Modernist Joburg Villa
Text Graham Wood Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young The American sculptor Alexander Calder, famous for his vast, brightly coloured mobiles, once said in an interview: ‘I love red so much that I almost want to paint everything red.’ Alan Amory, who lives in this striking modernist villa in Joburg’s Emmarentia, identifies with this statement. By his own account, he has a weakness for buying red objects – particularly for the kitchen. When it came to house hunting, however, it was white that caught his eye. When Alan and Richard Devey, who loved living in a sought-after Art Deco apartment in Killarney, began thinking about moving into a house, they agreed that it would have to be Art Deco. Both are mad about the period’s design and architecture, but when they stumbled upon this remarkable modernist home and became entranced, they decided they could make an exception to their rule. The previous owners of the house were so passionate about it that they included a buy-back clause in the sale contract. ‘It’s that kind of house,’ says Alan. ‘You grow deeply attached to it. While it is very functional in its design, you can’t help having a strong emotional response to it.’ It was, however, in need of a bit of a facelift. ‘We were nervous but ecstatic,’ he says. ‘The architecture demands a particular sensibility. It’s quite a move from Art Deco.’ The house’s dramatic curved facade with its strip of ribbon windows and flat roof makes a powerful design statement. The purity of form still evokes the optimistic, exhilarated spirit in which these houses were built. The top floor is supported by freestanding columns (pilotis, in the architectural jargon of the time). It is a favourite modernist trick that opens up the ground level and makes possible the glass front with wide-open views of the garden. They were aware of the historic value of the house and wanted to preserve what was important. They discovered that it had originally been designed for a sociologist from Stellenbosch who moved to Joburg to work at Wits University. The plans, which Alan and Richard still have, are dated August 1949. The outbuildings were added in 1978 (at an estimated cost of R3 000). ‘Initially I was afraid of changing things too radically,’ says Richard. Supported by Joburg interior designer Astrid van der Heim, he and Alan embarked on a substantial renovation of the interior. They wanted ‘to create a white box’ for the main living area, and had long conversations about whether or not to keep the fireplace (it’s gone), brighten the kitchen (it’s red) and modernise the bathrooms (they’re new). They extended the tiled area at the front of the house and added a covered outdoor entertainment area. ‘It’s a much better space than it was before,’ says Alan. ‘For us, it’s more relaxed and open, and there’s more space for art on the walls.’ Richard says, ‘I don’t like pure modernism; it’s too stark.’ Although Alan is ‘not crazy about too much stuff lying around’, he agreed. They combined some modernist furniture with their existing Art Deco pieces and, with the couple’s art collection displayed to fine effect on pristine walls, the whole thing came together perfectly. ‘The house reflects a mix of everything,’ says Alan. ‘It’s not purist; it has been made into a comfortable home.’ As a result of his research during the renovation, Richard has developed an interest in modernist gardening too. ‘The renovation process revealed the philosophy behind modernism,’ he says. Now he’s working towards a garden design to complement the architecture. We hope there will be space for bursts of red!