Ever since the public was conditioned by the pop art movement of the early 1960s to see mundane, ordinary objects as things of beauty – Warhol’s recontextualized soup cans or Lichtenstein’s comic book heroines come to mind – the concept of high-brow and low-brow coexisting, whether on canvas or in architecture, has been an easy pill to swallow.
So, that the hyper-realistic paintings of ice cream cones, cookie-stacks, coffee cups, halved avocados and Hershey’s Kisses are illuminated by both inexpensive IKEA fixtures as well as pricey gallery lighting in Erin Rothstein’s art studio is rather apropos.
And that’s to say nothing of all that free natural light.
But it wasn’t always this way. “Erin was painting out of the third bedroom of a three-bedroom home [and] she was looking for a work-life separation,” explains architect Brenda Izen, who started Izen Architecture about six years ago. “Her family was growing, she was juggling a lot of things, she was painting full-time – which she still is – she needed that mental separation.”
But, with twin toddlers and a husband who also worked from home much of the time, Ms. Rothstein wasn’t able to commandeer a larger space in the family’s Lytton Park semi. So, what to do? While the backyard was small – as most are in older parts of Toronto – there might just be enough room to build a little oasis in which to dip her brushes … as long as there was still room for the bouncy castle: “Which we have in the shed,” the artist laughs, “and it’s the exact right amount of space for it.”
After Ms. Rothstein met Ms. Izen through a mutual friend, the pieces fell into place. “Working with Erin was really different from a lot of my other clients because … she’s a visual person,” Ms. Izen remembers, “and so the language with which we were able to communicate, sometimes it was just tagging each other on Pinterest … or a couple words and we could both live in this world of what was to become this studio.”
What it was to become – and today is – was a very separate space, visually and psychologically, that was still physically connected to the main house should she be needed in an instant. To achieve this, Ms. Izen maintained the grade difference between the kitchen and the backyard – it sits a few feet up from the ground – and placed the art studio at grade. By connecting it via a short flight of stairs, the children wouldn’t be able to see their mother at work, especially if romping in the street-facing living room. And since the original exterior wall had been removed to build the addition, new, heavy-duty sound insulation meant Ms. Rothstein wouldn’t feel as if she was missing out or neglecting her family.
Plus, with its own exterior door, Ms. Rothstein could pop in and out without causing a fuss, Ms. Izen says. “I think, even at one point, we had talked about you leaving through the front door and saying goodbye to your family and walking around the house and coming in through the [outside] door.”
“Tricking my kids to make them think I’m not home,” Ms. Rothstein quips with a laugh, then gets serious. “If I have an important call or I just need whatever I’ll go get a coffee and then come in through the back … it also doesn’t distract from the flow of [my children’s] day.”
And her professional day, for obvious reasons, has changed dramatically since she moved her easel into the space in February, 2018, just after her third child was born. She spends mornings and afternoons painting, then, when the afternoon sun finally pokes through the skylights, switches to the administrative part of her day, which can be done at the desk or on the daybed. The desk faces the green (or white) of the backyard so it doesn’t “reference the house,” Ms. Izen explains, and the windows that frame those views are all operable to create “connection with nature and the tranquility.
“It comes back again to separation from the hustle and bustle.”
That separation, Ms. Rothstein says, has increased her artistic output by a factor of five, and given her social-media followers a luxurious space to “flip out” over while they watch her videos on Instagram or Facebook.
A few cost-saving moves ensured the 325-square-foot addition didn’t break the bank, either: Along with the IKEA fixtures, the materials palette was kept super simple so as not to detract from the artwork, and lost exterior brick was replaced with a trompe-l’oeil version in plaster by artisan Clyde Lambert. To tie things (a little) to the main house, the structural post and beam was painted black, and the duo opted for a wood floor rather than concrete.
“Sometimes you can use very simple materials and make something look quite expensive, but it’s really just through simplicity – luxury through simplicity,” Ms. Rothstein finishes. “It’s the exact aesthetic that I pictured: a big, white, really cool space … I really do feel like I’m sitting outside a lot of the time.
“It did what we wanted it to do, and beyond.”
With COVID-19 forcing many to continue to work from home, the home office has never been more front-of-mind.
Brenda Izen, who has a “passion for the details” and heads the all-female firm Izen Architecture Inc., says “there are certain elements that you need to have in order to have a space that’s functional and that doesn’t feel like it’s in your house.” Here are the Cornell-educated architect’s tips on how to create work-life separation.
- Don’t put your office too close to the kitchen. “There’s a lot of coming out and snacking, or stirring whatever you’re making for dinner … and that’s not conducive to a separation.”
- If possible, choose an area that’s on a different level than the main living area(s). “Stairs make a huge difference … whether you have a house and your office is in the basement or on the second floor, you physically have to go there – you need to have a commute, of sorts, to get to your office space.”
- Sightlines are important. “You don’t want to see your bed, you don’t want to see the dishes in your sink … there’re a number of things you want to face away from.” That said, what one should be looking at should be green: “Some sort of nature, or natural light, and fresh air is really helpful in creating that productive environment and mindset.”
- Since COVID and the ubiquitous Zoom meeting, Ms. Izen offers that “what’s behind you has almost become as important as what you’re facing.” As in, do you really want people to see how many trashy novels are on your bookshelf? Maybe set up a creative/cool vignette instead.
“Previously, we’ve done houses where there’s just a desk in the kitchen to pay bills and maybe write an e-mail,” Ms. Izen finishes. “Now people want two offices.”
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