This article was first published in the Weekend Argus Heart of the Home supplement, 2 October 2011.

Weaver’s Nest – a home as magical as its name suggests – hovers in its dramatic, challenging landscape on the mountainous slopes in Higgovale.

With walkways, decks and shuttering made of timber, stone stairs, terraces and paths that lead to wild garden areas, a cemented rim-flow pool and concrete-coloured stuccoed walls  –  the materials all contribute to the building’s sense of belonging in the landscape.

The forested site falls away from the roadside entrance into a deep, rugged ravine crossed by two mountain streams with steep embankments: a beautiful spot lacking any flat space on which to build.

Architect Sonja Petrus Spammer’s response is a lyrical balancing act that honours both the natural environment and the needs of the recently-widowed client – coincidently the architect’s mother-in-law –  for a compact, secure, Scandi-inspired modern home.

Spamer’s initial idea was to try to straddle the steep banks of the streams and build the house along the street front.  But this would have created a north/south axis, rather than an east/west one required for a north-facing home; a critical consideration when building a house to take advantage of passive thermals in the southern hemisphere.

So Spamer looked to various sources for inspiration and a solution to this challenging terrain. One was a childhood spent in the Karoo where she’d encountered numerous examples of railway bridges and block houses which suggested piers connected with floating bridges. But there were other vital inspirations too. The tented camps of the Kruger parks and their simple cocooning commune with nature, as well as with the dome-shaped reed structures redolant that dot the Namib countryside.

Spamer also learnt from a project she’d conceptualised in Australia while attending a master class there. The design brief demanded artists’ accomodation and a gallery/studio in the outback along the banks of a river. Here she drew on local Aboriginal culture,  their relationship to nature and adherence to dreamtime. Her concept design comprised a gallery/studio space accessible to the public gaze while the accommodation was strung along the river, more private and suggestive of the transition from wakefulness to sleep.

And finally, she was influenced by the host of the master class, Pritzka Prize winning Australian architect, Glen Murcutt whose”treading the earth lightly” ethos injects environmental sensibility into his domestic architecture.

The result is a beautifully proportioned building made up of two piers linked by floating wooden bridges, lightly anchored so that its minimal footprint barely disturbs the wilderness below.  Spammer’s design appears to take Murcutt’s ethos further with a building that feels just barely earthbound.

The house is composed of twin pavilions linked by uncovered walkways. Each has a living area just below street level, with a bedroom, workspace and bathroom below. One pier supports the “main” house with a bedroom for the owner, the other a studio cum guest suite.  “Lanterns and hammocks” – this was the visual image driving Spamer’s concept of living space above, with bedrooms hanging at the bottom.  The modest size of the top – some six by nine metres – is visually expanded by the covered and shuttered decks onto which the living areas spill. Large clerestory windows draw inside the views of nearby mountains, while walls of sliding panels of glass disappear, underscoring  the impression of living in nature, aloft on the tree branches. Basking in this setting it is hard to imagine that Cape Town’s central business district is a couple of kilometers away.

For Spamer, educated at UCT’s school of architecture against the charged political backdrop of the late 1980s, Weaver’s Nest, completed in 2006 heralds a departure from her earlier, exclusively socially-conscious public architecture, towards a more considered view of how comparatively affluent domestic design might also be invested with a certain social and conscious sensibility. It was her contact with seminal Australian architects, like Murcutt, as well as Rick Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury, Spamer says, that gave her, for the first time, the luxury of grappling with what she refers to as “the fundamental nature of shelter” and of understanding the poetics of shelter and materials and people, and their interrelationships. “I think the fantastic thing about Glen Mercutt and his whole team is the profound modesty that goes with their humanist approach as designers,” Spamer explains. “They’re so well-measured. They don’t try to do everything for everybody. They’re conscious of the fact that they don’t practice in an urban or grand way. They’re essentially architects who design houses.” Their designs according to Spamer don’t necessarily contribute to the collective public discourse, “but working with them does provide scope to question things in a fundamental way”. The experience, she says, taught her to develop a real respect for clients and to question how she could use her skills and knowledge to make the greatest contribution for the client. It made her particularly fond of a view of architects that she says Murcutt expresses  –  which is that at the end of the day architects work with quite ordinary things, houses, but good architects do extraordinary things with them.

