Quiet, understated, unassuming. These are not labels one associates with Jeanne Beker, Canada’s famous fashionista, the dynamic diva of dress, an outsized personality who covers fashion and lifestyle for television and print, and an ambassador for style wherever she goes.
Yet at the end of her long work days, the Toronto-born-and-raised Beker retreats to South Rosedale to unwind in her cozy, warm red-brick house filled with subtle furnishings and fine, eclectic art, lovingly collected over the years. Each piece bears a story as interesting as the woman herself.
“I really wanted my house to feel like a home, and I’m really proud I’ve been able to do that,” says Jeanne. “It was important to me to have a place that’s as eclectic as I feel as a person. I’m not a true this or that, but a mix of inspirations and influences over the years.”
Jeanne also wanted her house to feel warm and welcoming, more home than showpiece. “This house is very much about family and friends, and I don’t get to see them often enough. I try to have people over for dinner whenever I can,” she adds.
The 1905 house boasts a history fairly typical of many in the area: it was once owned by local gentry (Jeanne names “Major Gray” as the first owner). After Toronto annexed Rosedale, the property fell on hard times and became a rooming house until the 1970s when Louis Del Grande of CBC’s “Seeing Things” fame converted it back to a single family dwelling. By the time Jeanne and her then husband bought the 13-room house in 1995 and moved in with their two little girls, Bekky and Joey, it was empty and the walls had been painted white. It was just the type of blank canvas she needed to create her perfect home.
Jeanne called on her many friends to help paint that canvas. Steven (Sabados) and Chris (Hyndman), the original “Designer Guys” and old friends of Jeanne’s from her days at CityTV, were the first to come to her rescue. Since she and her husband had a limited budget for renovations, Sabados and Hyndman chose paint to set the tone and were liberal in some of their colour choices.
The designers painted the small front room, originally the dining room but now used as a den, a deep, reddish brown; it was recently repainted in a soft grey-blue. They painted the dining room, previously used as the den and family room, and home of a number of children’s parties when the girls were young, an olive green to complement the oak paneling of this traditional room. They even applied their paintbrush to the kitchen backsplash, which featured big orange circles popular in the early 1980s, and painted it a rich forest green.
At the same time as Sabados and Hyndman were advising on colour, another friend of Jeanne’s, designer Brian Gluckstein, was encouraging her to make other, more dramatic changes, such as knocking out walls, including the one dividing the kitchen from the dining room.
In the end, she decided to respect the integrity of the original architecture and left the structure as she had found it. “I’m sort of glad I didn’t remove the walls,” she says. “Some of those open spaces are fabulous, but for me I wanted a coziness for my home and I like the fact you have one room that you can close off.”
Seven or eight years ago, Jeanne decided her kitchen needed a refresh. She turned to decorator Cheryl Fienberg to create a French country-style kitchen, complete with carved wooden hood over the stove, “funky” backsplash, a French light fixture, and hardwood floor, all “to evoke that farmhouse feel.” Her kitchen is also home to some personal pieces of art – most of them by her artist daughter, Bekky, and one by illustrator Joren Cull, who is a friend of her daughter, Joey. There’s also a picture of Jeanne’s dog, Gus, a gift from her sister.
Art, ranging from fine contemporary paintings and photography by the likes of Jeanne’s friend Bryan Adams, to folk art from Nova Scotia and such whimsy as the Chanel Bearbrick, adorns the rooms throughout the house. Each piece tells a story. There’s the gift from well-known Toronto fashion illustrator Frederick Watson of his painting of a woman in a plunge-neck dress with a white fur sensuously draped over her shoulders. And the mock-Picasso oil of Jeanne by hair stylist-artist Denis Bouchard that hangs near one of the house’s many fireplaces.
By far, though, Jeanne’s favourite painter, who continues to “speak” to her passion for art, is Marion Perlet, who died last year. She came to know the artist through her friend, figure skater and artist Toller Cranston, who gave Jeanne her first Perlet in 1980. Of her many Perlet canvases (Jeanne has no idea how many she owns), perhaps her favourite is the large portrait hanging over the 1930s French walnut buffet in the dining room. Titled The Birthday Party, it’s full of the joie de vivre Jeanne brings to her dinner parties.
Then there’s the enormous canvas, called Night Rider. “It features a woman, naked except for a pair of red boots, on a rocking horse. I bought that provocative painting in the early ’80s and it hangs over my bed today,” she says with a mischievous grin.
And that’s just like Jeanne.