A special feature for the Sunday Times Home Weekly
At the top of Illovo’s Corlett Drive, a line of palm trees hides a block of flats amid its fronds: Dunkeld Mansions, regarded as one of architect Harold Le Roith’s triumphs; white, Corbusier-inspired apartments, designed with the shape of a great luxury ocean liner in mind.
Crisped up in recent years with new paving and a fresh coat of paint, the building’s glass fronted staircase and expansive windows have watched the neighbourhood change with it.
“DM”, in affectionate local shorthand, has stood for nearly 80 years next to Oxford road - then, the end of the tram route, curved in a teardrop to head back towards town. Described by Clive Chipkin as “the most spectacular of Le Roith’s pre-war buildings”, it was designed for luxurious living in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs; its roof garden, squash court and pavilions since converted into additional flats.
The modernist block’s striking curvilinear forms, concave parapets and exposed structure - fundamentally unchanged over the decades - are testament to the enduring elegance of functional design.
Behind its whitewashed walls is something of a little creative community, with a group of residents who have reinvented Le Roith’s luxury cruiseship into spaces all their own.
Home Weekly takes a look inside DM, in a special single-building feature, produced entirely by those who live within it.
KARIN AND OLIVER
Karin Botta and Oliver Barstow’s kitchen countertop is dotted with new acquisitions from a recent trip to London: the latest copies of The Gourmand, Nobel Rot and Fricote, an enamelware pie dish, Costa Rican cane sugar from Monmouth Coffee.
Their Zimbabwe granite-topped kitchen island, strewn with home-baked Sunday afternoon madeleines and mugs of Earl Grey, is the heart of their home. It is where tea is made at sunrise, where Friday Campari spritzers are sipped and fresh pasta is pressed for laughing friends, squeezed around the dining table.
The flat of art publisher Fourthwall Books’s co-founder andEstee Lauder’s online marketing manager is highly curated, minimal in its aesthetic, but it is also a place for music and feasts: pops of colour amid the restraint.
The Gregor Jenkin dining room table - initially purchased in raw ply and beech, has been spray-painted a Camper-shoe hue, topped with a vase of St Joseph’s lilies, filling the flat with a subtle sweetness.
“We’d just gotten back from Casa Camper in Barcelona, and we came back loving red,” Karin says wryly.
The kitchen, where food blogger Karin makes ricotta-stuffed agniolotti dal plein and brown butter tomatoes, is every inch a working kitchen, from the industrial pantry shelves from Builders’ Warehouse (“I built those myself, sitting on the floor,” she says), to the 5-gas burner Smeg, and Le Creuset chef’s pan.
Purchased in a private sale, the unit was previously the temporary home of passing artists, with part of Roelof Van Wyk’s Jong Afrikaner shot against its walls.
The walls are now filled with carefully-chosen pieces from friends and collaborators: behind the record player, a David Southwood monochromatic print of the University of Pretoria’s arts and humanities building, a Zanderblom drawing. Several William Kentridge etchings - whose books Oliver has worked on - and a photo series from Terry Kruger share space with a vintage map of New York City and a structural Mary Wafer print.
In the living room, next to an Anatomy Design couch, neighbour August’s coffee table prototype sits on loan, under the weight of books featuring the work of Lorenzo Vitturi, Walter Battiss, and photographer neighbour Yiannis Hadjiaslanis.
It has been a gradual renovation: an initial purge of beige carpets, concrete and balcony enclosures, then various drawings by architect friends, before walls were demolished and blonde kiat parquet laid.
“We call it the hyena print,” Oliver grins, “The finish was a little unanticipated. We were completely freaked out, but now, we think it’s incredible. It’s one of our favourite parts of the flat.”
There is light everywhere. They opened out the kitchen, converted the former master bedroom into an airy studio space. The doors are wider than usual, keeping in proportion with the walls. The bedroom opens on a pivot.
The light switches from Lumen8 were the greatest extravagance, Karin admits. Installed halfway through the renovation, they were a sort of reward to themselves, she explains.
Now, the brushed steel knobs take the place of art on the bedroom wall. “It’s an artwork in itself,” she says.
They project-managed it all themselves.
“We did a lot of learning about what should have come first,” Karin raises her eyebrows.
“And there are no straight lines,” Oliver adds. But there are no regrets.
“I think of the block as a kind of oasis, an escape from the world outside,” he says. “There’s a slight surreality to it. We’re living in a big ship, but there’s no sea for miles.”
After meeting six years ago at an art fair party, buying, renovating, and becoming the joint guardians of Dunkeld Mansion’s block cat, they’re now about to get married.
“I have a huge sense of relief that we’ve done this together,” Karin laughs, “It’s practically a form of pre-marital counselling.”
GINA, MIKE AND LEO
After seven years, Gina Waldman and Mike Balkind are two of Dunkeld Mansions’ oldest residents.
In that time, there have been a few additions to their lives: Charlotte, a purring mini-pug, who often trots down the stairs to visit other flats, and Leo, their rambunctious two-and-a-half year-old son.
