During the time when Johanne Balfour was building her family home in Sandton, Joburg, she rented a house designed by Mid-Century South African architect Norman Eaton. Eaton’s legacy is best summed up as pioneering a kind of Highveld regional modernism – and Johanne, who is French, could not have chosen a more thoughtful, nuanced example of local architecture to shape her family’s own architectural response to their new country.
‘From the start, I wanted to go modern,’ says Johanne, an interior designer who studied at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan and Joburg’s Greenside Design Center. And it was this idea that led her to the ‘tropical modernism’ of contemporary Brazilian architecture, which combines the clean lines and elegance of modernist architecture with textured natural materials and a more expressive approach.
Intent on adapting this influence for her family home’s Highveld setting and melding it with some of the principles that animated Eaton’s architecture in the late mid-20th century, Johanne called on architect Charles van Breda – and the result is a sophisticated version of modern African architecture.
The building comprises a wooden-slatted block resting on top of a glass block, with a concrete block on one end that intersects at 90 degrees. ‘The design crystallised into a very simple form,’ says Van Breda. ‘Effectively, it is a structure floating on another structure, with a glass box below.’ The bedrooms are above and the living areas are glassed in below, configured around the kitchen, which ‘formed the nucleus of the house’. In the concrete block is the garage.
Johanne wanted the garden and building to be well integrated, so she worked with landscaper Tim Conradie to create a largely endemic garden that stands as a wild counterpoint to the disciplined linearity of the architecture. Van Breda found that introducing disappearing sliding doors to the lower glass level helped create ‘a sense of immediacy and light’ and facilitated the impression that ‘the garden came into the house’ – and at the same time, invites you out. ‘The juxtaposition between the architectural box rising out of this chaotic, organic landscape is well played out,’ he says.
This concept of a pristine, human-made ‘jewel in the landscape’ of classic modernism is tempered somewhat by the materials used for the exterior, which were chosen to weather with time: the wooden screen on the first level, for example, will turn a soft silver-grey and bring, as Van Breda expresses it, another dimension of ‘life to the front of the building’, while the concrete and glass will maintain their clarity. The effect, as Van Breda notes, is to shift the idea of a modernist house from a ‘machine for living’ to a design that ‘acknowledges the idea of the handmade object’. It’s not rustic by any means, but inside and out, there are references to the crafted and handmade elements embedded in the structured architecture.
This is even more evident in the interiors, which include raw concrete columns and polished concrete floors. ‘I wanted to keep some of the roughness and the natural [quality of the materials],’ Johanne says. With its light oak finish, the kitchen continues the dialogue between the human-made and the natural, featuring walnut floating shelves and cabinetry as well as a flamed Zimbabwean granite kitchen counter top that was selected as much for its texture as for the fact that it’s from Africa.
When it comes to the furnishings, they are an expertly layered combination of designs from various eras, with organic materials such as wood, leather, grass, mohair, metal and stone predominating. The dining table, which was originally owned by a German missionary in South Africa, dates back to the mid-1800s, while the sofas, coffee table and lamps include up-to-the-minute designs by the likes of Tom Dixon.
As a volunteer who raises funds for the NGO Orange Babies through art and design, Johanne is a great supporter of local work, and there are examples of African traditional handcrafts and artefacts scattered throughout her home, from woven baskets to carved sidetables. On the other end of the spectrum are instances of local contemporary Modernist-inflected design, such as a Mezzanine coffee table on the patio, Dokter and Misses stools in the bathroom and lighting by MOS. And since Orange Babies has collaborated with furniture designer Peter Mabeo for this year’s FNB JoburgArtFair – where it will have a booth showcasing limited-edition pieces designed and manufactured by him as well as artwork by South African artists – it’s likely that some select Mabeo originals will soon find a place in her collection.
While the ceramics, vases and other collectibles explore overlaps of materiality and skill, there are also illustrations of nature’s own shapes and patterns in the form of birds’ nests, seed pods and shells – which in turn makes it deeply appropriate that Johanne’s favourite German Mid-Century Modern vase, the Artichoke, is an abstracted natural form.
With wide overhangs that shield the Balfours from the sun in summer and rain in winter, this house has been carefully designed to consider its environment. But it is the balance of the human-made and the natural that helps merge Brazilian modernism with Eaton’s local influence in a build that is truly inspiring.