Renovation Diaries

Before & After: This Closed-Off Kitchen Loses a Load-Bearing Wall and Gets a Stunningly Stylish Refresh

published Jan 22, 2022
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Credit: After Photo: Ryan Fung. Before Photo: courtesy of Afiya Francisco

If you watch enough home-improvement television shows, you might start to think that every renovation involves copious amounts of drama and a miraculous transformation of a total eyesore. That doesn’t always have to be the case. Sometimes there can be a space that’s already cozy and happy that just needs a couple of tweaks (okay, and maybe a wall removed) to realize its full potential.

That’s how it went for Afiya Francisco and her family — husband Aaron Chown and 12- and 9-year-old sons — when they found a house languishing on the market in a cute Toronto, Ontario, neighborhood. They weren’t exactly looking to move, but the home just kept coming up for sale. The couple took notice and eventually decided they should go see it, says Afiya. The colors (think: bright orange and mustard yellow) weren’t necessarily aligned with her own personal aesthetic — which leans more toward neutral — but the house had great energy, and Afiya could instantly tell it had been taken care of and loved.

Credit: Photo: courtesy of Afiya Francisco

The kitchen had been updated at some point and was totally fine in the looks department. It wasn’t a terrible eyesore — Afiya just imagined something better. Both Afiya and Aaron saw the possibility, but even more, they saw the house as a backdrop for showcasing the beautiful scenic nature right outside their door in the nearby Don River Valley Park. So, in September 2020, they took the plunge and bought the house and immediately got to work. First up: opening the kitchen so they could gather as a family, but also welcome a whole host of nieces and nephews (nine of them!). 

See, the kitchen was incredibly isolated and felt disconnected, largely because of a wall that separated it from a narrow hallway. In a game-changing move, the couple decided to remove the load-bearing wall and added a kitchen island. Once that was done, the real fun could start!

Afiya works as an on-air expert in lifestyle trends — fashion in particular. Designing a home isn’t so far off from that, she says. In fact, “It has been said to me more than once, ‘Oh, you match your house,’” explains Afiya, who has made television appearances on The Morning Show, Entertainment Tonight Canada, and more. “I generally do prefer a less-but-better approach and a neutral palette. That’s the way I dress, and I think that’s the way I approach this home as well.”

Credit: Photo: courtesy of Afiya Francisco

Afiya’s Remodel in 11 “Simple” Steps

  • Step 1: Read plenty of design books to gain inspiration and make a clear plan.
  • Step 2: Call a construction company to remove the load-bearing kitchen wall.
  • Step 3: Add a custom-built kitchen island.
  • Step 4: Research online purchases. Consult with interior designers.
  • Step 5: Sand and stain the existing hardwood floor.
  • Step 6: Start the tiling.
  • Step 7: Remove the upper cabinets to make way for open shelving.
  • Step 8: Paint the remaining cabinets. And the walls, too!
  • Step 9: Install the lighting.
  • Step 10: Upgrade to brass sink fixtures.
  • Step 11: Put in the new custom-built kitchen table and chairs for the dining nook.

Her overall hope for the renovation was to create a feeling, rather than impose an aesthetic. The couple wanted a space that felt warm and welcoming. They wanted “a refuge, even sacred, as opposed to a specific design sensibility,” Afiya explains. Leaning into a few books she liked helped get her there. Her guiding principles came from Made for Living: Collected Interiors for All Sorts of Styles by Amber Lewis, At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living by Sara and Rich Combs, and Wabi-Sabi Welcome: Learning to Embrace the Imperfect and Entertain with Thoughtfulness and Ease by Julie Pointer Adams. 

Credit: Photo: courtesy of Afiya Francisco

Renovating during the pandemic (specifically, during lockdown!) had its challenges, of course, but there were some unexpected silver linings. “This was the house that online purchases built because we couldn’t go anywhere,” Afiya says laughing. And was that a good thing? It was! “I think that I took more care to actually study materials and dimensions and things as opposed to just being in person, getting swept up when you see something,” she says. “I actually did more research than I may have done if I was able to just go into a store. Also, it forced us to use what was here. We weren’t just randomly changing things for the sake of changing it.” 

