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A wrap around window overlooks green plants and shrubbery. On the window sills are houseplants and various objects. There is a red lamp on the windowsill.

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In Alamo Square, an architect embraces all things vintage

And all things analog

San Francisco’s Alamo Square is most famous for its iconic row of Painted Ladies, the colorful Victorian homes that run along its east side, which became a pop culture icon when they appeared in the title sequence of the late-’80s, early ’90s television show Full House.

An entryway with wooden walls and a large mirror. There is a standing artwork sitting on the floor in front of the wall with the mirror.
A piece of artwork by artist Michael Brown is displayed in the apartment building’s entryway.

But just on the other side of the park sits another stately building, with an arched entryway of marble and dark wood, its large bay windows hugging a corner of the building. This yellow-brick pile has been home to architect John Toya for the last decade.

After moving to San Francisco from New York and spending time in what he calls an “insipid one-bedroom” elsewhere in the city, a friend who managed the building on Alamo Square had an apartment open up.

“The typical apartment in San Francisco is in a row house, and has windows in the front and the back [with a few units] in the middle that usually just look right [into] another building,” says Toya. “This one was different.” Toya says it felt like a mansion, with a great layout and lots of natural light streaming in through the broad windows. He snatched it up.

Over the past 10 years, Toya has filled it with furniture from the ’60s, objects from his travels, vintage stereo equipment, artwork, and various thrifted finds.

“I lived in 300 square feet in New York for over 10 years,” Toya explains, “and it really trained me to not keep anything and to store everything super efficiently and be really thoughtful about where everything was placed.”

A sketchbook is being drawn in by a person. The hands and a red pencil are visible. The sketch is in red. There is a patterned mat underneath the open sketchbook. The table is red.
Toya likes his sketchbooks from Shinola and his pens from Muji. The Chilewich mat serves as his mousepad when he’s working.
A man sits in a chair in front of a red table that has an open book and a red lamp. The man is leaning on the table while looking out the window in front of the desk. There is a houseplant in the foreground.
Toya, seated in a vintage French cafe chair, at his orange CB2 desk. The light is from Propeller Modern in San Francisco.
Photo by Kelly Marshall

“And so after that experience—moving from a 300-square-foot apartment into 1,000 square feet—I exploded into picking up everything.” He’s spent the last few years editing this collection down to things that have a story, that he loves, and that go together.

Though some contemporary homes have a narrative-less trendiness, Toya’s apartment tells a refreshingly different story, one drawn from the past, from family, and from the bones of a building that has seen its city grow and change.

“I’m a very analog-minded person,” Toya says. “I love old machines, gears, steam engines... And it applies to electronics, too.” Toya started collecting tube amplifiers for stereo systems 20 years ago, and went through a few until he got the one has has now. “I just love the simplicity of it and the quality of the sound.”

While some of his furnishings are inherited, others he found with his keen eye for vintage. “I was literally rocked as a baby on that thing,” Toya says of the blue Harry Bertoia lounge chair in his living room. He was given the chair as a 40th birthday gift from his parents. “They paid for the shipping from Chicago. That was my gift from them.”

A living area. There is a grey couch with a long patterned pillow. There are shelves full of records. There is a bright blue arm chair with a purple pillow.
John’s collection of records sits between an inherited Harry Bertoia Bird Chair and Ottoman and a couch he made while living in New York. (The couch is one of three pieces that made up the bed he slept on in his 300-square foot apartment in New York.)
Photo by Kelly Marshall

Across from the lounge chair is a 1962 South American paneled sofa, with another vintage sofa tucked into a little alcove between them. “I’m kind of drawn to them,” Toya says of the nooks he’s utilized throughout the apartment. “They all have some kind of quality that suits certain things.”

In his case, some of those items are records, from ’80s alt-pop and Greek records from his parents, to ’70s soul, funk, classic rock. His favorite towork of art in the apartment, a steel armature that holds onto a prayerbook, hangs above the amplifier and his 1974 Dual 701 turntable.

