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Charming Karoo Home

Text Deborah Louw Styling Jeanne Botes Photographs Greg Cox Residents of the historic town of Prince Albert will swear that there’s no bluer sky, no purer air and no more picturesque setting than here, in this corner of the Western Cape, bordering on the endless stretches of semi-desert scrub that make up the Great Karoo. Ilse Schutten, an artist and former fashion designer, found this out on her first weekend visit here some 10 years ago. Spread out at the foot of the rugged Swartberg mountains, the vast open land, which was established as a farm in 1762, was affecting in a way that defied description. That weekend turned into a month, and then another, and Ilse soon realised she had no desire to return permanently to her hectic life in Cape Town. Her ideal Prince Albert home, though, had to be more than an occasional retreat. It needed to accommodate her art studio as well as her varied interests, from crafts to cookery and teaching. She found and renovated a couple of candidate properties, but the story of this house really began with a vintage side table she came across in the Prince Albert Country Store. Wanting a suitable home for it, Ilse first put the side table into her temporary studio; then, unconvinced, she tried it out in the living area of her next house. Eyeing the vacant plot next door, she decided instead to start from scratch – and to build it a home of its own. It now makes a quiet statement in Ilse’s bathroom. To make a new build that would fit into this almost-timeless environment, as if it had always been there, was Ilse’s challenge. She wanted it to look natural and organic – an ‘old-timer’, like most of the other houses (and some residents) of Prince Albert. And so she set about creating a look of venerable old age. Opting for a basic floor plan – living-dining area, kitchen, two en suite bedrooms and a studio – she expanded on the rural-vernacular theme with high ceilings, whitewashed walls, wooden window frames and simple pine flooring. An expert jack-of-all-trades, she did almost everything herself, from laying the chequerboard tiling to panelling, shelving, scraping, varnishing and painting, and enlisted the help of a local builder only for some of the heavier work. Everything in the house was revamped or repurposed, salvaged from the dump or reclaimed from second-hand stores. Any new discoveries, such as the Oregon-pine flooring, were given an ageing treatment. All the light fittings were found at antique stores or made by Ilse. Taps, either vintage or made to look that way, were installed at the basins; and the wooden window shutters were given a weathered look. The furnishings also possess a time-stood-still quality: there’s history in the yellowwood dining table; a rickety vintage chair in the bathroom; the beautiful antique spread (a former tablecloth) on Ilse’s bed; and the regal Biedermeier armoire in the living room, which once belonged to her German great-grandmother. These days Ilse’s favourite room is her studio. From the outset she wanted to be part of Prince Albert’s community and its deceptively laid-back lifestyle. There’s always plenty going on, she says, from creativity and yoga weekends to cookery courses and the annual olive festival, and the studio has become an ideal base. Here she creates her own artworks and runs yoga and art classes. Ilse has ensured that her home, which she shares with five cats, is snug in winter – thanks to the huge, central two-sided fireplace linking the living and dining areas – and cool in the Karoo’s fierce summers. Its calm demeanour reflects the essential ‘countryness’ of this extraordinary region: a piece of the old Cape carefully recreated in a patch of ancient land. ILSE'S HOME TRUTHS What I enjoy most about winter are the crisp, cold mornings turning into glorious blue-sky days, wrapping up in many woolly layers and boots – and, of course, those magical evenings by the fire. The best thing about living where I do is that I appreciate life – every day; the incredible beauty of the vast space, the light and the fresh air. It’s a privilege to be here. The part of my home I love the most is the kitchen-living area, because that’s where it all happens: friends, food and creativity around the big table. I’d describe my style as simply classic, timeless and nature-bound. This season, I’ll entertain with slow stews, invigorating soups and big fires. The best way to spend a weekend is... in winter, hiking in the veld or on the mountains and, in summer, going for swims in cool mountain pools, camp cooking and gazing at the stars. My favourite ways to relax are to listen to wonderful music, and to be out in nature. The most inspiring place in South Africa is Nature’s Valley in the Western Cape – great for walks along that endless, unspoilt beach... and dreaming. And overseas, my favourite places are Italy, for the food and ancient culture, and New York, for the buzz and sheer wonder of it all.