houses, home

Dark Matters: a Mix of Old and New in This Romantic Parktown North Home

Elsa Young

There’s something undeniably romantic about Christian van der Walt and Anli Jones’ Parktown North home in Johannesburg. Part of that impression is created by the surprise of finding it where it is: at the end of a long, narrow, bumpy driveway, the entrance to which is hidden in plain sight among shops, offices and restaurants that are situated on one of the suburb’s busiest streets.

Arriving there is a little like slipping through a chink in the fabric of ordinary life, and suddenly finding yourself in a mystical secret garden. Who knew that all the while, somewhere behind the street’s familiar facade, there exists a parallel world, where lavender lines the borders of a sweet-smelling, tree-filled paradise, bees from a pair of hives buzz around a lush vegetable patch and half a dozen quails trot about their coop, as owls haunt the neighbouring oak trees?

The whimsical ambience is exaggerated by the proportions of the property’s castle-like house. Before moving here, Christian lived in Killarney’s Whitehall Court, which is probably the best example of neoclassical architecture in the city, and whose volumes and details left him with a taste for lofty rooms. Add to that the fact that before they moved here, Christian and Anli had bought a high, slim antique metal door from a nearby vintage shop that they were determined to use, and the high ceilings became an inevitability.

Christian and Anli filled in the old swimming pool (where the vegetable patch is now), and added a new one surrounded by olive trees and buxus hedges.

 

Christian’s conviction that a dark palette can be anything but oppressive is clearly illustrated by the light that floods the main living room. A coffee table, also by Dahla Hulme, is bordered by what Anli dubs the ‘boy’ sofa (the Chesterfield) and the ‘girl’ sofa in cream fabric. The sculpture on the left is by Christian’s father, Chris van der Walt.

 

In the breezy kitchen of their home in Parktown North, Johannesburg, Christian van der Walt and Anli Jones introduced high, pressed-metal ceilings in keeping with the original architectural style typical of the suburb. Wooden accents, such as the bar stools from La Grange Interiors, provide a warm contrast to the dark backdrop, as do an array of suspended copper pots. The hanging rail was custom-made by Mango Sootoo Trading, who also restored the antique French doors.

 

When the pair first found the house, their first impression was not a positive one. The abode was originally a garden cottage – ‘with yellow-painted facebrick,’ recalls Anli – on a subdivided plot. Its interior layout had been carved into four tiny rooms and, truth be told, Christian and Anli were more taken with the trees in the garden than the building itself. But they saw its potential, moved in and set about altering and renovating the house bit by bit.

Even their first plans have a fantastical dimension: they were rendered in video. Christian works in visual effects and animation for films and advertisements. ‘We create all the stuff you can’t shoot,’ he says – dinosaurs in the traffic, talking dogs and so on. Anli, a fashion brand manager with a background in design, started sketching plans on the backs of napkins, while Christian would render his in 3-D animation. ‘I conceded, “OK, you win”,’ says Anli. 

The walls of the home, inside and out, are black. ‘People expect dark walls to be oppressive,’ says Christian. ‘But they’re not. When they’re black, the walls become a backdrop.’ The result is a hard-to-define sense of space rather than a ‘room’ or a ‘house’. Christian points out that the walls create an enveloping atmosphere. ‘You don’t feel exposed,’ he says, ‘and the effect is romantic.’

The antique doors that inspired the high ceilings have been positioned in the centre of the abode’s main entrance, and to the left hang two artworks by Fiona Pole.

 

Guarding a wall that leads into the kitchen are a pair of charcoal sculptures in a glass box: the ravens Huginn and Muninn, from Norse mythology, were acquired in Södermalm, Sweden. Atop the same wooden cabinet upon which they sit is a gramophone from Restoration Hardware that doubles as an analogue iPhone docking station.

 

It’s true: just as figures and objects seem touched by beauty in the chiaroscuro of Renaissance paintings or works by the old Dutch masters, so too the objects and art in Christian and Anli’s home seem to take on a magical glow. From the outside, the green of the garden stands out beautifully against the inky background.

‘Because we had the volume, we could get away with dark walls,’ says Christian. The windows on either side of the antique doors and on the adjacent wall rise all the way up to the towering ceilings, flooding the interior with natural light. In the kitchen, copper pots and a crystal chandelier also seem to sparkle and shine in the diffused glow from high-level windows.

Christian points out that he sees the house as a ‘showcase space’ – particularly the main living area. He and Anli are both collectors, constantly assembling and curating objects. Anli tends towards a fondness for animal designs, such as giant ceramic horse heads, bird sculptures and wolves – ‘timorous beasties’ as she calls them. Christian’s clean-lined approach stands as a counterpoint.

In contrast to the vertical capacity of the living room, the large main bedroom emphasises horizontal volume. Some filigree detail is injected into the space in the form of a Garland light by Tord Boontje for Habitat from Imagenius, and the Lab Light on the bedside table is by Anatomy Design.

 

A clerestory window lends a glow to the main bedroom’s dressing area. In front of the velvet sofa from Julian Décor is a trestle table from La Grange Interiors, which features a giant horse head and an angelic torso by Marieke Prinsloo-Rowe from Garden Bleu.

 

The slight tension is captured in the combination of ancient and contemporary. Modernist-influenced South African designs by the likes of Tonic Design, Mezzanine Interiors and Anatomy Design – all of which are located in the neighbourhood – rub shoulders with antiques picked up at auctions. Shapely furnishings by sculptural artist Dahla Hulme round off the connection, blurring the distinction between functional and decorative.

‘Antiques are a good reminder that patina is beautiful. It’s not that things are ruined if they are bumped or scratched,’ says Christian. ‘When you mix old and new, it reminds you that things change.’ 

They certainly do. But this house is also a reminder that with a bit of vision, and perhaps a 3-D animated plan, the magical quality of the past can shine through. And sometimes, this can be found at the end of a panhandle on a street you drive down every day, and never noticed.

On the living room wall, a trio of antique oil portraits have been framed in modern settings to represent a combination of the old and the new. A snowy reindeer pelt draped over a wooden armchair from La Grange Interiors adds a pale counterpoint to the noir background.

 

The main living area leads onto a spacious patio that overlooks the vegetable garden. On one side of the outdoor table by Dahla Hulme is a set of Bertoia side chairs by Harry Bertoia for Knoll, inherited from Anli’s grandfather – they cost a princely R19 for six at the time. The pendant lights made from old rulers also hail from La Grange Interiors.

 

A vintage etching of Paris from the Louvre Lithographic Studio graces a spot above clean-lined ivory cabinetry by Elim Renovation and Design with light grey, cement-based composite countertops.

 

A fireplace from Tradewinds keeps the spare room toasty in cooler weather. Comfort is also a priority for the couple’s dogs Ella, Nina and Amelie, who like to curl up in the warmth.

 

Opening onto the courtyard is the en suite bathroom, with its twin sinks from Dado, and tapware by Meir and Flush Bathrooms. The oversized tiles are from Tile Space.

 

Abundant foliage offers ample shade in which to enjoy a light lunch that includes fresh tomatoes grown in the garden.