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A joyful, art-filled Cabbagetown condo that doubles as a gallery

Engineer and art collector Charlie Li’s ornamental pad showcases colourful paintings and sculptures she’s collected from around the world

By Iris Benaroia| Photography by Brent Gooden
A joyful, art-filled Cabbagetown condo that doubles as a gallery

As a lifelong maximalist, Charlie Li abhors a blank surface. “I’m allergic to empty space,” says the 28-year-old technology operations engineer, who moved to Toronto from Guangzhou, China, in 2011 for university. 

Growing up in China, Li admired her mother’s radical approach to home decorating. “Eclectic, maximalist decor was rare in China in the early 2000s,” Li says. The reigning design principle, as she remembers it, was zen simplicity. “Luckily, our home was the total opposite.”

So, after Li bought her Cabbagetown condo for $880,000 in March of 2021, she put her stamp on it by padding every square inch with an energetic smorgasbord of art. The third-floor unit is just shy of 1,200 square feet and has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, lots of light and, most importantly, tons of wall space. The place stood out to Li right away for its spaciousness. “The layout was so different from the shoebox condos in the core,” she says. The previous owner was an artist, and Li loved the way he had decorated the unit. She wasn’t bothered by the big holes he left in the walls; she just covered them up with artwork of her own. 

Li estimates that she’s collected hundreds of pieces over the years, from vintage dealers, international galleries, estate sales, auctions, thrift stores, Facebook Marketplace and from artists directly—and she ramped up her acquisitions when she moved into her new place. In 2020, Li had the idea to start selling her pieces on Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji, and she eventually set up a virtual gallery the following summer. (She also sells pieces by appointment through her Instagram page, Curio Party). She believes that art is for everyone and should be accessible to all. “I learned on my own that you can find great pieces at every price point,” Li says. She especially loves folk and Indigenous art for its charm and casual quality, but she’s open to anything and everything.

Her inclusive approach to art is apparent in the breadth of her collection, from sculptures to still lifes to abstract works, which fills the apartment’s every nook and cranny. A gigantic black onyx nose on the coffee table lives beside the merry-go-round horse Li rescued from a dumpster because she felt bad that somebody was trying to get rid of it. Another standout piece is the colossal canary-yellow hand-shaped chair from the 1970s in the dining area.

Naturally, Li couldn’t ignore the ceiling. It’s dotted in red paper lanterns that were too pretty to pull down after Chinese New Year festivities wrapped up earlier this year. And Li can’t live without greenery: hanging baskets and potted plants fill the space. “The only downside of this unit is that I have a terrible view,” she says. “So I have to create my own view.”

Li’s wide-ranging decorating is facilitated by connections with gallerists and dealers in China, Pakistan and India. “I import pieces for my collection, and I hope to bring more of them to my shop in the near future,” she says.” The eclectic living room doubles as a showroom.

Charlie Li's art-filled living room

The credenza is a 1955 Finn Juhl sideboard reproduction from Eternity Modern. Li uses it to store vinyls, CDs, tapes and other decorative objects that she hasn’t had a chance to display.

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Charlie Li's 1955 Finn Juhl sideboard reproduction

Li has meals and board game nights with friends in the dining area. “When I’m by myself, I paint there,” she says. She bought the hand-shaped chair from a vintage dealer on Instagram. The piece on the wall with a blue background is by Anishinaabe artist Brent Hardisty, who paints in the neo-Woodlands style.

Charlie Li's dining area with a yellow 1970s hand-shaped chair

Li made the pink flamingo with a kit from Montreal-based Low Poly Paper Kits. “I did a lousy job, so the flamingo can’t stand up tall and proud,” Li says. “I love it regardless.” The whimsical doll in the green dress is by Winnipeg sculptor and painter Charlotte Sigurdson, whom Li has been following for a few years.

Charlie Li made this pink flamingo with a kit from Low Poly Paper Kits

The bedroom is bedecked with more art. “I sleep very well, no problem,” Li says. “I’m very Chinese, but I don’t believe in feng shui at all. It’s very limiting for me.” Li works from the standing desk in the bedroom.

Charlie Li's art-filled bedroom

The red squiggly piece was one of Li’s first sculptures. “It’s vintage IKEA, from the ’90s,” Li says. She bought the ceramic pastel balloons from a vintage dealer.

Charlie Li's vintage IKEA sculpture from the '90s

“I’ll sell most of my stuff right off the wall, but not if it’s a piece that has been commissioned,” Li says. When it comes to hanging art, Li improvises, filling in spaces on a whim.

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A wall in Charlie Li's apartment, which doubles as an art gallery

Li commissioned the blue portrait of Leonard Cohen hanging above the couch from Claire Tanner, a self-taught portrait artist based in Utah. “Leonard Cohen is one of my favourites,” says Li.

Charlie Li, engineer and art collector, in her Cabbagetown apartment

Li has played piano for most of her life and is classically trained. She purchased the white Yamaha digital piano shortly after moving in.

Charlie Li playing piano in her Cabbagetown apartment-slash-art gallery

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