When art historian and Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg Federico Freschi returned to Joburg after a spell in Cape Town, he sought out a house in Kensington, an area he’d lived in before. ‘It’s one of the oldest suburbs, and has some architecturally interesting houses,’ he says.
Even though Federico’s taste leans towards the ‘streamlined modernist’ (his PhD focused on the decorative aspects of South African architecture in the 1930s), he was particularly drawn to this 1920s red-brick house on the ridge, ‘somewhere between Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts’. What he found so compelling about it – apart from its elevated setting and vast view – was its original character and features, as well as its sense of authenticity. ‘The structure has been largely unchanged, which is rather unusual in these houses,’ he says.
Federico points out that, despite some quite grand features, it was a fairly ordinary house for its time. That is, however, what makes some of its details even more remarkable. ‘There’s something about the quality of the building and the proportions that were part of a standard vocabulary at the time, which now you get only in exceptional cases,’ he says. Drawing attention to the arch over the front entrance, he says, ‘Just look at how beautifully this arch grows out of the brickwork. It’s got such great proportion and is exquisitely crafted. It has a kind of grace and grandeur without being pretentious. This is a skill people had at the time. You only get it now if you’re working with a good architect and are prepared to spend money on proportion and finish.’
The architecture of the house may belong to the ‘imagination of the previous generation’, but Federico’s taste for a more modernist aesthetic comes through in his glamorous Art Deco furniture, with its ‘clean lines and luxurious materials and veneers’, as well as in the contemporary abstract art. ‘I also have an emerging taste for Oriental designs – Chinese carpets, Coromandel screens and ceramics,’ he says.
He may make fun of his varied tastes, saying that they are ‘caught somewhere between a certain history of suburban Joburg and a kind of nostalgic exoticism’, but there’s a critical eye and an appreciation of detail evident in the way the aesthetic influences in his home have been integrated into the space, creating a sense of internal cohesion.
There’s also a certain light-heartedness at work in Federico and Neil’s home. The main en suite bathroom, for example, has old safari posters that reinforce its vintage travel theme, which began when Federico bought an elephant-shaped lamp on a whim. ‘Because I’ve got this old-fashioned taste for the 1930s, I have to guard against becoming too fussy, like Granny’s house,’ says Federico. ‘It’s saved by the fact that my partner and I both really like contemporary art and tend towards the abstract.’
Federico’s love of abstract art is linked to his interest in early to mid-20th century aesthetics (he was the South African curator of the Henri Matisse Rhythm and Meaning exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery last year) but it’s also a gut response. He simply prefers artworks that ‘require some work in looking at them’ rather than figurative art, which he suggests can be didactic. He is drawn to ‘things that have a sense of finish, things that have a kind of factitiousness about them – that exist compellingly in the world as objects in their own right.’
The art throughout the house includes international pieces by Victor Pasmore and Hans Hartung. But South African works predominate, ranging from 1960s and 1970s pieces by the likes of Cecil Skotnes, Robert Hodgins and Kenneth Bakker to contemporary ones by Peter Eastman, Andrzej Urbanski, Mary Wafer and Kyle Morland, taking in Mongezi Ncaphayi and Joni Brenner along the way.
Federico’s home is remarkable not only for its individual treasures, but also for the way it creates coherence from diverse influences. There’s glamour and shabbiness, seriousness and wit, history and individuality here – all of which work compellingly together.