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Designer Sarah Birnie was nearing the end of an adventure of a lifetime,
a yearlong road trip around the United States with her entrepreneur husband, Jeremy, and their daughter Olivia (now 5), when a friend made the fortuitous Toronto discovery. A stunning five-bedroom semi-detached home across the street from a beautiful park was for rent. Through the miracle of video calling, Sarah was instantly able to see the house’s potential. What immediately struck her was the character. All the original architectural details — substantial mouldings, soaring ceilings, a wood-burning fireplace — were still intact. But the space was tired, rickety and needed some work. And despite it being a rental, Sarah was so smitten with the house’s stunning bones, she knew she could give this 100-year-old gem the love it deserved.
The first order of business was painting the orange and blue walls a crisp shade of white. Inspired by the chic look of Parisian apartments and Brooklyn brownstones, she balanced old and new and incorporated a neutral palette to keep the look fresh. “Everything was painted from top to bottom, including the mouldings, so it was a bit of an undertaking,” says Sarah.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | TABLE, Green’s Antiques; BENCHES, IKEA; SEAT CUSHIONS, HomeSense; PENDANT LIGHT, Universal Lighting; ROMAN BLIND, Plaiter Place.
“Adding a breakfast nook in the kitchen was important because it’s an old house, so it’s not open concept by any means,” says Sarah. “If one of us is cooking a meal, Olivia can have break- fast there or sit and draw while we’re working in the kitchen.” The nook is comprised of an antique table with two simple benches butted together and topped with seat cushions. Elements like the brushed brass pendant and artwork anchor the space, creating continuity with the rest of the house.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | MIRROR AND BENCH, The Singing Lady consignment; CHAIR, vintage; PENDANT LIGHT, Universal Lighting.
The entryway’s antique hall tree is a statement piece that conveniently incorporates storage. “I wanted something interesting that echoes a lot of the architecture in the home,” says Sarah. The modern light fixture balances the traditional elements. A mask, which Jeremy’s late father found on his travels, adds a primitive touch.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | LIGHT FIXTURE, Renwil table; NUEVO AREA RUG, Wayfair; DRAPES, readymade; BUFFET, antique; CHAIR NEXT TO CHINA CABINET, vintage, painted and reupholstered; CHINA CABINET, heirloom piece.
The dining room allowed Sarah to use a couple of her beloved antiques, such as the mahogany buffet and an old oak china cabinet once owned by Jeremy’s great-aunt. She juxtaposed them with more modern pieces, like the tulip dining table and linear light fixture. “I didn’t want the room to look too stuffy and weighted down,” says Sarah.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | SOFA, IKEA; COFFEE TABLE, JKC Vintage Decor; BLACK SIDE TABLE, Sunpan Modern; STOOL, already owned.
A slipcovered sofa in the living room represents the house’s inviting, family-friendly vibe. “Our dog sneaks up on the sofa whenever we’re not looking, so I wash the slipcover almost weekly,” says Sarah. “Nothing in the house is too precious.” Sarah painted the piece of abstract artwork for the couple’s first condo. In this traditional space, it lends a graphic, modern touch.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | SECRETARY DESK, heirloom piece.
An antique mirror, a framed postcard with a sketch depicting Cabbagetown, a brass bowl from Sarah’s house growing up, and a framed poem from the couple’s American road trip are some of the treasures displayed on the shelf of the secretary desk in the living room.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | FIREPLACE MIRROR, already owned; VASES, JKC Vintage Décor; CHAIRS, thrift store; VELVET UPHOLSTERY ON CHAIRS, Designer Fabrics; VINTAGE COFFEE TABLE, JKC Vintage Decor; SIDE TABLE, hand-me-down; LAMP, vintage find; SECRETARY DESK, heirloom piece; DESK CHAIR, Bephi Home.
The wood-burning fireplace, an essential element for the couple who grew accustomed to this inviting feature while living in chilly northern Ontario, was given new life by painting the mantel and repairing the doors. The mantel provided a spot for Sarah to display her beautiful silver-finished trumeau mirror.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | HEADBOARD, cold cellar door; DRAPES, J&J; BENCH, already owned; MIRROR, (above bed), Greens Antiques; WARDROBES, Ikea; PAX STORAGE, AREA RUG, Wayfair; MODERN CHANDELIER, Universal Lighting; MIRROR, (leaning on fireplace): vintage; DRESSER, IKEA; SIDE TABLES, already owned.
Continuing into the master bedroom, the neutral palette lends the space a calm, soothing vibe. The bed’s headboard has a story: it’s made from the cold cellar door from the couple’s first house. “The upholstered bench is mostly there so that my daughter can climb up onto the bed,” says Sarah.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | DESIGN, Stacy McLennan Interiors, stacyminteriors.com; WALL PAINT, Dune White CC-70 (throughout), Benjamin Moore; WINDOWS & DOORS, Fieldstone Windows & Doors; Iron Ore SW 7069; WINDOW & DOOR PAINT, (throughout), Sherwin-Williams; CHANDELIER, Union Lighting and Furnishings; VASE, HomeSense
To add more storage in the master bedroom (Victorian row houses are notorious for lacking closet space), Sarah incorporated two storage units to serve as his-and-hers closets, tucking them into nooks flanking the fireplace mantel.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | DRESSER, vintage; MIRROR, vintage; AREA RUG, IKEA; LAMP, HomeSense; BEDDING, already owned; DRAPES, already owned; IRON BED, vintage.
Sarah turned one of the extra bedrooms into an adorable guest room. “You can’t fit more than a single bed, so we wanted to make it inviting.” Along with the beautiful antique furnishings (bed, dresser and mirror), a funky lamp goes a long way in making the room feel current. “I added that so it didn’t look like a historical photo”.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie | BED, IKEA; PENDANT LIGHT, already owned; DRESSER, already owned; AREA RUG, vintage; CHAIR, thrift store, painted and upholstered, BANNER, from trip to India; PIANO, hand-me-down.
“I wanted to make Olivia’s room feel like a fairytale, a fun and playful space where she can use her imagination, surrounded by meaningful things.” Sarah incorporated items like a cute pasta ornament, which she framed in a shadowbox made by Olivia’s great-grandmother; an adorable pink piano; and a magical dollhouse from Sarah’s childhood. The room’s pretty pink colour scheme complements the exposed brick of the house’s chimney.
Photography: Lauren Miller | Styling: Sarah Birnie
Another major job involved doing a cheap and cheerful kitchen renovation. Keeping the small room simple, Sarah incorporated flat-panel cabinetry, durable engineered quartz countertops, slate flooring and affordable stainless steel appliances. Tweaking the house also included polishing the original hardwood floors, incorporating more storage and installing new modern light fixtures.
Giving their space a warm and personal touch included surrounding themselves with meaningful objects. Heirloom antiques, collectibles found on trips or passed down from family, and artwork covering the walls gallery-style all add a personal touch. “We acquire art wherever we go whether it’s photographs of our travels, some that my mother-in-law has taken, or a vintage find in a market,” says Sarah. “It’s personal items that we’ve collected over the years rather than high-end purchases.” Indeed, it’s this type of appreciation for life’s treasures, along with Sarah’s honed designer eye, that not only brought this charming row house back to life but also made it their home.