“We used to live in and out of each other’s flats,” remembers Gina, a designer and stylist, “rooftop parties, braais by the pool… But a lot’s changed since Leo.”
Their two-bedroom flat is one of the few unrenovated originals in the block, but filled with the whimsical, irresistable zeal of its changing family of inhabitants.
Doreen Southwood mirrors line the foyer’s original curved wall, atop a sunburst of gold stripes on teal, an addition from Willowlamp founder Sian Elliot, Gina’s former flatmate.
Two popcorn-strewn stripey chair-hammocks from the Living Room - where Mike DJs on Sunday afternoons - hang in front of Le Roith’s glass accordion door, separating the lounge and dining rooms.
A glass-topped coffee table recovered by Gina, with embroidery collected for years from markets everywhere - Istanbul’s Yafa, Cape Town’s Milnerton - sits in front of armchairs reupholstered in Frances Saunders’ fabric, hand-painted florals.
Above the couch, portraits of Mandela, Zuma and Tutu have been turned into graphic novel posters, a wedding gift from restauranteur Martin Jakoby who runs the Griffin and Perron across the road.
Leo’s influence is everywhere.
The balcony is child-friendly with shadecloth and a cutout pink flamingo; a baby delicious monster sits in a fat green tub.
An enormous cloud-covered rubber duck stands sentry over the bathtub, guarding Gina’s collected flock of ceramic swans, half-filled with succulents, some delicate, hand-painted, others opalescent with golden beaks.
The dining stools are in the colour scheme of Leo’s playroom: chartreuse, pale mint, dark mustard amid splashes of his mother’s signature bubblegum pink.
In the nursery, Gina’s playful aesthetic has found new form.
Prototypes for her latest range of classroom play equipment for Gepetto’s World are on show: a geometric playmat on printed billboard vinyl, building blocks of different characters; a surprised princess, a sleeping fox, a pirate, a koala. Leo climbs atop a red wave of modular play blocks stretching across the room.
Her son’s arrival has marked a shift in Gina’s design ethos.
A vintage shop display counter remains filled with her collections: chains and crystal beads, a Babushka doll, tiny foam birds, dice, feathers. “It’s a journey through my aesthetic phases, from button and eyes and chintz to geometrics”, she says.
“But I’ve pared down,” she laughs, “I’m replacing it with Pinterest. It takes up less space.”
It is now a flat that embraces the whole family, filled with toys for all ages.
Mike, the founder of JHB Live and co-editor of digital agency Content Bar, has installed a projector for movie nights. And in the dining room, a canary yellow set of wire workers’ lockers houses his DJ gear.
In the foyer, Leo’s Cote Cuisine play kitchenette - so he can cook like his father - sits under a painting by Granny Irene, of her grandson and a black dog, meant to be “his protector”.
“I like to think it’s Charlotte,” Gina grins.
Industrial designer August de Wet has been making things since he was a boy.
When he bought his 57 square metre studio in Dunkeld Mansions, he spent the first month constructing furniture.
He built open-faced bedroom and bathroom cupboards, laid timber-backing against his fridge for an improvised room divider, and installed a bar counter along his lengthy window. It was about demarcating space.
“Just to make it liveable,” August shrugs. “Everything moves. It was about creating flow, making things more accommodating, but they don’t define the space.”
Then came a blackout curtain that runs the length of a curved rail around his bedroom, a soft, impromptu wall that separates cooking, bathing and sleeping quarters, wet from dry.
“You needed something to give the bedroom a sense of enclosure, then it actually feels like a room,” August explains, “These expand and contract. There’s no space for timber doors.”
The whole flat is a study in small space ingenuity.
In the bedroom, August sleeps on a mattress on floor - a preference for things lowslung and streamlined, he says. All his shelves are open - doors would make it feel smaller - and the clever cupboard recess cut next to the window, has becoming a light-filled display space, currently featuring a striking installation of polystyrene.
There are no handles - instead, the cabinets have recessed finger details, and the floor parquet flows throughout, for continuity.
“Everything picks up a line somewhere,” August smiles.
Exposed pipes in the bathroom continue the industrial aesthetic, on top of orange steel rods, in place of a towel rail, a seamless line of colour.
The compact kitchen, lined with stainless steel counters, allows for rapid cooking. “You can do everything from the same position. It’s like the bridge on a ship,” August laughs.
But amid the thoughtful, minimalist details, there are flickers of graphic colour and collected treasures: a yellow Kenyan soapstone elephant hides amid the plates with a slab of yellow masonite. A flyer for a Berlin gallery, propped on a wall; the Brandenburg Gate being rebuilt after the war. A tumbleweed from Graff Reinet creates delicate shadows. A spongey rock from Tsavo National Park’s Shethani lava flow rests next to white pearwood from his family’s holiday home in Nature’s Valley.
On the side of the fridge, a cardboard model in waiting from celebrated architect Mies van de Rohe, is stuck next to an elasticated mask of August himself, replete with cokie pen moustache from his 30th birthday party.
