Books also furnish a room

PHOTOS Jac de Villiers PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPH Ruvan Boshoff PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Lin Sampson

Houses reflect their owners. Writer and journalist, Lin Sampson, first fell in love with her house in Cape Town nearly 30 years ago and has barely changed a thing about it. Her key decor element? Books!

I had just returned from Greece in 1980 when I came across this house in a cobbled street in an unfashionable part of town, but it had an old Cape Town charm with a view over the harbour and a tang of salt in the air. It was evening and I remember there were lighted candles in the interior’s flickering penumbra. It released a sense of solitude and remoteness that I had long loved.

Austerity has always attracted me and this house expressed within its shabbiness, hanging shutters and blocked fireplaces, a sense of the past – all the macerations, austerities, meditations and penances that make up the country in which we live.

I had been living in a house in Anafiotika above the Plaka in Athens, in a whitewashed room (all the houses kept a bucket of whitewash on hand, together with a long pole with which to daub at dirty spots in the manner of cleaning a carpet), with a rough cross incised on a lintel over the doorway.

When I was young I longed for plush, perhaps because my parents scorned it. They sought out old cottages with demented walls and leaking roofs in unfashionable areas, always “below the line”. Once we lived in a tower with no bathroom, once in a stable. We seldom had hot water and I still don’t have it.

Decor unheard of

There was never any possible notion of interior decorating and yet, looking back, our houses were so pretty, with just one or two pieces – inherited of course. My mother used to say about others, “She is one of those unfortunate women who didn’t inherit her furniture and had to buy it.”

Sofas and chairs were always slip covered, tied at the back like ball gowns, and one of my jobs was to help get them back into their slips after they had been washed (and shrunk). It’s one of the few skills I still retain (I wonder if there is any money in it?). Decor was unheard of, not even in a dictionary.

I had a friend at school whose mother “redid her lounge” every year. I longed for a redone lounge – although this was a word we were absolutely never allowed to use, so much so that when I became engaged to a man who said “lounge”, I was forced to break it off. And in case you think this was before World War I, my niece, who got engaged last year, admitted to us nervously, “I do have to tell you something about him. He says ‘lounge’.” If she had said he was a paedophile, we would not have been more shocked.

I have always been astounded at how much time South Africans spend on doing up or undoing their houses. They seem to be so obsessed with bathrooms, kitchens and off-street parking that if you offered them Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West’s house), they’d ask, “Has it got main en-suite and is there off-street parking?”

When I bought my house, it had the Trappist simplicity sometimes seen in early Scandinavian homes. There was a slab of old pink marble under a fig tree, bare boarded floors and internal shutters. I discovered long after I bought it that it had a superb view over the harbour, but I have always thought views overrated.

The late writer and taste terrorist Bruce Chatwin (who, when I last saw him, was living in one room with a shower in Albany in Piccadilly) once said, “It was one of those awful houses with a view.” To me there is nothing worse than those over-marbled mausoleums on the Atlantic Seaboard with “a view”. What do you think outside is for?

“In the middle of renovating”

In those days I was an interior decorator. I got so sick of people saying, “Oh, this house has got such potential,” that I put a pile of bricks in the hallway and said, “I am just in the middle of renovating”. Ten years later, the pile was still there – and nothing has changed.

I hate:

  • scatter cushions
  • four glass vases, each containing one flower (usually a protea)
  • too much curtain swagged, padded, frilled and puddled on the ground (but I do love short curtains run up by hand)
  • travertine (it should all be taken to a crematorium)
  • white slippery tiles scattered with what people call Persian carpets (there are about two real Persian carpets in the world, and I can assure you they are not in your house or mine)
  • bad pictures (you don’t have to buy South African pictures because you are South African – the world is full of wonderful paintings for quarter the price; the worst is a mediocre picture or, God forbid, a photograph with a little light above it)
  • Bourne-Gleemed floors – I love plain scrubbed floors or even cement.

In the end, a house is where you live; it is not a stage, and it takes a lifetime to create. The houses I remember: explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s simple nomadic shelter in the middle of a desert; Bruce Chatwin’s one room with a hot plate in London; and, most beautiful of all, Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy’s 14th-century Islamic house, with its winding wooden staircase and orange trees growing indoors, a peaceful place above the dangerous uproar of Khan el-Kalili souk in Cairo.

These were all places that reflected their owners, not the things they owned.

Do you agree that books are the ultimate furnishings for a room? Click here to do our “What bookshelf are you?” quiz. When you’re done, snap a shelfie in your home and send it to us to stand the chance of winning a prize.