At this West Queen West home-decor shop, style comes before all other practical considerations.
For the past four and half years, Atomic Design has been showing a tightly edited collection of mid-century wares just west of Trinity Bellwoods Park. With an emphasis on the modernist, this tight space is densely packed with chrome, glass, and clean lines. Just don’t expect to find much in the way of teak.
How it got started: “I come from the world of jewelry,” says owner Lawrence Blairs. “I’m a gemologist—that’s what I studied, and I’m a fellow of the Gemological Association. Initially, I was thinking about just doing jewelry [at the shop] but, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it would be a bit one-dimensional for me, for selfish reasons. There are so many other aspects of design that I’m interested in and I love.”
Once the concept for the shop was in hand, it took quite a while to find the right space. “I was looking all over the city,” Blairs says. “I actually wanted to buy a place and live above it, keep everything nice and compact, but I just couldn’t find anything. I managed to buy this place—I was very fortunate—and I rented it out for a year to a wedding planner. So, I acquired the space and then focussed on getting ready.”
A big part of Blairs’ preparation involved him sorting through his own personal stash and divvying up what would go to the shop and what he could keep at home—a possibly traumatic exercise for a serious collector. “I’d been collecting for many years previous, so I had pieces that I’d built up over the years,” he says. “When I first opened, I had to decide what I was ready to part with and what I was not ready to part with. I needed a nucleus of things to show.”
What’s in store: Despite a seemingly rigorous aesthetic, Blairs’ selection criteria is quite simple: He sells what he finds interesting. “That just happens to be late ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s. I just show what I think is well-designed, unique, and well-made. Even if it’s a piece I don’t have much knowledge about, like a piece of sculpture, if I feel that it’s well-done and I’ve never seen it before, then I’ll show it. What I’m showing is just really an extension of my personality and my taste. I feel that I have established an identity. I’m very cognizant of things being ‘on-brand’ but I still have to like the item. I love ’70s futurist, I love pop, Italian post-modern design, I like abstraction, I like geometric stuff, strong lines, some brutalist stuff—just fun things.”
This policy may keep Blairs engaged, but could it potentially narrow the shop’s appeal? “I’m not for everyone, but I don’t want to be everything to everyone,” Blairs replies. “If I just showed what instantly sold, it would be boring for me, there would be no fun in it. I want to have a unique look and a unique feel and I think that, just through the fact that I’m showing things that I like, separates me from other people. I try to take risks. Obviously, I have to pay my bills and I have to live but, for me, it’s not all about whether a piece is instantly sellable. I’d rather push the envelope a bit and show things that perhaps people haven’t seen. I mean, for instance, I could fill this shop with teak and I could probably be more successful than I am, but I just find teak incredibly boring. I do have some nice pieces of teak, but I don’t just want to show something because it’s sellable.”
Does size matter?: Atomic Design isn’t exactly flush with available floor space but, as much as that may impose limitations on Blairs, sometimes boundaries are a good thing. “It’s kind of a double edged sword—sometimes I feel I’d love to have a bigger space because then I could show more,” he says. “But, on the flipside, it does keep me very focussed: It really allows me to show just a distillation of all the best things and it really keeps me reined in. It’s a challenging space, but it does work well for me.”
How’s the neighbourhood?: An important part of Atomic Design’s identity is derived from its West Queen West location, which is home not only to the shop, but to Blairs as well. “I live very close by,” he says. “I meet friends for drinks in local places, I eat out here, all my social life is basically based around this area. I’ve built up a lot of good relationships with people over the years; I buy books from Type, I buy coffee from Clafouti and Nadège, and I get my hair cut at Garrison’s Barbershop. I’m doing it because I actually happen to like what those businesses do. If I wasn’t living here, I would probably use them anyway. But I do think it’s important to participate in this area.”
Blairs feels that being outside of the city’s traditional home-design hubs ultimately works to his advantage. “For the stores in Leslieville, I think perhaps that’s an advantage: having a reputation for a long time of having this nucleus of mid-century stores and antique stores,” he says. “People do, I’m sure, go from one to another and make a day of it. I’m a little bit different in the fact that, maybe, I’m a bit of a destination. Saying that, I think that there’s enough interesting businesses in this area that a person who would be attracted to me would like anyway: galleries, clothing stores, and places like that.”
Who shops there: Atomic Design’s customers reflect the eclectic nature of the neighbourhood. “My customers, they’re all age ranges, all different professions,” says Blairs. “Obviously, a lot of creative people and, on the other side, academic people. This area has a lot of very interesting people doing all sorts of stuff and it’s not until you’re actually in a shop, or whatever, and you’re meeting people that you realize it. I’d say the unifying factor with my customers is that they’re people who are confident and they’re individualists and they have a certain sense of style.”
Price points: For Blairs, it’s important to offers pieces at a range of prices. “I like to mix in higher price pieces with still-nice pieces at a lower price point,” he says. “I have things for $60 and $75 that are individual and unique. I’m flexible, too. At the end of the day, if I see someone who really wants something and they’re stretching themselves, I’ll try to meet them halfway. I want the person to have the piece if they really love it. I’m going to try to make it work. That person tends to be a younger person, and I try to encourage them. They’re the future of people who are interested in design and buying and collecting. So I try and nurture those people.”
A quality, original piece of mid-century design will also hold its value, unlike modern mass-market reproductions. “At least if you acquire a piece and you look after it, you know that there will always be somebody who wants it,” Blairs says. “Worst-case scenario, you’ll get your money back, perhaps more, and you’ve gotten all that great usage out of it. If you’re a savvy buyer, I think it’s a wise—I don’t like to talk in terms of investment, but at least your money’s not gone. Somebody wants it, because there’s a designer behind it and it’s a listed thing. All the new stuff that’s being made, eventually it just goes to landfill.”
The soft sell: Blairs likes to keep the stock in regular rotation at Atomic Design. “It changes on a weekly basis, just by me acquiring things and things selling, there’s a natural kind of flow,” he says. “But, generally, I try and change things up once a month, particularly my window display.”
To that end, he strongly encourages browsing, whether or not the ultimate goal is making a purchase. “I’ve never been into the hard sell—I’ve never tried to sell anything. I just try to help people or educate people if they’re interested,” says Blairs. “I actually want people to feel that they can keep coming in and not feel obliged or accosted.”
965 Queen St. W. 416-912-2358.