A kitchen. The walls are tan and the floor is linoleum. There is a small dark red table with kitchenware. There is a doorway looking into another room that has a hanging work of art and a chair.
Toya’s vintage red prep table, originally a parts cleaning bin at an auto body shop, doubles as a cooler for parties. A piece of wood from a property he lived on in New Paltz, New York, rests against the wall next to a vintage French cafe chair and a Thomas W. Benton print; a mobile he made hangs from the ceiling above.
A kitchen with white walls and white countertops. There is a hanging work of art on the wall. There is a sink and an oven.
A corner of the kitchen, with a drawing of Lake Michigan hanging above. A Hasami tray sits next to the sink.

A vintage French cafe chair sits at his ’60s-era Danish desk (“It was my first big furniture purchase back in Chicago, when I was right out of college”) which is nestled in the bay window, flanked by speakers and plants. The chair’s twin is in the kitchen, where Toya spends a lot of time cooking and hosting.

The red prep table—also vintage—next to the stove was originally a parts cleaning bin at an auto body shop. He uses it as a cooler for parties. “I fill it with ice; it has a foot pedal and the whole lid comes out and all the beers are inside,” Toya says.

The corner of a room. The wall is painted blue and the moldings are white. There is a wooden stool with a metallic skull resting on it. On the wall are multiple works of art.
Orange industrial molds used for Calvados manufacturing that Toya bought at a flea market in Paris hang next to a painting by his father. The stool is made from an oak tree he fell in love with that was removed during a project he worked on.
The corner of a hallway. The wall is painted blue. The moldings are white. There are multiple works of art hanging on the wall. The doorway looks into a bedroom. The floor is hardwood.
Tucked into a hallway corner is a painting of a cat Toya made while studying in Rome. Industrial molds hang above the painting beside a drawing that fell out of a 1930s sketchbook he bought in Prague.
A work of art on a white wall.
A steel armature holds a prayerbook that Toya bought from Art Market, an art fair held in San Francisco. It’s his favorite work of art in the apartment.
A corner of a room. The wall is white with multiple works of art hanging. There is a floor lamp and a black table with a plant in a planter on it.
The first molds Toya bought, for gears, hang in his living room. The lamp, from the ’60s, was a hand-me-down from his family, and the two small artworks are from Bigelow Apothecary in New York.

Toya went a bit cart-before-the-horse with his dining chairs and table: The chairs, a sort of ’60s take on the American Windsor chair, “were literally stacked up in a window in a store in San Francisco,” he says. “It was about six months later after kind of looking around town for a dining table, I found one that pretty much went with them exactly.”

Though hallways are often simply transitional spaces that go undecorated, the corridor in Toya’s apartment offer some visual intrigue: they’re painted a dramatic, bright blue, and hung with artwork, like a orange and blue painting from his father.

The hallway, which was previously painted white, was never going to get convincing natural light, Toya explains, so he decided to embrace the darkness and went with a brooding vibe. “Everywhere else is kind of calm and bright,” he says. But as you move through this space in the apartment, you get to experience some depth and color, says Toya.

Two vintage suitcases are stacked on top of each other and used as a bedside table. On the top of the suitcases sit a lamp, a houseplant in a planter, and a candle.
Two stacked vintage suitcases Toya bought in New York act as a bedside table.
A chair with multiple assorted belts hanging on the back of it. An artist sketch of a human body is on the wall in back of the chair.
A friend’s sketch sits behind a belt-clad Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair in the bedroom.
A bedroom. The bed has a patterned quilt. There are multiple works of art hanging over the bed.
The painting hanging above Toya’s bed is from Buenos Aires. Beside it hangs a balalaika he picked up at a flea market. The tan blanket on his bed is from Pendleton; the navy one is from Calvin Klein.

The bathroom, too, displays beautiful, functional objects Toya’s picked up during travels, including several combs made from water buffalo horns from China and a window curtain from Japan. In his bedroom, belts rest on the back of a Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair, which is positioned beside the root of a beloved pine tree from a property in New Paltz, New York, Toya lived on for a few months.

While there are some things he’ll keep around forever, his home has somewhat of a revolving door—things come in, things go out. “I just like to collect things over time,” says Toya. “And if I end up overdoing it, then I either give it away or put it away.”

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