Janis Kravis, 1933-2020

A visionary entrepreneur, architect and designer guided by a belief that a strong creative community should be built on shared ideas and inspiration.

Born in 1933 in Latvia, Kravis arrived in Canada with his family via Sweden in 1950 as a World War II refugee. Having learned to construct houses with his master-builder father, Kravis went on to study architecture at the University of Toronto at a time when the community was energized by an international design competition for Toronto’s new City Hall. Graduating in 1959, Kravis worked in the architectural offices of John B. Parkin where he befriended designers from Finland who had gathered in Toronto to construct Viljo Revell’s winning proposal. These personal connections, along with Kravis’s research and travels to Finland to meet designers and manufacturers, cemented his affinity for Scandinavian design.

Kravis’s enthusiasm for the products of companies such as Marimekko, Artek, Haimi, Muurame, Arabia, and Iittala led him to found Karelia Studios as a retail venture in 1959. Housed in a sequence of iconic Toronto locations from 1960 until 1979, as well as briefly expanded to Vancouver and Edmonton, Karelia Studios introduced housewares and textiles from Scandinavia and made them available to an eager Canadian clientele. Janis and his wife Helga often developed close friendships with the product designers, frequently hosting visitors to their Toronto home. The creative, colourful store soon became a fixture for the local architecture and design communities.

After establishing his own architecture and design practice in 1963, Kravis worked on many notable projects, such as with hotelier George Minden on the award-winning restaurant concept for the basement of Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel. In an essay for the 2017 exhibition True Nordic: How Scandinavia influenced Design in Canada, Architecture Professor Emeritus George Baird wrote that, when it opened in 1966, “the Three Small Rooms was instantly one of the most glamorous and successful Toronto restaurants. Kravis designed the rich interiors of brick, wood and copper and much of the restaurant’s furniture. … Elegant and intimate, the three differently styled rooms and their discrete food offerings presented a distinctly northern and cosmopolitan sensibility.”

Throughout his 60-year career, Kravis created interiors and furniture designs that were simple and beautiful. His work for commercial, corporate, and hospitality clients was characterized by spatial ingenuity, crafted millwork, colourful textiles, and detailed ceilings designed to activate the interior volume – either with suspended space frames, intricately layered grids, milled wood battens, or innovative lighting. His furniture designs featured collaborations with local specialists such as Garry Sonnenberg (Craftwood Industries) and Ed Keilhauer.

His friendships with international design leaders, especially Armi Ratia, the founder of Marimekko (documented in the 2013 Toronto exhibition Marimekko, with love) had lasting creative influence. Later in life, Kravis continued to explore design’s connections by focusing on nature, becoming certified LEED A/P, and pursuing interests in sustainability and biophilia. In 2017, ever aiming to share his design vision, he established an online memoir and portfolio at https://www.Karelia.ca.

Image curation by Guntar Kravis