It’s hard to imagine that this Edwardian semi, built in 1907, was furnished with what Alain Flury jokingly describes as ‘mainly surfboards and sports equipment’ when he and his partner Pierre-Alain Staempfli first set eyes on it three years ago.
‘There was a heartless atmosphere but it was a house we could bring soul back to,’ says Alain of the Oranjezicht, Cape Town, property. ‘Big quiet rooms with high ceilings. A 13-metre long passage with two lovely original arches...’
In their hands it would undergo a hardcore transformation that now includes an airy open lounge leading onto a private back courtyard, an appealing space Alain calls ‘our winter conservatory’, with neighbours screened by a slatted wooden wall. It’s a sanctuary in this busy part of the City Bowl.
The revamp took the house from conventional suburbia to a cutting-edge level of European style and sophistication, epitomised by the turn-of-the-century oil of one of Pierre’s male relatives who now coolly gazes at you, cigarette in hand, from the far end of the passage. On a daffodil-yellow background he’s framed by an archway. Above is a frieze of Arabic-style motifs, their patterns subtly resonating with the collection of Moroccan oil jars from Fez lining the corridor.
With numerous renovations behind them, the two Swiss owners have both the expertise and hands-on approach to make the most of old buildings. In Switzerland Pierre spent four years at art school and was a scientific draughtsman in archaeology, specialising in the late Bronze Age. Since relocating to Cape Town years ago he’s been designing one-off pieces of furniture for well-known interior designers and architects.
Alain has worked in the contemporary art gallery of a Swiss art collective and is equally decor-fixated. ‘Pierre has the technical know-how and I’m bursting with ideas,’ is how he puts it. They have travelled to a variety of exotic places collecting special pieces and textiles.
‘Our houses are each a work in progress,’ says Pierre. ‘We live in them and then start seeing what we can change. We make an ambience with colour, transforming a wall or adding interest to windows – for example the painted frame the French call filet – with the kind of hand-painted features used in the 18th century. It’s called peinture décorative. If they wanted an architectural piece that they didn’t have, they simply painted it in. We like to play with those historical concepts, to abstract them and integrate them in a modern interpretation,’ explains Alain.
Working room by room, they do all the painting themselves. That includes elements such as the Arab motif frieze in the passage, which reappears in other colours in several rooms. Pierre designed it himself, then cut cardboard templates, which he and Alain outline and fill in by hand. ‘We put on the music and we just go,’ says Alain.
To add drama to the fireplace in the main bedroom, they put a neoclassicist architectural relief around it. As they work they adjust whatever doesn’t meet with their style standards. ‘We might paint a wall and then the next day say, “No, it’s not working”, and change it,’ says Pierre.
Three basic colours were used on the interior walls. Golden Daffodil from Plascon in the lounge and kitchen, vivid and warm but not too bright. A variety of mocca and praline browns in the dining room. Various shades of grey in the rest of the house, from pale Potter’s Clay, to the special dark mix that interior designer Neil Stemmet created at LT Paints in Woodstock, called simply Neil 01.
‘We like grey. It’s a historic colour,’ says Pierre. ‘In Europe old houses started off white and then over many years the pigment would change. That’s how you got gris de Versailles [Versailles grey] for example.’
Though the Sun King’s palace is a far cry from Upper Buitenkant Street, its 50 shades of grey are very much at home here.
Originally published in HL June 2014.