21st Century update on Mid-Century Modern
I have a theory: There is an invisible string that runs through the decades. It connects us to people, thoughts, ideas, objects and, yes, buildings.
Let’s call that last one “Architectural String Theory.” One can choose to ignore it – a symbolic cutting of the string – and one can fight against it with a sort of tug of war by adding things that don’t belong, such as Styrofoam quoins and keystones to a modernist building. Or, as Andre and Vivian Souroujon have done at their Bathurst and Eglinton-area home, one can acknowledge the string and, at times, use it for guidance.
The Souroujons live in a house designed in 1953 by architect Jack Brenzel for Herb and Miriam Wagman. The Wagmans worked closely with Mr. Brenzel to ensure it came out just right; in fact, they insisted on a rather expensive architectural model to guide their decisions. The result – which they moved into in the spring of 1955 – is a house that’s clean and understated on the outside, yet open, inviting and rather luxurious on the inside.
When the Manhattan-based Souroujons first saw the Wagman home during a 2002 house-hunting weekend, they were bowled over by the two-storey foyer’s enormous window that illuminated a floating staircase (a true floater; there are no visible supports for the lower risers), the towering wall of warm wood paneling and, underneath some dated royal blue carpeting, a sea of creamy travertine floors. Sleek, built-in cabinetry and light fixtures throughout were original despite the Wagmans’ move to California in 1957.
“In 20 minutes, we were [saying] ‘We want this house,’” remembers Mr. Souroujon, 41.
“[We saw] houses that were 20 years old, and the faucets were [already] funny—this one was impeccable,” adds Ms. Souroujon.
Over the next handful of years, floors and paneling were refinished, the backyard was refreshed and whatever else a couple with two young children and a startup business (the Distillery District photography studio Pikto) could manage was done. When necessary, Mr. Souroujon would tug a little on his personal string to call up inspirational memories of his childhood home, a modernist gem in Mexico City.
By connecting with Mrs. Wagman through a neighbour, the couple learned of the home’s history, and an invitation to visit was extended. When the octogenarian finally did get to Toronto to see it about five years ago, she was impressed: “These kids really got into the spirit of the house,” she said on the phone from Beverly Hills, Calif.
Despite this respect for string theory, eventually it came time to call the professionals. Of course, if one picks the right designers, then the string carries into the future. Mr. Souroujon first became aware of the husband-and-wife team of Merike Reigo and Stephen Bauer via real estate listings for a few spec homes the couple had built and sold on Ledbury Street and Cassels Avenue. He remembers thinking, “I’m going to keep track of these guys, in case at some point we want to do the kitchen,” he says with a laugh, and, by 2007, he’d sent a photograph of his home’s unique staircase to gauge the couple’s interest. It worked: “We have to come see this place – it looks incredible,” recalls Mr. Bauer, 32.
After just two meetings and three concept sketches, Reigo and Bauer were given free reign, since “they had thought of exactly what our needs were, but made it really modern and fit it into the house,” says Mr. Souroujon.
“It was the first project for us where we didn’t almost entirely gut the house,” offers Mr. Bauer. “Often, people approach us and they want complete, wholesale change to whatever they have, but with this, it was one of the first times we had the opportunity to work with something that was worth working with.”
“It was one of the smoothest jobs we’ve ever done,” adds Ms. Reigo, 34. “Personality-wise we clicked, and the plan fit brilliantly together right away.”
And it is brilliant: “Diagonal views” are now possible with the new, large opening that visually connects the kitchen breakfast nook to that fantastic staircase (streaks of sunlight now travel from rear windows all the way to meet it, too, the Souroujons say); a rethink of traffic patterns and a reconfiguration of the attached yet “nebulous” laundry room into a more efficient laundry room/pantry was achieved; the home’s original palette of travertine, buff brick and honey-coloured panelling suggested the smooth, neutral Caesarstone countertops, oak cabinets and low-gloss, cognac-coloured floors.
Big things, such as borrowed space, and little things, such as pantries, are celebrated: “The pantry is something we’re really excited to bring back into the world of contemporary design because it’s such a useful space… you can dump off your groceries right before a dinner party or stuff some extra dirty dishes before you entertain,” Ms. Reigo says as she points to the utility sink.
That Reigo and Bauer have existed for only a half-decade is hard to believe, since this is a soaring design that’s solidly of the 21st century but completely at home in the middle of the 20th. Perhaps that’s because, like the Souroujons, Reigo and Bauer don’t see a string as a tether, but rather as a great starting point to launch a kite into the deep blue sky.