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House Tour

IN PICS | A palette of black and white just feels right in this updated home

A century-old Joburg cottage, revamped for a young family, mixes a monochrome colour scheme with a combination of modern and vintage design

23 May 2021 - 00:02 By Graham Wood
Olivia and Paige Bower on the 'stoep', which makes for a wonderful al fresco dining and entertaining area with beautiful sunset views.
Olivia and Paige Bower on the 'stoep', which makes for a wonderful al fresco dining and entertaining area with beautiful sunset views.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux

The predominantly black and white palette of this century-old cottage in Johannesburg wasn't a preconceived design decision. Rather, it arose almost inevitably from two opposite ends of the design spectrum.

One was the fact that the art works homeowners Guy and Nicola Bower had collected tended to be black and white prints (they both studied graphic design, so perhaps strong graphic elements were inevitable in their home).

Less whimsical, perhaps, was the fact that the house itself ended up with white walls and black window and door frames.

The frames were certainly a conscious decision, but the walls were a choice by default.

After carrying out a renovation and alteration, says Nicola, "We tried to paint some of the interior walls a colour." (Their bedroom remains a muted grey green.) "But it was just too dark, so we decided to paint everything white to start with and see what happened after that. And they just stayed that way."

Neither of them practises graphic design any more as such. Nicola is an art director at an advertising agency and Guy is what you might call a "food entrepreneur", running his own business called The Bowery, which does everything from catering to innovative meal kits and office lunch and take-home dinner deliveries.

Nonetheless, says Guy, aesthetics matter to them both: "We both have a creative eye and like beautiful spaces."

They chose their home, however, more for the gardens and the sunset views than the house itself. Local landscaper Tim Conradie was among the house's previous residents, and he had created a beautiful terraced garden dropping down to a swimming pool on the sloping site.

The view from the back stoep, says Guy, was spectacular. "The patio has unbelievable sunset views through the plane tree. At sunset, you get a golden glow most of the year. Even in winter, I find myself in a jacket sitting outside just to see the sunset."

The house itself, however, they found less compelling. While historical cottages like this have tons of charm, they weren't designed with light and views in mind, so can seem dark and pokey. "But it had nice bits, like the pressed ceilings," says Nicola.

It was exactly 100 years old when they decided to intervene with a renovation.

"I didn't think we were going to renovate," says Guy. "I thought we were going to paint it, and maybe add a garage."

"I always knew," says Nicola.

Olivia Bower on a skateboard in the passage. The pill-shaped windows, part of architect Victoria de la Cour's design, are one of Nicola' Bower's favourite features.
Olivia Bower on a skateboard in the passage. The pill-shaped windows, part of architect Victoria de la Cour's design, are one of Nicola' Bower's favourite features.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux

Architect Victoria de la Cour provided advice and drew up plans for them, and Guy took on the project management. "We found out that it wasn't originally a house; it was a social worker's office," he says. It had been somewhat altered in the 1980s.

They preserved the pressed metal ceilings, but after one too many sandings the original Oregon pine sprung floors had to be replaced. They chose cushiony engineered oak floors that Guy says are so luxurious "you wanna lie on them".

Some carefully inserted glass stacking doors and windows, including a wide pivot door at the front entrance, brought light into the interiors and opened them out onto the gardens.

One of Guy's favourite features arose from the somewhat counterintuitive choice that the windows should extend all the way down to floor level rather than being raised to look up into the trees. The house's raised position, and the descending levels of the terraced gardens, meant that low windows actually let in the best views.

"My favourite feature is the pill windows," says Nicola, referring to the elegant capsule-shaped windows that let light into the passages and create views with an almost art-deco flourish. "It's such a smart idea that added so much."

A long window that stacks away between the kitchen counter and the patio is an absolute gift to the cook and entertainer in Guy, who loves to fill the big patio table with family and friends on weekends.

Handle-less drawers and cabinets keep the look of the kitchen unimposing, while the Carrara marble countertops add a touch of luxury.
Handle-less drawers and cabinets keep the look of the kitchen unimposing, while the Carrara marble countertops add a touch of luxury.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux
One of Guy Bower's favourite features is the stacking windows about the kitchen countertops, which double as a serving hatch when the family entertains on the patio.
One of Guy Bower's favourite features is the stacking windows about the kitchen countertops, which double as a serving hatch when the family entertains on the patio.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux

So, with sleek black window frames and crisp white walls as an architectural base, and black and white art works for the walls, it followed almost inevitably that the interiors and furniture would follow suit.

"And my favourite colour is black," say Nicola. "It also seems quite practical with dogs and kids."

The eclecticism of the furnishings, particularly the easy combination of old and new, harmonised perfectly with the mixture of contemporary and century-old architectural features.

"Nicola and I sourced old vintage light fittings from all over Joburg," says Guy.

A diner bench by Houtlander serves as seating at the dining table, along with a pair of tulip chairs by Guideline Manufacturing, sourced at Mezzanine Interior
A diner bench by Houtlander serves as seating at the dining table, along with a pair of tulip chairs by Guideline Manufacturing, sourced at Mezzanine Interior
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux
The main living area including a lounge, dining area, TV room and workstations.
The main living area including a lounge, dining area, TV room and workstations.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux
The Moore server is from Mezzanine Interiors, and the prints above it include work by Jonathan Garrett.
The Moore server is from Mezzanine Interiors, and the prints above it include work by Jonathan Garrett.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux

Vintage-store finds ranging from the coincidentally pill-shaped dining table to the crockery cabinet rub shoulders with sleek contemporary South African design pieces: sofas from the modernist-inflected Mezzanine Interiors, who also designed the marble-topped circular coffee table and the server in the main sitting room, and Tonic Design.

An Ercol studio couch from a vintage shop in Cape Town, with its modernist take on a classic English Windsor chair, chimes with the narrative of classic meets modern design, especially when in the company of a Houtlander's spindle-backed diner bench.

The kitchen, of course, was crucial to Guy, and while he says he might have tended towards the industrial look of a test kitchen, he concedes it "had to look pretty".

Nicola points out that because the kitchen is open to the living and dining areas, it was made to recede, to be "nothing".

The handle-less black cabinets and drawers all but disappear in the little 4m x 3m nook, the fridge concealed behind them, while the marble countertops were a hard-won dream come true.

"We just used birch plywood for a while until we could replace that with some Carrara marble," says Nicola.

It's small, but that encouraged a very careful consideration on Guy's part of what he needed and what's actually superfluous, so it is designed to have everything he needs, and absolutely nothing more.

The children's bathroom features Nicola Bower's beloved Arabescatto marble.
The children's bathroom features Nicola Bower's beloved Arabescatto marble.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux
Olivia Bower's room features a retro desk from Mezzanine Interiors with one of the Bowers' extensive collection of anglepoise lamps, and vintage light fittings.
Olivia Bower's room features a retro desk from Mezzanine Interiors with one of the Bowers' extensive collection of anglepoise lamps, and vintage light fittings.
Image: Elsa Young/Bureaux

It's an approach that seems to have percolated through to the rest of the house, where the decisions are clear and the restraint admirable.

Together with the coherence of the palette, the harmonious combination of original and contemporary architecture with vintage and of-the-moment design achieves that holy grail of lifestyle and design: tranquillity. The perfect canvas for life. - Bureaux.co.za


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