Her professional life till then had been heavily influenced by her local design heroes, among them Jo Noero who had headed the Architecture Department at UCT during Spamer’s time as a student there and who was her first employer after graduation.

“As a student our projects always tried to use the city or country as our laboratory and I always chose to work on projects that were socially driven. I had no affinity for something that didn’t have social elements. I was the queen of community centres and social housing,” she smiles. “When you deal with social complexity and urban issues  there is an endless number of things you need to consider, including social and political relations,” explains Spamer. “But you don’t question the essential nature of component parts and how these might impact on individual people.”

Her work with Joe Noero includes collaborating on projects like lecture theaters for the Funda Arts Centre in Johannesburg, the United Cricket Board cricket oval in Alexandria, Mdantsane Boxing Acamademy in East London. This was followed by a period in Nelspruit  where Coca Cola  was a client on an occupational health clinic and training centre. She also designed a church in Kanyamazane (Nelspruit) and school in Lothair outside Swaziland. Influenced by Noero, her designs she says were very economical, human-scaled, good looking, and always focusing on social issues.

While she admits to an added sophistication these day, she doesn’t like the idea of having a signature style. Buildings must tell the client’s story, she insists.

Weaver’s Nest and its success owe a lot to the client. “My mother-in-law has an astute sense of design and construction, and has run many building projects. She was my client and the builder on the project.”

For someone who believes you’re only as good as your projects, Weaver’s Nest is testimony to Sonja’s strength.

“My mother-in-law had an idea of something she’d seen, a small place that seemed bigger because of its relationship with the outside.  She loved the model I made which merged the idea of optimising space and the landscape. And the end result, was something she  felt looked timeless and like belonged there. That was the most important thing to me.”

NOTE: All photographs courtesy of Sonja Spamer and remain the copyright of Sonja Spamer. Further reproduction is forbidden without her prior consent.


Lorelle Bell

This article was first published in Weekend Argus supplement Heart of the Home on 4 September 2011.

My first visit to artist Stanley Hermans’ Cape Town loft apartment perched on the top of a commercial building in the CBD’s Loop Street, was at two o’ clock in the early hours of a Sunday morning after a friend’s birthday dinner.

Stanley had crowned the evening with a party trick that involved crawling the length of the very long dinner table, sending wine glasses flying in his wake: a fitting end to a  milestone birthday dinner; and I suspect Stanley’s signal that the dinner conversation had become a tad banal.

For Stanley – warm, witty, brittle, talented, of biting intellect and enviably erudite, satirical turn of phrase,  a prodigious, but to my mind locally under-celebrated, talent – life is too short to waste on pretensions.

The party ended – as parties must when Stanley is a guest – with an invite to continue at his place: a short and remarkably safe walk down a post-midnight city street to a darkened building and a dramatic ride in a rickety, clangy pre-war lift where we arrive at the top floor and my first experience of a local equivalent of the fabled New York loft apartments made famous and desirable by so many trendy sitcoms.

It was over five years ago and the sense of the city centre as a relatively safe space for living had not yet been entrenched.

Exiting the lift gates, we moved through the doorway into an artist’s eyrie – an expansive living area which stretches the depth of the building from Loop Street to the windows at the back which in daylight frame views of Bo-Kaap, Signal Hill and Lion’s Head and by night a sleeping city with the odd flickering lights of the neighbourhood on the hill.

The first impressions are of space and shadows which, when the lights come on, reveal an enviably stylish place. But a place that is a home first, and then a working studio and finally a gallery for a significant body of the artist’s work.

Over 300 square metres of high ceilings, industrial windows, polished parquet flooring and a few interior walls make up the apartment’s bones. A former sweatshop, the space was purchased about seven years ago, sight unseen, because it was such a good deal, central and convenient. They called in “dear friend and architect Hughie Fraser” who “mostly gutted and took away”.

The living room is about 15 metres long, with intimate seating spaces defined by a contemporary sleek modular couch and daybed covered in textured charcoal linen, where weathered leather armchairs and sofa or a set of velvet-covered vintage chairs in jewel colours, set the scene . These spaces are dotted with an eclectic mixture of mid-century and organic, textured wooden pieces. Two different sets of  stacking tables with coloured formica tops redolent of the 50s, provide witty, conveniently arm-level resting places for drinks.

