Architect Pieter-Ernst Mare’s Johannesburg apartment might be in the heart of Sandton’s CBD, surrounded by the massive reflective glass forms of the corporate headquarters, hotels and shopping centres that characterise Africa’s richest square mile, but you’d never guess it. It’s not in a residential skyscraper, but rather an artefact of the past – one of 25 double-storey units surrounding a private park that somehow persists in the heart of the glass-and-iron jungle. ‘It doesn’t feel like Sandton,’ says Pieter-Ernst. In fact, once you’re through the front door, leafy trees screen off the looming towers all around and you could be anywhere.
When he moved in, Pieter-Ernst commissioned an almost floor-to-ceiling oil painting by Riaan Bosch that completely blocks out a street-facing window in the dining room. Other than this clever adjustment, the traditional feel and neutral backdrop of the flat weren’t changed as the space was perfect for Pieter-Ernst’s two great loves: art and the ‘travel knick-knacks’ he searches for wherever he goes.
The gracefully old-world bones of the apartment lend themselves to what Pieter-Ernst calls a ‘classic eclectic mix’. He says he’s deliberately kept the walls white and his furnishings dark. ‘Small spaces are tricky to furnish,’ he says. Not only does a uniform dark furniture palette mean the apartment ‘doesn’t feel too cluttered’, but ‘by keeping it a neutral colour, it’s also easy to bring in new stuff and take away the old.’
Pieter-Ernst has never shopped simply to decorate, but rather has collected individual pieces he loves, brought them together and then thought about how to combine them. For example, his original Eames lounge chair (a favourite) is more functional art than furniture – and it’s not even that functional. The original swivel mechanism on the base included felt-tipped rods that have worn out, but he can’t bring himself to replace it and detract from its iconic originality.
Given the range of Pieter-Ernst’s interests, it’s remarkable how resolved his home feels. In the living room, there’s an antique Indian table, Asian antiques, a classic French wardrobe and a contemporary South African sofa by Dark Horse. ‘I play around constantly,’ he says. ‘I’m big on telling clients to live with a neutral palette, then add layers.’ Among those layers of ‘smalls’, as Pieter-Ernst calls them, are objets and artworks that he collects on his travels, from the Nigerian sculptures on the coffee table to the zebra skin from Zeerust spread over a rug, and horn motifs on carvings mounted on the walls. ‘They have such strong form and sculptural value that you can’t help but love them,’ he says.
His approach of constantly shifting and editing pieces also works for his art. ‘Because the space is so small, I use a gallery hanging system so I can swap works around all the time,’ says Pieter-Ernst. Likewise, he says that the neutrals of the house and furnishings work ‘because the art feels like it’s popping’. His collection features a range of contemporary South African artists from Art Eye Gallery, including Riaan Bosch, Diane Victor and Peter Mammes, as well as works he’s picked up around the world.
There’s a 17th-century Japanese painting of a fish – ‘It’s my absolute favourite’ – and a framed, antique German etching so old that the glass has run over the centuries and thickened towards the bottom of the frame. Sprinkled in is the occasional print, such as the Picasso on the staircase, as well as historical images.
One project Pieter-Ernst worked on involved sourcing historical photographs of Johannesburg and enlarging them. ‘This is the first shot of post coming to Joburg,’ he notes of one he kept for himself. Its presence is a little like the complex his apartment is in: a reminder of a time when Sandton (and greater Johannesburg) was a different place.
It is this which makes Pieter-Ernst’s eclectic, layered approach to the interior seem appropriate: with its constantly shifting collection, it is less about a look and more about a detailed story that is continually being written.