Inside a 455-square-foot Yorkville apartment brimming with art deco antiques
Not a single piece of furniture in art dealer Matthew Stokes’s studio was made after 1940
When Matthew Stokes, an art dealer at Corkin Gallery, heard about an opportunity to take over an old lease in a historic Yorkville walk-up, he simply couldn’t resist. Sure, the tight 455-square-foot bachelor would be a bit of a squeeze, especially compared with his previous 800-square-foot digs in Rosedale. On the plus side, at $1,000 a month, he’d be paying less than half his previous rent. Still, one major problem remained: downsizing would require him to cull his precious collection of art deco furniture from the 1920s and ’30s.
Stokes stumbled into collecting in 2006. He was in his early 20s, working on furnishing his first apartment, when his father passed down an heirloom bar cupboard. Stokes’s grandfather had crafted it out of walnut in the 1930s as a gift for his wife. Stokes’s father brought it with him when he emigrated from England in the 1980s—by then, it was covered in scratches and several layers of old paint.
Intent on resurrecting the piece, Stokes brought it to a furniture restorer. But, when he got the quote—$800—he decided to take on the project himself, building on the basic woodworking skills he’d picked up in high school shop class. The restorer had mentioned that the piece had likely had a marble top, and around six months later, Stokes stumbled across a marble cutting board on a curb in the Roncesvalles. He cut the slab himself, using a diamond-tip angle grinder he purchased from Canadian Tire, to fit the C-shaped counter of the bar.
Stokes loved the clean lines and architectural silhouette of the bar so much that he began to read up on art deco design. “I was drawn to it because it’s timeless,” he says. “Even now, 90-plus years later, the pieces still look modern.” He began to seek out more antique furniture to restore. Over time, he gained a reputation in the city’s design community as “that art deco guy.” Now, when local sellers have an art deco piece to offload, they contact Stokes first.
That personal connection is how he’s managed to obtain some of his most treasured pieces, many of which are relics from bygone Toronto institutions. In the 1960s and 70s, many of the city’s ornate historic buildings were razed to make way for modern development. As a lifelong Torontonian, Stokes sees his collection as a way to preserve and pay homage to the city’s architectural history.
Case in point: an ornate bronze grate from the original Toronto Star building (which was demolished in 1973 to make way for First Canadian Place) hangs like an art object above the credenza. Nearby, three stained-glass panels that originally hung in the chapel at Eaton College Park are employed as room dividers.
“I really love that nostalgic feeling that comes with looking around and thinking about who owned these objects before I did, how many lives they’ve been a part of,” he says. “The way things were made back then was an art. The craftsmanship is just beautiful.” It’s part of what made downsizing into his current space so difficult. Stokes struggled with letting go of about 20 pieces, including a two-foot bronze sculpture by Swiss artist Gustave Buchet. Ultimately, though, he’s pleased with the results. “From a furniture perspective,” he says, “nothing in the apartment now is more recent than 1940.”
He uses two marble pillars, originally deployed as ashtrays at the Eglinton Grand, as decorative stands. Each plinth weighs around 91 kilograms. To get them inside, Stokes had to wrap each one in foam and gently cart it up the stairs using a dolly. “They are so heavy that they flattened the dolly wheels,” he says. “I was sore for days.” On each, he’s placed matching metal vases that he found at an antique shop in Merida, Mexico.
His bed, which is made of solid walnut, was a lucky find on Kijiji. He met the sellers, a couple who were downsizing their antique collection to move to Prince Edward County, when he purchased a set of their leather chairs. Shortly afterward, they contacted Stokes to let him know they still had a few 1930s items left—a bookcase and a bed frame—which he could have for free.
Of course, the minuscule space has its downsides. “I had to make a choice between a living room and dining room,” says Stokes. “I’m a big cook, and I love to entertain, so it was a no-brainer for me. It may look a bit unconventional to have a bed and a dining table without a couch, but it’s great for having people over to break bread, drink and be merry.” He purchased the striking burled-walnut dining table in 2015 for $400, via Kijiji, from a man who owned a vintage shop in Vancouver in the ’90s. Stokes later had it appraised and learned that its value is closer to $15,000.
The square footage also demands that the apartment be kept immaculately clean at all times. “One dirty plate on the table makes the whole place look like a mess,” says Stokes. “Which is probably a good thing, because now I make my bed every day.”
The retro-looking 1930s-inspired mini fridge is the only modern item in the space. It was a housewarming gift from a friend. Initially, the apartment had a full-size fridge but it dwarfed the space by comparison. “I typically buy small daily batches of groceries anyway,” Stokes says, “so I don’t need a spacious fridge.”
Recently, Stokes started hanging contemporary art on the walls to diminish the time-capsule effect of the antique furniture. An intricately patterned oil painting by Peter Campbell, whom Stokes represents, hangs on the wall near a bronze lamp, providing some contrast to the prevailing old-word aesthetic.
Stokes is ramping up to renovate the kitchen by adding white marble countertops and a white porcelain sink. He has no qualms about renovating an apartment he doesn’t own. “Not at this price,” he says. “Who knows what the future holds, but for now I’m very content in the space.” Down the line, he’s mulling the idea of renting an apartment in Montreal and using this space as a pied-à-terre—or potentially taking over the lease of the apartment next door and combining them. Either way, he’s not looking to offload the place anytime soon. “It feels like home,” he says.