The creamsicle basement

Here’s the situation: You’re given a below-ground space to transform from substandard to spectacular. It used to house an antique shop and two other tiny retail entities, none of them redone since the 1970s. The wall to the left of the sunken entryway is blank; on the right, two large dormer windows face the street level – a blessing in terms of natural lighting. But the floor-to-ceiling glass walls that form the two opposite right angles are distressingly plebeian. Worse, they look out over an ordinary hallway to one side and on the other, a concrete stairwell that doubles as the building’s storage site for trash bins.

The floor is typical lopsided basement concrete, two inches off from one end to the other, and the entire area you have to work with is small, a mere 1,360 square feet. Your budget is similarly minuscule. Oh and by the way, the client – owner Christien Serubi – wants the final effect to be an enticing Euro-modern boutique, an apt showcase for the artistry of Daniel Espinosa, one of North America’s finest jewelry designers. Serubi also wants the shop to complement its upscale location: beside the Four Seasons Hotel, in the tony heart of Yorkville, in Toronto.

Time to get creative. So Belinda Albo, of the Toronto design studio by the same name, got busy. The environs at 21 Avenue Road was stripped down to bare bones. Two beams were inserted across the dormers, creating display spaces visible to passersby on the street. Walls and floor were semi-glossed white. White brushed fabric curtains were hung to one side, screening off the hallway. The stairwell view was blotted out too, by a false white wall two feet in. This still allowed large window displays to face out, while eradicating the ugly and inferior from the store’s Mediterranean-flavoured interior.

To the left of the entrance, past the water bar, more curtains segment off a rectangular VIP room – put there presumably so Hollywood stars and other notables who wander in from the hotel next door won’t have to mix with the hoi polloi. A change room with a sliding door sits next to that. It’s a necessary addendum for well-heeled women anxious to try out the chunky, funky sterling and semi-precious stone necklaces and bracelets while wearing their own couture.

The rest of the room, save for a small office at the back hidden behind another sliding door, is set aside to exhibit Daniel Espinosa’s oeuvre. A third-generation jewelry craftsman, the Mexican designer has hit it big in his country and beyond, and now boasts a total of 30 New World specialty shops, as well as a flagship store in Madrid.

During a recent interview, Albo said she wanted to keep the overall retail space as simple as possible, “so that the focus would always be on the jewelry.” Her colour scheme – pure white with bright shots of orange, looking rather like an inverted Creamsicle – was based on Espinosa’s corporate shades.

“Orange is so not a North American colour,” Albo added. And indeed, the store’s orange exterior signage does stand out from its mainly beige-bland surroundings. Telephone for directions to the shop, and you’ll likely be told to “look for the orange banners.” Other than these singular splashes of colour – used mainly in the custom foot-long, L-shaped modules that can be shifted around at will and either stood upright to show off a necklace or flipped over a white counter to offer a visual counterpoint, as it were – interest is drawn naturally towards the eye-level horizontal line of back- and top-lit glass display cases that form a band around the boutique’s interior. This line is echoed in the three pull-out glass cases, self-lit with mini-fluorescents, set into the main counter. Once one’s attention is drawn to these cases, the shiny jewelry inside takes over, as it is meant to.

Albo has used her design elements to their best effect. The natural light from the dormer windows, mixed in with ceiling-flush floodlighting and Sistemalux brushed chrome spotlights, reflects off the white semi-gloss paint (as well as mirrors large and small scattered throughout the store) making the space appear lighter and brighter than anything outside. Certainly it belies the store’s basement situation.

Her employment of orange – in the modules, mirror frames, sliding “silverware drawers” filled with bijoux, and spray-painted over the changing room’s Baroque chandelier – is fresh and unorthodox. Curtains, counters, display cases and the like trick the mind into believing the small store spacious and airy.

The few furnishings to be found – the water bar’s Bombo stools and the white Mies Barcelona chairs in the VIP and open lounge areas – are stylishly modern yet comfortable and understated. And small touches of whimsy, such as the charming foot-high display box islanded mid-floor from the door, might help relieve any tension felt upon entering an exclusive, and presumably pricey, Yorkville boutique.

Daniel Espinosa Jewellery, Toronto, had its grand opening last year to the acclaim of both guests and its titular head. Indeed, the visiting designer was so taken with the shop’s transformation he has since paid Albo the ultimate compliment, by appropriating several of her ideas for his other stores.

Photos by Tyrone McFadden