When Elaine Cecconi decided to build her own house, she called on the best designer she knew herself.
As a partner in award-winning, Toronto-based Cecconi Simone, Ms. Cecconi naturally took an interior designer's approach to the task: She created her home from the inside out.
"I am not an architect," says the 50-year-old native of Timmins. Ont. "I started with an interior and then built the house around it."
And not too shabbily, either. The 4,000-square-foot, four-storey house in Toronto's West End was the recipient of the 2008 ARIDO award of excellence in residential design. And Metropolitan Home magazine featured it as a winning example of contemporary architecture.
Ms. Cecconi says she drew on her experience designing model suites for a number of style-savvy Toronto condominiums, starting with the Merchandise Building downtown in 1996. A new tower called Charlie, being built by Great Gulf Homes at King Street and Spadina Avenue, is one of Cecconi Simone's current projects.
"That's where most of my architectural training has come from designing sales centres," says Ms. Cecconi, a graduate of Ryerson's interior design program who first teamed up with business partner Anna Simone in 1982.
"But in designing the house myself, the perspective was definitely more that of an interior designer than an architect."
"I used the building to experiment with ideas and materials, things I might not have used with clients, but felt at liberty to try out myself. When you are working for yourself, it's a different responsibility. It affords you a little more freedom."
Two years in the making, the house features a number of Cecconi Simone touches. The predominately white palette comes from having used vats of Benjamin Moore's "Chantilly lace," the paint colour Ms. Cecconi always uses in her projects. She calls it "the perfect white, with the right amount of cool and warm."
Sliding room dividers made of ipe, a dense wood from Brazil, are another Cecconi Simone signature. The design firm is known for making maximum use of small spaces, and conventional doors don't usually figure in Ms. Cecconi's sharp-eyed designs. Their swing consumes too much floor space.
Her three-bedroom, four-bathroom home has a ground-floor home gym and a third-floor studio that she plans to use as a home office "once I get the momentum to continue designing for myself," she says.
While space seems not to be an issue where she lives, Ms. Cecconi continues to employ a spare style. Her interior design choices are economical: Furniture is either low-lying or multipurpose, sliders hide the domestic sin of mess. The overall feeling is of restrained elegance.
The open-concept kitchen, located on the second floor, is the home's biggest "wow," but consists of little more than a large rectangular central island topped by a rectangular slab of white Corian. Its spare but efficient design earned Ms. Cecconi the second prize in the 2006 Sub-Zero and Wolf's Kitchen Design Contest, the gold standard in the industry.
Serving as both eating counter and prep centre, the island is flanked by a line of white barstools that face the commercial-style stainless-steel Wolf range built into the opposite side. This is where Ms. Cecconi likes to cook, where food becomes theatre.
"It's the heart of the kitchen," she says, "where everyone gathers." Clutter is contained behind a wall that also hides a walk-in pantry, stocked with olive oils and tomato pastes.
Harmony prevails as well in the adjoining dining room, dominated by a black grand piano on which the Royal Conservatory-trained Ms. Cecconi plays Haydn or the Beatles, her favourite band. A trio of large spherical Mooi lights, made of a fibreglass weave, add a sculptural element, and, at night, a moody ambience, to an otherwise pristine room.
Guests sit at an elongated folding table that Ms. Cecconi designed herself to seat eight when closed and 14 when fully extended. Innovative in design, the wooden table served as a prototype for a line of dining room furniture that Cecconi Simone created for both international and domestic clients.
The same is true of the low-lying, glass-topped coffee table in the living room. Ms. Cecconi created it first for her home, but when her friends raved about it, she reproduced the table for a line of furniture she called Boutique, after the condo project that later featured it in its showroom.
"It's my home," says Ms. Cecconi, who lives there with her two dogs. "But it's also my calling card: an example to clients of what I can do, of what can be possible in terms of contemporary design within a residential space."
Made of tinted concrete, with a central wall of cascading windows, the rectilinear building is tucked inside a one-way alley-like street, a site deliberately chosen because it's hard to find. The goal, as she describes it, was to create a "neutral" structure, something that dovetailed with her innate love of clean, unadorned modern design. In doing so, she drew inspiration from the old warehouses that hedge in her building on all sides, fashioning an industrial-like exterior that easily blends in with its surroundings.
"I wanted to create something simple on the outside, to support a contemporary interior," she adds.
But no amount of camouflage can hide the fact that the building makes a statement. Rising four lean storeys, it looms majestically over its Dundas Street West neighbourhood, a starkly beautiful beacon of cool.
State-of-the-art amenities include a private elevator that whisks Ms. Cecconi from the ground floor to a 1,200-square-foot alfresco rooftop lounge where she frequently entertains, aided by a secondary kitchen with unobstructed views stretching south toward Lake Ontario.
In the living room is a streamlined gas fireplace suspended from the ceiling. This is where Ms. Cecconi kicks back on her white reconstituted leather modular couch, another Cecconi Simone creation, to watch the 55-inch Sony plasma TV mounted on the fireplace wall or sometimes just the fireplace.
"I love the idea of a fireplace floating down from the ceiling," she says. "It gives a sense of wonder. You're perplexed by how it is held up, and the linear flame extending the length of the base is like a room divider, except it doesn't close off the room."
The home also boasts heated concrete floors, airy nine-foot ceilings (10 feet in the living room) and built-in chocolate oak cabinetry in the home's three bedrooms and loft-like studio occupying the third floor.
For each of the four bathrooms, Ms. Cecconi chose white Corian a polished, man-made material that she uses in all her design projects "because the seams are invisible, and it's warm to the touch, not cold, [and] as soft as a baby's bottom."
The material was ideal for the precision-cut vanities with rear-draining sinks, and, more unusually, as a backsplash that continues into the walk-in showers.
But it's the spa-like master ensuite bathroom that makes the biggest splash, so to speak. Both the soaker tub and walk-in shower, doubling as a steam room, provide chromatherapy, a relaxation tool using coloured lights that is said to calm the nerves.
"It works best when it's dark out," Ms. Cecconi says, flicking a switch to activate a neon pink glow inside her bath. "You really feel transported."
Enhancing the neighbourhood
Elaine Cecconi's award-winning house is near the former city hall of the old village of Brockton, which is now part of an eclectic residential and commercial neighbourhood that stretches along Dundas Street, from Lisgar Avenue to the CNR tracks.
The well-known interior designer has worked and lived in the community for the past nine years. In 2002, she and her business partner opened the retail design store Oni One at Dundas and Lisgar, a location where auto parts shops and Brazilian bakeries were generally more common.
Now operating as a showroom, the award-winning store was a catalyst of change on Dundas West, a burgeoning district of urban chic. Artists and graphic designers, galleries and hip nightspots (the Lula Lounge is located next door to Ms. Cecconi's residential tower) are edging out the old immigrant Portuguese and Vietnamese populations.
"I knew the area," she says, standing in the shadow of her neighbours' brightly painted dwellings. "And when this property came up for sale four years ago, I moved in on it.
"I needed to tear down an old 600-square-foot house and build on the area reserved for parking. As there would be no street frontage, I had to go to the committee of adjustment and also canvas the neighbours about the changes I wanted to make. People knew me around here, so that part was easy. They liked what I was doing. They said I was enhancing the neighbourhood."