When you walk into Toni Suzuki Laidlaw and Eric Hanley’s century-old Halifax home, you’re swept up in colour. Luscious, glorious colours: sunshine yellow on the living room ceiling, bright orange on a kitchen wall, and the vivid greens of the back garden. Entering the open and light-filled home, it’s hard to imagine the dreary student rooming house it once was. “I’m not afraid of colour, not at all,” says Toni, a retired academic wearing bright blue eyeglasses. “Colour brings warmth, and I want my home to be beautiful, comfortable, and inviting.”
The colour comes not only from the walls and furnishings, but from the contemporary art and craft everywhere: the Marilyn McAvoy abstract and Janice Leonard landscape displayed side-by-side over the dining room table; the vibrant Mediterranean cityscape by José Valverde over the fireplace; and the exquisite Jim Smith earthenware pottery that Eric and Toni have collected for years.
It’s important to the couple to support Atlantic Canadian artists and craftspeople. “The artists all have some association with the Maritimes, whether they’re from here or drawn here because of the art college [NSCAD University],” says Toni. “I really like supporting people who do this work.”
“It gives us great pleasure and it makes our home exciting and interesting,” she continues. “It’s a wonderful place to come home to.”
Over the years, artwork has arrived in their home as a way of celebrating occasions. To mark Toni’s retirement from Dalhousie University, Eric gave her the sculpture in the sitting room by Wojtek Biczysko, a Toronto artist represented at Studio 21 Fine Art in Halifax. For her 70th birthday, Toni received the 13 pet portraits displayed in her upstairs study from Eric and her daughters.
But for the most part, the couple collects art and fine craft as a shared interest, musing and mulling over a piece before they decide to take it home. They enjoy visiting galleries, attending openings, and meeting artists. “In the end, we don’t have any trouble agreeing on which art piece to purchase,” says Eric, a semi-retired doctor whose glasses are as colourful and unusual as his wife’s.
And sometimes if they can’t find exactly what they want, they’ll commission it. Working with an artist to create something special for their home makes them love the piece all the more. For example, they approached furniture designer Sappho Griffin to create two unique pieces: an entertainment cabinet in the living room and a sideboard for the kitchen.
Toni met furniture designer Sappho Griffin of Henhouse when she purchased a large china cabinet to display the 12-place setting of Jim Smith pottery she’s collected over the years (centre photo at bottom). Since then, Toni has commissioned Griffin to create other pieces for her home, including the kitchen sideboard painted with nut hatches and fiddleheads (top, right) and the large storage cabinet in the living room (bottom, right).
Painted green, the sideboard sits beneath an abstract expressionist painting by the late David Sorensen, a painter and sculptor. “I have quite definite ideas of what I’d like. I want something aesthetically lovely but practical and workable too,” says Toni, pointing to the sideboard. “But what I appreciate is when the artist takes the next step and makes it truly special, like Sappho and her paintings of the birds on the front and the fiddleheads on the sides. I’m extremely impressed with the calibre of artistic excellence in our area.”
Griffin, whose home-based business is called Henhouse, enjoyed having artistic freedom with the project. “Eric and Toni have got bold taste, and they’re really up for something different,” she says.
“As an artist, that gives you a lot of leeway to come up with your own ideas.” They commissioned Griffin to design the large, eight-door cabinet in the living room; it serves double duty as a bar and entertainment centre. Griffin designed it to accommodate lots of storage, painted it goldenrod-yellow, and decorated it with acorns and oak leaves, pulling the colours and motifs from Jim Smith’s pottery. In turn, the couple asked Smith to make the tiles for the fireplace surrounds in the main living room and smaller sitting room.
Apart from dinnerware, Smith doesn’t usually do commissions, but he was happy to do so for Toni, a dedicated collector of his work. “My work is about living with beauty, it’s about joy and sharing,” says Smith, a master artisan who studied under Walter Ostrom at NSCAD and set up his studio in Chester, N.S. in the mid-1980s.
“Collectors ‘get it.’ They love the work and the ideas behind it, and are excited about integrating it into their lives. They are always keen to see the latest work and delighted to hear the stories behind its development.”
Both Griffin and Smith say Toni is every bit as artistic as they are. “She has an artist’s eye and is a true sensualist,” Smith says. “She loves colour and light and nature: all the things that makes life so wonderful.”
Griffin admires Toni’s sophisticated and personal aesthetic. “So much décor is ‘box store’ and so coordinated these days,” she says. “It’s refreshing to go into her home, which is her own work of art. She has no rules. She does not coordinate. And she is able to bring everything together so beautifully.” In many ways, the house Toni shares with her best friend and husband, that she entertains guests in, and that fills with the laughter of grandchildren, is her own work of art.
Somehow, back in 1978 when she arrived at the doorstep of the rundown rooming house, she could look past its many deficiencies and picture what it could be. She carried that vision into every room over all three floors and into the back garden. “We love to go away but we love to come home,” Toni says. “Because when I return, I always see the house with fresh eyes. I look at it anew and then I make changes. It’s never really finished.”