First comes love, then comes Sold!, then comes an empty house waiting to be filled with special objects.  While everything from chairs to tea kettles can be considered household art in the gallery called your home, what about the old-fashioned things we hang on walls?

I never grew up with art in my house and didn’t frequent museums or galleries until fairly recently.  Over time, the art bug has spread and I’m enjoying the process of filling my home with original art.  The most important lesson I’ve learned when shopping for art is that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of the piece or if it matches your sofa or chairs.

Art is all about impulse and finding a piece that inspires emotion, whether it’s happy or contemplative or nostalgic.  You can’t really over-think your reaction to art and shouldn’t worry about the technique or whether or not your BFA pals will be impressed when they see it.  My approach to art is pretty consistent with my feelings about most things – I don’t care if it’s high culture, low culture, corporate or indie, cool or passe.  If something inspires a reaction, I’m interested.  And just like relationships, you can’t force yourself to fall in love with a piece of art because you “should”.

Of course, art can be very expensive and it’s daunting to consider spending a lot of money on something so “frivolous”, even if it is a very special piece.  I think it’s important to seek out up-and-coming artists as you build your personal collection, creating a vibrant mix of established and emerging artists in your home.

I recently read about Portland, Oregon based artist Matte Stephens on Victoria Smith’s design blog sfgirlbybay.  Matte paints with gouache on illustration board and plywood and his art takes inspiration from cityscapes, his wife Vivienne and his pets.  Matte’s work can be seen at Jonathan Adler and Velocity Art and Design, and limited edition prints of his original gouache paintings are available at his Etsy store.  I just ordered Fall in Central Park ($35 USD) and can’t wait to hang it in my kitchen, probably in a white frame like the ones below from West Elm (9×11, $16 USD).

I love the retro colour palette of Matte’s work and his whimsical interpretation of everyday life.  Naturally I’m a fan of his paintings of houses and city buildings, but I also love his spunky portraits of woodland creatures like owls, foxes, and elves.  His piece Vivienne and Friends, Wisconsin 1974 would be a great addition to a kid’s bedroom.

Vivienne and friends, Wisconsin 1974.  Limited edition print by Matte Stephens

I’ve included a few of Matte’s prints below for your enjoyment, currently available at his Etsy store.

Gramercy Park NYC small print

Visiting the sea lions in Central Park. Limited edition print by Matte Stephens

Feeding Birds. Limited edition print by Matte Stephens


On a quiet side street in Danforth Village lurks an unusual species for sale – a gleaming modern gem renovated with eco-friendly building practices and materials.  The designer of this unique home is Emmanuel Belliveau, one of the hosts of HGTV’s World’s Greenest Homes. Emmanuel is in various stages of renovation on four flip projects in the area, testing the market’s interest in sustainable homes and, most importantly, finding out if buyers are willing to part with a little more green to get green.

Emmanuel took me on a tour of the house last week and I was amazed by the light, airy ambiance and attention to detail throughout.  While the house is a compact 1000 square feet (1300 square feet including the basement), the space has been carefully maximized by smart decisions like cathedral ceilings in the bedrooms, a space-saving built-in teak headboard in the master bedroom and a glass enclosed staircase that acts as a central light well and divides the living and eating space.  No corner has been neglected, including the Forest Stewardship Council certified wood patio, which features an organic herb garden.

Like any eco-friendly product, a green home challenges the buyers’ expectations around necessity versus desire.  Emmanuel’s house is being defined by many buyers as a starter home and perhaps not large enough to raise a family.  The difficulty with green renovation is that the payback period is 5-20 years, whereas first time buyers typically stay in their homes for 5-8 years.  The annual savings in running costs of a house of this size are around $4,000, which may not offset the initial renovation investment if a buyer doesn’t stay in the house over the long-term.  Emmanuel reminded me that “The average person needs 300-500 square feet of living space so we have ample room here for a family of four.  Why have formal rooms that you don’t use but have to heat?”

The key to being more environmentally responsible is to buy only what you need, so why wouldn’t a three bedroom home with two separate living spaces be adequate for a growing family?  Europe and Japan have embraced compact living, so why can’t we?

