The country comes to town

PHOTOS: Dook | PRODUCTION: Annemarie Meintjes AND Klara van Wyngaarden | WORDS: Jacqueline Myburgh Chemaly

A secure lifestyle estate is not where you would expect to find a traditional old farmhouse. So, VISI found a modern one.

It’s easy to spot a Julian van der Linde design: Simply look for the wild grasses and fever trees growing on the pavement outside the house.

He is passionate about indigenous gardens because they are low-maintenance and cost-effective and, while this architectural designer/builder/landscaper/decor adviser creates a different house for every client, the eco-friendly South African garden remains his trademark.

That’s how I found the new home of Njabulo and Lebo Mthembo, settled on top of a koppie in the middle of Carlswald Lifestyle Estate north of Johannesburg. It’s a discreet house from the street and the wild grass verge, with only the simple silhouette of two barn-like roofs and a red brick chimney pointing to the fact that this is a contemporary farmhouse. Step inside, and the rich, gleaming chocolate brown Cemcrete floors tell you that you’re in a family home firmly rooted in Africa. Slick, understated Africa.

Julian met the Mthembos when they admired his work in creating a friend’s home. The other house wasn’t really to their taste, but they liked the workmanship and set about sourcing a site together. Little did Njabulo and Lebo realise that, in Julian, they were to get not only an architectural designer, but also a builder, a garden landscaper and a partner in a decor business, all of which meant he would see their construction project right through to the end.

No superfluous space

Njabulo had a clear idea of what he wanted his home to look like and Lebo had learnt to trust her husband’s style. He definitely did not want a glitzy Tuscan affair as is so often found in upmarket security estates. After years of living in Washington and New York, he had developed a taste for apartments with understated exteriors and simple but chic interiors. He also insisted that a home should have no superfluous space – every area had to have a purpose.

“In New York, I lived in an old apartment on the Upper East Side. It definitely influenced my style and that’s why I also like the look of old-fashioned red brick.”

The result is a house that is different, yet completely functional, with touches of those old red bricks – not face brick, he and Julian stress – and loft-living to satisfy Njabulo’s New York state of mind.

Njabulo and Julian speak about the building project as a team, pointing to a sincere synergy between the two that had a lot to do with the success of this project. By combining the brief for a contemporary farmhouse and his client’s taste for apartment living, Julian has created an unassuming yet spacious and functional home for the Mthembos and their children.

Uncluttered and seamless

Downstairs is where most of the living happens. The space is almost entirely open plan, with only the scullery and children’s play room closed off for privacy. Indoor and outdoor entertainment areas can flow together through doors that fold back if the weather allows, but are also easily contained for cosy winter living.

Njabulo’s favourite spot is the outside patio leading to a slim pool surrounded by a dark wooden deck. The built-in gas braai is taken from functional to feature, with the clever addition of a set of silver animal horns on the wall above.

Throughout the ground level, a cool theme of brown, grey, black and white creates a peaceful mood. A total absence of colour makes for an uncluttered and seamless effect, creating the impression that the entire home exists in one room.

The decor was largely done by Julian’s partner, Joe Jacob of Waxbill in Nelspruit, although Njabulo added touches of his own. The white cow skin and the oriental cupboards in the lounge, as well as much of the art, were items he sourced himself. Throughout the house, dramatic white pieces from Ceramic Matters complete the neutral palette.

Function over form

Njabulo says the brown Cemcrete floors were his idea, even though he got the fright of his life when he saw the effect for the first time.

“We saw something like it in a coffee shop in Kramerville but I almost cracked when the floor team from African Earth started, and I called Julian to say we should change it.”

But Julian encouraged him to see the plan through and, once the house was completed and furnished, the richness of the floor colour came into its own.

“It also worked because we painted the walls grey,” says Julian. “If there had been any yellow on the walls, the brown would have been a disaster.”

Lebo’s pride and joy is her custom-built Slavin & Company kitchen in which almost all the working parts are neatly hidden behind closed doors.

“It’s the hub of the house,” she says, where everyone gathers over weekends to enjoy her cooking.

Upstairs, a loft-like library perches on the steel stairway, with a custom-made bookshelf a work of art to complete the effect.

Beyond, three bedrooms and two bathrooms by Oxo are luxurious yet simple – again with the neutral palette creating the serenity and simplicity that Njabulo and Lebo were after.

In their modern Johannesburg farmhouse, Njabulo and Lebo Mthembo have found a new kind of aesthetic where function has always taken precedence over form – but never at the cost of elegance.

• Julian Architectural Design, 083 259 2348,
• Waxbill, 083 452 9771,
• Slavin & Company, 011 786 2032