Let There Be Light: A Compact Apartment In Joburg

Reflecting its designer owner's acute awareness of the power and poetry of light, this compact apartment in Joburg is a unique and personal space.

Elsa Young Styling Heather Boting
Heather Boting
Compact Apartment | House and Leisure
The window counter in the living room overlooks a busy street in Illovo, Joburg, and serves both as breakfast bar and work space.


'Light has always been the thing for me. It’s magical. It has a primal quality about it.’ 

This, August de Wet explains, is the reason he likes to wait until it’s almost completely dark before switching on the lights in his apartment in Illovo, Johannesburg.

‘Dusk is known as the blue hour,’ he says. ‘It’s my favourite time of day. It’s almost as if time is standing still at that moment.’ 

It is this awareness of the power and poetry of light – its ability to move like music and concentrate time – that fuels August’s imagination. ‘Otherwise it’s something beyond my comprehension,’ he says. ‘It’s magic.’ (He uses the word ‘magic’ often.) 

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August’s Ikea Poem chair is one of his favourite reading spots. The island scene on the wall is a remnant from a birthday party. ‘It’s kind of cheesy and funny,’ he says. ‘It makes me feel as if I’m on holiday.’ 


Ever since he was an industrial design student he has been designing lights, experimenting with materials, entering (and winning) competitions. His home, which is just under 60 square metres, is filled with prototypes, scale models, works in progress, ad hoc constructions.

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August used blue as a leitmotif throughout his flat to pick up on the light during the ‘blue hour’ at dusk.


‘I have been trying to figure out a reading lamp,’ he says, referring to an assemblage next to the armchair, but he is not satisfied with the results yet. After working in architecture for a number of years, he recently joined a lighting design firm, Pamboukian Light Design, full-time. 

Compact Apartment | House and Leisure
August enjoys living in a compact space that articulates the area; he says it makes him feel like he is using all of it. The glass door to the left leads to a small balcony.


His tiny flat is at the end of a corridor and has windows on three of its four sides. The treetop views and the light shining in make it seem bigger than its dimensions might suggest. 

‘I like compact spaces,’ he says. ‘I feel a bit lost in big spaces. I don’t like walking past a room and realising that I haven’t been inside for a while. Here I can be everywhere all the time. The flat is a really good size.’ 

When August moved in, the flat had already been altered to create an open-plan arrangement. The kitchen, study and lounge areas are clearly articulated and well defined, yet flow into one another almost seamlessly.

But, as August points out, there is very little space for storage in a home this size. ‘You can see everything at once,’ he says. He designed most of the shelving himself – ‘all the bookshelves, the TV trolley and the bathroom cabinet’ – and eschewed doors and drawers.

ALSO READ: Gracious Living in a Compact Green Point Apartment

The effect is one of focused, carefully edited clutter that is neither overstuffed nor the harsh minimalism people often resort to in small spaces. It’s considered but not uptight. After all, there is a painting of a Hawaiian sunset on a sheet pinned to one wall.

‘It’s from a birthday party I had,’ he says. ‘I wanted to do a photo-booth type of thing. My mom and my sister copied it from a painting. If I took it down I’d have to buy a big artwork to put there, so it stays.’

Compact Apartment | House and Leisure
Splashes of yellow brighten the predominantly blue and grey palette. ‘Yellow is the colour inherent to sunlight and fire, and we as humans are almost programmed to look for warm light,’ August says.


August hasn’t overthought the furniture either. ‘I inherited most of it,’ he says. The sofa, Ikea Poem chair and footstool – which serves as a surface on which to store sketches – and the fantastic vintage office chair all came from his grandparents. August was named after his grandfather, who had been an artist, and remembers seeing the office chair in his studio. 

ALSO READ: The Art of Deco: A Compact Illovo Home

Music, another intangible, proved unexpectedly to be more influential than even light on the way he uses the space. When he first moved in, August listened to music on his laptop on the desk. ‘What this did to the space and where it put me were not what I wanted,’ he says. ‘I was always at my desk.’

Installing an amplifier and speakers in the lounge transformed the way he inhabited the space. ‘It drew me into the lounge, and now I often end up on the couch. It even got me to read more.’ 

And that, of course, means he’ll have to keep working on that reading lamp.

Compact Apartment | House and Leisure
August’s desk is covered with the tools of his trade.
Compact Apartment | House and Leisure
The flat is filled with lights designed by August, including several works in progress.





5 Minutes with August de Wet, Owner of this Compact Apartment

What's the best thing about living where you do?

It’s really central and I can walk anywhere, a rare thing in Joburg.

What defines living in such a compact apartment for you?

A small space is about efficiency. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding.

And what's your top tip for living in one?


What is your favourite architectural style?

California Modernism as practised by John Lautner et al.

What are your favourite things in your space?

The workbench in my workshop, the bentwood lounge chair, an old extractor duct that I turned into a sidetable/light and a print I bought at Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin. My most treasured piece of furniture is a coffee table by Phil Oosthuizen. It is made from packing crates and a desk from the old Wits Technikon.

If we opened your fridge right now, what would we find?

Eggs, broccoli, kombucha, berries, leftovers, salad and Tabasco.

Your favourite travel destination?


And last but not least, what is your best time of year?


ALSO READ: Architect Christoff Steyn's Compact Home is All About the Art