Credit: Photo: Ryan Fung

For their 245-square-foot kitchen, the overarching goal was not to make it a showstopper, but to provide a calm and serene space that allowed the great outdoors to really shine. “We knew that we wanted it to be light and airy and almost like a canvas to everything that was going on outside,” she says, pointing to the windows surrounding the kitchen. Paring a color palette back to the elegant bare minimum of black and white with natural-looking accents, such as rattan, achieved that perfectly.  

Credit: Photo: Ryan Fung

With a surprising few number of changes, they transformed the former kitchen, which felt congested and siloed, into exactly the welcoming space Afiya and Aaron envisioned. Starting with the floor, they kept the existing hardwood (saving thousands of dollars, Afiya says), opting to sand it and apply a semi-matte white stain for a warm, whitewashed look.

The existing cabinets were in great shape so the couple kept most of those, too, just swapping a few uppers for open shelving to create an airy vibe. (The key to making the ever-controversial open shelves work? Editing the items on the custom-made wooden shelves to just the things the family actually uses every day means nothing has a chance to get dusty, Afiya says.) The remaining uppers were painted in a crisp white (Benjamin Moore Oxford White) to echo the kitchen walls and rest of the house, and the bottom cabinets were treated to Benjamin Moore Black Beauty. It’s a sharp contrast, Afiya says, but still feels warm and inviting. 

Credit: Photo: Ryan Fung

“I don’t think that anything feels precious,” she says, of her kitchen renovation. “Although a black and white palette might sound prohibitive to children, they don’t care,” she adds, and her sons totally feel like they can just run around being kids. 

They also had an island custom-built to seamlessly complement the existing cabinets. The rattan stools (from Canadian company Casa Chic) introduced a warmth from the natural material — an important aspect for Afiya, who favors anything natural over synthetic when possible. 

Credit: Photo: Ryan Fung

Above the island, the linear pendant (from another Canadian company) makes as much of a statement as a piece of art would. Afiya found it as a happy accident while searching for rugs, she says, but it perfectly countered the round hammered brass pendant from Indonesia also hanging in the kitchen. Her online research continued to pay off: She found the gorgeous pendant on Etsy as an alternative to an expensive one she liked elsewhere. 

Credit: Photo: Ryan Fung

The existing appliances were also able to stay. Afiya opted for white subway tile to clad the walls. This classic isn’t going anywhere, she says. “It’s affordable — it’s all the things I love.” Pops of color come from the brass sink fixtures, and a plant here and there — which also weave a nice, thorough line to the views of nature outside. A little nook to the side of the kitchen is set off with a custom-made table that, again, brings in natural materials in the wooden top. Black chairs keep it feeling cohesive with the complementary kitchen cabinetry. 

In the end, the renovation was a remarkably smooth process, Afiya says. She gives props to the pros the family worked with — TBR Construction Management Inc. and interior designers Hudson Kruse + Sons. It takes a team, she explains. It also takes vision, imagination, and a clear idea of your goals, all of which Afiya brought to the table. A little serendipity never hurts either. “I felt like this house had been waiting for us and things just kind of flowed,” she says.  

Read more about the couple’s experience with removing an existing wall
This Couple Went for an Open Concept Kitchen — And It Was the Best Decision They Ever Made

And it flowed into exactly what she had hoped for. “I loved that we really did make this a place that feels like community, and it just feels nice,” Afiya says. “It actually makes me feel grounded … all this hustle and bustle around us, and it does very much feel like a place of peace and quiet. It’s almost discernible. Like you can feel it when you walk in, and I appreciate that.”

Credit: Photo: Ryan Fung

Thanks for sharing, Afiya!

See Afiya’s Full Reno Diary