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.