The hanging canvas behind the television - a locationless tropical photobooth backdrop painted by his mother and sister - is a nod to the same night of revelry.
The palm trees are echoed by the wall shadows at sunset, light filtering through the treetop facing his balcony.
“They never get old,” he grins.
The seemingly breathing wall shade, somewhere between dark blue and deep green - Plascon’s “10 Fathoms” in cashmere - makes the flat feel bigger, “dark walls at night seem to recede and disappear,” August says.
The overhead fluorescent lights are never turned on, but low level lamps dotted around the flat create little living areas. Outdoor security lights line the entrance corridor, trained to glare at the ceiling.
August himself is a former winner of Visi’s lighting competition, for a coffee table exploring a swivelling cylinder that opens to a central light; whose prototype now lives on loan in the block, with neighbours Karin and Oliver.
Miniature models depict the evolution of his design, on the shelves below his bar counter, overlooking the intersection of Oxford and North. “On weekends, I need to sit here for a bit and see what’s going on. You see people encounter each other and they don’t know you’re watching,” August says.
Moving reflected shadows appear upside down in his camera obscura, propped on bulb boxes, made from a magnifying glass, frosted glass and masking tape.
“There’s a voyeuristic quality to it. You’re pressed up against the glass, in solitude, but at the same time, a part of the world,” he muses.
I’ve written about many homes, but never my own.
Having your own home photographed - even by your partner - is a peculiarly intimate experience. It forces you to see your space through outsiders’ eyes: your life laid bare through your possessions; your story told through pots and books and bedlinen; pieces of your history hidden in an embroidered cushion, a basket.
I’ve lived my life across three continents, and amid my years of wandering, longed for a place all of my own. People told me I was mad, that I’d never be home, but they were wrong.
It is a space as defined by my absence as my presence.
My balcony herb garden died for want of water; in its place, a jungle of succulents.
In the wardrobe, a stack of ikat sarongs from Mogadishu lies beneath metres of Vlisco, from a visit to Congo’s restive northeast, during a break in the fighting.
On the walls, scattered donated images of Nelson Mandela from various graphic designers, and a trio of 2010 World Cup art prints: a nod to long months spent next to a television camera.
In the kitchen, the hand-painted Vietnamese bowls carried back miraculously unbroken from Hanoi’s countryside, where they make ceramic rhino-horn grinding saucers.
It is a space filled with collected moments of solace and communion, found in art galleries, or on solitary wanderings through secondhand shops, or beaches: a delicate Marco Cianfanelli laser cutting of a human heart, a coatrack fashioned from Wild Coast driftwood, an Art Deco drinks cabinet.
Atop my desk - a glass-topped railway engineer’s teak workbench, purchased from his brother - there are two jars, filled with dozens of identical shells collected from the same Senegalese beach. On the left, shades of charcoal and black, on the right, mustard and marigold: a reminder it is possible to find order in chaos.
Further along, a bullet casing, collected from a miners' riot, sits next to a glass Goddess of Mercy.
It is a space for living, consciously pragmatic, but with room for reinvention.
The glass-backed bookshelves in the lounge slide apart to become a dividing wall for privacy in the office-cum-guestroom. A partition in the middle of the double bathroom creates two loos when closed. The granite-topped marine ply kitchen island is an additional workspace, but slides on hidden castors out of the way for big dinner parties.
Wall brackets in the corridor host a changing exhibition of prints from my boyfriend, Greek art photographer Yiannis Hadjiaslanis. The study cork wall is covered with plans and ideas.
The building of my refuge has taken time and sacrifice.
I pulled out old plumbing, gold leaf and terrifying mosaics, ripped ornamental boulders from the bedroom and demolished the kitchen wall so it would fit a fridge. Three sets of joiners installed and ripped out six kitchens, in varying shapes, sizes, colours and finishes, none of which matched the drawings. The contractor and carpenter broke my front door in a fist fight. My architect stopped answering calls and emails.
I lived without kitchen sinks for two and a half years. The counter slabs of honed carrara marble arrived as militants took hostages in Kenya’s Westgate Mall.
Now, I have taught myself to love to slightly crooked metro tiles in the shower, the scratched herringbone parquet.
I’ve watched my aesthetic change, opting for simplicity in lines and colours - waffle-knit muted Muji bedlinen, mid-century natural leather chairs, a palette of warm greys and black - allowing for more complex textures and splashes of the exotic.
The mismatched ebony-stained dining chairs and cracked oregon pine table, from a previous house and previous life, will need to go. I have ambitions of a sleeker, curated space, but don’t have the requisite ruthlessness to edit.
It is part of an unending story - this stark, yet gentle block, in which I found a community.
Now, when I come home from Somalia or South Sudan or Southeast Asia, I walk through a gate designed by August, and say hello to Gina’s pug Charlotte in the passage. I eat Karin’s homemade pasta with a glass of wine, and sit in my salvaged bathtub and realise I’ve inevitably forgotten to bring back an addition for my bathroom fish wall, all swimming in the direction of our shared pool.
A home is quite something.