Grand yet eclectic and filled to the brim with one-off decorative finds, this glamorous heritage home in Cape Town is a fun-filled space beloved by its owners.
– a colonial mansion in Cape Town has a glamorous makeover
“It’s very rock ’n’ roll,” says former model Natalie Knight of the Cape Dutch colonial mansion in Cape Town that she and husband James, a lawyer, and their young daughters, Willow and Luella, call home. With a grand, imposing façade that is in stark contrast to the Victorian and mid-century homes that surround it, the house is something of a landmark in Oranjezicht, one of the city’s most sought-after suburbs. “It’s by far the most flamboyant house on our street,” laughs Natalie. “We quite like that.”
The family moved into the house in late 2015 after nine months of extensive renovations and redecorating. “It was a whirlwind time,” admits Natalie, who was so determined that the family would have their first Christmas there, that they moved in on 20 December when some of the windows in the upstairs passage were still not in. “It was like an Amityville Horror, we were up to our eyeballs in boxes at the windiest time of the year with no windows. So we had decorations flying all over the place and the girls kept asking why the doors were opening by themselves. But none of it mattered, we were in!” says Natalie with a laugh.
The couple moved to Cape Town from London seven years ago when Willow was just a year old. “We were drawn to the idea of raising a family in a place with a more laidback lifestyle,” says Natalie, who grew up in Cape Town. “We rented at first as James commutes to London for work but when Luella arrived fours years later, we realised that we’d long made the city our base.” And so the search for a heritage home with a level garden began in earnest.
Built in 1903 by an unknown architect, the Knights stumbled upon their home when it was still a guest house known as Villa Belmonte. “We loved it as soon as we clapped eyes on it but with 13 bedrooms and 15 bathrooms, it was totally terrifying. We had no idea how turn it into a family home.”
They enlisted the expertise of Cape-based architect Jan Desseyn, who quickly got them to see the project as an achievable reality. For the Knights, Desseyn’s experience with heritage buildings was invaluable to the process. “He had a relatively simple approach, but it immediately gave an air of sobriety to the project and we could finally see a way through it all.”
Similarly, when interior designer Danela Conti came on board, her ability to curate an eclectic collection of furniture, art and objets really came into play. “Her knowledge of fabrics, fittings and furnishings helped to reel me in when I went off on a tangent,” says
Natalie. “And that was often.” Strict heritage rules meant the couple couldn’t do much to the building structurally, bar remove any new additions that fell foul of the original architectural style. “Not that we had plans to change much, we all loved the building so much that we tried to keep the intervention to a minimum,” says Desseyn. “But what we did was open up a lot of the really boxy spaces that had been added over the years and gave the house open flow with a wonderful connection to the garden.”
A case in the point is the now huge conservatory window in the breakfast room leading off the kitchen, which replaced a smaller gable window in what was then a guest suite. “It’s remarkable how that one alteration changed the whole aspect of the house to look out towards the garden and the mountain,” says Natalie.
Another eureka moment was when Conti came up with the idea to install an elegant custom-made gable window in the central part of the kitchen that would bring in the classic lines from the existing architectural style and create a sense of continuity in the new kitchen design. Inspired by a Louis Vuitton window display, garden designer Jeremy Killian hung birdcages at different heights and filled them with plants or light bulbs, all of which are set against the back wall of ferns and greenery painted by a local graffiti artist. A light well was also installed to bring in more light. “It’s definitely one of my favourite additions, as it’s a playful space that allows us to constantly change it, we dress it up for Christmas, Easter and for each of the girls’ birthdays,” says Natalie.
It’s this sense of play that is central to the interior direction of the house, too. In fact, the Knights’ brief was one line: “Loosen the corset of this rather formal old lady and put some much-
Above left: bold patterned tiles on the kitchen floor. Above right: the master bedroom was designed to feel like an elegant hotel room, with Designer’s Guild wallpaper and an overscaled headboard to emphasise the vast ceiling height. Below: white palm frond patterned tiles were used to create a wall feature in the master bathroom. needed colour and excitement back into her life.” And that has been achieved with the greatest success as the grand space brims with character.
“Because the house was such a big space, we had to get really creative with our finances when it came to accessories and so a lot of our things were sourced from auction houses, second-hand shops and even pawnshops,” says Natalie. “I would also source ideas off Pinterest and 1stdibs.com and then Danela would cleverly mix these finds with customised new pieces of furniture.”
The bathrooms were viewed as places of escape and the main ensuite bedroom was inspired by the hotel bathroom of Natalie’s dreams. “We took our cue from the relief palm frond pattern tiles on the wall,” says Conti. “The scale of them made for a great wall feature.” The bath was placed centrally to give the room symmetry while the timber vanities were silver-leafed and topped with marble countertops. Large blocks of White Swan marble floor tiles give a feeling of luxury underfoot, while the empire line finials and an oversize French pane iron shower door add to the grandeur.
Similarly, in the guest suite, an open-plan design meant the bathroom became one with the bedroom to allow for maximum enjoyment of the views. “Our inspiration was to have a bit of fun and give guests something they ordinarily wouldn’t have at home,” says Conti. “So it’s a very glamorous space with its snakeskin wallpaper and a hammered brass bath.”
As a result the interiors don’t feel contrived but rather a happy mix of riotous colour, graphic monochromatic pattern and wonderful one-off decorative finds. “While we specifically wanted a heritage house, it certainly wasn’t our dream to live in a version of Downton Abbey,” says Natalie. “We really wanted a home imbued with humour and an energetic dynamism that would be as much fun for us as for the girls.”
Left: Natalie and James stand next to a bar which, along with the back cupboards, they had custom-made by local kitchen designer Svencraft. The central mirror was bought at a pawnbroker and the pressed ceiling detail and cornicing is by Plaster Art. Below left: the bamboo chinoiserie chairs in the breakfast room are from Resort Lifestyle. The curtain and blind fabric is by Black Fabrics.
Above: the Art Deco metal doors in the entrance hall were inspired by a Parisian apartment Natalie spotted on Pinterest and were custom-made to replace the previous walls and open up the space. The floors were stained black and painted white to create a striking monochromatic box. The light fitting is by Morgan Associates and the vases are from Ashbey’s Galleries. Below left: the painting in the stairwell is by Orlanda Broom.