She’s a little bit country, a little bit Chopin. Not many people can carry off this contradiction with aplomb and authenticity, but not many people are Annabelle Desfontaines. ‘I like to think of my house as a country homestead in the city,’ she says, lounging on a dark-green velvet sofa as her dogs crowd around her. ‘I really do think I’m a farm girl at heart.’ While there are no cows to milk or sheep to herd on this Westcliff, Johannesburg, property, there is a distinct sense of earthiness and escape that permeates both the house and garden. Abundant light, double, even triple-volume ceilings, lead-lined windows, dark wood panelling, period furniture, walls crammed with paintings and a hilly, charmingly overgrown garden all contribute to a feeling of being gently lured into another time. The six-bedroom house was built in 1902 and subsequently renovated by Sir Herbert Baker in 1911.
Annabelle recalls that ‘the house was pretty run-down when we first moved in’, but opted to go for restoration rather than modernisation. As a result, her children – Emile, 25, Etienne, 23, Pascale, 20, and Bastien, 14 – all grew up in an extremely old-fashioned way. ‘They all shared bathrooms, since only the master bedroom was en suite.’ There may only be three full bathrooms in the house, but there are 11 fireplaces, all in working order.
‘In winter, we light them all! They bring such a cosy, comforting warmth to the place.’ As the house is north-facing, sunlight streams throughout the entire front section. ‘We get magnificent weather, even in winter. And on Sunday afternoons, we like to bring out the blankets.’ Whatever the season, Sunday lunches are a staple at the Desfontaines’ home, with her friends and her children’s friends all gathering round the 16-seater table in the dining room to tuck into one of Annabelle’s famous roasts – ‘It’s like a commune here on Sundays.’ As a working mother, Annabelle has always considered her home to be a sanctuary.
‘My home is so important to me; it remains a sacred, special place. We’re all attached to it, my kids and I.’ Eclectic and bohemian are words often used to describe Annabelle’s sartorial style. For close to 30 years, she was the woman behind Wizards, an edgy but sophisticated fashion boutique that introduced designers such as Dries van Noten and Jean Paul Gaultier to South Africa. Today, she runs Wizards Vintage, which offers new and used clothing and accessories, with a showroom at her home, as well as a shop in Jo’burg’s 44 Stanley Avenue complex. Annabelle’s also branched out into decor with Zinkhuijs, her Cape Town store that stocks a range of local and international homeware and accessories. She brings the same appreciation for the quirky and individual to her own home.
‘The fashion side of me does come out in the way I’ve dressed my home,’ she admits. ‘Decor has been a natural progression from fashion; it’s an appreciation of a certain aesthetic.’ That aesthetic encompasses an almost throwaway chic. ‘What we have in the house are pieces we’ve chosen ourselves, things we’ve found. It’s an ever-evolving thing.’ Though her home is filled with antiques and curios, there’s a refreshing lack of self-consciousness about it. ‘What is in the house is determined by what we like, what we find beautiful, what we feel will suit the space.’ It’s a space, in the end, that is a home in the true sense of the word.
And while it’s true that the house would be an antique dealer’s treasure trove, ‘We live here,’ says Annabelle. ‘We use each and every part of the house. I see it as a whole. The material stuff is just that – stuff. I don’t see the need to lay claim.’ But what Annabelle is attached to is the spirit of the house. ‘This is such an incredible space and we feel such a strong sense of connection to it. If this is a beautiful house, it’s because we created it. We are the soul and I am the core.’
Annabelle’s Home Truths
What I love most about winter is how you can create an ambience with candles and incense and burning fires. My favourite room in the house is my bedroom, because it’s my absolute sanctuary. My second most favourite room is the wood-panelled study. I would describe my style as eclectic; classic and timeless, without looking outdated. I’m inspired by my children. And love, laughter, tranquillity, happiness, integrity. When I get home, straightaway I take my work clothes off, slip on a big jersey and get into my warm, comfy, furry boots. My favourite piece of design advice is don’t be contrived. Always aim to express your individuality. On my bedside table are lots of books, novels (especially historical), some erotica and poetry. My most treasured piece is a painting in my bedroom, quite a dark portrait of a man, which has a moody, Flemish feel to it. I found it at an auction 15 or 20 years ago. I’m actually very conservative when it comes to parting with my hard-earned money. I don’t really make impulse buys. This winter I’m entertaining in an exuberant, wholesome manner, with lots of food piled on the table, not to mention port, red wine and sherry. My signature dinner party dish is roast lamb, slow-roasted for hours, with crispy potatoes, served with a salad of roasted vegetables. The soundtrack for my perfect weekend ranges from Chopin, Mozart and Pachelbel to Antony and the Johnsons, and something raunchy and funky to dance to. This article was originally featured in the June 2011 issue of House and Leisure. It is also one of the finalists in our 2012 House of the Year competition. To see all the houses, and to vote for your favourite, click here.