Text Nia Magoulianiti-McGregor Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young
It was love at first sight. As Karen wandered through the house, taking in its character and history, it confirmed what she had known the instant she and her husband David walked through the front door: this was their home. ‘That knowledge is the ultimate in luxury,’ she says.
It was the original farmhouse in Abbotsford, Johannesburg, and had beautiful features – five fireplaces, thick walls and a large, warm kitchen. Its previous owners, a French couple, had imparted on it a French sense of style which appealed to the Francophile in Karen. ‘I looked around the house and saw my future,’ she says. ‘I pictured large dinner parties and alfresco lunches with friends and family, and children in the kitchen doing their homework as I cooked.’
For the next six years David and Karen dreamed about how they would make their house a little grander while keeping its original feel and French aesthetic. ‘We didn’t want to renovate our house without putting our hearts into it,’ she says.
David and Karen, an architect and advocate respectively, agreed from the outset that they’d renovate it themselves. Karen didn’t want to imitate a style: ‘I wanted everything to be personal,’ not just to add lots of French things and call it French. ‘The only thing I would settle for was an authentic space built on passion.’
Karen focused on detail and David ‘made it happen’ structurally. ‘He has a unique way of interpreting exactly what I want. He’s turned my vision into a reality and nothing was impossible for him,’ says Karen. They added three extra fireplaces and a wine cellar, French white oak floors in a reverse-herringbone pattern and a luxurious yet homely kitchen complete with a marble counter from a Parisian patisserie. ‘It’s a mixture of a French chateau, and,’ she laughs, ‘the servants’ quarters where the kitchen is warm and the place bustles with energy.’
The family spent many holidays in France during the redesign, either renting an apartment in Paris or a house in Provence, looking for inspiration in bistros, grand chateaus or simply on the streets. ‘I scoured the quaint antique shops of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and competed with the locals on winter mornings at Vanves flea market on the south side of Paris. I became friends with all the antique dealers at Clignancourt on Paris’ northern outskirts and wherever I went I seemed to be followed by containers of authentic and original pieces, each with its unique story.’
She read French architectural books and spoke to local interior designers, but also quizzed French friends and women she encountered laying out a table for lunch in a remote village. ‘Did shutters go inside or out – and why?’ (Sometimes they go inside, sometimes out; it all depends on the area, the Mistral winds and ‘even the seagulls!’) ‘I soaked up every detail,’ she says.
She found her 18th-century Christofle cutlery set housed in a monogrammed leather box in Vanves and the serving room’s antique Baccarat chandelier in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which she practically carried home over her shoulder. An antique chandelier also presides over a dining room inspired by Château de Haroué in Lorraine.
While it’s passionately loved and has been painstakingly perfected, the house is also lived in. As David says, ‘Everything has value but nothing is precious.’ Karen agrees: ‘It was always about more than just bricks and mortar. It’s part of us. My soul is here.
KAREN’S HOME TRUTHS
For me luxury means being in a position to travel; to live like a local, soak up the culture and personally search for what feeds my passion.
Other than in Joburg, I would live in an apartment in St Germain in Paris, with a little farm in Provence for holidays.
The small luxury I can never do without is a fireplace.
Style is about personal taste.
I believe bad taste is preferable to no taste.
My own style is French. Eclectic. Imperfect. Authentic.
I’m inspired by everything and anything – from a chateau’s 50-seater dining-table set, to wood panelling in a brasserie.
I collect pieces with stories and histories.
My interiors motto is wait for inspiration. Make your space yours.
My design advice is to find decorative pieces with a history and then put it all together in a unique way.
My pet design hate is designing without passion so that there’s no trace of the owner’s personality.
My most treasured pieces of furniture are the original chairs from a 1950s Faust ballet. It was the first time I realised I could bring a part of France home with me.
My entertaining style is generous and interactive. I love cooking good food and creating a feast.
Our favourite restaurant is Chez Omar on Rue de Bretagne in Paris.
My secret talent is making French confectionery.
The soundtrack to our perfect weekend is ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones.
My most inspiring place is France for its joie de vivre, the architecture, attention to detail, and uncompromising search for the absolute best in everything.
This article was originally featured in the August 2011 issue of House and Leisure.