city, houses

Urban Thatched Rondavel

Elsa Young


The Johannesburg suburb of Parkwood is synonymous with jacaranda-lined streets and large, colonial family homes, not thatched rondavels. And yet one of its prettiest and most welcoming residences is exactly that – a simple series of honeycomb-shaped rooms with a decidedly African bent and a grassroof to boot. It’s also the laid-back spot that newspaper journalist Aspasia Karras, her husband, Mark Phillips, and their daughter, Alexandra, call home. Built in 1923, the home still retains its original structure, save for the addition of bathrooms and a garage. Set in an English country-style garden, its interconnected octagonal rooms are just as unusual and interesting as the house’s history.

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‘The story goes that it was once the home of a Johannesburg gentleman’s mistress, and was filled with black lacquered furniture and surrounded, rather provocatively, by red roses,’ explains Aspasia. Well-known South African contemporary artist Kim Lieberman lived in the house years ago and today it’s the all-white canvas – screed and wooden floors included – for this young family’s eclectic collection of art and furniture. Colourfully abstract portraits by Robert Hodgins hang alongside a Kentridge and original Greek artworks. This is a family that clearly loves art, with even the fridge adorned with Alexandra’s collection of vintage movie-poster postcards.‘When we got married Mark was living in a magpie’s nest of a house in Troyeville, filled with all sorts of shiny, pretty things, and I was a nice Greek girl who’d been living with my parents and didn’t have much in the way of furniture, so I insisted that when we moved into our new home, we start afresh,’ Aspasia laughs.

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What they did bring from Mark’s bachelor pad forms part of their existing art collection, most notably a number of Walter Meyer oil paintings, and an impressive selection of Art-Deco furniture. Combining these pieces with new ones, Aspasia and Mark have created a home that is modern and eclectic, yet with a sense of provenance. Mark’s Art-Deco armchairs sit comfortably in the lounge beside loose-covered white-linen couches, while hand-carved wooden hearts, shiny silver ceramics and coffee-table books about rock ‘n’ roll gods and goddesses accessorise the room. It’s a rather fabulous mixed bag, and one that also incorporates Aspasia’s Hellenic heritage. ‘I really like the bleached whiteness of bones and I’ve got a real fondness for archaeology and found objects,’ she notes. ‘Somehow I like to put that down to my Greek ancestry.’ The perennially fashionable Aspasia is pretty good at finding the right mix of stylish bits and pieces, such as the Tord Boontje light dangling from Alexandra’s bedroom ceiling and the Patricia Urquiola side table that lives in the lounge. There’s a Cornelius Lemmer Dolly Pot in the entrance and Jenny Gifford cushions in the TV room, which is jam-packed with books and magazines – devoured with relish by all the home’s inhabitants, including Alexandra, who knows her stuff when it comes to discussing her favourite Joburg houses.

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Arriving home after a hectic day of deadlines and looking effortlessly cool in spite of it, Aspasia casually throws together a dinner of roast chicken, making liberal use of the fresh herbs she’s plucked from her garden. As the late afternoon summer sun begins to fade she chats animatedly on a range of topics, from the conservatory she would love to add on to the kitchen to the olive oil she’s cooking with, which comes from her family’s olive grove in Greece. One thing’s for sure,this trio’s lifestyle is as charming as their unusually shaped home.

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ASPASIA’S HOME TRUTHS

The best thing about living in Joburg is the pace, the trees, the people. My ultimate desert-island luxury would be books in quantities – perhaps I need a Kindle? My dream dinner-party guests would be Maria Callas, Holly Golightly, Billie Holiday, Wim Wenders, Holden Caulfield and Paul Newman. My favourite spot in the house is the sitting room – I feel connected to everything and everyone. If I could change one thing about my home it would be to add a conservatory to the kitchen. My ultimate holiday destination is Samos Island in Greece. My parents live there for half the year and my heart sings when I visit. My perfect holiday soundtrack would be Belle and Sebastian, Regina Spektor, Nouvelle Vague, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, and The Felice Brothers. My signature dish is fish on the braai with fresh Mediterranean-inspired salads and side dishes and figs for dessert. I collect paintings, books and bones. My favourite building is Leaf Chapel in Japan by Klein Dytham architects; it has a retractable roof built to resemble a lace veil. My favourite saying is by Heraclitus, who said: ‘You never step in the same river twice.’ I love to hate whoever sold my cell number to endless telesales companies.

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This home was originally featured in the December 2009 issue of House and Leisure.