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