Why should a table have four identical legs? Why should laminate veneer be only for the kitchen and bathroom and not for a luxurious living room?’ When Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass posed these questions in relation to the Memphis Group, a design movement he spearheaded in Milan in the 1980s, he’d already caused a stir by creating asymmetrical furniture in kaleidoscopic colours and unexpected materials.
The furniture, lighting, textiles, jewellery, home- and glassware produced by this collective of designers between 1981 and 1988 followed no set rules. A multicoloured, unorthodox departure from Modernism’s more predictable, clinical aesthetic, the experimental Memphis designs popped with vibrant hues and pattern – think leopard-print Formica and colour-block craziness. German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld took to it instantly, furnishing his entire Monte Carlo apartment with Memphis pieces, while English superstar David Bowie’s monumental Memphis collection resulted in record-breaking bids when it was auctioned by Sotheby’s after his death in 2016.
But not everyone was as intrigued by the boldness of this avant-garde movement, and products were often criticised for their irreverence and seemingly pointless shapes. Dutch-born South African resident Harry Poortman, however, felt a compelling attraction towards works produced by the Memphis Group, especially because of their risk-taking structures and tones. A former architect and designer himself, Harry’s home is replete with celebrated items from the short-lived era. ‘These designers were working at a time when everything was minimalistic,’ says the collector, ‘and they introduced a counter-design movement filled with patterns and interesting forms that I was drawn to.’
The pieces collected by Harry include a one-off table by Sottsass that was never manufactured en masse, French architect Martine Bedin’s playful Super lamp on wheels, a rug by French painter Nathalie du Pasquier designed for a cinema theatre, and Italian designer and architect Michele De Lucchi’s checquered Kristall table – Memphis Group creations that, because of their intricate craftsmanship, didn’t go into mass production, and are now sought-after collector’s items.
In the home Harry shares with his partner Steyn Jacobs on a farm outside Stanford, just two hours’ drive from Cape Town, their Memphis Group collection is complemented by other iconic works of art and design, including furniture by Jasper Morrison, an English designer who recognises the influence that the Postmodern movement had on his work. Having attended his first Memphis show at 20, Morrison is quoted as saying that he was both repulsed and freed by what he saw, acknowledging that the collective’s rule-breaking mentality encouraged him to question ways of working and designing. Harry relates to this non-formulaic mode of conceptualisation. Having the luxury of a 40ha hilltop farm to build on, he veered far from constructing a traditional six-bedroom farmhouse, and instead co-designed an unconventional, slinky, 30m-long, 6m-wide pitched-roof, barn-like structure to sit alongside and echo the two-bedroom pitched-roof house already on the property.
The couple converted the original abode into a guesthouse, joining it to their own new open-plan ‘barn’ with a corrugated-iron passageway that houses their office. ‘Harry co-designed our new house according to his array of furniture and art to create a gallery-type environment,’ says Steyn, referring to the all-white walls and long, narrow slit windows that allow his partner’s 40-year collection to maintain its prominence.
He bought his first artwork while still a student,’ says Steyn, pointing to the oil painting of three figures by Dutch artist Ange Lina that hangs alongside a work by Czech artist Ivan Radocan and a one-off prototype sculpture by Cape Town artist Frank van Reenen in the living area. Surrounded by olive groves, fruit trees and abundant indigenous fynbos, the new section of the home was designed with full cognisance of the outdoors, maximising the views of the ocean and surrounding Kleinrivier Mountains.
Both widths of the home – the bedroom on one side, and the living room with cantilevered balcony on the other – are entirely glass-fronted to their 6m apex points. ‘It means we get to continue our relationship with nature while we’re inside,’ Harry says, adding that this dramatic use of glass enables an urban aesthetic within a rural setting. ‘The building makes it look like we’re in the heart of a city, but actually we’re in the middle of nowhere.’ With furniture by notable names such as US design brand Eames, French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, French designer Philippe Starck, Dutch designer Benno Premsela and Danish designer Hans J Wegner finding perfectly curated spaces inside, and with the sounds of wildlife wafting in from the outside, the blend of urban and rural living becomes a synchronised theatrical showcase on this property.
Sottsass once likened Memphis designs to ‘static monuments’, saying, ‘There’s only room for one monument in a room.’ It seems that Harry and Steyn have found the secret to making way for more.