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A Designer’s Live/ Work Space Separates Church and State

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Designer Joel Gregorio lives above his west-end office

At first glance, 827 Dundas Street West is something of a relic, save for some charcoal grey paint and freshly printed artwork clothespinned in its storefront window. But inside: a four-person branding studio called Sovereign State, and the contemporary home of its founder, Joel Gregorio.

The firm’s name, Gregorio explains, means “being true to yourself, sticking to your principles.” It came to him in 2010, when he left a successful agency with clients from around the world. By opening his own shop, he hoped to raise Toronto’s international profile: “This city’s killing it, and people should know.” Today, his client list includes the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Trinity Bellwood’s BIA and U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Gregorio cashed in everything but $5 to buy the building from his friend Kieron Marhue, who’d already transformed the former pharmacy into a fashion boutique and abode. It was perfect for Gregorio, both as a mixed-use space and a vehicle to channel his design aesthetic – a mash-up of avid locavore and curator of chaos.

He incorporates his surroundings into his work and life wherever possible. The studio’s large front window, for example, transforms Dundas Street into lively scenery, and the $20 prints hanging on a line attract passersby. Modular furnishings divide the bright open space into intimate vignettes: A wall normally used for multimedia presentations is covered in storyboard sketches for an animation project with local artists and filmmakers. At the foot of another, foam-board mock-ups and framed art lean in deep layers. Across from Gregorio’s desk, bookshelves support countless objets d’art, including a Colonel Sanders statue and vintage cameras, as well as propped up paintings by friends and well-thumbed design tomes.

When he juxtaposes objects, Gregorio seeks a visually dynamic and emotionally resonant effect; he jokes that he’s a hoarder, but his collections are structured and purposeful.

Upstairs, his living space is a series of small, meticulous rooms, carefully accented with knick-knacks. What catches your eye first, though, is the open-tread steel staircase, which leads to the third-level bedroom. Resembling a spine, it visually pulls viewers from the spotless kitchen to the living room at the front of the house. In the middle, a dining room (really a nook that doesn’t feel cramped), includes a round table for four, and yet more artwork by friends. It’s a laptop-free zone, tailored for relaxation. Without fastidious order, his ability to downshift is curbed; disorder short-circuits his creative process.

Ironically, central to the entire layout is the dark, messy stairwell at the back of the building that houses his motorcycle and smells of gasoline. It links the two pristine spaces and separates his church from state. “When I go down the stairs, it’s to realize greater things. It requires focus and attention,” he says. “When I go upstairs, it’s just about the act of living.” With the spaces distinguished and organized, Gregorio is free to be.

Originally published in our Fall 2013 issue as Mission Statement.

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