A few years after sculptor Edoardo Villa’s death in 2011, art dealer Warren Siebrits and interior designer Lunetta Bartz became the custodians of his house in the suburb of Kew, Johannesburg. Villa, one of South Africa’s most important 20th century sculptors, commissioned the house in 1968, and lived there with his wife Claire for the rest of their lives.
The house itself is an architectural gem, rich with Joburg art history. Italian-born Villa first lived on the property after WWII, after he was released from Zonderwater where he had been a prisoner of war. He quickly immersed himself in the South African art world, and fashionable artist Douglas Portway and his wife invited him to stay at their home in Kew. ‘What is now Edoardo’s studio was actually the Portways’ lounge and kitchen,’ says Warren. Eventually Villa moved out and the Portways sold the house, but when it came up for sale again in 1959, Villa bought it. In 1968, he commissioned his good friend, architect Ian McLennan, to build a new house on the property. There was no brief. ‘[Edoardo] presented [McLennan] with a limited budget, but he gave him carte blanche,’ says Warren.
As a result, the house is surprisingly small – just over 100m2 – but architecturally rich. In his book, Johannesburg Transition, architectural historian Clive Chipkin notes the house’s ‘powerful sculptural bagged brick forms’. He writes: ‘Low tranquil living areas contrast with unexpected explosions of multi-volume space… [giving] the small house a monumental, perhaps exaggerated, sculptural presence.’
‘I find it amazing that… they never altered a thing,’ says Lunetta. ‘They kept their house perfectly preserved.’ So when Warren and Lunetta were approached by the Villa estate, they felt their responsibility was to preserve the house as it was. ‘[The Villas had] put in a few more contemporary fixtures in terms of lights and such, but there wasn’t much to do except paint, waterproofing and one or two other things,’ says Lunetta.
Over the next few years, the couple acquired two adjacent properties. They then set about preserving what is now, thanks to their efforts, a heritage landmark. In 2015, they unveiled the 5m-high Villa sculpture ‘Mother and Child’ (1974) in the garden to mark Villa’s centenary and show the restored house.
At first, Warren and Lunetta used the abode mainly as a venue for talks and events, and members of the public were welcomed if they asked to see inside. The couple also used it as a weekend getaway (although they lived less than 5km away). They did some restoration work on the property next door, converting it into an office space, and moved their offices there in November last year.
This year, Lunetta went on to restore the courtyard of the Portway home after finding an old photograph that provided essential clues. And then, this past winter, they began to experiment with the idea of living permanently in the Villa house. ‘It came to us in time,’ says Warren, ‘that if we were going to take this project seriously, we had to immerse ourselves in it fully.’
Their decision posed a number of challenges. First, Warren is a prolific collector of art, books, records, papers, political ephemera and more. But he and Lunetta decided that the house couldn’t be filled with ‘things’. ‘They’re all going to be sold,’ says Warren. ‘Because it’s a living piece of sculpture. You’d be destroying the integrity of that if you even thought of putting two-dimensional pictures on the wall.’
Lunetta explains that the furnishings in the house were so much part of it that they couldn’t change those, either. The dining room table was the Villas’, designed for them by McLennan, and the chairs were theirs, too. The bedroom required little more than a bed and sidetables. The lounge was the only place in which they had to make a significant decision. Michel Ducaroy’s Togo lounge suite for Ligne Roset (designed in 1973), which they added, is what Warren calls ‘the one piece of luxury in what is a very austere space’. Otherwise, Lunetta says, ‘It’s completely, radically minimal.’
Warren says that the experience has changed their approach to art, too. ‘It’s given us the potential to think bigger.’ So they have focused on fewer, more important works. One work they acquired and brought back to the house is ‘Black Construction’ (1959), the sculpture for which Villa won a bronze at the São Paulo Biennale. Warren has assembled the selected works here with hidden connections and a narrative in mind. ‘It’s what we always do,’ he says. ‘[We try] to use narratives and stories, but historically based stories, to bring culture into the present, and bring [pieces] to life again and make them real for people.’
For example, the candlestick on the dining room table was made by Villa, and belonged to McLennan. Another, ‘African Sentinel’ (1965), belonged to one of Villa’s earliest champions, the business mogul John Schlesinger. It all adds to ‘the narrative you are able to reconstruct’, says Warren.
He explains that if you have the privilege of being able to own an artwork (he refers to it as ‘custodianship’, not ‘ownership’) you’re able to gain insights you wouldn’t be able to find in a monograph or a blog. ‘It’s experiential,’ Warren says. ‘You need to be in very close, sacred contact.’ That, more than anything, has been what Warren and Lunetta have entered into in their move. ‘That’s been the rich journey of meeting Edoardo,’ says Warren.