Johannesburg family home

Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young Lionel and Louella Levin moved into their home in Orchards, Johannesburg, 40 years ago and raised their three children there. When the kids later found homes of their own, the couple still had no desire to move, choosing instead to renovate to suit their present needs. ‘It’s not a vast house,’ says Lionel of the 220m² dwelling, set on a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by a jungle of trees. It was easy to make it comfortable for two, and to design it to accommodate their remarkable collection of African, Indian and Chinese furniture, art and artefacts. Lionel is a ‘detribalised architect’ – he qualified as an architect, but never practiced  instead becoming one of Joburg’s most sought- after interior designers. He and Louella own Trade Roots, specialists in Chinese antiques. When they decided to renovate the house, they were well placed to do it themselves, even though Lionel is quick to add that his interior-design services did not include domestic interiors: this was his first. As he was unfamiliar with certain bylaws and technicalities, he called in architect Pieter-Ernst Maré, a friend of his son’s, to help with the ‘building stuff’. The house was the area’s original farmhouse and dates back to 1905. ‘It was a traditional old Transvaal farmhouse with lovely high ceilings,’ says Lionel. ‘Some of the original trees are still in the garden, now more than 100 years old.’ Over the decades, to suit their changing needs, the Levins made various alterations, although the footprint remained intact. ‘While we constantly built into it, we never added on,’ he says. The result is a house that retains a sense of its heritage, and that has never grown unwieldy or rambling. The interiors in the main living area were already ‘somewhat open plan’, so Lionel and Louella opened up the spaces even more to let in the maximum amount of light. This modernises the interior, but original design elements remain, combined in places with structural steel girders and aluminium windows. ‘We wanted to keep the bones – to keep the old, old – and to introduce an industrial feel,’ says Lionel. In this way, Pieter-Ernst’s design respected the history of the house without parodying its original style. Lionel lived in the Far East in the 1960s, and was struck by the beauty of the art and design there. The collecting bug bit, and he became a passionate and knowledgeable collector. ‘By the time of our renovation, we had an established collection, and could design specifically with its placement in mind, creating special niches for artefacts instead of simply placing them in rooms,’ says Lionel. ‘We were able to tweak the dimensions to accommodate old Chinese doors as main entrance doors and utilise a magnificent set of high Chinese screens as a flexible room divider.’ A Nandi (ceremonial bull) resides in a specially created niche on the central axis of the entrance and announces that one of the owners of the house is a Taurean. ‘We’re both enamoured with furniture of scale, so we adjusted the dining room size to take a 3.7-metre old Chinese dresser,’ says Lionel. The rest of the house is filled with beautiful pieces from around the world. Together, Lionel and Louella have travelled through Africa, to Egypt and Morocco, and still make regular visits to the East to source items for Trade Roots. ‘My arms grew long carrying hand luggage,’ says Louella. Lionel considers himself more a magpie than a coldly rational collector. ‘We buy things that we like,’ he says. ‘It has to have aesthetic or emotional appeal. We’ve never bought anything simply because we thought it was a good investment.’ There is no doubt, however, that the 40 years Lionel and Louella have invested in their home, and the impressive collection inside, has paid off handsomely. Pieter-Ernst Maré, Lupini Architects,; Trade Roots,   LIONEL AND LOUELLA’S HOME TRUTHS The best thing about living where we do is the central location, the trees and the worn-velvet feel of an old suburb – not as yet invaded by the plethora of development. Renovating our home has taught us to spend an awful lot of time thinking about it (shooting from the hip gets expensive), and to make sure that you have reliable people (architects and builders) with whom you can communicate. Our favourite piece of design advice is, go for longevity. Avoid fashionable statements. If you are going to plagiarise, at least emulate something good. Buy beautiful things you want to live with for the rest of your life. Style, whether good or bad, is a reflection of a person’s character. Our favourite room in our home is the lounge/dining area for the light and space, and, of course, the collection of  ‘treasures’ of which we never tire. Our pet design hate is pretension. My most treasured piece of furniture or decorative detail is the life-size Chinese opera puppet, given to me by Louella for my 70th birthday (Lionel). Our favourite getaway is Cape Town, at our 64m² flat overlooking Queen’s Beach with the grandkidlets (it’s genetic – grandparents and Jewish!). For us, enjoying the outdoors means lying around and reading (Lionel); entertaining informally and enjoying the space in the garden (Louella). This article was originally featured in the October 2011 issue of House & Leisure.