Art and Design in a Toronto Neighborhood

Jun 2013
Toronto, like many cities, is divided into a number of unique neighborhoods.  Although there has been tremendous change since I once lived here, most retain the same flavor of their original character.  The Art and Design districts are numerous, and since I had only a morning for exploration, I connected with the knowledgeable Betty Ann Jordan, founder of Art Insite tours, to explore the West Queen West area, Toronto’s answer to a chic, edgy and hipster vibe.

The neighborhood’s west border begins with two of the areas premier boutique hotels. The Gladstone, thoughtfully renovated by one of Toronto’s biggest benefactors of the Arts, the Zeidler family, is a hot spot of creative support for contemporary artists. Public spaces have rotating exhibits of thought provoking work, and each of the 37 artist designed rooms has been interpreted in a unique way to take advantage of the space. Interiors feature gleaming hardwoods of the original, light poring in through the windows and an abundance of artwork at every turn. 

Both the Melody Bar and the cafe serve up locally inspired food and excellent coffee.

Although you can still wake up and smell the coffee here, their hangtag of wake up and see the art is an indication of what the hotel is all about. The Snapshot room {above} has clever photos of Toronto’s Highland Park strategically placed to create a sense of space in a teensy room, one that doesn’t feel at all like it’s under 200 square feet of space.

The Millie Chen designed Chinoiserie room is one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  The nostalgic use of traditional wallpaper has been updated with a sense of humor and cross cultural references including a camera toting tourist, a monkey with saw, a businessman  and the adaption of the CN Tower into the musicians hat above.

Betty Ann Jordan speaking about a thought provoking exhibit at the Gladstone.

One particularly provocative exhibit was that of Jonathan Hobin’s In The Playroom, his interpretation of modern day events which adults might just like to shield from the eyes of their children. The troubling commentary on the impossibility of a protective space safe from  the reach of modern day media had a special meaning for someone attending a new media conference.
Unique accent pieces are a feast for the eyes.

The Drake Hotel, a stone’s throw away, has again been renovated keeping the best of what the previous interior had to offer. A cultural hub for art and music, the hotel has many spaces to draw the public for entertainment. Interiors are designed with reclaimed wood, recycled fixtures and found midcentury modern furniture. For a writer focused on sustainable living, it was a dream to see the aesthetic  with which it had been updated.

The bar at the Drake features many upcycled and reclaimed fixtures.
Sky Yard at the Drake

We were lucky enough to be among the first to see the newly renovated SKY YARD, sure to be a standing room only hot spot in the months ahead. Don’t miss the fun cocktail menu written in chalk on one of the overhead beams.

Starting off my tour of the area with two hotels exemplifying sustainable, eco friendly design was a good omen. While these two hotels are certainly a draw, cutting edge independent galleries, designers and chefs make up a good part of the neighborhood. The Stephen Bulger Gallery, a leading location for photography talent, also provides screenings for movies , a massive library, and community gathering spot in their annex space.

Doc's Leather and Motorcycle Gear in Toronto's West Queen West area
A collage of scenes from Doc’s Leather and Motorcycle Gear

Close by, Doc’s Leather and Motorcycle Gear is an iconic way station for biker leather and a fascinating look into their culture. The owner’s lifelong collection of ephemera and vintage houses everything from minerals and radios to stuffed fox heads.

I’m a big fan of graffiti art and the neighborhood offered much to look at.  The three above are just a small sampling of what I was exposed to covering walls throughout the blocks of West Queen West.

You might be familiar with yarn bombing, a type of guerrilla graffiti art where knitters take to the streets and  stitch their craft on everything from tree trunks to cars.  Well step aside, this was the first I had seen of a crochet bomb.  And although the artist could use the help of a dictionary for their Nothing Could Tear Us Apart motto, the intricacy of the needle work was remarkable, and I can only begin to imagine how long it must have taken to complete this work.

Another spot not to miss is Gravity Pope, a fabulous unisex shoe store decked out with an Art Deco staircase, chandeliers and over the top mirrors; all the better to check yourself out in some of the over 2000 styles of shoes they carry.

Lady Mosquito, owned by the lovely, Cynthia Villegas, is a feast for the eyes.  The vibrant colors and unusual shapes feature recycled felt handmade and crafted in Peru.  Artisan made brooches, handbags, necklaces and earrings offer delightful accents sure to be conversation pieces each and every time you wear them.

The Parisian inspired bar at Union.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is in the neighborhood, and make sure to wander up Ossington St, where you’ll find a hip eating and drinking area featuring local and farm fresh at spots like Cote De Boeuf, Union {with a really special outdoor patio}. FishBar tucked between vintage shops, a few clubs and lots of hip, happening action owned by independent entrepreneurs.

Outdoor patio for summer at Union

Southern Ontario is the home to many incredible fruit and vegetable growers, dairy and animal farmers and artisan cheese makers. Take an hour’s drive in any direction, and it will inevitably lead you to farms supplying products to Toronto’s best farm-to-table restaurants. Combine that with wine producers and craft brewers also scattered around the local landscape, and you’ll find the connection between grower, producer and chef is a small one in the city.  I only wish I could have broken bread at one of the many spots featuring local fare.  Barely scratching the surface of a place that has put much energy to sustainable development, I knew I wouldn’t need an excuse to come back.

  1. MireyaBader says:

    Great info. Lucky me I ran across your blog by chance (stumbleupon). I have bookmarked it for later!

  2. Great post on one my favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto. I used to work on Queen West and was always inspired by its independent vibe. You’ve done a great job of capturing its spirit!

  3. There’s so much to love about Toronto. I’d love to return and take an urban art tour. We have a lot of yarn bombing in San Diego but none that spell out a message. It is amazing how long these works must have taken.

  4. Nancie says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Toronto. Next time I visit I’ll be sure to spend some time wandering through this neighborhood.

  5. In my opinion, Toronto is the hippest city in North America. Nobody else even comes close. Loved this look at entire spectrum between whimsy, moody and downright provocative. Would love to spend time in any of these places and spaces.

  6. I can’t wait to go! We are going to try to go in June. This will help me tremendously!

  7. This art tour of the West Queen West area of Toronto is very interesting. I would love to retrace it when I am in town.

  8. Great photos, I love finding interesting art when we travel.

  9. Susan Moore says:

    What a cool neighborhood. I haven’t been to Toronto since the ’90s – would love to get back to visit again. I would definitely visit the West Queens West area. Thanks for the tour!

  10. I’ve never been to the West Queen West neighborhood in Toronto, but I’m betting this enticing blog post does it justice. I didn’t have time to see everything the last time I was in Toronto, so the next time it’s least expensive to fly somewhere far away on Air Canada from Toronto, I’m using that as an excuse to do some more exploring.