A set of 70s fold-up drinks trolleys with chrome frames and veneered trays dot the space. They bear the artist’s tools: pots and tubes of paint colours, jars, brushes and palettes, and each has a colored angle-poise lamp clamped to it, to provide task lighting while the artist is at work.

Floor-to-ceiling, two-way bookshelves in blond wood  – some of which have fluted glass sliding doors – hold part of the owners’ substantial library and divide the living-room from the cinema cum gallery space at the core of the loft.

Here the furniture is limited to a row of vintage cinema seating. Spotlights on tracks focus on the works of Stanley Hermans, the artist.

Stanley, who graduated from UCT with an MA in painting, is known locally mainly for his early work. A rich, evocative record of the everyday rituals of “lower-middle class” living in Woodstock where he grew up; these works of people and interiors capture the atmosphere of a life lived in an intimate community which, while supportive, would ultimately feel restrictive to his questing, critical intellect.

An example of this work was commissioned for the Ernest Oppenheimer Building on the upper campus at UCT and features “an African interpretation of the last supper”.

Another public commission that can be viewed in Cape Town is a sample of his landscape paintings in the restaurant at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. His abstract pieces, of which I am a particular fan, are mainly found in private collections in South Africa and in Paris, although there is one on the Robben Island Museum, “a commissioned abstract assemblage inspired by the calls and responses between Aristotle’s political logic and contemporary African politics”.

For Stanley, the main attractions of the loft are the great space and light. “Its size allows me to work in absolute freedom with regards to the scale of the work,” he says. “Also I can work on more than one piece at a time and this means greater productivity.”

“It’s central and very convenient. Living three floors above it all means we can decide how noisy we want it to be. It’s in a very nice part of the city which has got even  better since we bought it, and part of the  gallery district.”

Apart from his art, the loft is also defined by the kitchen. Although Stanley lists the proximity of “any number of holes in the walls where one can get good street food and not have to cook” as one of the attractions of this base, he is known for dinner parties that have the potential to go on for days.  A bank of counter-height industrial windows on one side, opposite a wall painted in blackboard paint and open wooden shelving and counters provide a frame for a central oversized heavy timber table with benches which at a push probably seats 20. This is matched by a giant couch against the black wall, made for lounging with pre-dinner drinks while the cooking is under way. The kitchen’s art-filled walls include a vertical row of three of Brett Murray’s sunburst lights, and from the couch you can catch a glimpse of another giant Brett Murray light depicting the legendary Jimi Hendrix in a nearby passage.

Stanley’s life in the past year, during which he and his partner have relocated to Johannesburg, makes him more of an itinerant Cape Town city dweller these days. But he spent most of the winter here working on a series he is preparing for exhibition. He has family, friends and work in Cape Town, so Loop Street remains home and he has plans to spend a substantial part of his year here in the future.

NOTE: All photographs published courtesy of The Cape Argus. Copyright remains the property of Independent Newspapers Ltd and no reproduction is allowed with permission.

