Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young
There’s no fuss – it’s honest, clean and architectural. Its proportions are beautiful. It’s real. I just adore it.’ This is Denice Etherington describing what she likes about an Art Deco tea set she owns, but it could just as easily apply to her entire cottage in Johannesburg’s Parkview. The term ‘cottage’ or ‘granny flat’ can be misleading, as Denice found when she told a friend of hers that she was moving into one. ‘You, in a cottage?’ she asked. ‘Isn’t that a bit old and stuffy?’
Her friend clearly didn’t have in mind the clean-lined, beautifully proportioned space that architect Charles van Breda had designed for Denice, while renovating her daughter’s house on the same property. Denice gave Charles an open brief to create ‘something extraordinary’.
The design of the cottage is unashamedly contemporary – ‘She had a preference for simple, modern spaces,’ says Charles – but it is stylistically tied to the 1920s main house by its use of materials. He picked up on the workhouse-red bricks and the black steel he’d used in its renovation to create a sense of context and continuity.
The cottage is small, but cleverly designed. The difference between this home and many other clean-lined modern spaces is that it isn’t a thoughtlessly open-plan design. Downstairs, there’s a clearly defined lounge and dining room, a separate kitchen, and a study/sitting area. The relationship between the spaces makes the cottage feel larger than it is. Charles deliberately designed ‘left-over spaces’. ‘The way we picked up the main bedroom above the driveway, for example, created a double garage and space for an outdoor seating area on the roof,’ he explains. Similarly, he designed a double-volume walkway, and ensured that the main rooms look out onto courtyards and outdoor areas. It’s sheltered and the surrounding trees provide privacy and peace. ‘I live in a forest – you can see trees from every room,’ says Denice. She asked Charles to make only one adjustment to his original design: he would have liked more windows, but she wanted walls for her art. ‘I’ve collected art my whole life,’ she says.
The walls are hung with beautiful work, mostly by South African artists including Judith Mason, Dumile Feni, Bill Ainslie, Claudette Schreuders, Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge and Cecil Skotnes. ‘I used to come through to Johannesburg to pick up the children from boarding school, and spend all morning in the Goodman Gallery and the Everard Read,’ she says.
‘I always collected what I liked.’ Denice’s taste in furniture, like her taste in architecture, does not allow much space for the effete or the superfluous. She says that she finds Mid-century modern furniture particularly beautiful.
The collection of classic pieces that fill her house has also been assembled over a lifetime. ‘When I left university, my parents built a house, and they sent me to buy furniture for them,’ she recalls. She bought what appealed to her, and still has many of the pieces that she selected. Over the years she added a Le Corbusier lounger, the Breuer Wassily chair, Jacobsen Ant chairs around the dining room table, and an Eileen Grey side table.
The sculptural Harp chair designed in the 60s by Jørgen Høvelskov was an even later addition. From the book-lined study to the sleek living room, there isn’t an impersonal space in this contemporary home. It’s comfortable and liveable and cosy. ‘The morning light through the shutters is just magical,’ says Denice. ‘The winter days are lovely. The sun shines in and you just find a patch and keep warm.
Denise’s Home Truths
My favourite place in winter is in the library with the fire on – it’s the heart of the home. I love Johannesburg. Before I built this cottage, I wanted to move into the Ansteys Building in the city centre. I’m very pleased about the signs of rejuvenation in the city. Arts on Main is so exciting. Locally, I like to go to Knysna when it gets too cold in Johannesburg in June and July. Internationally, I’d choose Rome, Florence and Venice. I like the fact that they’re higgledy-piggledy. Paris is too organised and beautiful. I enjoy Italian food and wine – it’s wonderful wherever you go in Italy. At the moment I’m reading Killing Kebble by Mandy Wiener. I recently enjoyed In a Different Time by Peter Harris. I also love Justin Cartwright, Barbara Kingsolver and Antjie Krog – she went to the same school as me. I’m very Catholic in my music tastes: it could just as easily be Eva Cassidy as Mozart. My favourite drink is Sauvignon Blanc, but in winter nothing beats whisky. When it’s really cold, my favourite meal is real Irish stew. We need architecture in South Africa that isn’t just a reinterpretation of theories from abroad and isn’t a kitsch reinterpretation of indigenous styles. There are such talented architects here. This article was originally featured in the June 2011 House and Leisure Issue