PHOTOS Micky Hoyle PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Sam Woulidge
The Haas Collective’s new inner-city design and advertising studio cum coffee spot was a neglected shell until three visionaries realised its potential.
“I have such a fondness for this space,” Francois Irvine admits tenderly, referring to the building on Buitenkant Street that dates from 1902 and now houses Haas. “It’s like someone you have seen naked, someone you have known at their most vulnerable, someone stripped bare. You see, I know and love every corner of this building because I’ve had my hands on it.”
No. 19 Buitenkant Street, opposite the imposing façade of Cape Town Central Police Station, stood in a state of disrepair for many years until it was bought by Haas Collective’s Francois Irvine, Francois de Villiers and Glynn Venter, who were looking to relocate their design, advertising and coffee business from the Bo-Kaap to inner-city Cape Town.
Nine months of gutting, renovating and decorating later, the building was transformed.
“On the surface, everything looked OK,” Francois recounts, “but as soon as we started chipping away at the walls, sheets of cement fell off. When we lifted the big green floor tiles we found layers of Novilon, which we lifted, but then we found a layer of crumbling concrete and when we lifted that we found bedrock with rusting pipes and electrical wiring lying in water.”
“At which point did you become disheartened?” I ask him. “Every morning!” he laughs. “But we persevered.”
Working non-stop for nine months, the three men’s own blood, sweat and tears are now part of the building’s DNA.
Originally built to house a fabric ware-house, the building has also served as a café, a lawyer’s office and a notorious nightclub called La Fiesta. It has now been re-invented as a creative hub and stylish café. Its dark grey exterior walls and an interior of muted grey hues promise sophisticated conversations and hint at flights of fancy, but Francois believes these walls still hold their memories.
Grey, it has been said, is the colour of a whisper, and it is entirely possible to believe in whispering walls when ensconced in the warmth of Haas. There is much murmuring in terms of sound and colour and soft textures.
The decor is voluptuous and luxurious, but it is saved from decadence by glimpses of industrial functionality. “When it came to the interior design, budgetary constraint was the deciding factor,” Francois says. “We had just bought the building, so we could not wilfully, wastefully go out and buy new things. We were conscious of reusing what we had in a clever way. Wooden tables were made from old beams and metal scraps, and chairs were upholstered in fabric I’d hoarded for years. We used what we had.”
And the feeling of the place is not one of frugality. “In my design, my natural tendency is toward voluptuousness, but here it was very much a concern to not appear too decadent, to allow for the functionality of the space to come into its own. But I did want there to be touches of flamboyance.”
Francois is quick to point out that his partners Francois de Villiers and Glynn Venter were also instrumental in the look and feel. “I would put an idea forward and they would generally agree with it. Once or twice someone said he simply couldn’t live with an idea or a piece of furniture, and I’d let it go. Not once was there a serious disagreement. We constantly marvelled at how the three of us, all creative minds, could work together so harmoniously. We respect one another, and I suppose that’s the basis for any working relationship or friendship: mutual respect.”
The result of this creative collaboration is one of authentic glamour. There is velvet and steel and wood and crystal and glass. There is porcelain and paintings; there are animal heads and a taxidermy hare watching over the space. All of which Francois says reflects our history.
“Many South Africans grew up in homes filled with hunting trophies. The taxidermy at Haas is a reflection of our heritage. Designers often try to replicate other worlds, feeling flattered when they are told their design is so Sydney, or so New York. People have walked into Haas and said admiringly, “Oh, it’s so New York, so Meatpacking District. I understand their intention is to flatter, but I never once thought to recreate something other than what we know. What I tried to create, literally using what we had, was something that was true to the building, true to ourselves.”
And he did; the approving stare of the hare and the murmurs of the whispering greys attest to that.
Check out VISI 78 where we venture upstairs to HAAS advertising, the ad agency that sits above the most beautiful coffee shop in Cape Town.