Karen Dudley’s Woodstock coffee shop offers more than just good food and coffee.
by Lorelle Bell
The text below was first published in The Cape Argus’ Heart of the Home supplement, 3 September 2011
The Kitchen in Woodstock gained extra street cred when Michele Obama chose it as the place for a family brunch on her brief visit to Cape Town earlier this year. Clearly the woman’s got taste! And while some, whose noses were out of joint at the choice, tried to suggest that her visit to this seemingly un-presidential sandwich and salad spot was a case of mistaken identity; Cape Town’s creatives, intellectuals, urban trendies and food fans know better.
Since this small cafe opened in what was then still a dodgy part of Woodstock’s ‘Top Main Road’ two years ago, it’s had a major fan base. The Kitchen has entrenched Karen Dudley’s already established reputation as the creator of fabulous food: great ingredients with a combination of flavours that turn descriptions like “taste sensations” into clichés.
So what makes The Kitchen so special? Well, it’s the food that people return for, for sure. But central to this is the vitality and hospitality at its heart. Karen Dudley is more than a chef or caterer. As she herself admits, “I am a Dudley after all, and we’re the keepers and tellers of stories.” This is evident in the The Kitchen’s appeal, where the atmosphere created is one of a home kitchen of someone unique; someone you’d like to know and to be around; someone with amazing style and the confidence to carry it off.
This is precisely what Karen has done. Before trading at the Neighbourgood’s Market where she’s had a stand since its inception, Karen’s food ventures were confined to catering for events and home dinners. The cooking was done from the kitchen of her home in Woodstock, a stone’s throw from the cafe. She found that people, when they visited, were drawn to this warm eclectic though functional space, and that they’d often stick around to be fed by her.
“People love the theatre of food,” she explains. “They love seeing the mechanics of it and the cooks at work using the paraphernalia of our craft.” This desire to share with her customers the full sensory experience is what has dictated The Kitchen’s decor. While the major cooking is done in an adjoining room, dishes  are displayed in the restaurant and food assembled and plated in diners’ views.The shop, which is relatively small, is dominated by a huge set of glass fronted counters, reminiscent of old haberdashery and corner stores. In this case the displays of are fresh foods as well part of Karen’s collection of old kitchenalia. Delicate gold-handled cups in bursts of brilliant colours share space with the Art Deco shapes and colours of Alfred Meakin’s recognisable sandwich plates. Behind the counter, ceiling-high shelving holds more of the kitchen finds from the 30s and 40s that are Karen’s favourite period for salvaging the kitchen and home wares, furniture and paintings and prints that adorn her shop and home.
In this lies one of the stories she relates. “My grandmother had a glass cabinet filled with fabulous things that I was not allowed to touch. So as an adult and lover of things with stories, I guess I’m reacting to my grandmother by collecting  loads of treasures, that I make sure are available to touch and use and enjoy.” Karen has collected pieces from her favourite era long before it became hip to do so, and says, ” I love pieces that have stories attached to them, either ones that I’m familiar with, or stories that I can imagine.” Apart from trawling the treasures of her own family, Karen, when she has the time, is a shopper at thrift and charity shops as well as Milnerton Market.
The walls of The Kitchen are layers deep in paintings, prints, plates and kitchen appliances, so that there’s always something from another time to discover and hold one’s interest. And a tall set of shelving holds a vast collection of serving platters which the customers for whom she caters are lucky enough to have access to for their events.
Her journey to becoming a chef is another story. She had little inkling that this would be what she’d end up doing while still at school, explaining that she “was happy to leave the kitchen and cooking to my mom, a brilliant cook.” She ended high school as head girl of Herschel Girls School. The year was 1985 and as a young black woman this experience was both “scandalous and amazing at a time when my contemporaries were not able to write exams during the school boycotts on the Cape Flats”.
“While I was uncomfortably aware of how very privileged I was, what the school and my parents taught me was that I was the same as everyone else and that there was nothing I could not do.” She started university but could not settle down to deciding what to do and packed her bags for the United States where she spent four years. Her first job was at an international retreat centre. “This is where I basically learnt about food and what you could do with it, as well as a lot about the hospitality and service industries. And I began to realise that I could express myself and my creativity through cooking.”
Her years in America provided her with a wide range of experiences – including singing for the President (but that’s the subject of another story) and Karen returned home to seek out  a way to turn her newly minted passions for people and cooking into a livelihood. While working at the YMCA conference centre, which she ran for a while, she threw herself into cooking there, and her career as a chef in Cape Town took root. it took off after one of Cape Town’s influential “ladies who lunch” asked if she’d cook for a lunch for her and her friends. It took a bit of spunk to pretend that she was familiar with the dishes requested, but this commission launched her as caterer to Cape Town’s influential. “These early supporters – a network of influential Capetonians – were very kind. They took me and my cooking seriously and put me on the map.”
Then another twist in her culinary tale occurred when a friend invited her to work at a very zhoosh deli in Chelsea, where she spent two years catering to the creme of London society and managing the cooking and logistics on huge jobs. “This is where I was acknowledged as a serious cook and learnt to take myself seriously as a chef,” she reflects. A return to Cape Town, meant a period of educating people to the value and possibilities of using a caterer.But that was twelve years and a hard slog ago.
Today when we meet Karen at The Kitchen there is another story unfolding. Karen is tearfully, gratefully saying goodbye to someone who charmingly refers to herself as having been Karen’s intern for two weeks. The “intern” is a human rights lawyer who bid R3000,00 at a fundraising auction to spend time in Karen’s kitchen with her and be served lunched at The Kitchen. The day turned into a further two weeks as the “intern” asked to spend the last two weeks of her time in South Africa before relocating abroad for a stint, helping Karen. The serendipity could not have been better. Karen is in the process of writing a recipe book and during this two week period her brilliant intern captured and recorded over fifty of her trademark recipes – a real gift.
“It’s this kind of experience that makes me feel so grateful for my work. Serving people food is a real privilege, you know? This is why we call our most popular sandwich the ‘Love Sandwich’. Putting it together and serving it to people is an active of love and all of us who work here get a real buzz out of making it for people.”
Ms Obama is lucky then  that she chose to have salads. Had she chosen the Love Sandwich instead, she might never have been able to leave.


