houses

Retro Cape Town Penthouse


Text Hilary Prendini Toffoli Styling Ralph Weiden Photographs Greg Cox, Micky Hoyle For the few weeks that they reside in Cape Town several times a year, Ralph Weiden and Luis Torna Aguilar live unhampered by clutter. No brimming bookcases or overflowing dressers to impede the sense of serene elegance that surrounds them. Instead their white-tiled, 1960s penthouse in Sea Point embodies a variation of the principle espoused by 19th-century English designer William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ Just about every functional object and piece of furniture is a retro classic created by one of the world’s great design minds or a re-edition that Ralph has collected over the years. He’s a German creative director based in Cologne who, for two decades, has been coming to Cape Town to shoot editorials for high-end glossies. His partner, Luis, is a Cuban artist whose vivid acrylics on canvas have an appealingly current feel (and were recently shown at Cape Town’s new Bree Street gallery, Youngblood). For both Ralph and Luis, art matters more than curtains and carpets, which is probably why the apartment has the ambience of a gallery. Not that all these sculptural objects are simply on display. Ralph puts them to work, quirkily juxtaposing them with artworks of all eras and styles to create entertaining installations. Who else would have Sanell Aggenbach’s beguiling, life-sized black velvet sheep positioned to gaze up mesmerised at Ed Young’s ‘Black In Five Minutes’ poster, propped up against the wall? ‘I’m like a movie director,’ says Ralph of his curatorial approach. ‘All my pieces are strong characters, very dominant. You have to place them together in combinations so they talk to each other and so it all becomes a beautiful flow. Then you rearrange things and it all moves to a different level.’ Eero Saarinen’s super-streamlined Pedestal table and Tulip chairs from the 1950s are perfectly complemented, for example, by Irish artist and designer Eileen Gray’s modular black lacquered screen, an Art Deco masterpiece created out of moveable panels, the original of which is in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Beside them gleams a tall, curving shaft of bronze, a piece by Cape Town sculptor Samuel Allerton. Opposite, in the corner, nests a family of large West African stools, compelling in their stylish simplicity. Eileen Gray pops up in every room; her iconic Bibendum chair is here. So are a Bibendum lounger and day bed, their famously fat tubes modelled on the Michelin tyre man. In the open-plan living area, where the wall colours are inspired – deep plum facing the pale green of Spanish olives – a Ron Arad Voido rocker in white resin perches happily beside a Noguchi coffee table whose free-form glass top on its curved wooden base looks more like sculpture than furniture. When he’s working in what he calls his study (although it has no desk), Ralph reclines on a Mies van der Rohe lounger with his laptop where it should be – on his lap. In the bedroom, where the headboard he designed repeats the Bibendum rolls of the chair, a colossal Philippe Starck mirror leans against the wall. On the rooftop of this 14th-floor apartment there are two comfortable Charles Eames day beds side by side in a small glass house. A climb up there on a circular metal staircase takes you to a vast wooden deck with one of the best views in the city – Sea Point below, encircled by a heart-lifting sweep of mountain and ocean. The couple often take their meals up here, against the backdrop of some ‘amazing sunsets’, adds Ralph. ‘The sky is such a big, empty space compared to Europe. You’ll be looking up at the stars and suddenly 20 seagulls will fly across, white in the night, like a Rene Magritte fantasy.’ RALPH’S HOME TRUTHS The best thing I ever did was come to South Africa. I was 25. South Africa added a different energy and creativity to my life. It’s always been a dream of mine to stay here longer than three weeks at a time but we have to get back to the agency in Cologne and all the exciting projects on the go. My approach to furniture is broad – an eclectic mix of different eras, styles and materials. Our freezer is filled with fish and prawns for the paellas Luis makes. Our favourite local dining spots are Luke Dale Roberts’ new Pot Luck Club & Gallery, Kalk Bay’s Olympia Café, and Tokara and La Motte in the winelands. We often have breakfast in the glass house on our penthouse rooftop. At seven in the morning the world is still okay. The soundtrack to my perfect weekend is bluesy, jazzy – singers such as Michael Bublé, Melody Gardot and Canadian jazz pianist and singer Diane Krall. One of my best holidays was when Luis and I went to Capri in Italy to celebrate our birthdays. We’re both Libra. We found it to be very retro, very Fifties. We kept expecting to see Callas. I draw the line at doing things that my instincts tell me are not right. I always listen to my heart. What I’ve learned is you can’t dictate your life. Things don’t always go the way you want them to. You have to move with the flow. This article was originally featured in the April 2012 issue of House and Leisure.