The village of De Kelders, named after the caves found on the remote cliffs of Walker Bay, is situated some 150km outside of Cape Town. As is De Kelders Private Villa, a luxury holiday retreat and home to interior designer Niël Stemmet. Built more than 12 years ago, the villa’s original features were beyond their time – such as a concrete charcoal wall and a feature wall comprising old support poles used to fortify the concrete cast of the roof. ‘It reminds me of the work of one of my favourite artists, Klimt, and only on reflection can I say it was probably inspired by him,’ he says. ‘I work with what I call my internal filing cabinet, the storage facility that holds the inspiration I pick up on through my travels and life in general, and which I draw on when designing,’ he says. ‘And most of the time “drawing a file” is an unconscious exercise.’
In the open-plan lounge and dining area of Niël Stemmet’s De Kelders Private Villa in Walker Bay, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is the focal point. It is filled with leatherbound National Geographics and design publications mixed among white pots, Delft ceramics, Rosenthal vessels and an antique hand-painted clock from Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.
Although the villa sits about 200m from the sea, you can smell the sea air and hear the whales in season. It’s a dramatic environment set against the backdrop of Walker Bay. The single most distinctive factor about the villa is that there is nothing reminiscent of the beach house aesthetic, instead the stillness of the interior and textural layered spaces are more reflective of the landscape of mountains, sea and fynbos, with accents of charcoal and aubergine. The villa was Niël’s first foray into architectural design and he instructed an architectural draughtsman to do the drawings and plans. This was the project that launched his studio, Koncept Design. It’s a clever feat of architecture, especially for a rookie, because it blends into the site despite its angles and palette. Niël attributes this to planting the garden first so that the house was designed to fit into it.
A sidetable is home to Eames House Bird by Charles and Ray Eames for Vitra, which sits alongside a black vase from Cécile & Boyd (cecileandboyds.com) and iron-forged horns.
Laid out on one level, the villa is largely open-plan with the lounge, dining room and kitchen leading out onto the terrace and garden beyond. The three en-suite bedrooms connect to the living areas through the extended entrance passageway. Niël’s bedroom is the converted garage of the original house and, as he calls it, ‘a 21m² kelder and very much my favourite place.’
But then Niël is the first to assert that as compelling as the house may be, it has nothing to do with him but rather is thanks to its location. ‘From when I was 16 years old, I knew I would land up living in De Kelders – the energy here is indescribable,’ he says. It was indeed the site that attracted Niël when he bought the property in 1999 and most certainly not the original facebrick house that he called home for five years before the transformation began in 2004.
The extraordinary kitchen was custom-designed for Niël to ensure that the counters are at the perfect height for him. On the Pierre Cronje (pierrecronje.co.za) coffee table in the living room are a few of the ornamental orbs that Niël has collected over the years.
There were a few things that prevailed throughout the design and building process. The first was a modernist aesthetic with free-flowing spaces and simplistic structures inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. ‘He was the one who coined the adage “less is more”, which is what governed the initial drawings of the building and the overall architectural language,’ says Niël. As with the Barcelona Pavilion, Niël opted for a horizontal box when doing the first drawings of the villa to enhance the minimalist sense of space, with all windows and doors taken to a height of 2.4m as opposed to the standard two metres. Next was the prioritisation of eco-sensitive building practices, particularly the re-use of existing materials from the old site. Aside from the distinctive wooden cross-sectioned wall, other examples of successful repurposing include the sandstone layered pillars of the terrace, which took nine months to complete as all the stone came from the building site, and the old vibracrete boundary wall that was repurposed for cupboards.
The red floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains against white walls and the copper kitchen is nothing short of dramatic
Having overseen another renovation last year to up its eco-efficiency even more – bulkheads were removed to save electricity and combustion ovens, solar geysers and rainwater tanks were all installed – Niël believes it was money well spent. ‘We have to design homes that our future selves would like and be comfortable in, even if it means adding on at a later stage. We have to have the foundations in place from the get-go,’ he says.
Niël allows the simplicity of the architecture to live in situ with the nuance and mood of the interiors – from his selection of antique and modernist furnishings to the copper-clad kitchen paired with red-velvet curtains. Or from the scatterings of salvaged branches and other natural materials to the yellow feature wall that is his collection of National Geographics. Not to mention his South African art as well as what he calls his ‘cabinet of curiosities’ displaying all manner of trinkets and treasures, from his life of travel, food and design, that somehow all work when put together. ‘I have a busy mind,’ admits Niël, referring to his acute ADHD, which he has learned to see as a gift rather than a condition, allowing him to appreciate many things all at once, much like at De Kelders villa. ‘I love living with ADHD and you can quote me on that.’ dekeldersprivateretreat.com
Originally published in HL October 2016.