An architectural expedition into rarefied legacy homes
Nini Bairnsfather Cloete, who spent two years seeking out architecturally interesting, beautifully decorated residences, has her own idea of a perfect home
Nini Bairnsfather Cloete, who spent two years seeking out architecturally interesting, beautifully decorated residences for her book Remarkable Heritage Houses of South Africa, has her own idea of a perfect home.
It is, she says, in no way prissy. It’s "a warm and welcoming country farmhouse, big lofty rooms, long windows, old furniture, artworks covering the walls, an overload of books, dogs and children".
The 20 residences that made the cut to feature in her 270-page book, lavishly illustrated with photographs by Craig Fraser, all display at least some of these characteristics.
There are lurchers snoozing on sofas in Meerlust (Stellenbosch) and piles of books in all. In Whitehall Court (Killarney, Johannesburg), there is a specially designed oblique bookshelf to display coffee table books.
There are incredible heirloom pieces of furniture, such as Karen Blixen’s roll-top desk in Waterhof, Cape Town, and layers of history: 22 layers of paint were scraped from the walls of its kitchen.
An armoire once owned by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick is housed in Stellenberg, Kenilworth.
Art, whether old oils or contemporary South African pieces, blazes or whispers from wildly different walls.
And, of course, lofty spaces are in evidence.
Yet, despite these overlaps, the book does not reflect any one particular style or taste. Cloete found her own preferences nudged and challenged by some of the interiors she saw.
She was forced to establish parameters to whittle down the number of potential houses scattered around the country. She ascribed the meaning "that which is worth saving for the next generation" to the word "heritage", and decided to try not to include anything built later than the 1950s.
She ruled out museums, hotels and corporate premises; all houses "had to be privately owned and lived in".
Cloete and her husband, Pieter, drove endlessly to examine contenders for the book. It was an organic process: her previous publication, Remarkable Gardens of South Africa (2012), had given her some ideas for gorgeous houses, as did friends, decorators and word of mouth.
She visited more than 40 homes, from the Northern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal’s Fugitive Drift, where she had heard about a cottage that she just "had to see".
Interiors began to play a larger part as the process unfolded. "In my mind, the book has become a sort of celebration of ingenuity, creativity and sensitivity in how people’s interiors have evolved and what they have done … to honour that genre of house," Cloete says.
"Some feel that the house ‘sings’ if furnished in the vernacular of the architecture. This illuminates the matter of integrity, of aesthetic responsibility. That was important to me. It goes beyond what’s on trend and being caught up by fashion and immediate stuff."
Some of the houses, such as Zevenrivieren near Stellenbosch and Wrensch House in Observatory, Cape Town, combined contemporary and antique to impressive effect. Contemporary art also often lifts and enlivens spaces, as do personal, quirky objects — such as two stuffed crocodiles on the dining table at Meerlust.
"[Eighth-generation owner Hannes Myburgh] has got this huge history, yet he’s continued to add things that are completely idiosyncratic to himself. And it’s refreshing and not stick-in-the-mud," Cloete says.
"That is what has been wonderful about these houses: although the majority of them are old, the owners have progressed with them and given them a new phase in their lives.
"Becoming stuck in the past becomes dowdy. You should keep your family history going, but don’t shun what is happening now."
The book is a picture of a very particular slice of society. SA’s history ensured that black families did not have the opportunity or legal right to purchase and hand down classical homes through generations.
It is also a world in which home owners can afford very good furniture, art and, frequently, decorators.
For many, the interiors will add to the allure of "seeing inside" these homes.
Cloete is fastidious about describing furniture and special pieces where she has licence to do so, and is knowledgeable about architecture.
For nonexperts, a simple visual plan for each home may have been a valuable addition.
The histories and stories that Cloete has mined are fascinating. There are historical tales: Rudyard Kipling is said to have painted a frieze of a Noah’s Ark toy set on the night nursery wall at Prynnsberg, a surprising pleasure palace built by a diamond magnate in the Free State.
There are family stories: the Melcks of Kersefontein on the West Coast, who obtained the property in 1770, have bred horses ever since the 1800s. In the 1840s, they perused oil paintings of potential new animals sent from England before making purchases.
One special home, which snuck through the pre-1950s rule, is Die Es in Camps Bay. The linear white house with a wavy roof was designed by architect Gawie Fagan.
The family car was sacrificed to buy a second-hand cement mixer, and Gawie’s wife, Gwen, and their four children helped to mix material for the foundations. It truly is a family-built home.
All the stories are combined with photographic spreads and rich detail; there is a feeling of immersion into micro-universes and personalities.
Despite the proliferation of different tastes, each house somehow grounds interior and architecture.
"How many of the houses could I live in?" Cloete asks. "Probably half-a-dozen at least! Maybe even 10."