Inside Look

Steal genius ideas for displaying art & collectables from this Cape Town loft

Chef, explorer and interior designer Paula Nel has created a Cape Town home that reflects a fascination with global cultures, creative collections and the country of her birth

22 April 2018 - 00:00 By Vicki Sleet/BUREAUX.CO.ZA
A beautifully worn leather Chesterfield has pride of place in Paula Nel's second sitting room.
A beautifully worn leather Chesterfield has pride of place in Paula Nel's second sitting room.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux.co.za

Professional chef Paula Nel is far too discreet to disclose who her celebrity clients are - suffice to say they're some of the world's most loved media, music and movie moguls.

Paula spends up to three months at a stretch aboard her primary client's private luxury yacht, shifting between the Med, Miami and Monaco, preparing elaborate menus from her galley kitchen where she and a brigade of chefs create foodie magic.

And when she's not planning innovative ways to fulfil the gourmet desires of her clients, Paula is invariably plotting her next adventure.

"I tend to get a month or two off every few months, which gives me enough time to get in a couple of trips before heading home to chill and catch up with family and friends," says Paula, whose inventory of off-the-beaten-track destinations is seriously impressive.

From horseback riding in the highlands of Ethiopia to visiting the famed Kings Cattle in Rwanda or trawling the old city of Tokyo looking for handmade knives, the more offbeat her epics, the better.

Case in point: Paula's latest mission involved a 10-day ice swimming experience in Iceland with Dutch "Iceman" Wim Hof, a proponent of a Tibetan breathing meditation as a means of surviving icy swims.

Likewise, her creative flair and passion for living a life less ordinary extends to her double-volume, loft-style apartment situated in the heart of Cape Town's CBD.

Since buying her home five years ago, Paula has renovated the space twice. The first stripped it of the former owner's touches and brought in her own choices of finishes and style - an understated nod to industrialism with hints at her nomadic lifestyle.

The second is a result of her buying the apartment next door and incorporating the two spaces. "You can imagine that living in a cabin for a significant part of the year means I fantasise about a beautiful and big bedroom space, so the new extension to my home is almost entirely made up of my bedroom, bathroom and dressing room," says Paula.

The bedroom is beyond a custom-made galvanised steel door; it feaures a bespoke dressing room and an ensuite.
The bedroom is beyond a custom-made galvanised steel door; it feaures a bespoke dressing room and an ensuite.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux.co.za
A collection of baskets in the bedroom is both practical and pretty.
A collection of baskets in the bedroom is both practical and pretty.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux.co.za
The all-black palette helps create a sense of calm and orderliness in the dressing room.
The all-black palette helps create a sense of calm and orderliness in the dressing room.
Image: Warren Health/Bureaux.co.za
An industrial-style cube house the shower in the bathroom.
An industrial-style cube house the shower in the bathroom.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux.co.za

While her home is brimming with beautiful furniture items ranging from a magnificent worn leather Chesterfield sofa to a customised kitchen counter with its Carrara marble top, it is the collections of global ephemera and interesting artworks that are the talking points.

From a collection of Egyptian scarabs found on her North African medina missions to vintage botanical art prints picked up in New York, a gallery wall of LP covers and a much-loved taxidermied armadillo, Paula's eye for unusual items imbued with charm, history and a tale to tell is pretty cool. And, of course, it's her talent for perfect display that makes them all the more beguiling.

The dramatic black wall in the cozy lounge off the dining area is the perfect foil for an etching by lauded SA artist Diane Victor.
The dramatic black wall in the cozy lounge off the dining area is the perfect foil for an etching by lauded SA artist Diane Victor.
Image: Warren Health/Bureaux.co.za

As can be expected of a chef used to painting plates with her culinary creations, there's nothing haphazard about Paula's collections.

A penchant for curatorship is key, and a childhood spent exploring the South African veld, looking for natural treasures with her geologist grandfather, no doubt set this adventurous soul on her collecting journey.

Though her home is aesthetically complex, Paula's space oozes calm, thanks to the monochromatic "non palette" she works with. Elements like the perfectly mottled cement screeded floors, simply painted brick walls, timeworn leather, galvanised steel and faded timber form a canvas for her finds.

"Life can be hectic on board a boat and although I love my travels, I love coming home for extended periods too. I love how relaxed I feel here," says Paula.

Of prime importance for any chef's home is a hardworking and workable kitchen space and, since her latest renovation, it has become the apartment's hub. "I really liked the idea of a slick butler's pantry and scullery where dirty pots and pans can be stashed out of sight while me and my guests catch up over wine and food," she says.

The kitchen has been designed to act as the hub of the home with a marble-topped cooking, serving and dining space.
The kitchen has been designed to act as the hub of the home with a marble-topped cooking, serving and dining space.
Image: Warren Heath/ Bureaux
This cabinet in the kitchen showcases quirky finds and practical essentials.
This cabinet in the kitchen showcases quirky finds and practical essentials.
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux.co.za
This trestle-style dining table is the perfect place for extended lunches and dinners
This trestle-style dining table is the perfect place for extended lunches and dinners
Image: Warren Heath/Bureaux.co.za
The free-standing island in the kitchen features additional storage space.
The free-standing island in the kitchen features additional storage space.
Image: Warren Heath/ Bureaux

"I've been on the road for 15 years so it's the knowledge of this space that keeps me feeling connected to home. I've always got something in my mind's eye that needs sorting; maybe it's a corner that needs something or a spot that is looking for some art. I think my next career choice might well involve me helping other people to tell their stories in their spaces," she says.

Perhaps it's the fact that Paula isn't in a rush to build on and layer her space that makes her home feels so resolved. There is a place for everything and everything has a place. And for someone who journeys back here every few months that can only be something wonderful to come home to.

Styling: Sven Alberding/Bureaux.co.za