The Art of Deco: a Compact Illovo Home

This compact flat in Illovo, Joburg, balances a zero-clutter policy with a wide array of stylistic influences.

Elsa Young
Nicola Stevenson

House and Leisure - a Compact Illovo Home

While studying art in Paris, Elisabeth Callinicos – who now works at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – spent the French summer visiting her family at home in Joburg. Her mother stumbled upon a 1960s Illovo flat and suggested they see it together. Although Elisabeth thought the property was ‘vile’, her family convinced her to invest, so she bought the place with the intention of renting it out while she continued to live abroad. 

Time went by, and Elisabeth spent a year in London working for an art auction house before returning home. Six months before she was due to return, she decided to live in the flat she’d bought all those years earlier, but it had to be substantially renovated before she could move in. It was poky and carpeted, and the kitchen had orange tiles. 

There were features she admired, of course. ‘I like these old apartments because the finishes are so solid,’ says Elisabeth, who was also attracted to the high ceilings and parquet beneath the carpets. There were good features to exploit for a renovation. 

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House and Leisure - a Compact Illovo Home

House and Leisure - a Compact Illovo HomeHouse and Leisure - a Compact Illovo Home

Between having a father who had made a hobby of refurbishing old houses (and had built up a network of builders and craftspeople) and a friend whose father is an architect – Tony Bentel – Elisabeth had a good start. She and Tony set about opening up the kitchen so that it connected with the dining area, resulting in a breezier layout. ‘We made it into a more fluid space,’ she says. ‘I don’t like little compartmentalised rooms.’ They also took space from a corridor – and a little from the guest bedroom – and created a second bathroom, turning it into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom flat. 

Dark, Art Deco-type double doors that reached the ceiling were one of the striking features. ‘I lived in a Paris apartment with French windows looking out onto the street,’ says Elisabeth. She wanted to create a similar effect in her Illovo space, and the narrow height of the doors emphasised the already impressively high ceilings, which made the flat seem far bigger than it is. 

She tried to work with small, independent builders and craftsmen rather than big companies. ‘I had to hustle to find lesser-known people rather than from the large building companies,’ she says, ‘but
I was lucky because my dad has a lot of contacts.’

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House and Leisure - a Compact Illovo HomeHouse and Leisure - a Compact Illovo Home

Because she’d been away and mostly shared tiny ‘shoebox’ apartments overseas, Elisabeth didn’t have much to speak of in the way of furniture. ‘A lot of this is from my mom,’ she says. Gesturing towards an impressive Art Deco cabinet in the dining area, she says, ‘That was my gran’s, then my mom’s and is now mine. I also got some pieces from my sister when she moved abroad.’ Fortunately everything perfectly suited the aesthetic she was after. In Paris, Elisabeth had been struck by the way people combined old and antique furniture with ‘the beautiful and modern. Now that I have the opportunity to live alone, I’ve taken that on board.’ 

The furniture Elisabeth received from her mother included some of the ornate and gilt influences of old Europe. She picked up some sleeker Scandi pieces, such as the coffee table, from places like MØdernist in Parkhurst, and otherwise went off the beaten track again. ‘I like to scrounge around and find things. For example, I heard about a nightclub in Primrose that was closing down and that’s where I bought the dresser in the bedroom.’ 

While in London, Elisabeth had been ‘blown away by local British production’ and was delighted to discover that a similar revolution had been taking place at home. ‘Coming back to South Africa, I loved the innovative, clean-cut designs,’ she says. Elisabeth was instantly attracted to the likes of Anatomy Design, from whom she got her sofas and sidetable, and Tonic Design, which also introduced a contemporary local element to the interior. 

ALSO READ: MØdernist Made: a Visit to the Joburg Store 

House and Leisure - a Compact Illovo Home

House and Leisure - a Compact Illovo HomeHouse and Leisure - a Compact Illovo Home

Despite her Illovo flat being small, it appeared massive to Elisabeth after the apartments she’d become accustomed to in Europe. ‘It felt like there was a lot of space,’ she says. Nevertheless, she was ‘very conscious of the clutter’ and showed admirable restraint in furnishing her rooms, allowing ample breathing space for each piece. The walls are gradually filling up with art, some picked up at auctions, others from pop-ups or artists’ open studios. ‘I don’t buy names,’ she says. ‘I buy what I like.’ 

And that’s exactly what her flat reflects: what she likes. It’s an expression of personal history and the stylistic influences of her travels, expertly engaging with contemporary local design.