NOTE: All photographs courtesy of Cape Argus and remain the copyright of Independent Newspapers. Further reproduction is forbidden without the paper’s prior consent.

Richard Perez, who straddles the creative and commercial worlds, will play a key role in Cape Town’s bid for World Design Capital 2014 Article published in Cape Argus, 27 July 2011
by Lorelle Bell
The light bulb as universal iconography depicting a bright idea, probably traces back to Thomas Edison who introduced the first one in 1879. He was not the actual inventor. The technology already existed and Edison improved on the idea of incandescent lighting. But his “bright idea’,  and far more significant contribution, was really his prescience in imagining the light bulb’s potential impact. Thus Edison went on to develop a whole industry around the invention; pioneering electric power generation and its distribution for domestic, commercial and industrial consumption, in the process.
This inventor, scientist and businessman’s contribution to industrialisation and his capacity to operate along the full value chain, taking a product from research and development to the actual creation of new industries to support it, are illustrative of the kind of impact and influence designers can have when they also understand business and can anticipate market needs.
The innovation unleashed through a meshing of design with business is what institutions like Design London (launched in 2007) were established to promote.  Design London combines postgraduate courses in design from the Royal College of Art (RCA) and business from Imperial College, London.
In Richard Perez, Cape Town is fortunate to have  a champion  with a BSc degree in Engineering (UCT), and MA in Design (RCA) and an Executive MBA (UCT); a combination that enables him to  straddle the creative and commercial worlds, applying a design process for better innovation.Perez is one of the individuals playing a key role in hoping to convincing Icsid (International Council for Societies of Industrial Design) judges to confer World Design Capital 2014 status on Cape Town during their visit to the city this week. As part of the … XYZ team  Perez will be speaking about the role of innovation and design in Africa’s drive towards sustainability and human capital development. “Designers,” says Perez, “can help to plan effective interventions for the future.”  When one considers the extent to which public policies and planning, and commercial research and development, are done years in advance, it is important to be able to imagine what needs these designs might have to meet in the future, he explains. “Design can help us identify potential synergies and eco-systems, how they might fit together, and how they can be made to work together. It can help ensure that the development process is agile enough to plan for changes, in a dynamic environment,”  Perez points out.
At a time when designers around the globe are reflecting on how narrow their roles have become – often limited to the development of individual products without involvement in a deep understanding of their markets and an exploration of their potential  – it’s salutary to think about designers like Edison and others whose design innovations we cannot now imagine living without. And time to consider whether a design methodology should not be integrated rapidly into our public and private sector project modeling.
In South Africa, where socio-economic problems appear to be multiplying, it’s going to take major innovations to secure the investment and development required for economic growth, and the strategies to ensure that poor people benefit from it. “Innovation,” states Perez, “is a powerful means of discovering effective solutions for government and public institutions needing to address social challenges in increasingly complex environments. “
It is also an important differentiator for businesses looking to compete and succeed in the knowledge economy era.
In Perez’s view the design process is a tool for Innovation, and “Innovation,” he explains, bridges the gap between the exploration phase and the exploitative phase of products, services or systems.  Most businesses, he says, work in the exploitative phase; measuring innovation by how much money is made and keen to eliminate risk. Designers, on the other hand, operate in the exploration phase where there is a greater likelihood – through an investigation of the unknown – of discovering new solutions. This is where the design process, and proponents like Perez who are skilled in working along the innovation continuum from exploration to exploitation, can add real value.
But, he says, “You need time and a culture that supports experimentation; that allows failure and learning from failure, one that is comfortable with uncertainty,”  referring to the space to experiment which could result in a completely new product that could be developed.
Ploughing his business and financial acumen into his role as director  for local industrial design firm … XYZ Design, Perez offers the firm’s clients the benefit of his understanding of the interrelationships between finance, marketing, innovation and operations, and an entrepreneurial background and involvement in developing and pursuing a variety of successful business ideas. In recent years he has travelled extensively to Europe and China assisting many newly developed fast moving consumer goods businesses in the transition from design to mass production, working in multidisciplinary complex teams from different cultures and countries.