Given all the recent media attention around “green-washing” and general green fatigue, anything that is marketed as eco-friendly is now open to massive scrutiny.  We used cloth diapers for our daughter but were scolded for wasting water by laundering the diapers every other day.  It is very difficult to attain perfection and in the frustration to do so, many people give up.  With Emmanuel’s house, buyers have questioned everything from maintaining the original home’s air conditioning system instead of installing fans to using reclaimed granite in the bathroom rather than an eco material like Ice Stone.  Emmanuel points out that “You can’t be perfect.  You have to participate in the movement, do things that are better.  It’s not about perfection, it’s about participation.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Let’s take a look inside, shall we?

Lovely views of the street can be enjoyed from the house's hillside perch. While shoveling two sets of stairs in the winter won't be fun, being above street level allows for a very private treehouse feel. The siding is made of Extira, with no old growth wood used in manufacturing and no added urea formaldehyde.

The rock garden and minimal lawn space reduces the need for a lawnmower and low maintenance planting and mulching reduces the amount of watering required. The Ecoscapes mulch is MSC certified and does not contain cremated copper arsenate-treated wood. Safe for your misbehaving dog to chew!

Breathe in and enjoy! No VOC paint, bamboo floors, and energy-efficient, allergy friendly radiant in-floor heating.

Many family buyers are looking for entrance storage or some way to hide all the unsightly "stuff" that comes with kids. While there is a coat closet in the kitchen, it would have been nice to have some storage or a partition wall for hooks here.

Nothing looks better naked than red brick! The exposed brick feature wall brings warmth to the dining area and is a nod to the original building.

Ikea cabinetry, energy star appliances in stainless steel and reclaimed white granite are neutral choices but exude style. Little details like the pot filler above the stove and "book-matched" counter and back splash get my pulse racing. Double doors lead to a generous patio and a recycling depot (no more midnight snacks for you, raccoons of the East end!). A barbecue gas line is already installed. See you at the housewarming BBQ, lucky buyer, whomever you are!

Let there be light! The glass staircase leads to a skylight, creating a central light well. Natural light throughout the house is maximized, reducing use of electrical lights. Wood open risers are a modern choice but could be tricky for small children to navigate.

The master bedroom and bathroom are separated by the staircase from the other two bedrooms, aka "the kids wing". See you never, I mean in the morning, kids!

Vaulted ceilings and a very large closet with a safe (what secrets shall I hide? mmm ha ha!) and organizers make this a lovely master bedroom. The best part is what lies above - the house is retrofitted for solar panels!

By moving the staircase, the bathroom gained square footage. Mondo storage can be found in the responsibly harvested teak vanity.

100% wool broadloom produced by progressive green company Interface has an eco rubber underlay, giving the basement a cosy vibe without the usual worry of toxic fibers and glue. The family room is a great space but there is no storage room for your old high school yearbooks and Doc Marten collection in the basement. Guess it's time to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Emmanuel’s recommended reading list:

Eco:  An Essential Sourcebook

Cradle to Cradle

The full tour of the house is available here.

The Deets:

Danforth/Coxwell, Detached, 2-Storey, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms

List: $649,900

Taxes: $2,572

Lot: 20 x 11o Feet

Parking: 1 space

Remarks For Clients: Green Living At Its Best. Fully Reno’d Top To Bottom, Inside & Out. Modern, Unique, Energy-Efficient Reno By Celebrity Designer Emmanuel Belliveau (Hgtv’s Worlds Greenest Homes). Eco-Friendly Materials, Meticulous Attention To Detail, Top Quality Finishes And Fixtures (Granite, Bamboo, Teak, Porcelain, Wool Carpet). Steps To Subway, Danforth Restaurants & Shops, Good Schools & Park. Absolute Must See – Too Many Custom Features To Describe.

The Toronto Star’s front cover investigation of green money pits was a depressing but not surprising expose of how unscrupulous businesses are taking advantage of unsuspecting clients with good intentions.

