Text Hilary Prendini Toffoli Styling Jeanne Botes Photographs Adriaan Louw The mountains of the Paardeberg where the kwagga once roamed are dark and haunting. It’s a dramatic part of the Cape, scattered with old wine farms. Those farms were one of the reasons the area appealed to wine writer Neil Pendock when he and his partner Luan Nel were on the hunt for a weekend getaway in the country. It was mid-winter and pouring with rain the day they arrived at Lemoenfontein five years ago. ‘The house was isolated, quite bleak and foreboding,’ says Neil, ‘and very modest.’ ‘Neil’s first words to the owner were, “Yes, the view is good but, let’s face it, the cottage looks like a prison warder’s house,”’ says Luan. There were advantages, though. It was less than an hour from Cape Town, in a winelands area where farms cost 10 per cent of what they cost around Stellenbosch – and five per cent of what they cost in Franschhoek. And it wasn’t too big: 37 hectares, of which 17 were under 30-year-old bush vines, Pinotage and Bukettraube. ‘We never planned to make our own wine,’ says Neil. ‘The grapes would go to a co-op.’ Luan, who’s an artist, could immediately see the potential of this house that dated back to the 1800s. Walls were half a metre thick, and ceilings contained heavy wooden beams. In the room that would once have been the kitchen was a well-preserved and pretty rietdak – a reed roof. The living room had a deep slanting fireplace with seats inside it, one of those old Cape fireplaces that used to be known as a binnebraai where you could braai your meat in the house and sit keeping warm. ‘That braai smell was still there,’ says Luan. ‘To me the place had obviously started life as a two-bedroom basic structure, probably the home of a bywoner’ – a poor farmer who worked for the land- owner. ‘As the years went on, you could see what had been stuck on. Not only ironmongery from the fifties but extra rooms, including a bathroom and kitchen. Worst was the bedroom built into the front stoep. It made the house cluttered and small, and completely blocked the view. I could see that all you had to do was to take away what didn’t belong and get it back to what it used to be.’ Luan has worked with the same Johannesburg builder, Deon Hough, for 18 years, on projects such as the Westcliff home where he and Neil lived before moving to the Cape. Deon came down with his team to renovate the Paardeberg cottage, and stayed in it while working on it. The main structural change was to the front stoep. Removing the bedroom immediately opened it up. The other add-ons were necessary but needed to be sympathetically blended with the rest, the idea being to clean it all up while keeping within budget. All the small poky windows were replaced with bigger ones, and the ruined floors in the add-on bathroom and kitchen were screeded. The one bit of flooring luxury was the large black-and-white chequered tiles in what used to be the kitchen and is now the dining room. A minimalist aesthetic prevails throughout. Floors and windows are bare, with no flowing drapes or overstuffed furniture. What lifts it all are lovely pieces of furniture that the couple found at antique shops and auctions, such as a solid old koskas – food cupboard – used as a bookcase, and an elegant Italian bedroom suite in walnut, with carved feet and a magnificent cheval mirror, both from the era the house was built. Everywhere are inspiring artworks that Luan and Neil have collected over the years, including Themba Shibase’s controversial portrait of Robert Mugabe from the Brett Kebble Art Awards in the dining room. ‘It adds an uneasy note,’ says Luan. ‘It’s brave.’ BIG IDEA #1 – DON’T STRIP The process of stripping wood back to its natural beauty by removing layers of paint and varnish is very messy and a real labour of love. New owners of old houses tend to think it’s something they have to resort to when it comes to coatings laid over years on windows and doors. In Luan’s view, however, stripping these surfaces is totally off the mark if you’re trying to keep the authentic spirit of the place. ‘In the old days people used to paint the wood to preserve it,’ he says. ‘This idea of stripping wood is a new thing; it’s not only historically incorrect if you’re dealing with a really old property, it can look tacky. Often flecks of old paint remain. While we were renovating I had to keep explaining this to people who were offended by the fact that instead of stripping the doors, I was actually painting them.’ BIG IDEA #2 – LINTEL LORE When you’re on a budget, your builder can often be creative with inexpensive structural schemes that do away with the need for built-in units. Here, Deon came up with a clever solution that meant Luan and Neil didn’t have to buy cabinets for the bathroom and kitchen. What he did was to break through the wall between the kitchen and bathroom at waist height, and insert a substantial lintel that protruded on either side of the wall, forming cantilevered slabs in both the kitchen and the bathroom that could hold the kitchen sinks on one side and the bathroom basins on the other. It’s a simple but effective concept that fits in perfectly with the overall minimal aesthetic of the cottage. LITTLE BLACK BOOK Builder and engineer Deon Hough and Wimpie Nel, 083-967-5905 Old oak furniture Tique, tique.co.za Windows and doors Swartland, swartland.co.za Kitchen sinks and bathroom basins On Tap, ontap.co.za Shower Showerline, showerline.co.za Bed linen Whitehouse, 021-461-2200 Artwork Erdmann Contemporary, erdmanncontemporary.co.za; Gallery AOP, galleryaop.com; iArt Gallery, iart.co.za (including Luan’s paintings) This article was originally featured in the July 2011 issue of House and Leisure.