The view from the terrace was stunning. Facing south, the condo had a sweeping vista of Toronto’s skyline and Lake Ontario. I turned to Lindsay, my younger sister, and said, “This is it! We’ve found your condo!” She didn’t look convinced. But where she saw a warren of small rooms, a dated kitchen and a tiny bathroom, I saw opportunity.
Lindsay, a lifestyle blogger and sales executive, and I had spent months searching for a bright and cheerful place where she could raise her toddler, Ellie. Our weekends had been spent visiting open houses and crunching numbers to see what she could afford. There was the overpriced shoebox in a chic loft conversion: “It’s perfect!” said Lindsay. “I don’t think toddlers are welcome here,” I replied, gesturing to the polished marble floors and pale wool carpeting. There was also the ’50s-era condo with parquet flooring and a rambling floor plan. “It’s huge!” said Lindsay. “It’s a bunker,” I replied, looking at the postage-stamp-sized windows and tiny concrete balcony.
But this condo was unlike anything else we had seen. It was a corner unit with a wraparound balcony that connected to an oversized terrace. The windows were large, with a glass door on the west side that brought in even more natural light. At 800 square feet, it was slightly smaller than Lindsay had been hoping for, but I knew that by tweaking the floor plan, remodelling the kitchen and splurging on new trims and finishes, the space would become the perfect home for Lindsay and Ellie.
This project was personal for many reasons. Lindsay and I lost our mom when we were kids—she was four, I was 11 and our older sister, Alexis, was 14—and the three of us have always been incredibly close. Alexis now resides in Montreal, but Lindsay and I have always lived near each other in Toronto. When she separated from her ex-husband two years ago, I stepped in to help with the transition. I wanted to create a peaceful and pretty home for Lindsay and Ellie that would reflect my sister’s new single-girl life.
Design and style have always been a big part of my life. My father was an architect, and I ended up spending my career in design. I’ve decorated countless spaces, from condos to historic houses—including renovations for Alexis’ current home and Lindsay’s previous one. Years spent working as editor-in-chief of interior design and lifestyle magazines gave me the opportunity to collaborate with Canada’s top designers. You could say that I learned how to decorate from them.
As soon as the closing papers were signed, I sketched out my idea for the new floor plan, which involved closing off a poky hallway that led from the main bedroom to the bathroom to create more closet space and a larger bathroom. I walked Lindsay through my plan and was met with a blank look, which is the precise moment I realized that she had quickly become one of my best clients. She didn’t care what I did as long as the renovation didn’t go over budget (it did, by a smidge, but we made it work) and the result would be exactly what she wanted. (It was.) Her only concern? What paint colours we’d choose.
Anyone who has ever undertaken a reno knows that nothing ever goes to plan, and this one was no exception. As soon as the demolition started, we ran into issues. Our plans to put a soaker tub in the bathroom—Ellie loves bathtime—were scuppered when we pulled up the shower floor and saw how the original drain had been configured. The lighting plan in Lindsay’s room had to change—from wired sconces to plug-ins—when my electrician saw where some of the wires were routed. But our biggest challenge was the kitchen. I had hoped to save Lindsay some money by keeping the original cabinets and simply replacing the doors, but once I realized how truly impractical the kitchen configuration was, there was only one thing to do: Demo the whole thing.
I know from experience that some of the most creative ideas can come from having to pivot in the middle of a reno. In this case, building the kitchen from scratch meant that I could make much better use of the space. I kept the design simple, using dead space next to the door to Ellie’s room to extend the lower cabinets to add more storage, and a marble-look HanStone countertop to make the kitchen feel sleek. I used high-gloss white doors for the uppers to help bounce more light into the room. The base cabinets—drawers with antique gold pulls—were sprayed a soft grey, and looked more like furniture than traditional kitchen cabinetry.
The bathroom required the most planning. I researched custom vanities for its awkward L-shaped specifications, but the prices I was quoted were prohibitive—one of the estimates was $9,000! And then I had a thought: What if I could use kitchen cabinetry instead?
My go-to source for cupboards has always been Ikea. My contractor, Peg Corporation, and I were able to modify stock cabinetry to fit the bathroom, and we used several space-saving organizers in innovative ways. Lindsay’s beauty products were stored in a corner carousel; we used a spice drawer insert to corral her nail polish collection. The final cost? Less than $1,000.
Next were the bedroom closets, which had been a concern for Lindsay, as her much-loved shoes and handbags needed a “room of their own.” I knew from previous renos that the Pax wardrobe system (also from Ikea) is the perfect solution for small spaces. In Lindsay’s room, we raised the units by building a platform, added a baseboard and then put a spacer at the top to create the illusion of built-in cabinetry.
For Ellie’s (smaller) room, we used a shallow—but deceptively roomy—unit with space to hang her pretty dresses, store her shoes and keep her clothes folded in drawers.
Despite all the big changes to the space, it was the finishing touches that Lindsay was most excited about; “the jewellery,” as she called them. Inexpensive builder doors were replaced with Shaker-style solid-core ones, and I added an elegant Metrie architrave, a form of decorative trim, to the top of the door frames to create the illusion of more ceiling height. Gold-toned accents— from brass Schlage door handles to faucets to the trim on the ceiling-mount fixtures—were peppered throughout. And the paint colours that Lindsay was so curious about? The final palette was a series of muted white and pale grey tones that changed subtly from room to room; the perfect backdrop to Lindsay’s beloved pastels, as well as the more vibrant tones of aqua, pink and green that I had chosen for the furniture and accessories in Ellie’s room.
The text from my best client came in late on a Monday night: “You were right. I love my condo. Thank you.”