Image: Stacey Brandford / Styling: Christine Hanlon
Nest maker, know thyself. Here’s how one designer used self-reflection and simplicity to do up her Toronto Victorian.
“There are thousands of inspiring ideas out there,” says designer Melanie Hay, referring to the wellspring of online home decor images, blogs and shops. “You can literally research for months. But in the end, the best design is born of self-discovery. The more you understand who you are and how you live, the better the odds that the rooms you create will be rooms that you love.”
Melanie should know. When she and her husband, Andrew, an entrepreneur, purchased a tall, narrow Victorian in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood about four years ago, they were two people without a plan – but with about 3,000 square feet of empty space. Needless to say, to a designer like Melanie, this blank canvas meant instant inspiration overload. “My mind was swimming with decorating schemes,” she recalls. “Deep down, though, I knew Andrew and I are nesters, and when we walked in the door, we would want to come home to a space that echoes our life stories.” This is where her approach to decorating the house started.
But it was not as easy as it sounds. “From the beginning, I had to acknowledge that Andrew and I don’t share the same taste,” she says. Melanie loves white; Andrew prefers dark wood. Something had to give. The house already had the towering black doors and high-gloss black banister they both liked, so the couple let these details inspire the look. “Plus, we already owned a black and white rug, a round table with a dark top and a black leather Eames chair, so why not use them?” adds Melanie. Red- and peach-painted walls were redone in shades of light and shadow. Such was the start of what is now the home’s signature black and white colour scheme.
And a little self-reflection went a long way when it came to deciding what to hang on the walls. “Although we appreciate fine art, personal mementoes that connect us to our families matter more,” says Melanie. This realization became the inspiration for the dining room gallery wall. Gathering a few favourite prints, posters and paintings, the designer created a dynamic visual mash-up. The result is a sophisticated yet personal design element. One added bonus? It was totally budget-friendly. “I paired gold-framed heirloom pieces with newer prints in inexpensive white frames to unite the random collection,” explains Melanie. And since not many are forever pieces, she adds or subtracts on a whim. “There are a lot of nail holes in that wall!” she says with a laugh.
In many ways, this ever-evolving approach is a reflection of Melanie’s creativity. “Unlike the homes I design for clients, which are done in one sweep, my house changes constantly. I’ve become incredibly good at moving furniture, which must drive Andrew crazy. This house will never be truly finished,” she says. “And if it ever is, I’ll probably just start over!”
Homeowner and designer Melanie Hay paired her husband’s steel-topped dining table with chairs she bought on Craigslist. “I’ve reupholstered the seats two times already,” she says. Right now, they bear a sophisticated charcoal linen that accentuates the dark walls and striped rug.
“It’s been a bedside table, an end table and a catch- all,” says Melanie of the bar cart she purchased years ago. “Finally, it’s a bar!” The cart is low, however, and the home’s ceilings are very high. To draw the eye upward, she added a painting and a wall-mounted metal stag bust above it.
Melanie scoured big-box stores for large-scale artwork to act as stand-ins for the forever pieces that will eventually accent her living room. That way, she doesn’t have to live with blank walls while she searches for the perfect investments.
The house was built in the early 1900s, but its contemporary fireplace mantel and furnishings achieve an eclectic mix that feels right at home in the space. “If you can’t afford to do a house all at once,” advises Melanie, “then do one room at a time. That way you can afford to invest in key pieces.”
“Decorating one room completely and then carrying that look to the next allows you to really establish a cohesive aesthetic throughout the house,” says Melanie, who started with the living room and finished with the master bedroom, which echoes the rest of the home’s light-meets-dark and modern-meets-traditional themes.
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Celeb home tour: Kirsten Dunst's SoHo penthouse
Step inside Kirsten Dunst's two-bedroom penthouse apartment atop an iconic New York loft building in SoHo.
Dream of living in a trendy New York loft among some of Lady Fame's hottest celebrities, but just not sure you can make the commitment? Lucky for you, Kirsten Dunst's penthouse loft is up for rent. For $12,500 a month, you can stay in this two-bedoom, one-and-a-half bathroom apartment and bask in Dunst's modern-meets-antique decor.
