Something special is cooking in the former warehouse wasteland of the Carlaw Avenue studios
It used to be that the drive down Carlaw was all about making it to the Lakeshore or turning onto Queen East and heading someplace else. Aside from a few houses and a series of industrial buildings, there wasn’t much to look at, nothing to stop for and certainly nowhere interesting to shop.
But now there’s plenty to look at, thanks to the creativity of the dedicated artists, retailers and residents who have changed the face and feel of the street. Instead of endless walls of red brick, you’ll now find colourful flags waving outside buildings with promises of great treasures inside. Sandwich boards line up outside each door hinting at special sales and merchandise, like the silent barkers outside a Tokyo nightclub.
At Sastra Imports, Dragon Heir and Greentea Design, it’s easy to be transported to exotic locales while remaining in the 416 area. Jennifer Sloan and Dale Storer of Greentea were among the first retailers to set up shop on Carlaw. “We needed a large space to showcase our furnishings and store our inventory,” says Sloan, a fan of far-flung travels. Both she and Storer cultivated their love of Asian design and antiques in Korea. Though most of their clientele are local, this media savvy duo also do brisk business shipping their wares to the
U.S. The Donald himself found Greentea and featured one of its kitchen units in the final episode of The Apprentice. Sloan and Storer work with artists and craftsmen to provide one-of-a-kind multimedia art pieces, custom-built free-standing kitchen units and media cabinets, using only salvaged woods. “On the last day of my buying trip I visit the antique markets in Korea for smaller items and unusual pieces like these porcelain sinks” says Sloan. She and Storer keep regular business hours but also host parties here well into the wee hours for friends and clients.
New to this neighborhood, though no stranger to the city, is Dragon Heir. Jing Zhu and her partner have had a showroom on Jarvis and a warehouse in Markham for the past two and a half years. However, when the large showroom on Carlaw became available, they immediately jumped at the opportunity and had the main showroom ready to roll within weeks. Stepping into their all-white space, with its soft music, candles and distinct vignettes is like entering a secret Asian society. More of a Ming Dynasty fan than a Huang supporter? Along with sleek contemporary pieces, Dragon Heir offers black or white lacquer, painted custom pieces and rare antiques like a 17th-century day bed ($40,000). If that doesn’t fit your budget, Zhu has a special section called Chinese Junk, full of pieces that have slight dings from the trip overseas. This summer Zhu plans to install a lounge for special events, such as her “Mandarin Club,” a series of informal gatherings, to share Chinese culture, food and language.
The retailers on Carlaw are the biggest draw, but they’re by no means the only ones responsible for this renaissance. Individual artists keep shops and studios in an underground maze of hallways and doors. Though signage inside 388 Carlaw is poor at best, there is a sense of adventure as you wind your way along, reading the numbers and searching for clues that lead you to your destination. Weld Done Designs is one of those smaller studios, home to welders Teresa Jenkins, Wendy Kelloway and Emmanuel Papachristou. Art is definitely a collaborative effort, with artists sharing or splitting jobs and referring one another for specific projects.“Wendy does more fabrication, and I do a lot of handforged work” says Jenkins, a full-time set designer and local resident. Jenkins is the first to sing the praises of her fellow artisans and of the spirit of community here.
Like any true artistic community, Carlaw also includes a performance space – Artists’ Play Studio Theatre, at number 290. Founders Elizabeth Dawn Snell and Bronwyn K. Shaw teach traditional ballet and jazz, among other classes, and sublet the space for outside teachers as well. You’ll find a variety of classes here, including African dance, Feldenkrais, Nia, Pilates and acting. There’s an open improv jam session every Sunday night, and often a live performance as well. Snell goes out of her way to encourage “slightly crazy and overly excitable” artists to apply for performance time. Rounding out the neighbourhood are record studios, clothing shops, catering companies and floral consultants. Next time you find yourself heading toward the Lakeshore, pull over and take a minute to check out the finds on Carlaw.
The Asian wares of Sastra Imports, Dragon Heir and Greentea Design
Artists’ Play Studio Theatre
Weld Done Designs