Modern Maboneng Studio

PHOTOS Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes WORDS Helen Herimbi

The director of the Museum of African Design takes us on a tour of his apartment on the periphery of the pulsating main street of Maboneng. Sometimes it takes an American in Africa to show us that size is not everything.

The most striking thing about Aaron Kohn’s bachelor pad on the third floor of the Artisan Lofts in Maboneng is not that it’s right next door to a brothel or that the balcony catches the most indulgent rays of sun on mornings after a night of partying. It’s that the apartment is, well, so tiny. 

At only 30 square metres – “as well as a 10 square-metre balcony,” he emphasises – Aaron has to make the space work for his needs. We settle on the short-short chairs on said balcony and enjoy the sunlight, as a low-hanging lamp sways in the breeze. “I know they’re tiny chairs,” he laughs, “that’s kind of the theme of the apartment if you haven’t noticed.”

“This,” he gestures to his bedroom, “looks massive to me. Especially after living in New York. It’s, like, three times the size of a New York apartment at, like, a fourth of the rent. Everyone has it hard in New York. You make a lot more money in New York but over there you have a shittier quality of life.”

The 23-year-old’s quality of life has improved considerably since he left his birthplace in Cleveland. Before he was a resident of Joburg’s hipster hub, Aaron was an African Studies student at Columbia University in New York. He spent a year as an exchange student at Wits University – “because I knew all the Americans had gone to UCT” – and co-founded the e-retailer where five-panel Babatunde caps priced as high as $40 are sold to Americans and Europeans who want some African flavour in their wardrobes. Even before that though, he did a year of high school in Gaborone, Botswana, and travelled through Namibia. It’s these experiences that are part of the reason he became “obsessed” with this continent. 

Now, he is the director of the new Museum of African Design (MOAD), a stone’s throw from his apartment. MOAD is a project of developer Jonathan Liebmann, who was named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Most Promising Entrepreneurs in Africa. Since 2006, Jonathan’s company, Propertuity, has rejuvenated the entire Maboneng Precinct, transforming it from an industrial neighbourhood to a creative one – complete with an independent cinema, restaurants and a Sunday market. 

The initial plan was to give the pop-up shop treatment inside MOAD, but through “a combination of impulsive emails from me, and them giving me a chance,” he was tasked with being the director of the museum. In November last year the museum, which describes itself as “a permanent cultural laboratory”, officially opened with an exhibition called Native Nostalgia, curated by Aaron and inspired by a book of the same title by journalist Jacob Dlamini. 

Images from the exhibition are still stuck to Aaron’s kitchen wall. They are swallowed by a blood-red colour scheme. A cow-skin from Amatuli lies on the cold floor. “When I first lived in Africa it was in Gaborone, a place that relies on cattle for everything,” Aaron explains. “I like the Nguni rug because it is one of few I’ve seen with both black and brown tones. There’s usually only one or the other.”

Looking around the man cave, past the clothes hung on a rail, bottles of spirits in varying degrees of emptiness line the top of his fridge; there is coffee in a white cup with Johannesburg’s skyline circling it. We drink water out of a jug that uses the Marlboro cigarette brand motif to announce Joburg Tap Water. An alphabet shoe rack “has notebooks, tools, remotes for all the different gadgets in the place, power cords… With so little space, it becomes a fun storage solution”.

Aaron explains that he doesn’t have any keepsakes or souvenirs from around the world in his apartment – where would he put them all? But he’s happy to source everything locally. It’s clear: Aaron hearts Africa.

“My attitude is I’m happy here. I can be here a lot of the time and never have to step into a mall,” he smiles broadly. “And besides, everyone knows that design and art are going to reshape this city and country.”