country, houses

State of Grace

Text Kim Chaloner Styling and photographs Henrique Wilding Photographer’s assistant Henk Hattingh Nelia de Wet has always been drawn to beautiful things. From a young age, she yearned to become an artist. She studied art and over the years, through trial and error, she taught herself furniture-painting techniques inspired by the French. Five years ago she combined her passion for painting and her love for antiques, and set up shop in Somerset West. ‘I wanted something simple and unpretentious,’ she says about its name, Gister. ‘I am Afrikaans and I love my language, and whatever you find there is from yesterday.’ Gister is an extension of Nelia’s home in more ways than one. The shop is just 20 metres away from her pebbled backyard, and both the house and store are treasure troves of antique pillowcases, silver-plated tea sets and sparkling crystal decanters hand-picked at flea markets, auction houses and junk shops. The demand for her magical ability to breathe new life into old pieces has snowballed. ‘I’m so fortunate in that I can picture what a piece will look like transformed by a coat of paint,’ says the vivacious magpie, who finds her inspiration in being around other creative people. ‘I tap into their energy,’ she says. ‘I’ll see or hear something and that will spark an idea.’ Nelia’s teenage son, Stephen, 15, and daughter, Jane, 13, often join her on her spirited trawling missions. ‘It’s hard work, it’s all on foot, we hand-pick every item,’ she says.The Milnerton Market is a firm favourite. ‘I go on Saturdays and maybe even on Sundays and complete about 20 rounds!’ laughs Nelia. ‘I love that my kids can appreciate the finer things and stimulate their own creativity.’ Her best-loved finds make their way to her home, but only for a few weeks before she sends them to her shop – where they usually fly off the shelves. ‘Every piece in my home has already been booked by a friend or family member!’ she laughs. Here, Nelia did away with colour for the first time, choosing a gentle, soothing canvas of cream and white, layered with natural textures. ‘The kids and I lead really busy lives, so I wanted to create a tranquil cocoon to come home to in the evenings.’ The decision to go all white was sparked by Nelia’s own personal transformation seven years ago. ‘It’s a stripped-down way of living. I’d reached a stage in my life where I didn’t want to keep anything that we didn’t use or need.’ They lived in the house for five years before embarking on an ambitious overhaul. ‘I would have done things very differently if we’d renovated straight after moving in; the kids were much younger then,’ she recalls. Thanks to her builder, Eben Roux, who is also her pastor, everything went according to plan in just two-and-a-half months. ‘I got the best of both worlds,’ she smiles, ‘a new home and a bit of spiritual input on our coffee breaks!’ The emphasis during this process, conducted on a shoestring budget, was on recycling. Whatever could be reused was incorporated somewhere, such as a scaffolding plank from the building site that went into Nelia’s new kitchen. ‘We knocked out whatever we could and painted everything white,’ she explains. ‘All I wanted was for everything to be light and airy and fresh because antiques and vintage items can very easily drag you down.’ Nelia hasn’t looked back since starting her business. While she retains her affinity with pieces from the past, her focus is also firmly on a fulfilling future. ‘It is wonderful discovering what you can do, it’s so empowering,’ she enthuses. ‘Being able to do what you love is a real blessing.’ Gister, 6 Bright Street, Somerset West, 021-852-4827

NELIA’S HOME TRUTHS

  • The best thing about living in Somerset West is that, within a 50km radius, there’s everything you could ever need, want or crave – without the hustle and bustle of the city.
  • I collect old leather books.
  • My personal style is simple and unadorned.
  • A treasured possession is a beautiful old painting of a man by artist Mimi Cook. My top tip is don’t keep your beautiful pieces for high days and holidays – use them every day.
  • The home-decorating disaster I’d rather forget is my purple bathroom, way back when!
  • My favourite item I’ve stumbled upon is an antique monogrammed sheet I found in someone’s garage.
  • A necessary extravagance is a Sunday-afternoon snooze.
  • Having kids has taught me the meaning of the words ‘unconditional love’.
  • Downtime is essential – we read a lot, spend time together in the garden and go on camping trips to the West Coast where we can recharge our energies.
  • My signature dish is pizza – my kids think I make it like an Italiana!
This article was originally published in the May 2010 issue of House and Leisure.