This Cape Town pad is a master class in curating collections

Interior designer and events planner Otto de Jager's Cape Town pied-à-terre is brimming with an enviable assortment of what he dubs 'artisanal antiques'

21 June 2017 - 11:08 By Dominique Herman/bureaux.co.za
Otto de Jager with his
Otto de Jager with his "gallery of instant ancestors" on the staircase landing.
Image: Warren Heath/ bureaux.co.za. Production: Sven Alberding/ bureaux.co.za

"Every house should have a cabinet of curiosities," says Otto de Jager, fingering an old leather wallet embossed with his initials that belonged to his father and grandfather. Stocked with family photographs, scented candles and old ribbon, the cabinet is a trophy case of memorabilia - but also a place to display everything that he wants to keep safe, out of the way and dust-free.

The cabinet sits on one landing of the split, second-level Victorian duplex De Jager spends one week a month in (he's based in Johannesburg). "The whole idea was just not to live in hotels constantly," he says, describing the part-investment, part-lifestyle property purchase he made 13 years ago - after midnight, while drunk.

De Jager embarked on what he describes as a "helluva renovation". The 103-year-old cottage was stripped, walls were knocked down and windows were installed for better views. "It had over 100 years of paint on. We spent three months taking about 20 different layers of paint off the balustrade of the staircase. The bathrooms were a mess. I had a bathroom in the kitchen, which I hated. It was a dump, but a good dump."

The "dump" is now white, light and bright, with soaring ceilings and back-to-back original fireplaces (with original Victorian tiles). The kitchen is clad in stainless steel juxtaposed with old, bull-nosed columns, marble countertops and reading lights on the wall. "A lot of what we did is to bring a Victorian semi into a modern era. It's really about throwing things together, bringing it into the new but, really, the integrity had to remain."

In the interleading living rooms, books are positioned just so in piles on the floor - a reminder to guests that this is a place of quiet: for reading, relaxing and lying in bed listening to the Green Point foghorn down the road (from the oldest operational lighthouse in South Africa) or the music wafting from the Cape Town Stadium.

Warren Heath/ bureaux.co.za. Production: Sven Alberding/ bureaux.co.za

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Warren Heath/ bureaux.co.za. Production: Sven Alberding/ bureaux.co.za

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Warren Heath/ bureaux.co.za. Production: Sven Alberding/ bureaux.co.za

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"There are no modern appliances; there are no microwaves, dishwashers, TVs - and there's a very good reason for that. I wanted people to read and to talk in the space and to do menial tasks together. It's amazing how big a catch-up time it can be when friends or lovers or parents and children do dishes together," he says.

"I wanted to bring it back into a certain era. We can listen to music, we can read. Let's get to bed early, let's cook together, let's bake together, let's have tea together. It's a place of nostalgia and calming down and spending time with people."

The strategic quiet is aided by the religious paraphernalia all over which De Jager says was completely unintentional, attributing it to a phase he "must have been going through".

There are Catholic statues, Christian crosses, the Star of David on a lot of his silverware and a Hindu granite marble slab in the entrance hall. And the theme extends to the white dove in the oversized photograph on the living-room wall and the biblical olive trees in the courtyard next to the kitchen - a spot where De Jager takes outdoor showers.

"Friends told me the house was for sale. We were drinking down the alley. We walked over at about 1am, drunk. We walked into the kitchen, we had another bottle of wine and then about 2am, 3am the owner says to me, 'You want to buy my house?' And I said 'yes' and I said 'How much?' and he said so much and I said, 'Your house is sold.' I didn't even have a look at how many bedrooms the house had."

The black and white oversized photographs in this seating area are by Johannesburg husband and wife team Dook and Leanna.
The black and white oversized photographs in this seating area are by Johannesburg husband and wife team Dook and Leanna.
Image: Warren Heath/ bureaux.co.za. Production: Sven Alberding/ bureaux.co.za.

On the upstairs landing is the "gallery of instant ancestors": another charmingly named decorative motif in the house. "In photography, in art and in collecting, I love a good portrait," he says. These oil portraits were collected separately across South Africa and sit beneath a skylight that provides the sort of dazzling reverence reserved for a Rembrandt retrospective.

Both his Cape Town and Johannesburg homes are filled with what he describes as "artefact" or "artisanal antiques". In his Joburg house there's old surgical equipment that belonged in his late father's surgery and a Kyoto rug he bargained for in Istanbul. He recounts spending the whole day drinking apple tea in the Grand Bazaar where he eventually got it for nothing "as the owner got irritated with me".

In his coastal home, amid the narrow streets of Green Point village, there's an old flower press on the wooden kitchen table from the British Museum. In the living room is a grandfather clock that used to live in his grandparents' home. De Jager recalls waking up as a child in the middle of the night to its chimes. In the smaller guestroom, a stack of books on the dresser are also from his late father's practice, medical tomes published prior to 1914.

"The fact that a lot here is collected, is who I am. I love collecting beauty - nothing in particular. It's not about being planned. It's about having an eye and realising that something will work."

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