The design boutique Mjölk is an unlikely oasis. On a busy road lined with work-worn brick buildings in Toronto’s Junction neighborhood, the shop is a tailored space full of artful Scandinavian and Japanese design: ceramics by Masanobu Ando alongside George Nakashima originals. Its young owners, Juli Daoust and John Baker, built the collection through visits with the makers, selecting cups from kilns in Finland or handmade cutting boards from studios in Tokyo.
They’ve shaped their home with equal care and craft: Above the shop is a two-level, 2,450-square-foot apartment that brings home everything they’ve learned in their work and travels. "There isn’t a lot of separation between the first floor and the floors above," Baker says of the apartment, where he and Daoust live with their two-year-old daughter, Elodie. "It was always the same idea: We’re going to take a building and live above it and have a store."
Over five years, Daoust and Baker worked closely with architects Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan of Studio Junction to find and purchase the building, design the store, and renovate the apartment. Tan and Ho Ping Kong live and work nearby in a house of their own design, and that place—an unusual building, on a back alley, with a central courtyard and walls of warm, carefully hewn millwork—set a good example for the Daoust-Baker renovation.
Studio Junction worked within the 19-foot-wide building to create an apartment that, thanks to a clever layout, offers light and space despite being hemmed in on both sides. Finished with soap-treated Douglas fir floors, handmade oak shelving, and many products from Mjölk’s inventory, the dwelling offers a warm and very Scandinavian getaway from the bustling city. "A lot of people have trouble getting the human side of a home in contemporary buildings, and that’s what we admire most about these guys," Baker says. That means lots of wood, materials that will acquire a patina over time, and an arrangement of rooms that emphasizes communal living.
Ho Ping Kong and Tan worked on the construction themselves with builder Jay Blasdale. Tan did much of the woodwork, including the window frames, the oak bench that sits outside, and the kitchen cabinetry, which resembles the furniture in a Norwegian cottage. The drawer fronts are made of solid white oak, which Tan crafted with old-school through-tenon joints rather than screws or brackets. "It’s about subtlety," Baker says. "You don’t have to show it off, but, if you look closely, it’s a beautiful detail." Likewise, the kitchen sink is a soapstone bowl—carved by Tan—that features exposed copper piping, a bit of wabi-sabi that lightens the creamy surfaces of the space. A hanging lamp by Swedish designer Jonas Bohlin, also made of copper piping, provides a high-end counterpoint.
The architects’ focus on communal living—particularly in an urban environment with children—led to some unusual choices for the floor plan. The public rooms were placed on the building’s third floor, the bedrooms on the middle level. A courtyard (the architects’ substitute for a backyard) was carved into the top floor between the kitchen and living room; it is lined on three sides with large, oak-framed windows, and provides outdoor space for Elodie to roam freely. "From any view—the kitchen, the living room—we can see Elodie," Baker says. "She can be independent, and we know it’s a safe environment. In a house, often you need to be standing at the back door to see the kids."
Overall, the space is meant to be flexible. "The usage of the place will change with one or two kids," says Ho Ping Kong, herself a mother of two. On the second floor, the master bedroom, nursery, and children’s room—which Elodie and the couple’s second child, due in April, eventually will share—form a string from back to front. Opening shoji-style sliding doors allow for a continuous view through the apartment. The nursery, in the middle of the apartment, borrows light from the courtyard above via a small shaft. The entire effect is efficient and genuinely comfortable.
Baker and Daoust are committed to living in the home for a very long time. "It’s not like, in ten years, we’re going to redo our kitchen," Daoust says with a laugh. "Our goal is to still be here in 40 years, and our house will look exactly the same."
Alex Bozikovic is a Toronto based writer and editor for the Globe and Mail and frequent Dwell contributor. While interviewing Studio Junction's Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan, the architect-residents of the Courtyard House, he was impressed by the couple's remarkable DIY chutzpah and became inspired to try a major project himself. Someday. Maybe.