Modernist Durban Home

Text Peter Machen Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Aubrey Jonsson Instead of a normal dinner service, Durbanite Kirsty Machen has a collection of beautiful plates, similar in size but each different from the other. Once, taking my place at one of her frequent dinner parties, I decided that I preferred a different plate to that set in front of me and swapped them around. A few minutes later, our hostess quickly surveyed the table and summarily returned the plates to their original position, giving me a challenging glance. It is this attention to detail that forms an essential part of Kirsty’s approach to form and design in her endless quest for retro objects as the owner of online vintage decor store Mint, which has established something of a cult following over the past two years. The same carefully controlled focus also defines the approach she has taken to her abode, a Hollywood-style modernist structure of sorts built on top of an abandoned and previously demolished Edwardian house. Located on a steeply-sloping north-facing property on the end of Durban’s ridge, the house – designed in tandem with architect friend Lindsay Bush – takes full advantage of a sunset view that extends far into the north of the city. Like Kirsty herself, the house is an unusual mix of both the conventional and unconventional, the formal and the fluid. Blessed with a modernist sensibility for pattern and placement – but one that has a devotion to formal structures, tempered by an intelligent whimsy and a remarkable respect for the objects she collects – Kirsty has an approach to decor that pays equal credence to objects’ integrity and the spaces they occupy. The top level of the house is bisected by a stairwell that leads downstairs. It divides the space into a lounge area and a kitchen-dining area, both opening onto a balcony, with generous proportions typical of the old houses in the neighbourhood. The modernist glass-and-concrete structure is given a paradoxical rural feel by the wooden ceiling beams and the rough plaster finish, as well as the lush vegetation that surrounds the house – particularly the suite of established palm trees that effectively prescribed where the building needed to end. Added to this is a rich selection of light fittings and lamps, which fill the house at night with almost as much light as it receives during the day. Downstairs the formal symmetry continues, with a bedroom on each side of the stairs. Thanks to the presence of the balcony above, the bedrooms are darker than the rest of the house, although still dominated by floor-to-ceiling glass in obeisance to the spectacular view. Continuing through the main bedroom and bathroom, wooden cupboards and other furniture provide organic notes that, together with an array of carefully placed objects and artworks, are a counterpoint to the formalism of the house’s structure. Modernist houses such as this, evocative as they can be of contemporary galleries, are often dominated by the sort of large-format artworks and singular furniture pieces that make strong design and spatial statement. Instead, Kirsty’s home is punctuated by a carefully curated and ever-evolving arrangement of small sculptures, vases, Murano glass ashtrays, idiosyncratic design objects and framed artworks. While she admires the slickness of what has now become classic modernism, she says that her own style is closer to ‘cluttered minimalism’. ‘I love the idea of having a minimalist home,’ adds Kirsty, ‘but at heart I’m a collector, so that’s never really going to happen. I like things to be ordered, so even if I have endless objects, each will have its own specific spot. The predominant flavour in my house is probably the mix of old and new – that’s what I’m most passionate about.’ This article was originally featured in the October 2012 issue of House and Leisure.