houses, small spaces

Happy Landings

Micky Hoyle


Cheffing for half the year on private yachts from the Caribbean to the Maldives is certainly an enviable lifestyle. There’s a downside, though. The other months can be spent living out of suitcases and relying on short-term rentals, or the support of family and friends.

Paula Nel lived the gypsy life for several years before finally finding herself the perfect place to come home to. It’s in the heart of Cape Town. An apartment with an industrial feel that’s small enough to maintain with ease, yet large enough to hold the abundant exotica she’s amassed in 10 years of travelling the world.

All of 128m², with high ceilings, an open-plan living area, and a bedroom with dressing room, this second-floor apartment fulfils all her needs, being ‘close to the inner city buzz, yet five minutes from the beach’.

To maximise the space she ruthlessly eliminated clutter but gave the apartment a fresh lift by the skilful positioning of her rare and beautiful objets. It’s knowing how to work within a scaleddown situation while not sacrificing style and quality. The effect here is so satisfying that a sense of wellbeing immediately prevails.

‘The walls were all shiny varnished face brick, so I painted them white to create an illusion of generous roominess,’ she says. The one exception is the dark grey wall in the living area, a deliberately dramatic backdrop for Paula’s powerful Diane Victor etching of a horse. So much energy surges from this large artwork that it becomes a stunning focal point.

A number of changes were necessary. In the kitchen she removed the built-in cupboards and put in reclaimed shelving. She likes open shelves for her bowls and platters; they impart a cosy country feel and are more economical with space. To extend the homely feel of the cooking area she got the builders to distress one section of the bare-brick wall, bringing a touch of warm rustic informality into the sophisticated ambience. Since the smoke extractor in the middle of the living area hijacked the space, that went, too. ‘What a difference removing it made,’ says Paula. ‘I put in a gas stove and more plug points and it’s now a great work space for prepping food.’

To enhance the apartment’s modest dimensions she stripped the floors down to the raw concrete and sealed them, replaced the drapes with louvred shutters, and focused on the lighting.

‘I’ve become a little obsessed with lighting. It can make such a difference to a space, not only to the ambience, but to break up a large open area,’ she says. ‘Most of my furniture is quite low as well, and that allows the eye to look over and above everything.’

When she bought the apartment, the bathroom was open plan. ‘Not ideal! I had to make the best of a bad situation, hence the framed mirrors, linen cupboard, and white carved headboard to break up the wall behind the bed.’

Paula’s furniture tends to be mostly antique or weathered wood that plays host to all the curious and striking pieces she’s gathered on her numerous cheffing missions.

‘I go to markets whenever possible and usually come back with more than just tomatoes!’ she laughs. ‘The wooden fishes and octopus are from the Maldives, the antique blue-and-goldrimmed bowls from an old woman on the side of the road in Thailand, the turquoise vases and urns from Fez, and the wooden lobsters and bronze fish from Vietnam. I got the Coptic crosses while horse riding in Ethiopia. I travel with my mom quite a bit. She’s normally the one stuck with bringing everything back!’

This article originally featured in the March 2014 issue of House and Leisure. 

Styling Lauren Gormley