Spare Rooms

A one-bedroom unit in the Merchandise Lofts–the recently renovated former Sears warehouse in downtown Toronto–illustrates the rich possibilities of a minimalist aesthetic. Designed by Johnson Chou, the apartment embodies the client’s tongue-in-cheek instruction to “think penitentiary.” “What that really means,” the designer explains, “is that he wanted to work with materials in their as-found state,” raw and elemental, with no finishes or embellishment.

The apartment is Chou’s first foray into residential design, and it embodies the same crisp minimalism that typifies his retail interiors such as the Archive Gallery and Art Library and Vizio Eyewear and Photogallery, both in Toronto (see CA, September 1999). The shops are also characterized by custom-designed multi-purpose elements that slide, tilt and pivot into various positions to accommodate different tasks. Some of this sensibility has found its way into the apartment; for instance, a custom-made Murphy bed for guests emerges from a wall of built-in closets.

The renovation, which comprised about half the area of the 2,000 square-foot apartment, involved the removal of a non-structural partition that separated the bedroom and bath from the living area. This was replaced with a half-inch thick sandblasted glass screen and a large sliding panel clad in stainless steel. The panel, which separates the bedroom from the living room, can be rolled away like a barn door to transform the apartment into a large studio space.

The work also included the removal of existing ceilings, which varied in height and in detail. These were replaced with a uniform drywall plane ten feet above the floor, taking full advantage of the height of the former warehouse. The ceiling accommodates a variety of recessed light fixtures, including narrow strips of fluorescent tubes that provide the space with strong linear definition.

The tough, matter-of-fact quality of concrete floors and columns–which have been exposed and, respectively, sealed and painted–is contrasted with the high sheen of stainless steel. Falling somewhere between these extremes is the matte mill finished aluminum used on all the closet doors, bathroom vanity and other built-ins.

The material palette is kept to a minimum. In addition to the concrete floors and columns, drywall ceilings, the glass partition and the steel and aluminum built-ins, there are black slate tile steps–detailed so that they appear to hover–from the bedroom to the bathroom, and a sunken slate bath. The pale blue hue of the sandblasted glass and a set of exposed copper pipes in the bathroom introduce notes of colour to the otherwise black, white and silvery-grey palette.

The austere material treatment and the spareness of detail allow for more subtle elements to come to the fore. The play of light reflected off the sliding stainless steel panel creates complex undulating patterns that change with the panel’s position. In the absence of other ornament, these kinds of phenomena emerge as ephemeral artful moments within the space.

Other individual elements also command attention, such as the partially cantilevered, aluminum-finished bed that appears to hover above the floor, and the exposed concrete column ingeniously used to provide a visual barrier between the bedroom and bath, eliminating the need for a partition or privacy screen.

On a lighter note, the suite makes allusions to the archetypal “bachelor pad,” including a bedside console that slides out from the wall to reveal a panel with controls for all the apartment’s lighting, along with other gadgets. The bathroom sink is designed to be free of all surface fittings save for the faucet; a single lever control, described by Chou as a “sort of stick shift,” is mounted at the side of the vanity.

Yolles Residence, Toronto, Ontario

Johnson Chou Design

Client: Eric Yolles

Design team: Johnson Chou, Steve Choe, Michael Lam, Jennifer Harris

Contractor: Johnson Chou Inc.

Construction: Chiltern Contracting

Area: 1,000 sq. ft.

Budget: withheld at owner’s request

Completion: July 2001

Photography: Volker Seding