A light touch

Merike Reigo and Stephen Bauer, principals of a young architectural practice, were invited by a couple they’d never met, to see a house for sale, 30 minutes before the showing. The couple had heard about Reigo and Bauer’s residential projects, hired them on and proceeded to buy the second house they saw: a three-storey semi-detached home in midtown Toronto. Accustomed to condominium living, they wanted to replace the dated 1970s interior with something bright and contemporary. Two weeks after the property closed, construction started.

The house is basically a long shoebox with a 65-foot party wall to the east side and a narrow passageway to the west, allowing in minimal light. As a result, only the front and back are open, leaving the owners desperate to get as much sunlight from the two ends of the house as possible.

Reigo and Bauer focussed on the main living space (situated one level above grade due to a steeply sloping site) and the master bedroom, with smaller work – new trim, paint, doors, windows, fixtures and furniture – throughout the home. Demolition occurred in select locations, preserving the existing structure wherever possible. Curved corners, ubiquitous in the original main level, were removed or straightened. All the washrooms were either rebuilt or updated with new fixtures, and the railings of the three-storey staircase were rebuilt as a continuous low wall that winds its way up the house.

The client required the formal dining room and kitchen to be out of view rather than part of an open-plan space. Clever placement of partial walls and floor-to-ceiling millwork on the main floor keep the various spaces distinct and physically separate while retaining an open feeling. At certain spots you can see across the length of the floor plate, making the house feel spacious without exposing the contents of every room.  

A 3.5-foot-long wall, detached at both ends and wrapped in a pinstriped, silver-flecked wallpaper, stands at the south end of the dining room, creating privacy from the entry hall. A 10-inch slot provides a slivered view to the front door. Between the living room and dining room is a 40-inch-wide piece of millwork that extends up to the ceiling; clad front and back in a black veneer with a heavy wood-grain pattern, it conceals a bar. “It is meant to feel like a freestanding object in space,” says Merike Reigo. When open, drinks flow to both the living room and dining room; when closed there is just enough solid surface to make the dining area private while still allowing light to filter around.

Flat white is the principal colour used throughout. “It helps immensely to brighten the space,” says Stephen Bauer, who adds that it acts as a counterpoint to the new mahogany windows and the oil-finished, thermally treated ash wood floors. Upper and lower kitchen cabinets are also covered in a white laminate with a matte finish so flat they appear to be made of paper. The arctic palette continues up the wall of the staircase and along the hallways, extending into the rooms of the second floor.

Asked to select much of the home’s furnishings, Reigo and Bauer chose items that are luscious without being flashy. With a deliberate bit of drama they contrasted contemporary surfaces with classic home wear: in the master bedroom a Boss Bed from Palazzetti, with its dark leather tufted headboard, sits in front of a wall covered in a damask-patterned wallpaper that seems to give off a gentle pulse. Snaking around two walls of the room are 22 linear feet of custom-built floor-to-ceiling millwork, in flat white, holding a TV and hiding an abundance of clothing. A Smoked Chair, by Maarten Baas (fabrication includes burning the frame to increase its texture), rests off in the corner.

Just enough of the existing house was sliced away to increase its feeling of spaciousness while retaining the original character. Many bold patterned surfaces, new bits of wall, elegant millwork and furniture – all expertly crafted – add up to a brash, bright interior that is at once clever and fun without compromising a drop of the home’s intended function.

Photography by Tom Arban