Rural Kenyan Retreat

WORDS Maira Koutsoudakis and Nick Plewman POTOS Dook 

The pared-down simplicity of this home in the Kenyan highlands has been achieved by honing every detail to a visual, tactile and practical essence. Nothing is superfluous left to chance.

An aura of exoticism was instilled via the curation of objects that carry much of their mythology with them.

Between the verdant uplands and wild bush country of Laikipia in the Kenyan highlands is a boulder-strewn koppie that the Maasai call Arijiju. At its foot is a valley with fever trees and a rocky river bed. Here on Borana Ranch the owner of this magnificent dwelling found resonance with the highlands of Nigeria where he was born and procured the right to build a home where he could bring his English family to the Africa of his birth.

And so it came to be that one clear April morning, architect Alex Michaelis of London-based Michaelis Boyd and Johannesburg-based architect Nick Plewman found themselves pacing a meadow of red grass and wild olive trees, measuring the site and their ability to work together.

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The short walk revealed a shared love of simplicity, understatement and environmental care, and a partnership was born. The property owner’s brief was direct: He wanted an unobtrusive structure that blended into the landscape. “I want something African,” he said, “but I do not want a lodge.”

And so it was that Alex, who had long been intrigued by the 12th-century Cistercian abbey Le Thoronet in Provence, came up with the idea of recreating the look here in Africa.


He envisaged a courtyard building crafted in stone and carved into the landscape as though it had been there forever, a timeless design that would speak to Africa rather than the clichéd safari tradition. But without 12th-century artisans, how were they to build a structure in the monastic style? Alex and Nick found their answer in Laikipia: master mason, carpenter and blacksmith Ben Jackson of Ironwood Africa.

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A man who moved several tonnes of rock across barely navigable roads and hewed it into precise angles of arc so that each piece dovetailed perfectly with the next; a man who cut down massive eucalyptus trees and slabbed them into ceiling beams; a man who designed and manufactured his own ironmongery – all with the patience of Job and a disarming sense of humour. The result of their combined labours is a 21st-century home that seems to date from a time when construction was a craft.

Maira Koutsoudakis of LIFE Interiors, Architecture & Strategic Design, the esteemed Johannesburg-based interiors specialist responsible for the aesthetic of the home, says getting the look just right was an epic project that spanned years. “Nothing about this property is cookie-cutter. We didn’t want a stiff, starched, colonial outcome. Instead, we wanted to give the space a relaxed countenance, the feeling of a bespoke home tailored to the elegant African experience.”

The pursuit of this vision saw Maira and her team visiting no fewer than seven countries and crafting pieces from a further twelve in search of exotic artefacts for Arijiju that suited both the rustic environment and the hybrid Euro-African aesthetic sensibility of its owner. “The cut-crystal chandeliers were crafted in Jaipur,” says Maira, “and the monolithic doors reminiscent of those found in medieval monasteries were designed and fabricated by LIFE to ancient Gujarati archetypes. In the sensorial design of spaces we always address how things feel and sound as well as look; in this way, these heavy timber doors with forged ironmongery resonate so elegantly with the architecture.”

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Milanese textiles, fragrance-oiled leathers that give each space a different scent, gigantic French mirrors and a colour palette that resonates with the architecture are just some of the elements that give this home its rich texture and a lustre that is at once glamorous and easy on the eye.

The product of the labours of architects, interior specialists and renowned English landscape architect Jinny Blom makes it hard to tell where one set of responsibilities ended and another began. The inspiration of Le Thoronet may shine through, but Arijiju is not monastic. It wears its gravitas lightly, barely intruding upon the landscape but still providing a splendid platform from which to watch the parade of wildlife on the rolling plains beneath it.

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