He has been consulting for over 15 years in the new product innovation, design and development industry. Focusing on divergent thinking and design thinking methodologies to promote innovation, he has extensive experience in design strategy and management, value engineering, new product development and innovation strategy and management.
Photo courtesy of Cape Argus and remains copyright Independent Newspapers. Further reproduction is forbidden without the paper’s prior consent.
By Lorelle Bell
CONDE NAST House&Garden SA, August 2011
It is a rare South African collaboration between business and art that allows the space for arts and enterprise that is Union House in Commercial Street, Cape Town. Behind the closed-off facade of the three-story canary yellow heritage listed building, the doors to Union House open to reveal an air of enviable creative industry on the part of resident artists and artisans.
For this is home to the Spier Arts Academy and Spier Architectural Arts incorporating Spier Mosaic Arts and The Ceramic Studio. The academy offers a three year course in architectural mosaic under the guidance of Irene Rizzin, a masters graduate of the Scoula Mosaicisti del Fruili in Spilimbergo Italy, to talented artists from under-resourced backgrounds. Prospective students undergo a rigorous assessment before being admitted and, if successful, are awarded a “living salary” while being given education and training in the arts with a focus on mosaic, as well as extensive business skills to equip them to be future arts entrepreneurs. The architectural arts programme secures major commercial commissions, then enables collaborations between established artists who design the work with senior students from the academy and artisans in the mosaic and ceramic studios, who execute it.
At the head of the Architectural Arts Programme is artist and corporate arts consultant Jeanetta Blignaut. Her ability to bridge the corporate and arts worlds and her passion for collaborations between established and emerging artists means she is well placed to manage the substantial local and international commissions garnered through Spier’s extensive arts and business networks.
One just completed commission is an 18 metre by 3 metre  public mosaic piece installed outside Kings Cross Station in London. The work Coming to the City was designed by Clive van den Berg and executed by senior students.
On a walk through Union House a piece designated for the music department on the campus of the University of the Free State was receiving the finishing touches. Designed by Pat Mautloa, the visual meaning of the work is invested with musical references in the different mosaic styles used to communicate various styles of music. “So the classical section is rendered in formalised, technical, “classic” mosaic techniques, while contemporary music is reflected in a looser, bolder style to communicate the “chaos” of the orchestra, for example,” explains Jeanetta.
In a demonstration of Jeanetta’s passion for development and collaboration, the resident Qubeka (meaning “continuing”)Bead Studio owned and run by four founding members who received training and a start in Jeanetta’s former home-based Qalo (“beginning”) studio, are working on an exciting new commission. This commission has seen studio members learn paper mache skills to create paper circles that will be “tiled” on columns in the headquarters of a popular South African food chain.
The cooperative, collaborative work is at the root of Jeanetta’s vision and is what drives the work on commissions. Her dreams for the academy are driven by the possibility of future collaborations. Ethopian artist Julie Mehretu is one who Jeanetta is pursuing for a joint mosaic art on the wall of a corporation in Johannesburg. “The beauty of this commission is that the building is still on plan. This means it can still be adjusted to accommodated the artist’s designs,” she says. Mehretu’s works are vivid abstracts; bold, textured and layered. “I can picture the diagonal shapes that feature in her work being integrated into the building to create a real architectural art pieces,” Jeanetta enthuses.
Synergy and collaboration feature as heavily in Union House as it does in conversation with Jeanetta. Funding for the arts enterprises comes partly from Spier’s Creative Block range of wines which takes its name from a Spier initiative now also based at Union House. The Creative Block incorporates small format artworks from recognised and emerging artists whose works are showcased and promoted. This initiative encourages a broader acquisition through access to affordable pieces , while giving artists a marketing platform.
In another exciting venture a Creative Block shop has opened to retail Creative Block art and wines  in Juta Street, Johannesburg.

How cool is this?  Electricity from soil for off-the-grid communities being tested. Read about this project to find affordable energy for underserved communities at … XYZ Design.

