Victorian Secret: Designer John Tong

award-winning designer John Tong

A traditional home in Toronto receives a Modern update to suit its quaint neighborhood. 

What if the perfect location for a Contemporary style-loving couple with two young sons turned out to be on a street lined with Victorian homes? For these married boutique owners, it meant calling award-winning designer John Tong – who had previously worked with the couple on their store design – to transform the fixer-upper Victorian into something distinctly more modern without looking completely out of place.

Victorian Secret: Designer John Tong

This was no simple facelift; it was a down-to-the-studs type of reconstruction that took three years to accomplish and required tearing up the floors, walls, and basement. The directive given to Tong, who heads the multidisciplinary design studio +tongtong, was to renovate and build an addition onto the traditional Victorian home that would expand the area of livable space while remaining true to the neighborhood. The Toronto-based design firm also met the additional challenge of emphasizing natural materials and light. Inspired by rural living and the original build date of the home, the industrial materials selected by Tong and his team accentuate the re-imagined architectural qualities in what was to become an unmistakably contemporary space.

Grey and black zinc is used throughout the exterior and interior of the home because the design team felt the material could effectively blend traditional aspects within a new contemporary scheme. Inside the house, a vertical shaft brings light from large skylights down three floors to illuminate the ground floor while highlighting a zinc wall and ceiling above the kitchen. This impressive design element happens to be Tong’s favorite in the house.


“I really embraced the slot between the two floors,” he explains. “It turns the second floor hallway into a bridge that connects all of the floors. This is key to bringing light down to the first floor.”

Meanwhile, on the third floor, the entire gable was replaced with an expansive triangular glass window that provides views of the neighborhood plus the downtown skyline in the distance. A custom-made triangular blind shades the window and retracts into a millwork unit when not in use.

In the kitchen, an original window on the side of the house was reconfigured to be horizontal in shape to extend along the kitchen and integrate seamlessly within the millwork of the dining room. The kitchen counter is similarly extended, providing the means for a countertop vent-free ethanol fireplace in the dining room.

Outside, the rear façade of the home has been entirely transformed to maximize views of the expansive elm tree behind the house. In front, a large glass pop-out opens up the residence to the street while being protected from the sun and elements by a new zinc awning reminiscent of bygone neighborhood corner stores. The landscaped berm and retaining walls create a layer of privacy between the public street and the private home, which provides a small area in front for children to play.

This is not the first time that John Tong’s design talent has gotten attention. He recently completed such award-winning projects as Drake Devonshire Inn, Her Majesty’s Pleasure, and Barsa Taberna. In addition, he is currently working on a diverse range of projects including Mascot Brewery, a re-imaging of a U.S. restaurant brand, a re-development project in Detroit, offices for Guru Animation, and the Batch gastrobrewery in Toronto for Molson Canada, along with numerous residential projects. His work has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, CAA in Montreal, MOMA in New York, the Design Exchange, and The Interior Design Show in Toronto. 

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