Wood Work: Inside the Home of Artlogic's CEO
Natural texture combines with fine local design in the renovated Johannesburg abode of one of SA’s most passionate design champions.
Self-professed ‘design evangelist’ Dr Cobi Labuscagne is the CEO of Artlogic, the company behind some of the country’s most important design events, including FNB JoburgArtFair and Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair. Which is why it makes sense that objets collected over a lifetime spent promoting local design find sanctuary in her home.
The house that Cobi shares with her husband Nduka Mntambo – who heads up the Film and Television programme at Wits School of Arts – and their two children Lunga-Lwazi and Ellen, is also very much a family space. Located at the end of a long, vine-clad driveway in the relaxed Johannesburg suburb of Atholl, the interior combines a palette of pale wood, grey steel and crisp white into a clean backdrop for the family’s much-loved array of South African and international furnishings, and artworks.
It did take an extensive renovation to transform the property into what it is today, however, with the family living in the house for the seven years it took to complete. Previously characterised by fairly dark, enclosed spaces typical of the Schachat houses (named for the family of property developers who created them in the mid- to late-20th century) that are common in this part of the city, it’s now a light-filled sanctuary in which indoor and outdoor spaces seamlessly merge.
‘It was a challenging yet beautiful time of thinking, dreaming and creating,’ says Cobi of the renovation process. ‘When we got here, we found a string of smallish north-facing bedrooms on the one side, balanced out by a north-facing living area on the other side of the axis. The kitchen and bathroom were facing south at the back, and there was a giant organic-shaped swimming pool with slasto paving around it, as well as electric heaters in every room and down the passage – the electricity supply and cost was of another era!’
Their solution was to move the kitchen northwards, connecting the house to its garden, which has been lovingly filled over the years with indigenous plants. And the swimming pool, which is most easily accessed from the master bedroom, is a long, rectangular concrete form. As for those inefficient heaters, they have been replaced with more environmentally conscious offerings.
Rather than following a grand master plan for the renovation, the couple says the overhaul was a series of ongoing experiments with materials and colour. ‘One of these was trying to paint over the unyielding slasto flooring in the living room (that didn’t turn out well!) because it reminded us too much of a particular time in our country’s history,’ Nduka says. ‘The renovation involved many hands of workers, family and friends coming together – knocking down a crazy wall partition, plastering over roughcast plaster on the wall, trying out different pieces of art, and generally labouring to actualise what is now the place we come home to.’
A standout feature of the home is the use of wood both inside and out, with saligna being used to form internal partitions and balustrades, and pine slats to clad walls. ‘Being able to bring wooden features into the house has been very special for us,’ says Nduka. ‘There’s something beautiful in the symmetry of the slats and the warmth of the wood; the different shades of pink, brown and grey that emerge. We initially tested the feature in a small wall of our entrance space, and we really liked the feeling. Then we thought it might frame the fireplace area and also start an interesting conversation with the floor. It helps that we had a wonderful carpenter, Lucky Mkhululi, who ended up doing all our carpentry, including the two pergola structures in the garden. We also called on Tau Skosana of Artlover, who helped with basically everything else, and we still work with him extensively.’
Very much reflecting the feeling of warmth created by the wooden slats, the finishes and furnishings in the house come together in a complementary fashion, with the individual pieces being connected by a similar design philosophy. In the kitchen, for instance, rather than a fitted configuration, separate creations by various South African designers share the space – many of which were collected after being featured at Artlogic’s events over the years.
‘At Artlogic, we’d just completed a project with Richard Stretton of Koop Design for our fair furniture, and I’d fallen in love with the Finnish Ply units he makes,’ Cobi says. ‘I bought a few of them without being able to measure the new kitchen, as we were still in our previous apartment, and so I had to just push them together once we moved in. But I love the integrity of individually designed pieces, and that has become the structure of the kitchen – it’s full of different pieces that speak to one another.’
While showing us around, Cobi touches almost every piece of furniture, and tells the story of how it came to be in the family’s lives – saving up for one item, for example, and trading opportunities and advice for another. This commitment to the ethos of the objects makes a strong statement about what can happen when South African designs are given a chance to be themselves, and is testament to the family’s belief in the simple pleasure of well-made things.