Published by Weekend Argus, Sunday 7 August 2011

Domestic architecture – when it really responds to clients’ needs – must be the most challenging of jobs. For as architect Minette Bell (no relation) explains, “When it comes to homes, everyone’s an expert. We all live in homes, don’t we?”

If it were not for Minette’s own deeply felt empathy with clients (and in fact, with people generally) one might be suspicious of the touch of irony. Instead, given that architects are trained to be the most complete designers, she makes you see and admire the fine balancing act that an architect needs to negotiate between a designer’s sensibility and the need to fulfil another’s aesthetic vision.

In Cape Town – where so many new builds seem either to move between faux Georgian or Tuscan follies and the “step-and-repeat” of modern blocks, or the work of starchitects like the one so admired on the Atlantic seaboard who even designs his clients’ furniture because God forbid any individual client tastes should desecrate his vision –  it’s refreshing to listen to Minette.

For her, the compact with a client is pretty sacred and her recent projects – which include a farmhouse in Worcester, a beach house in Elands Bay and a fairly traditional southern suburbs home in Claremont – have all been very different. She is amused when she relates how builders have asked her, “So, what’s your style actually”, to be met with her response, ”It is ‘no style’ it’s unique, one of a kind. “

“Of course,” she admits, “it’s wonderful to have clients who are prepared to push the boundaries and allow you to explore with them the best response to the site and their needs, and to influence their choices.”

“Locally, it’s a challenge sometimes to persuade people of the importance of orientation and it’s also a challenge to explore an appropriate architecture for South African weather”.

But still it’s the clients’ desires that drive her design. And the enjoyment she derives from being challenged by these desires is evident.

Her latest design for a family in Constantia is a case in point. A dynamic couple with a very young family, they had fairly firm ideas on what they wanted to achieve. Their physical needs included an open-plan contemporary house with a separate study and playroom, but an integrated living area, and a dining and kitchen space which had to lead to a covered outdoor terrace and pool. The brief included a hard entry court to play sports in, and a level lawn where balls can be kicked and bats swung,  as well as a large covered area to store boats. The architect was asked to incorporate green principles as much as possible. Then, on top of these, the owners requested that the house design be based on Feng Shui  principles.  This was not an approach with which Bell was familiar and an expert consultant was brought into the project to check the design’s compliance. Feng Shui  is considered to be a system of aesthetics which when used correctly in the home is meant to enhance one’s life with positive energy. Orientation, light, the situation of the entry, the colours – particularly an abundant use of red – and water are all essential elements and the Feng Shui  consultant was involved in all aspects of the design process from conception to checking orientation of foundation trenches, footings and walls.

A fairly prescriptive brief and rigorous process, – but Minette really appreciates all it taught her.

“For the first time,” she says, in the context of a twenty-odd year career, “I really, really learnt the value of having to work within constraints.” This in spite of priding herself on always honouring the compact with clients and her preference for not developing a style that represents herself – other than in their hopefully being uniformly sensitive to her clients’ individuality.

“Apart from the usual site and budget constraints with which architects are so familiar, the Feng Shui  design presented further constraints or challenges.” The building orientation, a level change that was required and locating the entrance centrally to the perimeter measurements of the house were the main areas of influence. Specific light entry, water features and colour had also to be taken into consideration.” But, as Minette points out, “All these elements combined to create a simple, yet striking house.” The low-slung mono pitch roofs which combine to form the massing of the house,  frame an entrance court, which Minette points out is going to be a fantastic space for the kids as they grow up. The roofs are tilted up towards the views to let in more light, and they ‘stagger’ over the bedroom wing to let in east light through a clerestory to an internal passage. Exposed roof structures reveal the drama of volumes all over the living areas and the  flat concrete roofs interspersed between allow  for ‘unexpected’ light throughout the day through high windows in gable ends.

For Bell it was a real challenge to orient the house in accordance with Feng Shui which dictated a  north-west facing aspect. Fortunately the tools exist to measure the impact of sun and sun angles. “All the windows were therefore screened with heavy pergola – the depths of which could be determined –  to cut out high summer sun but let in low winter sun.”

