This Highveld house is like a jewel in the landscape
Posted: 04 September 2017
Architect Charles van Breda worked together with landscaper Tim Conradie to balance the linearity of Johanne Balfour’s modernist Highveld house in Joburg with the organic nature of the garden surrounding it.During the time when Johanne Balfour was building her family home in Sandton, Joburg, she rented a house designed by Mid-Century South African architect Norman Eaton. Eaton’s legacy is best summed up as pioneering a kind of Highveld regional modernism – and Johanne, who is French, could not have chosen a more thoughtful, nuanced example of local architecture to shape her family’s own architectural response to their new country. ‘From the start, I wanted to go modern,’ says Johanne, an interior designer who studied at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan and Joburg’s Greenside Design Center. And it was this idea that led her to the ‘tropical modernism’ of contemporary Brazilian architecture, which combines the clean lines and elegance of modernist architecture with textured natural materials and a more expressive approach.
In the TV room, Johanne perches on a Scandinavian Mid-Century Modern sofa accessorised with cushions from Jonathan Adler.Intent on adapting this influence for her family home’s Highveld setting and melding it with some of the principles that animated Eaton’s architecture in the late mid-20th century, Johanne called on architect Charles van Breda – and the result is a sophisticated version of modern African architecture. The building comprises a wooden-slatted block resting on top of a glass block, with a concrete block on one end that intersects at 90 degrees. ‘The design crystallised into a very simple form,’ says Van Breda. ‘Effectively, it is a structure floating on another structure, with a glass box below.’ The bedrooms are above and the living areas are glassed in below, configured around the kitchen, which ‘formed the nucleus of the house’. In the concrete block is the garage.
Designed so that whoever is cooking can interact with people in the dining area and also look out over the garden, the kitchen is finished in blonde oak that was left slightly rough to emphasise its materiality. The chairs are local furniture manufacturer Melvill & Moon’s take on Børge Mogensen’s iconic Spanish Chair, and The Cones pendant lights above the granite-topped island are by MOS.Johanne wanted the garden and building to be well integrated, so she worked with landscaper Tim Conradie to create a largely endemic garden that stands as a wild counterpoint to the disciplined linearity of the architecture. Van Breda found that introducing disappearing sliding doors to the lower glass level helped create ‘a sense of immediacy and light’ and facilitated the impression that ‘the garden came into the house’ – and at the same time, invites you out. ‘The juxtaposition between the architectural box rising out of this chaotic, organic landscape is well played out,’ he says.
The open-plan living area consists of the kitchen, dining room and sitting area, with a covered patio at one end. Johanne says that many people initially pigeonhole her interior style as Mid-Century Modern, and although the Tulip sidetable by Eero Saarinen and the Finn Juhl lounge chair in the living room are both classic examples of furniture created in that period, modern additions such as a chrome Bell standing lamp by Tom Dixon prove how eclectic her approach really is.
At the end of the living wing, a covered patio allows for sheltered outdoor seating and features a coffee table by Mezzanine with Johanne’s choice of a Namibian granite top that highlights her love of local materials.This concept of a pristine, human-made ‘jewel in the landscape’ of classic modernism is tempered somewhat by the materials used for the exterior, which were chosen to weather with time: the wooden screen on the first level, for example, will turn a soft silver-grey and bring, as Van Breda expresses it, another dimension of ‘life to the front of the building’, while the concrete and glass will maintain their clarity. The effect, as Van Breda notes, is to shift the idea of a modernist house from a ‘machine for living’ to a design that ‘acknowledges the idea of the handmade object’. It’s not rustic by any means, but inside and out, there are references to the crafted and handmade elements embedded in the structured architecture. This is even more evident in the interiors, which include raw concrete columns and polished concrete floors. ‘I wanted to keep some of the roughness and the natural [quality of the materials],’ Johanne says. With its light oak finish, the kitchen continues the dialogue between the human-made and the natural, featuring walnut floating shelves and cabinetry as well as a flamed Zimbabwean granite kitchen counter top that was selected as much for its texture as for the fact that it’s from Africa.
A Mid-Century display unit the Balfours bought in Europe is packed with collectibles, such as hand-blown Murano glass pieces from Italy and Ngwenya Glass creations from Swaziland.When it comes to the furnishings, they are an expertly layered combination of designs from various eras, with organic materials such as wood, leather, grass, mohair, metal and stone predominating. The dining table, which was originally owned by a German missionary in South Africa, dates back to the mid-1800s, while the sofas, coffee table and lamps include up-to-the-minute designs by the likes of Tom Dixon.
An Omina bath from Boutique Baths and a floorstanding tap by Hansgrohe provide a modern juxtaposition to the bathroom's concrete floor.As a volunteer who raises funds for the NGO Orange Babies through art and design, Johanne is a great supporter of local work, and there are examples of African traditional handcrafts and artefacts scattered throughout her home, from woven baskets to carved sidetables. On the other end of the spectrum are instances of local contemporary Modernist-inflected design, such as a Mezzanine coffee table on the patio, Dokter and Misses stools in the bathroom and lighting by MOS. And since Orange Babies has collaborated with furniture designer Peter Mabeo for this year’s FNB JoburgArtFair – where it will have a booth showcasing limited-edition pieces designed and manufactured by him as well as artwork by South African artists – it’s likely that some select Mabeo originals will soon find a place in her collection.