WORDS Graham Wood/Bureaux PRODUCTION Sven Alberding PHOTOS Elsa Young/Bureaux
A pair of serial renovators in Johannesburg have brought a mid-century gem back to life with a sense of subtlety and fun.
It takes a good eye to spot potential in a fixer-upper, particularly in a city like Johannesburg. There are some real gems – almost always undervalued – but their qualities are often lost beneath the add-ons that barnacle their way onto houses over time. Christo Vermeulen and Nico Venter are serial renovators. Inevitably, after a few years of living in a house, they find their eyes wandering.
They most certainly do have a knack for recognising the signs that something special might be lurking beneath the surface a nondescript exterior. Christo is a former textile designer turned builder/renovator – with a sideline in manufacturing bespoke features, especially metalwork and ironmongery – and Nico is an urban designer with an interest in the city’s architectural history. Together, they make a formidable team: insightful and capable, with the perfect combination of vision and respect for the innate qualities of a good find.
They recognised that they were looking at something special when they walked into this early 1940s double-storey house in the suburb of Greenside. The perfection of the sensuously curved, Art Deco-inflected balustrade on the stairs was the first clue that highly skilled builders had been at work here. “There’s not a nick on it,” says Nico, adding that there were other details, particularly in the cast concrete, that were “impeccable”. He also recognised the fine workmanship of the rounded edges where the walls meet the ceiling.
Christo soon realised there were timber floors – parquet upstairs – and terrazzo beneath the layers of carpeting and glue, as well as other “beautiful features of the era”. They were both particularly pleased with the brass fittings sprinkled throughout and the long, narrow planters outside. The overall design suggested a thoughtful architect. The home’s orientation was perfect, and details such as the cantilevered concrete overhangs above the windows had been precisely designed to keep the hot sun out in summer and let it in during winter.
“The bones of the original house were absolutely perfect,” says Christo – and all were structurally sound, which, he says, is testimony to the quality of the workmanship. His and Nico’s alterations brought those features decisively into the 21st century, so you could, as Nico puts it, live a “modern lifestyle” (and use more efficient power and water sources) while still having the luxury of being surrounded by “the feel of the old walls”.
There’s no slavishly applied ideology or principle at work in their approach. Rather, they allowed themselves to be inventive, creative and playful as they went along. They’ve clearly been respectful, taking joy in celebrating the finer historical features, but never becoming precious or pretentious. Many of the alterations they’ve made draw attention to the original architectural features of the house. They’ve widened doors, for example, to improve the lines of sight between rooms – one between the living room and entrance hall now perfectly frames the staircase – and replaced all the light fittings with spherical ones, almost unconsciously harmonising with the curves in the architecture. Christo also paid homage to the curves in the selection of new features, such as the bathroom mirrors and other fittings, recognising and emphasising this aspect of the original design.
In contrast to the bright white exterior, the interiors are dark, playing with a kind of chiaroscuro hinted at in the chocolatey floors. Christo says that he found himself studying paintings by the Dutch Old Masters, and carefully selected what might superficially look like black paint for the walls, but with undertones of brown to give it variation and warmth. “We knew that we could go dark inside because the exterior is white, so there’s plenty of light coming in,” he says.
It’s not just light, but lightness that he and Nico have brought in. Their home’s mid-century features have been given a second lease of life, celebrated in the context of a contemporary lifestyle, with as much joy as reverence.