Inside a Parkdale apartment brimming with antique Barbies, retro Fisher-Price toys and other curiosities

Inside a Parkdale apartment brimming with antique Barbies, retro Fisher-Price toys and other curiosities

Emma MacArthur and Luke Van Heerwarden’s one-bedroom is chock full of colourful kitsch and nostalgic collectibles

Stepping into social media manager Emma MacArthur and artist Luke Van Heerwarden’s apartment is a bit like entering a time warp. Their Parkdale one-bedroom, which they moved into in February 2021 for $1,675 per month in rent, is crammed with thrift store tchotchkes, antique furniture and the couple’s formidable collection of vintage toys. Whether it’s a pair of 1970s Elton John–style platform shoes, a 1960s Kleenex box holder resembling a shaggy purple dog or a 1980s Ronald McDonald clock, their whimsical space is brimming with a colourful assortment of kitsch.

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MacArthur and Van Heerwarden met in 2018, while working at Public Butter, a vintage clothing store on Queen West. Drawn to each other’s retro sense of style, the pair began hanging out after work, which quickly turned into seeing each other every day. After just five months of dating, they moved in together.

In many ways, their living space feels like the Island of Misfit Toys. MacArthur began collecting when she was a kid, heading to garage sales with her dad; Van Heerwarden turned to thrifting in high school to satisfy their unique sense of style. Once the two were cohabitating, their collecting impulses intensified.

As they merged MacArthur’s collection of antique Barbies with Van Heerwarden’s collection of old Fisher-Price toys, they began expanding their interests, and their apartment slowly transformed into a Willy Wonka–esque wonderland filled with all kinds of vintage novelties. “As long as it has a quirky charm to it, we’ll find a spot for it,” says MacArthur. “We know it will work somewhere.”

On top of thrifting, they salvaged much of their unusual decor from the garbage. They found their 1960s formica cabinet, now filled with vintage shoes and covered in knick-knacks, on the curb outside the Parkdale No Frills. The Hollywood Regency–style lotus flower lamp, which retails for upward of $500 online, was sitting in the parking lot behind their building. Van Heerwarden picked up the mid-century Krug chairs for $2 each at a Goodwill in London, Ontario, a decade ago. The most expensive item in the apartment is the couple’s mid-century couch, which they purchased from a dealer in Hamilton for $500.

They’re especially drawn to items nobody else seems to want, like a cardboard sign from the 1960s advertising a “Pancake Frolic Bazaar” or a panel of lights from a merry-go-round, both found at an antique store in Huntsville for $20 and $50, respectively. “A lot of the pieces we have are from Public Butter and just sat at the store, so we would get a discount on them,” says MacArthur. Often, Van Heerwarden will find broken objects that have potential and learn how to fix them. Their 1960s tension rod lamp, a curbside find, was missing a part, so Van Heerwarden repurposed a metal pole from a friend’s Halloween costume (an Oompa Loompa on strike) to restore it to working order.

MacArthur and Van Heerwarden tend to gravitate toward items that are a little bit off, like the still-life fruit painting that hangs above the couch. “I just love how weird it is,” Van Heerwarden says. “The perspective is very strange, and the table legs don’t make sense at all.” Peculiar McDonald’s toys abound, their uncanniness deriving from the fact they were made before 1973, when the creators of a TV show called H.R. Pufnstuf sued the restaurant chain for plagiarizing its characters.

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In the middle of the living room sits a 1960s salon hair dryer chair with ashtrays in the armrests. “We got it off Kijiji from someone whose sister had a hair salon in her basement in the ’60s. She gave us a very strange look when we said we were going to use it as a chair,” says Van Heerwarden. Whenever they have guests over, they remove the plastic helmet so nobody bumps their heads. 

The centrepiece of the living room is a giant shelf designed by Van Heerwarden—a self-described “tinkerer”—using Google SketchUp. It houses the couple’s museum-worthy display of vintage toys. Old Barbie dolls sit alongside rotary phones; a Fisher-Price record player shares space with a series of Kewpie dolls. An entire shelf is dedicated to Van Heerwarden’s extensive collection of antique garden tools, like a 1960s Aqua Queen sprinkler and a 1970s grafting knife for plant propagation from the Soviet Union.

Vintage suitcases, which were used as a makeshift coffee table in MacArthur’s first apartment, now store her most valuable vintage clothing, like dresses from the Victorian era and ancient fur coats. The green apple on the luggage is a nod to MacArthur’s currently-on-hiatus online vintage store, Apple Bab Shop.

The couple’s love of vintage extends to their appliances. They often spend weekend mornings listening to the 1970s radio MacArthur’s dad found for $20 at a garage sale decades ago. And every morning they brew coffee using their 1970s coffee maker, found at the nearby Salvation Army. “There was a lot more colour in interior design back then,” says MacArthur. “Regular kitchen utensils and cookware and phones all had a bit of personality.” There’s only one new item in their home: a speckled terrazzo planter found at HomeSense.

Being surrounded by playful curios may bring the couple a lot of joy, but it also brings a distressing amount of dust. “Don’t even get me started,” says MacArthur. Every other month, she spends an entire day dusting every single object in the apartment. “Sometimes we wish we didn’t have this much stuff, but we’ve actively chosen this and will continue to,” says Van Heerwarden. “We most definitely are running out of space, and I’m constantly thinking about it,” says MacArthur. 

Despite the crowded nature of the house, they plan to remain in place for the foreseeable future, taking advantage of the affordable rent. MacArthur says she may have to adopt a “one in, one out” policy for new antiques—but describes curbing her collecting habit as “a major work in progress.”

The couple is aware that their decorating style isn’t for everyone. “We’ve had people come into our home and say, ‘There are too many faces around,’” says MacArthur. But they both find comfort in all things silly and surreal. “The toys are my little friends,” says Van Heerwarden. “I can’t look around and not smile.”