- Comes fully or partially furnished
- 2 bedrooms
- 1.5 bathrooms
- Renovated master ensuite
- Library/sitting room
- Large open-concept layout
Want to know more? Check out the listing here.
Being the penthouse, Dunst's apartment offers a fabulous view of the Hudson River. And how wonderfully quirky is the tall ship hanging from the ceiling?
Extremely large windows around the entire living room enhance this top floor view.
A sliding wall separates the living space from a light-filled nook. Its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves make it the perfect spot to curl up with your favourite read.
The bookshelves are filled with an assortment of books and framed art.
The loft offers a generously sized kitchen, considering it's New York. The modern additions of the marble countertops and Wolf and Subzero appliances are warmed up with darker cabinetry and brass pendant lights (love!).
Have sweet dreams in this spacious boudoir, in a luxuriously sized king bed with plenty of room to spare.
Enjoy an escape from the city in this brand new ensuite, with room enough to fit a freestanding vintage tub and separate shower.
Situated on Canal Street, this loft has been home to noteable actors and rockstars alike, including Casey Affleck, Michael Stipe and Gus Van Sant.
If a full-blown kitchen renovation isn’t in the budget, try these more manageable ideas to breathe new life into your kitchen.
Refacing cabinet doors might seem like an economical alternative to fully replacing cabinetry, but buyer beware – especially with older kitchens. “Often you have to replace the hinges as well, which can weaken the cabinet structure over time and lead to sagging,” says Robin. Instead, consider having your existing doors spray-painted. “It’s way better than painting with a brush, which can cause blobs and drips in the grooves of the door profile, and they’ll look like new.”
It’s amazing how new door hardware will transform a cabinet. If you are having the doors sprayed anyway, the pros will fill in the old hardware holes, allowing you to choose any style you like as a replacement.
Instead of replacing an ugly kitchen countertop (which has its own set of drawbacks if you are retaining the base, especially if the old countertop is glued on), you can hire specialists who will add a quarter-inch veneer of genuine granite right on top of the old counter, for the look and almost the same durability as solid granite.
Beef up and modernize accent lighting. Pendants or other decorative fixtures add instant elegance.
Ceiling lighting can have a huge effect on the look and feel of your kitchen. Robin loathes halogen pot lighting, which has become almost the norm in many new kitchens and renovations. “Halogen was never really meant for ambient lighting, and it can cause glare and fatigue. They’ve come a long way with LED bulbs nowadays; they cost more initially but they last for years, are very energy-efficient, and are cool to the touch.” Old-fashioned recessed can lighting, especially the kind with black liners, can be retrofitted with updated energy-efficient versions with little or no repairs to the ceiling.
On the subject of lighting, many older kitchens simply don’t have enough, which can be very fatiguing. If you don’t want to hire an electrician to install more built-in lighting, there are lower-cost options such as “rope” lighting, which can be added under overhead cabinets, or even plug-in strip lighting, which you can put in yourself.
Even if you don’t do anything else to update, it’s amazing what a new coat of white paint on the ceiling will do to brighten things up. “Ceilings get dingy over time with smoke, dust, and dirt almost without you noticing it,” says Robin.
If you don’t have an existing kitchen backsplash, this is a great opportunity to add character and elegance for just a few dollars. Because backsplashes don’t require a large number of tiles, you can splurge on fancy ones, add a mix of high-end and plain ones, or create a focal point with mosaics, mirror tiles or other decorative options. Dated ceramic tile can be spray-painted in the same way as cabinets. “I had my bathroom tiles spray-painted, and they still look new 12 years later,” Robin says.
Click flooring can be installed right on top of ugly old floors; providing your existing floor is level, you can also install cork, laminate tile or linoleum. With care, these are all options you can do yourself.
Update, clean and declutter accessories; many of us tend to accumulate china figurines on the windowsill and cute magnets on the fridge, and just stop noticing them after a while. Replace with something new and fresh: pretty vases or bowls, collections of vintage bottles, or simply a spotless, uncluttered expanse of windows.