We’ve been hearing about green scams for some time now.  You know, like how Sephora has been flogging cosmetics with high levels of chemicals and ingredients linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity and neurotoxicity under their “Naturally Sephora” banner.  Of course, the term ‘natural’ is not regulated by the FDA, so your Cargo PlantLove lipstick is actually more hazardous than the Revlon Toast of New York we all slapped on back in high school.

Didn't lipstick choices, and life in general, seem simpler back then? How much did you hate Courtney Love when this issue of Sassy arrived in your mailbox?

What about deception that runs a level deeper and isn’t as intentional?  Those of us who came of age in the ’90’s are already wise to the slippery ways of big corporations.  But how about those organic kidney beans that you buy in cans lined with plastic containing BPA?  Or the organic cotton baby clothes that are made in China?  Or the table I just bought from a local artisan made from hundred year old reclaimed pine that ended up getting finished with oil-based solvents?  I’ve learned that just because a product itself is eco-friendly does not mean that the labour, packaging, or installation is healthy, sustainable or fair.

It ain't easy being... you know. Photo by Will Sherman.

We badly need government guidelines and policing to establish standards for eco-friendly products and services.  The stories of people who are attempting to do the right thing when renovating their homes, rather than add to the growing landfills of black granite or whatever design trend was so 2003, just broke my heart.  Almost as much as a photograph of Kermit, tattered and discarded in a dirty alley in Brooklyn, NY.

On that uplifting note, here are the week’s top stories:

The shady side of the green building industry, Toronto Star

When green dreams turn into nightmares – Government needs strict rules before homeowners can safely go green, Toronto Star

Novel marketing approach not without risks, Toronto Star

How to buy a house and make it pay, Globe and Mail

New house prices up 0.1 per cent in Toronto, Toronto Star

Rate hikes mean some mortgage holders would face difficulty, Toronto Star

Canadian household debt reaches record levels, CTV News

Canadians top Greeks in household debt, Financial Post

Rising mortgage rates, rising trouble, Globe and Mail

Ten magic touches that made my house sparkle – Sarah Richardson, Globe and Mail

Clean up, Cash in, National Post

Now that I finally have my home sweet home, I’ve started to turn my attention to decorating. We all get inspired by design magazines, HGTV shows, and blogs but what about houses for sale?  I maintain a secret collection of colour photocopied listings, carefully culled from my favourite showings.  My open-house-weary husband keeps thinking they’ve been recycled as he’s petrified I’ll want to move again… but I can’t help re-visiting them every once in a while.  When a house tugs at your heartstrings it’s often due to the mood altering abilities of the space, whether it be relaxing, whimsical, or thought-provoking.  Part of that “character” or “charm” comes from the house itself, but the furniture and decor also have a role to play.

I may have mentioned the fabulous reclaimed barn board floors that encouraged me to bid on House Goggles in Leslieville.  When we bought our current home and decided to replace the carpeting in the living space, my first thought was – House Goggles!  I can bring the piece of you I loved to my new home!  We now have lovely reclaimed elm floors which bring a warm, vintage quality to our home that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with on my own.

And just when I thought I might be alone in my design inspiration, I discovered Emma’s Designblogg through one of my favourite virtual design destinations, Door Sixteen.  Emma is a design assistant based in Stockholm, Sweden and she recently posted about how some Swedish real estate agents are specializing in selling very stylized properties.  I am a huge fan of Scandinavian design so I was pretty excited to spend a few hours cruising through the agents’ sites like AlvhemLagerlings and Bolaget.  What really blew me away was the quality of the photography on these sites.  I’m used to the grainy, barely in focus offerings of MLS, so was surprised and impressed to see such creative framing and styling.  They kind of lost me at “Därför är vår filosofi självklar” but don’t these pictures from Bolaget say enough?  Disclaimer – if you visit these sites, you may lose track of your entire evening.

Black cat in motion! Why don't we see more action shots on MLS?

This fireplace will certainly come in handy for those months of the year where Sweden is plunged into darkness

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with... vintage Eames shell chair

I'm imagining "Please Mr Postman" is playing on that little retro radio

Cheerful colours brighten this urban outdoor hideaway...don't you feel happy just looking at this space?

To see more, check out Emma’s post Excessing in Homestyling

To learn more about staging, see:  Staging for beginners