When I moved back to Toronto in 2000, I was struck by how significantly the design landscape had changed in the half decade since my departure. Shops once packed with overstuffed, cozy couches and big, poofy chairs now showcased a sleek modernity that favoured a bolder, cleaner look. Fourteen years later, the modern aesthetic is still thriving when it comes to downtown living.
Certainly one of the leaders in the city’s designer furniture craze has been UpCountry, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. The store is huge — a 40,000-square-foot mélange of cool chic and hip eclectic that goes against everything the Sears catalogue taught me about matching furniture as a child.
“Many people definitely mix and match,” says Stephen Sutch, the store’s general manager. Sutch is a fan of what he calls “transitional design,” a blend of different styles and finishes that gives a home its own distinct personality. “It can be so many things, from Arts and Crafts to antique to modern. It’s a very personal design statement.”
It’s certainly nothing like messieurs Roebuck and Sears ever imagined. I am instantly taken by a line of Felipe concrete occasional tables that are both classically beautiful and utterly modern. The smooth, polished surface has a gorgeous tone, set perfectly into distressed raw steel frames. I particularly love the coffee table on large industrial castors and would pair it with the Soho sofa in distressed dove-grey leather or the Cloud kidney-shaped couch in darkgrey fabric that has the sheen of fine Italian suiting. Toss in a few of Nadia Lloyd’s vibrant silk-screened pillows and a pair of round convex mirrors and you have a truly unique grouping. The best part: everything I’ve mentioned is created right here in Canada.
“We carry several Canadian designers,” Sutch points out. “They are on the cutting edge of design and are working in our own back yard. That’s important.”
It’s also surprisingly affordable — particularly when you figure in the decay rate of the flat-pack fibreboard stuff that seems to crumble after just a few years of use. I paid $200 for a beautifully upholstered ottoman from UpCountry back in 2000, and the piece is still as solid and un-frayed now as it was when I first brought it home. Contrast that with a storage ottoman bought from Ikea just four years ago, which has already sprouted loose threads and gone wonky on one side. Sure it was half the price, but now I need to buy another one.
“I think people are realizing that if they invest in a piece of furniture, it can last them a lifetime,” Sutch says. “It’s about craftsmanship and quality.”
Given the clean, unfussy lines of what I see on the showroom floor, it’s easy to imagine these pieces enduring both physically and aesthetically. The Phase solid walnut bedroom suite is timelessly elegant, as are the mix-and-match dining sets from Dine Art. These tables and chairs are particularly versatile, given the mix-and-match options for tabletops, legs and finish.
That’s not to say there aren’t some wonderfully quirky options available to the more adventurous consumer. It’s hard not to love the Madison loveseat, upholstered in brown and white cowhide, or the locally made pendant lights fashioned from thick industrial rope.
“There are so many ways to make a personal statement with your home,” Sutch says. “The important thing is for it to be comfortable, attractive and quality-made.”