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Joburg Writer's Home

Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs David Ross You might think you’ve walked onto a Tom Ford movie set when you enter this late-1930s house on Johannesburg’s Linksfield Ridge, so lovingly and precisely selected is its Scandinavian furniture. The glinting wood, delicate curves and immaculate proportions of each piece suggest a curator’s eye. The house could easily be the location for the unfolding of some stylish, inscrutable drama. The home’s extensive art collection, however, keeps it from becoming a mere period piece. It includes a rich and diverse array of local art – a tour de force of South Africa’s best, with a special penchant for Walter Battiss, Joachim Schönfeldt, Cecil Skotnes and Robert Hodgins. When the owner – an art aficionado, writer and academic – moved in with his family seven years ago, the house, he says, rejected all the cottage furniture they had accumulated. They had to start again from scratch. A restoration of the house uncovered subtle Art-Deco details on the fireplace, stoep pillars, door handles and light fittings. And when the carpets were lifted and the floors sanded, rich, orange American-pine floorboards were revealed. 'The house is something of a crossover between the Edwardian style and Art Deco,’ the owner says. He initially considered filling the house with Art-Deco furniture. ‘But if it was not to be French Art Deco, it was not worth having, and where does one get that in South Africa?’ he asks. The other option was early modernism. ‘But the thought of bringing in a couple of Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs and a Le Corbusier chaise longue was too ghastly to contemplate,’ he says. ‘So we settled on Mid-Century Modern pieces.’ He adds, with some feeling: ‘Americans regard Mid-Century furniture as modern artworks.’ The collection began with the discovery of a Finn Juhl lounge suite covered in its original light green fabric. Juhl, a Danish architect, became better known as a designer, and is probably best known for furnishing the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1947. There are other gems throughout the house: the huge oval wooden table that dominates the dining room, says the owner, is probably by G-Plan, the Scandinavian-influenced British design firm established in the 1950s. And there’s the occasional piece, such as the Cherner armchair in the bedroom, about which he admits, ‘Sometimes one has to be pragmatic about these things and a licensed reproduction of the original has to suffice.’ He’s also picked up fascinating pieces such as the writing table in the bedroom by Niels Vodder, Juhl’s one-time cabinet-maker. The collection culminates in Finn Juhl’s famous Bwana chair, covered in pigskin, on the landing. ‘These chairs and footstools were imported to South Africa in the early 1960s by big fabric houses,’ he says. There are more Juhl pieces in the family room and lounge – perfect, he says, for his ceramics. The house is dotted with green and blue ceramics from Globe, Linnware and Ceramic Studio – mid-century South African pieces, whose history fascinates the owner. ‘I consider ceramics the vitamins of a room,’ he says. ‘I like them big and bold, not small and fussy. Size does count!’ The connoisseurship and expertise that have informed the selection of furniture and ceramics is outdone only by the art. The pieces on display have been amassed since the owners were students, and reveal a sustained passion for South African art that enriches the home. This family’s collection makes its own gracious contribution to the art of living. This story was originally featured in the April 2011 issue of House and Leisure