walkabout with your humble Architourist, the conversation changed from the planning and implementation of recent renovations to their 1890 Victorian home in South Riverdale, to that of travel and inspiration.
Mexico City’s beauty, Chicago’s influence, and the sculptural qualities of Brasilia were discussed. “To think about design as a sculptural form that informs people’s movement through space, but just on a larger scale,” said Ms. Mian, “that’s why Brasilia was one of the most amazing places.” We spoke about how architecture students don’t receive enough education about interiors, but they should. It’s the human-scaled stuff we touch and interact with, after all.
But back to the kitchen: As with most Victorians, it’s at the rear of the house. But while most self-confessed “modernists” and “minimalists” would blow out the back wall and add some sort of glass box, here window openings have been left untouched. The kitchen, therefore, remains sheltering and cozy. Yet, since it contains angular, logical millwork without distracting hand-pulls, a palette of only creamy white, chrome, and stainless steel, the eye and the mind can rest…and with rest comes introspection and a conversation change.
Similarly, one room over—separated by a monumental tall white cabinet of Mr. Mendonca’s design—diners experience calm via a large, round, marble table purchased on Gerrard St. long before the renovation, a translucent marble-shaded fixture from the U.K., and lightweight, sculptural chairs by Italian manufacturer Pedrali. Only when one of the couple’s cats walks between the gap between cabinet and wall and burbles a kitty-hello does one become distracted.
“We didn’t leave [the gap] for the cats,” laughed Ms. Mian, “we left it so that it does look like a piece of furniture rather than taking it to the wall.”
Walk any further towards the front of the house, however, and things get busy, visually. In the double living room, foyer, and hallway, it’s a riot of high baseboards, crown moulding, wooden window frames, plaster ceiling medallions, arches, an ornamental fireplace, and a staircase that would wow Scarlett O’Hara.
Upstairs, too, restored hinges and a curious coffered ceiling made from stair handrail off-cuts make for a visual feast that causes the contemporary brain to race, to inspect, to marvel. Only a visitor from H.G. Wells’ time machine would feel calm here.
But that’s okay, said Ms. Mian, because “the guy who lived here was so interesting,” and he’d done such a meticulous job of restoring so much of the Victoriana, it was decided that “whatever has value, we will leave, and anything we add will be contemporary, but we will respect the integrity of the architecture.”
According to a two-and-a-half page, single-spaced “dissertation” handed to the couple when they purchased the house in 2003, the previous owner, Sean O’Reilly, spent “more than two decades” on a “Quixotic quest” to restore as many features as his bank account would allow. The staircase, in particular, needed to have missing or broken balusters “respindled” at “a mere cost of $1000 for a set of seven spindles!” exclaims the unnamed author. Mr. O’Reilly’s life was “cut short before he could complete the restoration,” he or she continues, and the dining room and kitchen were restored only “in part.”
In fact, the house and Mr. O’Reilly’s quest were so well known in this tight-knit neighbourhood (now a Heritage Conservation District) that, in their first few years of ownership, Ms. Mian and Mr. Mendonca received a number of visits by local craftspeople who claimed they’d worked on a particular piece or project.
“This is the first time we walked into a place with such a strong presence,” said Ms. Mian, who remembers looking at 52 houses before choosing this one. So strong, in fact, the couple didn’t do anything for the first decade and, when they finally did wield their drafting pens, chose “insertions” rather than big moves.
But little insertions can provide big payouts. In the couple’s backyard, for instance, a wide barn door to the alleyway and a rusting steel wall to shield diners from the parked car make for a warm and welcoming space. On the second floor, the renovation of the bathroom and the addition of thin strip lighting to illuminate artwork is all that’s required to contemporize the space. Of the master bedroom, says Ms. Mian, “we didn’t do anything.”
In the front rooms downstairs, only sexy, black-and-tan flooring—leftovers from a W Hotel in Atlanta Mr. Mendonca worked on while employed at Burdifilek—and thin-framed doors into the hallway have been inserted, yet these add thick modernist layers to the Victorian onion. In fact, the couple has even added to the Victorian charm by placing Ms. Mian’s mother’s antique sofa and rug here…when in Rome, right?
Overall, Ms. Mian’s and Mr. Mendonca’s handling of two very different eras is deft and inspiring; any future owner could take things in either direction, design-wise, and have an easy go of it.
“It’s not our place,” said Mr. Mendonca. “In the time that we’ll have this house, to ruin those things or set them back? All we’ve tried to do is bring more light in and fix the systems.”
“We didn’t want to decorate anything,” finished Ms. Mian.
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