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People line up outside the Karelia store on Toronto's Front Street, circa 1970.

Kravis Family

It’s a photograph that really does speak a thousand words: An overcast, grey-white day in snowy Toronto, with a dirty Gooderham (Flatiron) building on the right, the silvery (and relatively new) Commerce Court in the distance and a lineup of about a dozen people on the left.

In stark contrast to the washed out landscape – and the object of desire for those queuing up – are bright orange, curvaceous letters spelling out “karelia” filling the upper left portion of the frame, and, underneath that, a warm, wood-slatted interior with colourful posters and housewares.

It’s almost as if Torontonians discovered colour on that day.

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Karelia founder Janis Kravis, seen in an undated photo, died this past July.

Kravis Family

But in reality, it was just an ordinary Saturday in the 1970s, and morning lineups at 67 Front St. E. were not unusual. By the time that photograph was taken, Karelia – the first retailer to bring Finnish design powerhouse Marimekko to Canada – had been in operation since 1959, and its founder, Janis Kravis, had helped educate the city on how to have fun.

“Saturdays it became a thing for a lot of the design community,” Mr. Kravis’s youngest son, Guntar Kravis, 56, says. “Go to Karelia and you’d run into your peers …eventually, there were so many designers and architects that we opened up the coffee shop on Front Street as well, and my mom would make little open-faced sandwiches, and we’d get pastries from the Danish Pastry Shop.

“I think Toronto was hungry,” Mr. Kravis, a successful photographer, continues. “My dad remembers when they would pull the curtains across the windows at Eaton’s on Sundays because they didn’t want people to be tempted to shop.”

This past July, surrounded by Guntar Kravis and his two brothers, Janis Kravis, 84, passed away. But his life, and the colourful legacy he left Toronto, would make for a riveting screenplay.

At the tender age of nine, young Janis, his sister and his parents had escaped, via fishing boat, from their native Latvia during the Russian reoccupation; because of the difficulty in arranging pickups due to patrols, the family spent a week living in the forest before embarking for the island of Gotland, Sweden.

Karelia was the first retailer to bring Finnish design powerhouse Marimekko to Canada.

Kravis Family

After building a life there – Arvids Kravis was an architect and master cabinetmaker – the family chose to relocate to the very conservative Toronto of 1950. Janis Kravis would be accepted into the University of Toronto’s school of architecture a few years later, where he would learn of the legendary architect Alvar Aalto and, by extension, of the Finnish design movement. After graduation, he’d find work with the largest Modernist firm in Canada, John B. Parkin Associates; ironically, when Viljo Revell won the Toronto City Hall competition in 1958, the Finn would be paired with the Parkin office to get his project realized (foreign architects must work with a local firm).

It was around this time that Janis Kravis, then 24-years-old, realized he could not find Finnish design in Toronto stores.

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“I think it was a timing thing,” Mr. Kravis says. “He did have formative years in Sweden so he was exposed to a lot of Swedish design, but then with Viljo Revell’s staff, they knew all the dealers, all the people in Finland who were making beautiful things.”

Karelia moved to this location in Gerrard Street Village around 1961.

Kravis Family

So, after receiving catalogs from 20 interested companies, Mr. Kravis sold his used car to finance a trip to Finland, where he met with Armi Ratia, the co-founder of Marimekko (and her son, Ristomatti, who would become a lifelong friend), and other luminaries, and was “able to secure the rights” to represent them in Canada.

The first Karelia was located in the waiting area of a Swedish beauty parlor on Bayview Avenue. Interest was good enough that, by 1961, Karelia Studio Ltd. relocated to the pre-Yorkville hipster area of Gerrard Street Village (where Toronto’s beatniks, artists, poets and intellectuals hung out) where, ironically, a restaurant run by Finns was located across the street.

A magazine ad for Karelia from its time on Lothian Mews, near Yorkville.

Kravis Family

As more architects and designers discovered the shop, expansion was needed once again, and the next move to Lothian Mews brought the company tantalizingly close to the Bloor Street design crowd. Designed by Webb Zerafa Menkes, the intimate, court-yarded space won a Massey Medal in 1964, and was also home to the beloved Hungarian restaurant The Coffee Mill.

A few years after this, Mr. Kravis would design the total interior – including some of the furniture – for George Minden’s Three Small Rooms in the basement of the Windsor Arms Hotel. Architect Bruce Kuwabara, a U of T student when the restaurant was “the place to go,” remembers that Mr. Kravis “choreographed an intriguing journey” through each room to create “an atmosphere that was immersive and intimate.”

Around the time Guntar Kravis was learning to ride his tricycle on Don Mills’ Cedarbank Crescent, his parents were considering Front Street, which was met with opposition: “At the time there was really nothing down there, and people thought it was a bad idea in terms of the location, but Janis [thought] there are thousands of people going to the [St. Lawrence] Market, they’ll probably want to come over here.”

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Turns out they did, and there were “fashion shows in the store [and] at one point Marimekko came and they set up a whole screen printing demonstration inside the store.

The Front Street store was a hit and eventually hosted fashion shows.

Kravis Family

“The parties at Karelia were just incredible,” Mr. Kravis says. “All this food and everybody smoking and drinking. … I don’t even know what the reasons for the parties were, but they were super exciting and there was always a throng of people.”

Of course, Toronto had come a long way by then. Not only did the city boast a completed futuristic (and Finnish) city hall, the buildup and aftermath of Expo 67 (awarded to Montreal in late-1962) brought new ideas and attitudes. Add the groovy Yorkville scene to the mix, and it only makes sense that Karelia was pulsating and place-making, and that it would expand Front Street to a 35,000 square feet, open another location in Manulife Centre (1973), in Vancouver and, briefly, Edmonton.

In the rich tapestry of today’s cosmopolitan Toronto, Janis Kravis provided a crucial – and colourful – piece. Architect Leslie Rebanks says that he “influenced the acceptance of modern architecture in Canada” and that he “should have received the Order of Canada.”

Luckily, says his son, Mr. Kravis was able to celebrate Karelia’s legacy in 2019 at the Gladstone Hotel. “He really felt that that event at the Gladstone was kind of like a memorial that he got to be at,” he finishes. “It was a nice party, there were so many familiar old faces, people spoke and said nice things, and he said: ‘How lucky am I?’”

A shopper leaves the Front Street store circa 1970.

Kravis Family


Karelia filed for bankruptcy in late 1980. A more detailed account of Janis Kravis’ life can be found at karelia.ca

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