House Beautiful: Home decor as a fine art

We’ve seen the direction he has taken the art gallery. We’ve seen him looking elegantly GQ at exhibition openings, and maybe even spotted him at a local auction or two, bidding enthusiastically on a particularly choice object d’art.

But how does Jon Tupper direct the art scene when it comes to his own home?

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The director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria admits he has a thing for the ocean, and this was a critical factor when he went looking for a location.

“This home has everything I want. I can see the mountains, the water, the commerce of the nation in the ocean traffic, cruise ships, people jogging along Dallas, doing yoga, walking their dogs,” said the enthusiastic Tupper as he stepped onto the deck of his one-and-a-half bedroom apartment.

He admits to having an affinity for water, which is one of the reasons he has directed galleries on both Canada’s east and west coasts. His previous position was at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and before that he was at Banff and Winnipeg art galleries. He has also organized exhibitions in Holland, Switzerland, England, Spain, Turkey, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, New York, Seattle, Colombia and Brazil — and represented Canada as commissioner to the 1998 Sao Paulo Biennial as well as co-commissioner to the 2001 Venice Biennale.

“Everyone has an attachment to something and mine is to water,” explained the director.

The Labrador-born art lover is still connected with the East Coast and has a cottage in Nova Scotia’s Antigonish County, in a place called Malignant Cove. If anyone queries the name, he bridles loyally and responds: “Come on, you have Foul Bay here, don’t you?”

The parry always elicits a laugh. He has 10 acres on the Atlantic and loves to look at the water there too, observing the ever-changing surface textures, the chiaroscuro of light and dark.

While the views of ocean and mountains are what catch the eye from his Dallas Road deck, what draws visitors back inside is the splendidly relaxed and decidedly fun interior Tupper has created with his practised eye.

His furnishings are a contrast of light and dark too, with a white leather chaise longue and a dark charcoal, denim sofa, which converts to a bed when his sons come to visit.

The space is small but the impact is intense, and Tupper keeps the look simple, sharp and chic with a fusion of subtle touches such as floating cellophane curtain tiebacks, colour-blocked deep pile carpet squares and bowls of fresh vegetables and fruits.

His set of four nesting tables reflects a passion for modernist art.

“They are now made under licence and available at Gabrielle Ross, but were originally designed by the influential Josef Albers.” The designer was also a photographer, printmaker, abstract painter and theorist with a disciplined approach to composition that featured this famous series.

“I like his solid planes of colour and the way his tables work together. He was a big part of modernism,” said Tupper, who noted Albers took over the Bauhaus furniture department after Brueur left in 1928.

This home is all about colour, texture and detail — and there is striking artwork everywhere.

A dramatic piece in the dining room was painted by one of Canada’s foremost figurative artists, Brian Burke. “It’s part of a series he did on rooming houses for men. I find it amusing, ironic and sad, all at the same time, and I like the top, which is almost abstract.”

Other artwork includes an abstract by Todd Tedeschini and piece by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of geometric abstract art. “His signature painting was of a black square and for me it was both the end and the beginning of painting. Its simplicity, a black empty void, seems like an attempt to put a stop to Impressionist styled easel painting. In the end it created a new type of abstract painting that emphasized form, colour, surface and scale.”

Another striking work is by Micah Lexier, called Portrait of David. The artist and curator, now living in Toronto, represents multi-generational images of individuals and this work features a series of portraits of the same people at different ages.

Some of Tupper’s favourite artworks are by his partner, Ingrid Mary Percy, who teaches at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “Her work is reduced to the gestural … charcoal … it’s very fragile and it speaks to modernism, truth of materials.”

She reorganized his bookcase recently, arranging his tomes according to colour.

“I know, know, it relegates the text to design,” he said with guilty look and a grin, noting he now can’t find any books if he can’t remember the colour of the spine.

Tupper’s furnishings are equally cool. His table is teak and tones with an entire teak wall in the dining area, “which is crying out for something, but I’m not sure what yet. I prefer Canadian designers of the 1950s but this table seemed a good fit,” said the former president of the Canadian Museums Association.

“The ’50s were an important time in Canadian design that’s come and gone. Right after the war we were making beautiful objects in heavy oak, with exotic veneers.”

Another nearby wall holds rows and rows of honeypots.

“I don’t actually collect them,” he admitted with a chuckle. “But these built-in shelves were empty so I went to Kilshaws looking for something and I saw this collection in a box. I thought they were fun and put in a bid … I think I got them for $16.”

There weren’t quite enough to fill the space, but that’s not a problem since people who come to visit assume he is an avid collector, which means he has been receiving them as gifts.

He does collect tankards, however, and a variety of shapes and sizes fill more shelves. “I quite like them in an ironic sort of way, but I don’t actually drink beer,” he noted with another laugh.

One of his favourite pastimes is to visit auctions, but not for the usual reasons. “I enjoy them because I like going into the minds of people. It’s like an exhibition that is always changing. You see a whole new life and it’s amazing what finds you discover.”

He also shops at Gabrielle Ross, where he discovered his favourite chairs. The black-and-chrome Wassily-style ones are also known as the Model B3s. They were designed by Marcel Breuer in the early 1900s when he was head of the Bauhaus cabinet-making workshop in Germany, which created pieces with an approach to style that combined crafts and fine arts.

“I absolutely enjoy modern, mid-century work and the whole anachronistic notion of mixing up times and periods.”

Tupper also revels in his apartment’s location, because he can go to work in a variety of ways, often walking, biking, riding his scooter or, if he has business meetings and needs to look sharp, by car. “My preferred mode is walking, through Beacon Hill Park or along Dallas,” where he enjoys the architecture.

“As soon as I came to this city I noticed all the houses and apartment blocks, particularly those built in the 1950, ’60s and ’70s. You can walk down Cook Street and see tons of modernist blocks like the one where I live.

“They really speak to the landscape for some reason. Architecturally, one also sees the arts and crafts here for sure, but for some reason these mid-century buildings make sense to me and look good in the landscape.”

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