A Fresnaye home in a class of its own
Self-described ‘internationalists’, the owners of this Fresnaye house hail from Belgium and England, and first came across the Cape Town abode six years ago. Strong, segmented and sleek, the home itself is sculptural, with each plane and volume clean-lined and essential to its overall success.
Bearing the hallmarks of architect Philip Olmesdahl of SAOTA, the glass-and-concrete house plays with your sensibilities from the outset. Once you cross the footbridge into the entrance hall, the building’s spine, which is earthed to the steep upper slopes of Table Mountain, gives way to an endless expanse of blue sky as the glass facade opens on three levels to the Atlantic Ocean over which it hovers.
Behind you looms fynbos-clad Lion’s Head; in front, Sea Point’s pulsing cityscape and the seascape, punctuated by Robben Island, expanding into the distance. The setting is all rather dramatic.
Enter the interior, however, and you’ll find a seamless flow from the mountain to the ocean, from outside to in, and – surrounded by the couple’s collection of global and local contemporary art as well as vintage and modern furniture – from the public to the personal.
‘We love being here,’ say the owners, ‘because South Africans give a lot back to us in cultural terms and the lifestyle is easier and more relaxed than our formal backgrounds. The wonderful thing about this place is you see that everyone and each piece of art is a fusion of something.’
This fusion is evident in every aspect of their singularly tranquil and grounded home. The spare framework of the three-level house is warmed by the subtle yet significant changes the couple made when they first bought it. Very few of these were structural, such as closing up a window and puncturing the west-facing staircase wall with new narrow, vertical windows to emphasise the changing levels and connect with the outdoors.
The primary focus was on changing and refining materials to add their signature warmth and authenticity. ‘We didn’t do major work but brought in all the wood and carpets,’ they say. The result is a stripped-back yet textured place that is the perfect environment for their acquired art and furnishings.
‘We like clean lines and non-fussy spaces. Things must be shaped, rounded off; they should have that little extra sharpness that gives definition,’ say the owners. And working with contradiction is key. ‘We like to combine old with new. We’ve got quite a few vintage Mid-Century Brazilian pieces along with new Italian and Belgian ones. We often go to Paris and galleries that specialise in contemporary furniture and design, such as Galerie kreo. In Los Angeles, there are many great galleries and Mid-Century houses, but wherever you travel, you discover things that you like. They all add layers of influence.’
As it stands, each item – whether a simple yet beautifully finished dining chair or the sinuous Italian chaise longue by Vincenzo De Cotiis, the cheeky Brett Murray sculpture or a haunting pre-war portrait – elicits a strong emotional response, but the real success lies in the way that each part weaves together with others to form a rich tapestry. There is no sense that any one work is self-consciously accorded hero status – each feels just right as part of the whole.
‘We want things to stand in their own right and for people’s eyes to lead them to a piece,’ the couple say. ‘That is where the work of the artist is involved – how it is perceived has nothing to do with us. Nobody who understands art or architecture is governed by rules – in the end, the discipline that is best is that which comes from the heart: you just know when you’ve put something in a certain place that it is where it should be. It is an intuitive, emotional response, and we don’t have rules. Sometimes we will try a piece somewhere and then change it to a different wall. We can usually see quite quickly if it doesn’t belong there, if it doesn’t fit. And sometimes we move things around, especially smaller objects. If the work or furniture speaks to us, we will acquire it and make room for it.’
Their remarkable collection – described by the couple as ‘the United Nations of art’ – is truly eclectic: an arresting portrait by Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen gives way to a striking William Kentridge blackbird linocut. An evocative silver artwork by Jacob Kassay – a young American painter the couple discovered some years ago at Art Basel international art fair – shares wall space with South African landscapes by David Goldblatt and is offset by Brett Murray’s provocative ‘Africa (Maquette)’ (in which Bart Simpson’s head is grafted onto a replica of a traditional African sculpture).
Understated Japanese woven sculptures by Shouchiku Tanabe lead on to US artist Sterling Ruby’s fabric vampire mouth, which screams from the bottom of the staircase, and in the main bedroom, the sensitivity of a 1936 portrait of Martyn Coleman (previously owned by Elton John) by British artist Glyn Warren Philpot is complemented by a work by up-and-coming Capetonian Ian Grose as well as a piece by South African conceptual artist Kendell Geers.
What is extraordinary is the way in which this diverse and extensive collection unites to form a truly cohesive whole. The key? The owners words say it all: ‘You really have to fall in love with art. It is not an investment thing. It is about the integrity of the art and its value in that sense. We don’t think of art as having a passport, as having a nationality. We think of it as being an individual.’
And no matter its creator, medium or origin, each individual artwork has been welcomed with open arms into this lovingly curated space to add its own voice to the thought-provoking conversation.