Minimalist Joburg Home

WORDS Laurian Brown PHOTOS Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes

In 1968, renowned sculptor Edoardo Villa asked a friend, architect Ian McLennan, to design a house for him. The resulting play of volumes is a sculpture in itself – and a delight to live in.

Edoardo Villa’s journey had been a long one: from Italy to South Africa as a prisoner of war, and from classic realism to abstract modernism as an artist. After his release, he chose to stay on in Johannesburg and for a time lived and worked at the home of artist Douglas Portway in Kew, a suburb on the eastern fringe of the city.

Villa soon became a prominent figure in the local art world and in the great surge of creative innovation that lit up the middle of the century. He was able to buy the Portway house in 1959, and in 1968 commissioned Ian McLennan to design a house for him on the same property, giving him no brief and a very small budget.

It was a time when the symmetries and conventions of old suburbia were being turned inside out. Streets were walled off, living spaces opened up, on to courtyards, bricked patios and a new seclusion. Flow and transparency became all-important, framed in a new vernacular of simple materials and earthy textures.

Among the many wonderful houses designed in this period, the Villa home stands as a timeless gem. The house remained unaltered during all the years Villa and his Greek wife Claire lived there, a testimony to the perfection of the design.

After the sculptor’s death in 2011, the ideal custodians came along: Warren Siebrits, curator and art collector of note, and his wife, designer Lunetta Bartz. “When we were approached to buy the property, we jumped at the chance.”

They were also able to buy the neighbouring house, which had belonged to artist Giuseppe Cattaneo, and this now preserves the artistic heritage of all three houses. In 2016, Lunetta relocated the offices of her design studio and bookbinders, MAKER, to the Cattaneo house.

“In the beginning we used to come for weekends from Illovo, which amused our friends. Our home there was a Sutton-Walker duplex, beautiful and more luxurious than this house. But then our dogs fell in love with the place, with the all the outside space and the garden – and we’re very close to our dogs!

“This house is very simple and quite spartan, but we find it quite magnificent living here. It’s really small, only 100 m2, but the way it’s designed gives you a sense of much greater distance and space. It has a wonderful transparency, with doors aligned and a perfect placement of windows and apertures that introduce light and unexpected glimpses of the garden and sky.

“Because of the cavity walls and the exposure to the sun, it’s never cold in winter. The courtyards bake and heat the house and the cross-ventilation and quarry tiles make it cool in summer. And then there’s the garden, with all these old trees and mature plants that give it wonderful atmosphere.”

For Warren and Lunetta, the house is the jewel of their collection. “It’s a sculpture in itself, which is what the architect intended. And that’s why we keep the furnishings absolutely minimal. No two-dimensional items on the walls, so that visitors can really see the subtlety and complexity of what the architect has achieved and how he has played with light, form and texture.”