A Bright Revival

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A pair of serial renovators in Johannesburg bring a mid-century gem back to life with a sense of subtlety and joie de vivre!

It takes a good eye to spot potential in a fixer-upper, particularly in a city like Johannesburg. There are some real gems — almost always undervalued — but their qualities are often lost beneath the add-ons that barnacle their way onto houses over time.

Christo Vermeulen and Nico Venter are serial renovators. Inevitably, after a few years of living in a house, they find their eyes wandering. They certainly have a knack for recognising the signs that something special might be lurking beneath the surface of a nondescript exterior. Over the years, a few of the city’s houses have benefitted from their transformations. Christo is a former textile designer turned builder-renovator, with a side-line in manufacturing bespoke features, especially metalwork and ironmongery. Nico is an urban designer with a keen interest in the city’s architectural history. Together, they make a formidable team: insightful and capable, with the perfect combination of vision and respect for the innate qualities of a good find.

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They recognised that they were looking at something special when they walked into this early 1940s double-storey house in the suburb of Greenside. The perfection of the sensuously curved, Art Deco-inflected balustrade on the stair was the first clue that highly skilled builders had been at work here. ‘There’s not a nick on it,’ says Nico, adding that there were other details, particularly in the cast concrete, which were ‘impeccable’. He also recognised the fine workmanship of the rounded edges where the walls meet the ceiling.

Christo soon realised that there were timber floors — parquet upstairs — and terrazzo beneath the layers of carpeting and glue. There were other ‘beautiful features of the era’, as he puts it. They were both particularly pleased with the brass fittings sprinkled throughout and the long, narrow planters outside.

The overall design suggested a thoughtful architect. Its orientation was perfect and other details such as the cantilevered concrete overhangs above the windows, were precisely designed to keep the hot sun out in summer and let it in during winter.

‘This house begged to be reborn,’ says Christo. He and Nico answered its plea.‘

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The bones of the original house were absolutely perfect,’ says Christo. All was structurally sound, which, he says, is testimony to the quality of the workmanship of the era. ‘Probably Italian,’ he muses, in reference to the excellent reputation of the immigrant builders of the time.

His and Nico’s alteration brought those features decisively into the twenty-first century, so you could, as Nico puts it, live a ‘modern lifestyle’ (and use more efficient power and water sources) while still having the luxury of being surrounded by ‘the feel of the old walls’. Nico says that there’s no slavishly applied ideology or principle at work in their approach. Rather, they allowed themselves to be inventive, creative, and playful as they went along. They’ve clearly been respectful, taking joy in celebrating the finer historical features, but never becoming precious or pretentious.

Details like the wooden floors and parquet — which turned out to be the local, darker, reddish hardwood kiaat (sometimes called ‘African teak’), rather than the more conventional teak — could be revived. They were less lucky with the light green terrazzo, which had been damaged beyond repair. They replaced it with terrazzo tiles, to update it with a nod to the original finish. While the ceilings throughout the house have been kept white, the walls are darker, creating a cosy, painterly atmosphere. They also replaced the rickety old steel windows with modern aluminium frames, but Nico had noticed an intricate rhythm of proportions throughout the house.‘

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All of the windows are broken down into three sections,’ he explains. On the lower floor, there was a little portion at the bottom, above it, another section double the height, and above that, the top section was double the middle one. A similar pattern was repeated on the upper level, but in reverse. The windows, in turn, become part of a larger geometric game. The composition of the front façade follows the same proportions: the height up to the flower box is doubled in the next section up to the sunshades and doubled again above it to the soffits. He and Christo replicated it in the modern material, so the integrity of the overall design remained intact.

Many of the alterations they’ve made draw attention to original architectural features of the house. They’ve widened doors, for example, to improve the lines of sight between rooms. One door between the living room and entrance hall now perfectly frames the staircase. They’ve subtly distinguished the original features from the areas they’ve altered, but it comes across as a feeling rather than an overt signal. Christo and Nico designed fluted wall panelling that runs up to waist height, which is restricted to the original areas. Where the kitchen, dining room, TV room, and study have been switched around, the walls remain smooth.

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Similarly, Nico points out, that wherever they’ve included new doors, they’ve used reeded glass, which has a kind of vintage feeling, but also signals a change (and complements the fluted panelling beautifully). They’ve picked up on other little details that belonged to the original house, such as the brass fittings — the door handles for example — and found ways to emphasise them. From the brass strip inlay in the terrazzo in the entrance hall and master bathroom to little brass details like nuts and bolts in the ironmongery and furniture, there’s a glimmer of brass at play throughout the house.

All the light fittings are spherical, which almost unconsciously harmonises with the curves in the architecture. Christo paid homage to the curves in the design of new features, such as the bathroom mirrors and other fittings, recognising and emphasising this aspect of the original design.

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In other instances — such as the covered patio — they’ve tried to create continuity. Its PVC strips mimic the timber soffits on the original house, as Nico says, ‘in a contemporary way’. In contrast to the bright white exterior, the interiors are dark, playing with a kind of chiaroscuro hinted at in the chocolatey floors. Christo says that he found himself studying paintings by the Dutch Old Masters, and carefully selected what might superficially look like black paint for the walls, but with undertones of brown to give it a kind of variation and warmth. ‘We also knew that we could go dark inside because the exterior is white, so there’s a lot of light coming in,’ he adds. It’s not just light, but lightness that he and Nico have brought in. Their home’s mid-century features have been given a second lease of life, celebrated in the context of a contemporary lifestyle, with as much joy as reverence.

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