Monthly Archives: January 2012

Onyx is a luminous marble that, when back lit, glows like a candle.   There’s an entire galaxy ebbing and flowing in the golden and milky white onyx ceiling at the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Toronto, where Sikhs and Muslims and Christians can worship in the same space. (Photo above and below by Tom Arban.)

Poetically imagined by Moriyama & Teshima Architects, the design for the Multi-faith Centre is one of the first in North America.  A pale onyx from an Italian quarry was selected as a means to express universality and spiritual tolerance.  The ceiling onyx is recessed and back lit by tubes of light.  The wall of onyx contains several tall cupboards where sweetgrass for aboriginal groups or sacred scrolls for Buddhists.

 This is a highly minimal piece of modernism – it opened in 1963 – made remarkable by its large panes of onyx.  Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill designed the white onyx-clad Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.   The Vermont onyx has been cut so thin that light from the outside transfers powerfully to the inside.  I’ve stood within this entirely enclosed space and felt as if the walls were on fire.

Inspired, I decided to use 12 X 12 inch onyx in the shower room and tiny tiles as a backsplash in the upstairs laundry room. The pattern of the veins running through the onyx is as complex as a honey comb but the wheat colour is ultra mellow.  Luckily, several large tiles were left over after the work was complete and I decided to make wall lamps to hang outside.


I designed the lights to feature two tiles stacked vertically on a box frame of white acrylic.  My builder friend, George, agreed to help me with the construction.  He cut long strips of the acrylic and then heated them slightly so as to create a gentle bend. (And, yup, we burned a couple strips a long the way…)

 Reflecting tape was attached to the back of the box to spread out the glow.  The tiles were pre-drilled and then secured to the acrylic with anodized aluminum bolts.

And then installed on the recessed cedar deck at the back of our house.  So that’s my onxy light by day…

Can’t get enough of the onyx glow at night.  The neighbours across our back yard say they like the glow, too.


Heavy timber is making a come back, from way back.  From underground mines to industrial warehouses to Canadian log cabins, timber is a legacy material stoked with memory.  But, timber was stuck in its own architectural nostalgia.  Thankfully, the cabin has recently been unlocked by Scandinavian architects.  For their competition entry for the Kimball Art Center in Park City, UT, the powerhouse Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) ignores the straitjacket of convention to curve and contort timber as if it was plastic.  Watch for new expressive architecture to land close to home: like other Scandinavians, BIG is debuting their design prowess in Canada – for towers in both Vancouver and Toronto.

Proposed interior by BIG.  Where the combination of timber and glass warms the coldest hearts.

Norway-based for more than a decade, Canadian expat Todd Saunders treats architecture like monumental works of sculpture.  Even in the remote and beautifully rugged Fogo Island – a seven hour drive north-east of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Saunders is designing exhilarating works in timber.  Saunders grew up 100 kms away from Fogo Island in Gander, Nfld. so he speaks with an accent that is part Newfoundlander, part sing-song Norwegian.  His architecture is of, and beyond, the land. When I visited Joe Batt’s Arm, Fogo Island, I encountered his Artist’s Studio this way:  angled like the blade of a knife on the rocky landscape, with wild caribou trotting nearby, the wind beating back the grasses.

The Studio as well as a Writer’s Studio and a five-star Inn are all commissioned by the Shorefast Foundation and its tireless founder Zita Cobb, who hails from Joe Batt’s Arm.  The revitalization of Fogo Island through art and architecture belongs to her, Todd Saunders and the locals who believe in their future, with or without cod.

Even on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto, dark, heavy timber defines Bannock, the latest restaurant to be launched by Oliver & Bonacini.  The interior features pine and hemlock recovered from one of the Queen’s Wharfs submerged in Lake Ontario for the last century.    I caught this picture today while a flurry of snow swirled all around and a red TTC streetcar trundled by.

The recipe for bannock is easy…3 cups of flour, dash of salt, bigger dash of baking power, a few tbsp of butter and enough water to make it stick.  What’s important is the twisting of the dough around a solid, dry stick so that it doesn’t slip from the wood.  Leave it to roast on the stick over some hot coals, or a fire burning from something more minimal, like the stainless steel trough by Paloform – something that caught my eye today at the Interior Design Show.  Wait until the dough has baked enough to slide easily from the stick.  It’ll be golden, like cedar.

Holes open up a home to the outside world, making it seem extra enchanting. In a forested area of Japan where there’s plenty of rain, architect Kotaro Ide of ARTechnic decided to design with elliptically-shaped concrete forms rather than cladding the house with more traditional (and fragile) wood. Then he cut holes into the concrete to liberate the space.

Given the organic, seamless flow of the Japanese vacation home all windows and doors had to be custom designed.  The result: a sumptuous, all-embracing environment, one that’s now been published all over the world.

Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more concrete slab towers or steel-and-glass cliches along comes the O-14 Tower by Reiser + Umemoto Architects.  The 21-storey skyscraper rises like a latticework tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  The perforated “superliquid” concrete skin measures only 15 inches thick, a remarkable achievement in high-performance, seemingly elastic concrete.  Given that most skyscrapers in North America are uninventive lookalikes, this is the kind of architectural daring worth applauding.  I’ve written about Reiser + Umemoto before.  Maybe somebody in Canada will commission them to design something intelligent and gutsy soon. S.V.P.

What the O-14 tower is to clothing design…Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. clothing line (named for her 2004 solo album Love, Angel, Music, Baby,) has been around for six years but her latest coat design rips apart conventional thinking about covering up.  For L.A.M.B.’s long, winter coat the wave of olive colour is heightened by hundreds of peek holes in the lower half.  It makes walking on the snow extra flirty.

 Punctured with openings, this chair (1952) was among the very first to depart radically from thick, brutishly heavy chairs to offer a lightweight sculpture to arrange yourself in.  Designed by Harry Bertoia in steel wire to be as much about sitting as it is about changeability of sculpture.  Something to curl into and watch the world go by.  


Remember orange shag carpet?  Rather not?  Well, weep or rejoice…Orange is back with a vengeance.  I see orange splashed over this season’s snowboarder jackets, in architecture and even on these retro cocktail napkins by the Parisian designer Françoise Paviot.

Danish teak chair, part of my dining room set, 1960s.   I intended recovering the chairs in something cool and minimal – black or white or taupe –  but still enjoying the vibe of this orange-brown agitation.

Coming at you from the psychedelic 1960s and the art of, say,  Victor Vasarely.  This serigraph by Vaserely titled Parmenide (Orange, Red & Blue).

I had to haul this out of the closet just to show you how orange can be done with conviction.  Here it is…my mod orange vinyl jacket by Courreges.  Vintage bombshell. 1960s.  The instructions say:  Clean with a damp cloth.  Or simply wear as a raincoat in a light mist.

Orange crush.

Taken in small doses, orange is a delicious energy drink.  The perfect way to clad the satellite operation of Sweden’s Museum of Modern Art in Malmo.  This blaze of orange designed by the Stockholm-based partnership of Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård.  Love the way mod orange rocks it out here, right next to an old electricity station. Zap!

Brain coral, found on Coconut River Beach, once the site of a slave settlement in Nevis, a Caribbean island historically rich for its productive sugar plantations.

The random, organic pattern of a Favela in Medellin, Columbia.  Also known as a slum, or in polite academic circles, an informal settlement.

Nevis is an enchanting balm for the soul…A mountainous, historically-charged island in the West Indies that’s untouched by the overzealous commercialism of many islands in the Caribbean.   And, yes, you have to commit to getting there. After two long-haul flights, our third and final one was a wild ride on a 20-seater designed in the 1960s.  Vintage is something I like in furniture.  Not so much for planes.

 We flew straight into the sunset, and massive storm clouds, leaving Christmas festivities and sub-zero temperatures far, far behind.

The island is a storybook of how to live and create a home – especially an intimately-scaled home – like this colourful wood-frame pitched delicately, magnificently against the rolling foothills of Mount Nevis. The legendary Hermitage Inn, built 340 years ago, is a collection of pitched-roof private villas at 800 feet above sea level with a Great House finished in Nevis hardwood and defined by its perfectly proportioned dining room, verandah and library.

 There’s tragedy, too, pressed into many of the island’s ruins. The Eden Browne estate looms dark and foreboding against an overgrown landscape where the groom killed his best friend on the night of his wedding.

There are copper vats and iconic stone kilns still scattered across the island where slaves historically laboured on sugar plantations.

The production of “white gold” produced monuments in stone.  They might be confused as temples to Mayan Gods.  And now many of these artefacts are left to fall into ruin, while wild goats graze around them.

 The beaches are vast, untouched and deserted.  Just us and the palm trees bent over the sand, and the vervet monkeys prankstering around in the bushes.

Several plantations on Nevis have been transformed into elegant restaurants and hotels.  The Golden Rock Inn and Restaurant has been given a bold contemporary look by its owners, the acclaimed New York minimalist artist Brice Marden and his wife Helen.  (Marden’s work was featured at the MoMA in NYC in 2006, and his large abstracts have been sold on the block at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for many millions – each.)

Marden asked the Paris-based designer Ed Tuttle, whose portfolio includes the luxury Aman hotels, to put his stamp on Golden Rock. A large podium with reflecting pool and steps leading to a dining terrace has been inserted into the lush landscape.  Stone plantation buildings with vaulted ceilings serves as a cafe and bar, revitalized with lounge furniture and shutters painted the plantation’s signature colour of burnished red.     Marden tours around the open-air restaurant, wearing his favourite black toque, saying hullo to us today and supervising the ongoing upgrades and aesthetic ordering of the wild, dense rain forest.

The Nevis fireworks on New Year’s Eve were dazzling.  So was the ‘Killer Bee’ rum punch at Sunshine’s beach restaurant.  And, most of all, dancing in the sand in bare feet.  Happy New Year !   It’s going to be a good one.  With love, from Nevis.