At the entrance to this stately home in Johannesburg’s Benmore, guests are greeted by a bronze walking man, a life-sized sculpture by artist Ruhan Janse van Vuuren. It’s not unusual for visitors to do a double take as they see his form repeated through the glass facade and again in the garden. It’s as if the man is moving through the house, and this illusion has the effect of blurring the boundaries between the interior and exterior.
‘The architecture has an undeniable indoor-outdoor feel to it,’ says the house’s landscaper and interior decorator, Otto de Jager. ‘Using the owners’ art collection, I tried to reflect this in both the garden and the interiors.’Otto is highly regarded as an events organiser, and this was his first official foray into interior design. The project arose when architect Peter Cohen felt that ‘Otto’s sense of style and passion for landscaping meant he would be the perfect person to do the garden.’
Both recognise the indoor-outdoor flow as the defining feature of this house and Peter admits its initial conception arose from a design constraint. ‘The site was challenging as it is set on extremely steep slopes, and in order to preserve the view and incorporate the gradient, I had to work around this.’
Peter played with split levels to accommodate it and, because the entrance is on a mezzanine level, you’re treated to a great sense of space as you cross the threshold. ‘When you walk in, you look through the upstairs section into the view, and through the downstairs area over the garden, which gives a sense of perspective. In the end, the constraint worked to our advantage,’ he says.
Part of the clients’ design brief for the house, adds Peter ‘was for a home that was contemporary in style, but also welcoming and comfortable in feel.’ As a result warm, natural elements such as rock work and timber (as seen in the antique doors of the entry courtyard) counter the more modern effects of huge glass panels and big, open volumes, and the differing textures and materials complement each other beautifully in the final design.
Otto took his lead from Peter’s design. The garden is austere at its core, yet is softened by colourful blooms at the perimeters. ‘It’s a graphic garden, with a combination of aloes meeting roses and succulents meeting herbs. As in the house, there’s a mix of unexpected effects. His success with the garden led to the owners commissioning Otto to decorate the house, after they’d already moved in. ‘The lines and ethos of this house are majestic, and my clients realised that they would need a rather grand interpretation, that their existing furniture wouldn’t work in the space.’
All for creating a ‘home’ rather than an ‘effect’, Otto kept key pieces of the owners’ furniture and modelled certain rooms around these. ‘I didn’t want to hide their personality, so we incorporated and highlighted certain pieces. For example, an entire bedroom is designed around an inherited vintage chair.’
On choosing the interiors, Otto again used the architecture as inspiration. ‘This is a serious house, but with some unusual elements, so I decided to use that theme in the decor,’ he explains. Hence features such as a cabinet of curiosities, theatre lights on the living-room floor, and a bright red ottoman in the formal lounge, all of which provide strong contrasts to the subdued grey hues used throughout.
Peter agrees that the house has a strong sense of identity. ‘For me, a project is always most successful when the interior is in perfect synergy with the architecture. In this case the landscape and interior continued with the logical design process that was set up from day one. That’s why it works so beautifully within itself.’ Peter Cohen Architect; Otto de Jager Events,
Originally published in HL October 2012.