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Show Us Where You Live: Joanne Swisterski’s Shoestring-Renoed Condo

Proof that a spacious condo can be furnished within budget – especially if you’re willing to design and build your own features

By Designlines
Photography by Donna Griffith

You might know Joanne Swisterski, principal of her eponymous firm, as an interior designer. Her portfolio, which includes restaurants like Nyood and Los Colibris, as well as numerous private homes, certainly speaks to it. (An upcoming West End cannabis shop, Flower Pot, will do so as well.) But less well known is her work as a hands-on artist and design-builder, both talents that are on full display in the Garden District condo she shares with her partner, a fellow architecture and design nerd.

As Swisterski explains, getting their space right was the product of long discussions, some wine, and elbow grease, but it started with the building. Pre-dating Toronto’s glass-and-steel days, it has the kind of space that used to be the norm, but with contemporary details and furnishings typically found in modern homes and ateliers – and they even did it on a tight budget. It too rarely happens, but Swisterski managed to conjure up the best of both worlds. Read on to see her home.

swisterski design - Joanne Swisterski
The interior designer’s living room is cozily dressed but still unfussy. Grey sofa from Structube; coffee table from EQ3; ceiling and floor lamp from West Elm; painting of West Ireland by Swisterski.

Who lives with you?

My partner, who helps feed the madness of design over-analysis. He’s an architectural technician with an artistic aptitude and has a leadership role at a well-known downtown architectural practice. Bouncing technical and creative design solutions off of one another can be extremely useful for our jobs. Unsurprisingly, the world of architecture and design is something we love to discuss.

We designed our place together and carefully considered every detail. Ideas typically began as practical, then, over a glass of wine, took a dive into fantastical before resurfacing somewhere in between.

A bank of windows dapples sunlight throughout the condo and across the dark stained mahogany parquet. Teal sofa and area rug from West Elm; Eames lounger available through Quasi Modo and DWR.

What part of town is your home located and how long have you lived there?

We moved into our Carlton and Jarvis condo over two years ago. Having resided on the east side of Toronto for the past decade, this location suited us, in that many of our friends, favourite pastry shops, cafes, bars and restaurants were already close-by.

When searching for a place, we felt strongly about having a guest bedroom that could also double as my art studio. I often paint for the joy of it, but also receive regular commissions, and having the right space to work on these pieces is a must.

While both residents have an artistic flair, Swisterski uses the spare bedroom as a studio where she produces art for the sheer love of it, as well as commissioned paintings for her clients’ homes.

How old is the home or what style is it?

A major reason for us choosing this condo was the square footage it offered. It is a challenge in Toronto to find a condo that doesn’t feel like a shoe box, and often the best place to look for bigger spaces is in older buildings. With these, you get the desired breathing room, but you also get the vinyl accordion doors, tiered vertical blinds, the kitchen pass-through and many other outdated – but desirable – features.

Architecturally, the space was lovely. It was well planned with generous proportions and large windows lining the entire south side. But from a design perspective it was in need of a significant refresh. On a slender budget, we furnished the space throughout, replaced some lighting, designed a wine rack with a marble waterfall edge on top of the kitchen passthrough and painted a large accent wall. Last but not least, my artwork went up! One piece in particular was specifically painted with the proportions of the living space in mind. It depicts a scene from my partner’s family farm in Ireland.

To get a little more surface area, maximize flow and make this pass-through window extra functional, Swisterski had this waterfall marble wine rack – made from polished Carrerra from Upper Canada Stone – fabricated to bridge the kitchen and dining room designs.

What are some of your favourite aspects of the home?

Our favourite space is the living and dining room. That’s where we put the majority of our design effort in, and it really shows. When we come home from a long trip, or from our cute and cozy cottage, we walk in and see the living room and say, “Oh right, our place is really nice. We should spend more time here!” From the ficus tree poised in the window frame, to the curves of the Eames lounge chair, to the modern sofas and custom painting, we love it all. If asked to identify one element, it would be the wine rack. It was the most labor intensive, but it also elevates the space immensely. It transformed our pass-through from a simple cut-out in the drywall, to a luxury stone feature with function.

Holding court in the dining space, below BOKT pendants, is a live edge table and Arne Jacobsen-like chairs from Structube. Photos on the cabinet are by Swisterski.

How did your relationship with your home change during the pandemic?

When the pandemic began, we were constantly commenting on how wise of a choice we made with investing in a spacious condo. The pandemic is causing a lot of claustrophobia for some people, but because we have about 130-square-metres, and it’s only two of us working in separate spaces, we are not feeling it as much as others.

Our second bedroom has become a pseudo-office for my partner. I already worked from home before the pandemic began, where I usually occupy the dining table. For him, we had to get a bit more creative with existing furniture.

My make-up table was moved to the spare bedroom and became my partner’s new office. For extra surface area for monitors and drawing, we played a real-time version of Minecraft and stacked empty cardboard boxes all around the desk. It’s not winning any beauty contests, but it works.

The salon-style arrangement of photographs contains images that are near and dear to Swisterski, including those taken during world travels, as well as happy occasions with the interior designer’s two siblings.

Moving forward, with home-time now more important than ever, are there further changes you would like to make to your living environment?

We are hopeful that some regular office life resumes before the end of the year, but if that doesn’t happen, then our designer minds will have to come together and create a more sophisticated solution for my partner’s home office. Despite the fact that it functions as a workspace and spare bedroom, it is also the room where I keep all of my art supplies, so ultimately he sits surrounded by chaos. Think the Junk Lady from The Labyrinth.

In the master, Ikea nightstands and bed (dressed with West Elm linens) are enlivened with another abstract painting by Swisterski.

Creativity and business wise, what strides were you able to make during the enforced time off?

Ironically, my partner’s workloads increased during the shutdown, as the government released funds for housing for the homeless with tight timelines, and their office was selected for the design and coordination of these projects. Our major source of malaise was not being able to travel anymore. In order to remedy this in the only way we felt possible, we purchased a small cottage on a river in Tweed. It was an abrupt move, but it has proven to be another factor in keeping us completely sane during this very strange time.

For Swisterski Design, the pandemic did not prevent existing projects from continuing, but the drop of new projects coming through the door was certainly felt. With the extra time the drop afforded, I have spent it studying for building code examinations to obtain accreditations that I’ve been meaning to obtain for over ten years. As anxiety inducing as a slow down can be, I am welcoming it with the full knowledge that this opportunity of extra time may never come again.