houses

Glamorous Cape Town Home


Text Lin Sampson Photographs Jac de Villiers Hemingway House hits you like a soft blow. Concealed just off a busy road in Cape Town’s city bowl, it is a lush repository of books, china and dark wood that shines in the latticed penumbra, antique carpets, ruby glass, walls the colour of old ivory, patched leather chairs, and the faint smell of frangipani and cigar smoke. Its owner, Gail Behr, is really a storyteller. Her houses are her novels, having both narrative and plot. She can be seduced and abandoned by a cracked old famille rose vase, backed into wild obsession by an ancient Damascus tile and get the vapours over stuffed songbirds in a glass case. Her house is theatre; you expect to see chalk markings on the floor. There is also something slightly vampish about it, a sense of almost indecent luxury with its blood-coloured brocades and velvets, deep-pile quilts and French linen sheets. It is a house that demands an audience and a round of applause. A clothing designer by profession, Gail deploys her time and energies on her label, Homework, with its signature look of sulky, layered silhouettes. Slowly over the years the Gail Behr brand has developed both in clothes and interiors. Although her houses have always been places of some enchantment, her talents only became commercially visible when she bought an old ranch-type house in Plettenberg Bay and turned it into the famous Grand Hotel with its red-velvet footstools, high beds, thick damask tablecloths and chandeliers. She ran it like she runs everything, with a bold stroke of eccentricity. When Gail sold the Grand, it retained its signature look. Gail’s first love is houses. She has invested a lot of emotional capital in them, scheming colours, drawing plans, picking up bits and pieces of junk, inventing and discarding with imagistic skill; murdering pieces of furniture of which she’s grown tired. She brought into vogue a love of dark houses with shuttered windows and interior courtyards more suited to the Cape Mediterranean climate than the massive glass-fronted houses that provide no place to hide. She is iconoclastic, obeying no decorating rule, but when it comes to getting an interior going she can really drain the swamp. Tones range through glass-greys and nickel to silky blacks washed with pale ash sepias and fugitive shades that look like masticated yucca, which work as a balm on the soul. She loves old shop fittings: haberdashery cupboards in peeling egg glaze, a butcher’s table in stainless steel, and an 18th-century glass-fronted cabinet in sycamore wood. ‘At heart I am a shopkeeper,’ says Gail. ‘I started playing shop when I was very young and I have never really stopped.’ There is a shelf of old French books, and bowls of amber, camel bone, mother-of-pearl and coral bracelets. There is a bar made by her son, Adam Whiteman, the owner of Cape Town’s The Power and the Glory café-bar. The kitchen is the engine room of the home. It is astute, enterprising and practical, with a walk-in fridge, a scullery and a pantry. It looks a bit like a Portuguese ferretería, a kind of hardware store. There are lab sinks, shelves stuffed with crockery, glass-fronted cupboards filled with shiny foreign packets and a cake stand full of cupcakes. Mixing professional catering equipment like a batterie de cuisine with familiar elements – a wall covered with photographs of friends, lots of books – is a hallmark. Gail’s generous spirit is at its most content when she is cooking for friends. She cooks what people really like to eat: hearty roasts with crispy potatoes and luscious puddings lashed with cream. Around the kitchen table you might find a jolting array of Cape Town society. Sometimes it looks like a Luis Buñuel film in which beggars, thieves and the aristocracy are always meeting round a robust meal. Hemingway House is a synthesis of glamour, flair, audacity, hybrid vigour and outrageous imagination. This is emblematic of its owner, too. The look might change but her attitude to interiors, which is serious, thoughtful and self-assured, and at the same time wittily flippant, will not. GAIL’S HOME TRUTHS I’m only happy when I am doing up a house. Given half a chance I’d like to renovate every house in the Cape, no matter how plain or ugly. I just love breathing new life into neglected space. Design advice I like to dispense is go with your gut and if you only buy things you love, then the space will work. When I buy something new it is like a love affair and lasts about as long as a day, maybe a week. Then I never look at it again. Sometimes things can be resurrected and I start looking at them with new eyes. It is all very tiring, this falling in love with the inanimate, which are not a grateful lot and always fall apart just when you need them. I would never have a chandelier now – I loathe them. I discard stuff all the time. Once I just loved buckets full of red roses, now I can’t stand them. I wake up one day and think, that light is awful, how on earth did I once like it? Like everyone I’ve had huge lapses of taste. Living in the head you can really get around. One minute I am living on the Bosporus, stirring coffee in a copper beaker, the next I am converting an old attic in Place Vendôme. This article was originally featured in the August 2012 issue of House and Leisure.