Sanctuary with a view

PHOTOS David Ross PRODUCTION Klara van Wyngaarden WORDS Michelle Coburn

Mud Studio’s Werner and Philippa du Toit live in a one-of-a-kind house on a farm in the eastern Free State.

A conversion such as this can be described as nothing short of miraculous. What was once a dark, disused Catholic-mission church is now a bright and airy open-plan haven where Werner and Philippa du Toit live with their two young daughters, Catherine and Ella Rose.
The successful couple are known both locally and internationally for their handmade ceramics and beaded chandeliers produced in the studio at the bottom of their garden, and their work can be found in homes and shops everywhere from Los Angeles to London and Milan.

Werner and Philippa’s design philosophy of creating simple pieces that resonate with the senses is more than evident in the design and decoration of their home, described by Werner, a former graphic designer, as “simple and sparingly furnished – always with room for improvement!”

He says he doesn’t particularly think of himself as someone with a personal style and likes to approach design by “touching, looking, hearing, tasting… building, breaking down and rebuilding until it’s just right for all my senses.”

The Du Toits say the six-month conversion process, undertaken by Werner with a team of builders, was easy and – leaky roof aside – presented no great challenges. All went according to schedule and May 2008 saw the family move in without any delay.

Essentialy still one room

The floor-plan remains true to the original layout of the church. It is essentially still one room, with the three walls of the children’s rooms separating the living and dining areas from the generous master bedroom – a clever and considered demarcation of spaces.

At one end the former apse is now the kitchen, presided over by an impressive cross, which flows into the expansive dining and living areas. At the other end of the house, where the congregation once entered the church, one finds a bathroom, while what used to be the coat-room has been converted into a second bathroom.

The home has a powerful relationship with the surrounding rural landscape. Large glass-paned doors allow natural light to flood into the interior and reflect off the surfaces, especially the gleaming floor, which has been painted in low-maintenance white road paint. Another advantage of the site is that it captures the last of the sun’s rays each day.

Three elements created the point of departure for the decor: the heavy wooden ten-seater dining table made by Werner, the family’s books and the Morsø fireplace. (Werner says no home is complete with at least one of the latter, as well as a Nguni rug.)

The lofty ceiling adds to the airy effect while a neutral palette and tactile materials and finishes, including skimmed concrete walls and stools of Lesotho sandstone, create an inviting warmth and sense of restrained comfort combined with functionality – important in this rural family environment.

Family heirlooms, own creations combined

These aspects are complemented by a collection of family heirlooms combined with Mud Studio’s own creations, including two of their beaded chandeliers, which have been stocked by the Ralph Lauren shop in New York, in the living area and one in the main bedroom.

Philippa, who runs a successful empowerment bead project in nearby Clocolan that supplies clay beads to interiors shops and lodges including Singita, says her favourite aspect of the home is the wonderful, changing views from every door and window over the farm they have lived on for the past eight years.

Werner, on the other hand is fond of the bathroom, which features a bath with a view, concrete shelves and rectangular basins also handmade from Lesotho sandstone – the product of a local job-creation project. Empowerment is important to the Du Toits who, aware of the high unemployment figures in their area, train local residents for each available position at their studio.

This creative couple’s approach to the principles of life and work – integrity and simplicity – are one and the same. The result is an environment that serves as a retreat from the world and, at the same time, a space from where their influence flows to the surrounding community and on those who buy and live with their unique creations.

Mud Studio