After a half-century of trying to civilize us men, feminists and their allies among the interior designers and architects have largely succeeded in taking the hard edge off traditional modernist alpha-male aesthetics.
This shift in taste from tough to easy-going is evident in the ascendance of the relaxed, open-plan interior over gender-based spatial schemes (the kitchen as mom's territory, the living room as dad's), and in the general popularity of softer, more domesticated fabric, paint and stone finishes. In most renovations I'm seeing around Toronto these days, simplicity of line is still cherished, but the old high-contrast austerity and strict tailoring and swank of high modernism (which was a very male business) seem, by and large, to have gone the way of the flat-top haircut and Old Spice.
Every now and then, however, I come across a new Toronto residential interior with gender politics rather different from those I more frequently encounter. The one I have in mind today can only be described as male, or at least male in the sense that word carried circa 1960 – as forthrightly masculine, in fact, as Mad Men's Don Draper, and as suave, self-assured and sensuous as James Bond in black tie.
Crafted by Toronto designer Johnson Chou, the overhauled one-bedroom, two-level penthouse in the Candy Factory is the local pied-a-terre of a successful businessman who also resides in Ontario's cottage country and in London. The suite Mr. Chou has delivered to his client is a composition of luxurious materials drawn into strong, sleek forms, and of sharply contrasting darks and lights, with sombre tones and textures predominating.
On entering the 2.700-square-foot apartment through the front door, which is padded with white leather to dampen noise in the public corridor, the visitor is immediately treated to vivid sculptural forms and visual sensations. A tall, undulating curtain of luxe, mirror-polished ebony rises on one side of the door, for example, concealing a closet and a small washroom before straightening out and sweeping into the spartan kitchen area. There, the lines of a long, massive black granite island carry the eye forward to the spiral metal stair, a dense affair painted a gleaming black.
Situated beyond the stair, near the large south-facing windows of the apartment, the great wooden slab of the dining table seems almost baronial, and would surely appear to be over-scaled were the object not surrounded by furnishings and architectural elements (such as the white-painted brick arcade separating the living and dining areas) that are as assertive as it is.
The shape of the suite's main level is unusual, somewhat like that of a hammer: long and narrow near the entrance, becoming broader as one approaches the windows. Mr. Chou has emphasized this spatial variation by raising and lowering the floor here and there, in this way creating a distinctive, different place for each dimension of his client's programme for dwelling.
The spare living-room area, for instance, takes the form of a sunken conversation pit. The atmosphere here is serious, even slightly formal. The shadowy book-lined study, with handsome shelving designed by Mr. Chou and a heavy desk framed by elephant tusks, is perched a few steps above the living room, standing separate and aloof. The foot of the spiral stair (which leads up to the bedroom and out to the spacious deck) touches down on a high platform fashioned from wood and back-lit translucent glass. Lighting, recessed under the cantilevered steps and edges demarcating each level, emphasizes the transitions that make passage through the space a lively experience.
The result of Mr. Chou's careful attention to detail and effective capture of a certain broad-shouldered male sensibility in the stuff of architecture and interior design is thoughtful and certainly dramatic. But, for the record, he had interesting bones to work with.
The Candy Factory was one of this city's earliest conversions of an industrial structure into a stack of condominium lofts, and several attractive features of the original building – high, rugged wooden ceilings and sandblasted timber pillars, thick brick arches separating bays, large windows – were retained when the transformation took place. Mr. Chou has respected the hard-hat heritage of the factory, using its old, sturdy elements to counterpoint the chic, sophisticated materials and shapes he has introduced. The combination works.
Maybe it's just the unreconstructed modernist in me talking – I came of age, after all, in the 1950s – but this project made me a little nostalgic for the long-ago days when masculinity like James Bond's was still in vogue.