There’s a mysterious storefront at 1280 Queen Street West. Unlike every other along Queen, it has no name or identifying marks, and the windows are obscured, a blankness making it easy to pass-by without notice; and yet despite its hidden namelessness, the storefront is painted a bright orange. Only on a hot day, when the door is sometimes partially open, can inquisitive passersby gain any insight within, and steal in midstride a glimpse of a cozy and dimly lit room. As for who and what this storefront cipher serves is a mystery you might live with forever, and if you walk by here often stop reading now and preserve the mystery, since simply noticing something beautiful is what the inhabitant here loves most. But all was gently cleared up for me, after curiosity almost drove me to Texas, by nervously peaking my head inside and asking the somewhat surprised inhabitants, ‘What is this place?’
‘You will become a new victim for our stew!’ was the reply I expected after my intrusion, but instead the response was that ‘This is the studio of interior designer William Anderson’. And I would learn this is where he has based his practice for the last thirty years. If you were invited inside, as your eyes adjust to the soft light you would see emerge three pairs of antlers hung on the walls (they are of deer, moose, and mountain goat); two Calder-esque mobiles turning slowly; a blacksmith's visor; a sculpture made of pine cones; a black and white photo of a young man naked but for the cast on his leg and the cane in his hand; a large photograph of barnyard animals posing together; a giant concrete sculpture of a seahorse; a sign that says “Support Your Local Prostitute - Parkdale Belongs To Us Too!”; a print of Diane Arbus’ “Backwards Man”; a profusion of rolled up blueprints, papers, diagrams, books, fabric, plans everywhere. All beneath a yellow, red, and blue tin ceiling. And there’s a dog, Hershey, a Basenji, who will, occasionally, yodel.
“I only bring my clients here when I want to scare them,” says Anderson from behind his desk, wearing a tank-top matching cooly slicked-back white hair. Anderson is a handsome man who resembles a cross between the handsome men Giorgio Armani, Lee Marvin, and Crocodile Dundee. The big project at the moment is a rental apartment building for Church and Isabella. “I’m in charge of all the public areas, all the corridors, the lobbies, the connecting spaces, all the amenities, the gym room, the games room, the laundry room, the gym room, the library, lounge, the party room, the dog wash, the yoga room, the gym room. I’m trying to make it look and feel like home for all these people.”
His studio is a good place to contemplate the meaning of home, for Anderson also lives here, commuting daily the 12 steps from the basement. Each morning he has a coffee, reads the paper, does the Sudoku and the ken-ken, and then has a very hot bath. The bath is so hot that the only way for him to cool down is to shirtlessly sweep the street outside the studio, steaming and kicking up dust. “All these people going to work and passing on the street this ridiculous 65 year old person without a shirt, sweeping madly, steaming profusely. I must look quite eccentric.”
He signs stuff that his assistant Kate hands him while he is telling stories to me. Just then he gets sad news over a phone call: a close friend is suddenly near death from cancer. Hanging up, Anderson goes downstairs and, after a brief absence, comes back with some beer and two glasses. “Mortality closes in on us all. I usually enjoy the whole concept of death, but I can get quite emotional from the existential element of it all.” He felt that this was as good a time as any for him to tell me how he got to where he is now. Grew up in Windsor, dropped out of architecture school at U of T, a year wandering Europe before getting in a van with some strangers and going through Africa, ending up on the island of Lamu. He eventually came back, went to Ryerson for interior design, got a job at Herman Miller, and then, 30 years ago, back when this neighborhood was an afterthought, started his own practice out of this space.
“I don’t document any of it. When its done, its over. People say, ‘oh do you have a portfolio?’ No, I don’t do portfolios. My work is all word of mouth. If you need to be convinced then it’s probably not worth it.” … “Either you’re in it to make money, or you're in it because you're kinda lost and you've got nothing else to do.” Anderson has nothing but scorn for the former. “When you drive through Rosedale or Forest Hill, you see how much bullshit is out there, 90% of the columns are wrong. They don’t have the right balance, none of the classical proportions. In this city there’s all these pretenders saying, ‘we’re world class!’ No, you’re not world class, you’re boring!”
“In every project we always push our clients. Right now, at the apartment project, I’m trying to get the painters to paint the way I want them to paint. I am somewhat of a colourist, and my approach to colour is quite different than most people's. I have to be on site, I have to test the colours, I have to see what the light is. Then I have to see how these colours interact. It’s never just one colour, I play with five or six colours, and then they all combine. It’s all about trying to achieve balance, to trick the eye and train the eye and delight the eye. I drive construction people crazy but they always want to take credit for the work in the end.”
It is nice to imagine what Toronto, our collective home, would be like if it was designed by Anderson, who lives almost perfectly the combination of art and life, work and home, daringness and humility, beauty and care for home and community. He gestures to the street a few feet away from his desk: “That’s my front yard. The other night some drunk assholes attacked some tree branches on the street. They couldn’t break them off completely, but they were in bad shape. I had some fabric samples kicking around so I wrapped the branches in fabric and took my twine and tied them all up, and they are doing fine. And now these poor branches are dressed in the finest fashion fabric from France, from Nom d’Um and Pierre Frey. No one will notice that, but I get a kick out of it.”