Deep in the kingdom of Rosedale, the chic Toronto, Canada, neighbourhood that's synonymous with interior design boutiques, lurks a snug white house with gingerbread trim and a white picket fence. You might suspect that this place leapt right off the page of a storybook while no one was looking. "It's an enchanted building. It's like Hansel and Gretel's house," says Terese Sears. But the truth is a little more basic. Built some 120 years ago, the unpretentious coach house originally served as city warehouse for salt and other winter gear. Like a pretty-yet-geeky girl amongst cheerleaders, a dowdy building with such potential couldn't last long in Rosedale. It was destined for a makeover.
Sears, a former television reporter, teamed up with her longtime friend Arminé Tatosian, a fashion and interior designer by trade, and together they opened the wee structure's doors as AT Design Group about four years ago. The result is a friendly refuge for high-end whimsical housewares. Tatosian and Sears have stocked their little shop with items that evoke a formal dinner hosted by the queen of forest nymph high society: everything is nobbly, gnarly and twiggy. Birds and leaves make frequent appearances on the shelves, as do shells and pomegranates.
Don't go getting the wrong idea, though: the words "raw" and "rustic" have no place in AT's vocabulary. Through tasteful finishing and artful design, the woodland elements are drenched in refinement and poise. A tiny gold salt dish fit for Thumbelina ($75), for example, consists of a delicate leaf bowl and dainty spoon. Another tabletop favourite is an unusual vase in which flowers are threaded through metal twigs and fed by a shallow trough ($195).
"We are inspired by lots of elements in nature - after all, we are in Canada," says Sears. "Nature is beautiful. Webs or trees - they're just beautiful. So to interpret that and have it in your home is wonderful." United by a passion for beauty and simplicity, Tatosian and Sears don't overlook what they call "the wow factor". Their favourite designer, New York's Michael Aram, certainly delivers on that front.
His polished aluminium skeleton chair ($750), reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie, looks as though it might get up and scurry away into some foggy midnight mystery. Ditto for the Ostrich Table ($595), which preens on two bird legs. Aram's Enchanted Forest collection which comes in oxidised copper or polished aluminium, features tables, chairs and lamps that are at once woodsy and über-posh. Silver stump stools, log-inspired ice buckets and tree-like candleholders round out the collection.
Despite all the dreaminess, Tatosian and Sears have their feet planted firmly on the ground when it comes to functionality. "We've seen some beautiful couches, but they're ugly in that they don't feel comfortable," says Sears. But at AT Design Group, pragmatism doesn't preclude sparkle. "We have to have somewhere to sit, somewhere to sleep, and utensils. So they might as well be something that you want to touch and look at."
Twig Cutlery Sets ($34.50) are knives, forks and spoons that seem to have sprouted on trees (the handles are fashioned after branches). But more than that - they feel organic in your hand and are satisfying to wield. Tatosian and Sears strive to create a hospitable environment that is akin to their own home: a little tradition is tempting customers' tastebuds with a scoop of yummy, chocolate-flavoured sunflower seeds (which they also sell, and make popular hostess gifts).
And unlike the witch in Hansel and Gretel, they yearn to inject a little bit of positive magic into otherwise dull days. "We want to give you something that makes you happy, something that makes you smile and lighten up." AT Design Group has two locations: 5 MacPherson Ave (Rosedale), 206 Dupont Street. www.atdesignhome.com, +1 416 323 323