houses, Indoor / Outdoor

Retro Cape Town Abode

Styling Jeanne Botes; Photographs Adriaan Louw


WHO: Hanlie Nell

WHERE: Cape Town

SIZE: 123sqm

Cape Town’s Observatory – Obs to locals – is one of South Africa’s oldest suburbs. Its rows of Victorian terrace houses are home to an arty set; students, lecturers, artists and actors who enjoy the suburb’s proximity to the university and the CBD, plus the ever-evolving selection of restaurants, bars and coffee shops strung along Lower Main Road. It’s here that decorator Hanlie Nell and her husband created their home – a place to express her love of design and decor inspired by the furniture pieces that she inherited from her grandmother.

Attracted to the simple flow of the house, the couple didn’t embark on a massive renovation when they bought it four years ago, preferring to keep its ‘soul’ intact. While Hanlie does love items with a history, they realised any updates they made would have to appeal to future buyers. So they kept things simple. Their main prerogative was to let in more light – terrace houses, sharing sidewalls with their neighbours as they do, are often fairly dark. They enlarged the entrance to the back courtyard, installing double cottage-pane doors in keeping with the architecture of the house. This created a sunny, north-facing dining area and allowed light to pour into the newly built open-plan lounge and kitchen area beyond.

Instead of creating a vintage-style kitchen, Hanlie opted for a simple, white contemporary space with period touches, such as the curved corner cupboard and the air vents in the cupboard doors that echo those found on the antique dresser in the dining area opposite. It was a practical decision: a cleverly designed modern kitchen offers more space, yet their retro Argo fridge does not look out of place. Pistachio-and-cream Marley tiles and the colour scheme work well with Hanlie’s style, and give the space the ‘honest, down-to-earth farmhouse feel’ she was after.

Having a spot for everything is important to this detail-obsessed scientist-turned-decorator. While not precious about her possessions, everything has a place and Hanlie prefers beautiful things that also have a function. In the living room – Hanlie’s favourite space – ceiling-high birch-ply bookshelves and yellow Duccoed cupboards are home to knick-knacks and some of their books. ‘I made my husband take most of his books to his office as we didn’t have enough space for all of them here,’ she says. Then, in the main bedroom where a lot of storage space was required, they installed built-in cupboards. She had the doors papered in a textured wallpaper, and the effect is that of an accent wall rather than a bank of imposing cupboards. A skylight ensures that this space is never dark.

By stealing a few square metres from the dining area they were able to add a small en-suite bathroom to their bedroom without disrupting the flow of the house with disjointed additions. Clerestory windows allow light to enter from the next-door living space.

‘I collect art, especially the art of friends,’ says Hanlie of their enviable collection of South African art. A large Peter Eastman work hangs in the dining area and does not look out of place next to wooden Globe dining chairs and the white dresser Hanlie found in Calitzdorp. Work by Conrad Botes and Colijn Strydom share space with her grandmother’s coffee table that once lived on a farm in the Free State.

Hanlie spends her free time searching for items such as the pulley light fittings in the dining area, and when she can’t find what she wants, she gets a reproduction made. Similarly, she contacted numerous upholsterers before finding one willing to create the thinner cushions perfect for her love seat. By mixing these carefully sourced items with her inherited pieces, and adding in contemporary touches such as the scatter cushions covered in Sanderson’s Dandelion Clocks fabric, she has created a home that is sentimental without being old fashioned.

This article was originally featured in the March 2013 issue of House and Leisure.