In the end, she says, the orientation and location of the house on the site seem perfect, presenting spectacular mountain views and the light and sense of serenity of the house are fantastic.
As Minette says, “The design embraced the ‘constraints’ using them as tools to inform the final design to create a house that is extremely ‘comfortable’ in the ‘respectful’ manner that it occupies the site. The house does not ‘scream out’ its presence in Mount Prospect Road and there is a simple legibility to the spaces flowing into each other, from the ‘service’ wing, to the living wing and the private bedroom wing.” Perhaps the most abiding testimony of its success for the architect is how much she herself loves spending time in the space and how much it invites her to rest in its serenity.

In case you missed the story in the Weekend Argus HEART OF THE HOME supplement yesterday, you can read about Dan Saks’s corner shop here.

Saks House in Observatory is a little corner store on the border of Salt River, where owner Dan Saks is putting his mid-century stamp on this bohemian neighborhood.

It is here that one finds Dan’s creations modeled on the gentle, well-made designs of our own modest domestic pasts: those oval or palette shaped tables with black glass tops and slanted legs in solid wood or veneers and the sleek buttoned-back sofas on similar legs.

It is here too that you’ll find originals of the armless chaises with diagonal backs and the zodiac chairs manufactured in South Africa and till their recent increase in popularity, fairly easy to find. This is the furniture from a time before the local love of Victoriana or Cape Cottage took an earlier generation from cool to cluttered twee.

Dan’s stock of original pieces mixed with his own creations modeled on 50s wooden furniture is a happy mix of affordable restored and original pieces without the gimmicks that make some “up-cycled” designs destined for design brevity.

The seeds of this store were sown years ago when Dan worked the markets throughout Cape Town, trading in frames made from salvaged wood. A decade ago these pieces were not as popular (or as overtraded) as they are today and it was difficult making any sort of living.

For a while he worked with his wife Jill in her fashion accessories business while buying old pieces of furniture on auction which he fixed or repurposed, mainly for his own home. A favourite piece at home remains a salvaged old industrial wooden window frame which he filled with photographs of his family. “I never tire of that,” he says .

Out of this passion for furniture from bygone eras, Dan’s love was distilled to a focus on mid-century design which he favours for their simple lines, and the way they were built to last.

Along with the realisation that working on handbags could never really excite him, came the certainty that trading in furniture and furniture designs from this period was what he really wanted to do. As luck would have it, the shop on the corner was available for rent and Dan was convinced that it was what he was meant to be doing.

Persuaded to exercise caution, he took two months to work in a friend’s factory, building up his stock and when, at the end of this period, the shop space was still available, he dived in and launched  Saks House, purveyor of mid-century modern furnishings.

Dan’s first customer at Saks House was a man called Hercules (how can you forget a first customer with a name like that?) from the neighbourhood, who bought a large art deco wardrobe that Dan had repainted and fitted on castors. The castors came in handy as “the delivery required Herculian (ugh)strength”. As Dan reflects, “Art deco wardrobes were not made sparingly,” and, after delivering another three-door art deco piece to a roof conversion “on the hottest day in summer”, he decided that three-door wardrobes would not be the signature pieces of Saks House.

instead, it’s  the long button back sofa that has become his stock in trade. Made by Dan in the style of 50s sofas with their slanted legs, he recently delivered his 14th one – not bad going since his production of these started only six months ago. Built with the next thirty years in mind, Dan uses hard wood and quality fabrics. He sees these products and the coffee tables he makes as the start of a  range that he dreams will be the direction his business takes.

Dan, an inhabitant of Observatory with his young family, admits that the first year and half in business was tough. But he loves the neighborhood and and its sense of community and is  grateful that it seems to love him right back. His customers are mainly faithfuls from Observatory, young couples building up homes, creative types who often gather round Saks and whose energy Dan feeds off. He also loves they way his customers come in and share stories of the history of the little corner shop.

His future dreams are vested in this space and what he’s doing here. “Ideally I see myself producing a range of high-end mid-century style furniture  and also creating an exclusive range of repurposed pieces.”

“I’m very hopeful that all the activity from the Biscuit Mill will start moving to this area,”  he muses.

In the meantime, Dan’s  latest venture,  a collaboration with Heather Moore of Skinny LaMinx, sees the  button back sofas he produces covered in Heather’s fabric and featured at Skinny LaMinx’s outlet in Green Point.

Check out what’s up at hoolie-hah the shop.