Text Sarah Buitendach Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young
There’s no doubt that Braamfontein is currently one of Jo’burg’s hottest neighbourhoods, but while the city’s cool crowd flocks to experience this creative, regenerated corner of the CBD anew, well-known gallerist and art fundi Michael Obert has been a loyal supporter of the area for almost 20 years.
Born and raised in the United States, he has spent more than half his life in South Africa. ‘Braamies is the place where I’m most at home,’ says Michael, who first worked in the area ‘way back in 1993’ and moved into his apartment five years ago. ‘It’s a very important part of my life,’ he adds. So much so that he recently closed the doors of Obert Contemporary, his renowned gallery in Melrose Arch, and is now running an art consultancy, Unit 6, from the glass-walled sixth-floor space in which he lives. On entering Michael’s apartment you’ll immediately understand why he’s made this strategic business move. He must certainly have one of the most covetable work-and-living spaces in the country. From the front door a gigantic Conrad Botes painting watches over a perfectly curated scene that includes the popping colour of an iconic Hella Jongerius Polder sofa, and pieces of art by the likes of Walter Battiss and Robert Hodgins. Michael’s open-plan home is an exercise in thoughtfully gathered and arranged art and furniture, with a collection of pieces both beautiful and timeless.
It also has a view that could make any Jo’burg enthusiast swell with pride. As one of the topmost apartments in Braamfontein reinventor Adam Levy’s much-lauded 155 Smit Street development, this window-lined floor looks over the City of Gold – taking in its compelling urban landscape but still remaining a pod of calm above it. ‘It’s been a total revelation working from home,’ Michael says. ‘To be able to wake up, throw on shorts, a T-shirt and slops and not have to drive anywhere to work is amazing,’ he notes. ‘I use Post – the restaurant downstairs – every day and pretty much never need to leave Braamfontein, because it has everything.’ The spectacular wooden deck that juts out behind his apartment could be another reason why he’d never want to leave. Drenched in sunlight and with a view over the comings and goings of the Juta and De Beer streets below, it’s kitted out in Paola Lenti furniture that’s absolutely made for lounging on. It’s an undeniably sexy spot – made all the more appealing with Michael’s choice of sultry soul sounds and feel-good hip-hop pulsing through the hot afternoon air.
He studied South African history at UCT and Yale, but art is in his blood; his dad owns a gallery in the US that sells African art. Having made the move from the world of commercial galleries, Michael is relishing the opportunity to work only with artists he wants to.
‘Walter Battiss, Conrad Botes and Robert Hodgins are my favourite local artists – Hodgins was a friend for 20 years and I learnt a lot from him,’ he explains. Right now, though, he’s also enjoying his involvement with upcoming artists of the likes of Cobus Nienaber, Patrick Makumbe and Vusi Beauchamp. Design-savvy Michael spends ‘just as much time looking at furniture on the Internet every day’ as he does art. His choice of exceedingly collectable Poul Kjaerholm PK 31 chairs and his Carrera-marble bathroom, designed by Tonic with views over the city, are proof of this enthusiasm. ‘This apartment is everything to me,’ Michael says. ‘I’ve hunted for and hand-selected everything in it. It’s very special.’ We wholeheartedly agree.
Michael’s home truths
My favourite artwork is ‘Watching the Demonstration’ by Robert Hodgins. I watched him paint it – it’s a seminal work and is very meaningful to me. It hangs above my bed.
If I had space for another artwork in the apartment it would be a piece by Marlene Dumas. I love her long, lean oils but I have no room or budget for them!
My favourite space in the apartment is absolutely the deck. Indoor-outdoor living is the best feature of this place – it’s like a giant treehouse.
When displaying art in your home, don’t listen to others; go with your gut.
My list of ‘best things’ about living in Braamies is growing by the day. I love every moment here – I never drive anymore.
My favourite building in Johannesburg is 155 Smit Street, which is also the most beautiful building in South Africa. Loyal to the bone…
Right now I’m reading The Outsider by Albert Camus.
Top of my iPod playlist is Mos Def.
My dream holiday destination is Maputo.
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of House and Leisure.