IN CHAR­AC­TER A house in Kens­ing­ton, Johannesburg, lov­ingly re­calls the eras of Art Deco and Arts and Crafts

House and Leisure (South Africa) - - Contents -


Art his­to­rian Fed­erico Freschi dis­plays some of his ce­ramic col­lec­tion in the liv­ing room of his Kens­ing­ton home in Johannesburg. ‘This is a Carl­ton Ware pat­tern called Jazz,’ he says of the pot­tery’s clas­sic Art Deco pat­tern from the 1930s. In the back­ground is a paint­ing by Gün­ther Herbst; Fed­erico draws at­ten­tion to the beau­ti­ful crafts­man­ship and pro­por­tions of the arch over the front door, ap­plaud­ing the way that the col­umns have been clus­tered in the tra­di­tion of English ar­chi­tect Sir Her­bert Baker. ‘I think I will al­ways live in an older house,’ he says. ‘There’s some­thing about the patina of age that I find com­pelling.’


Fed­erico Freschi and Neil Lowe in front of an ab­stract work by An­drzej Ur­ban­ski.

When art his­to­rian and Dean of the Fac­ulty of Art, De­sign and Ar­chi­tec­ture at the Univer­sity of Johannesburg Fed­erico Freschi re­turned to Joburg after a spell in Cape Town, he sought out a house in Kens­ing­ton, an area he’d lived in be­fore. ‘It’s one of the old­est sub­urbs, and has some ar­chi­tec­turally in­ter­est­ing houses,’ he says. Even though Fed­erico’s taste leans to­wards the ‘stream­lined mod­ernist’ (his PhD fo­cused on the dec­o­ra­tive as­pects of South African ar­chi­tec­ture in the 1930s), he was par­tic­u­larly drawn to this 1920s red-brick house on the ridge, ‘some­where be­tween Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts’. What he found so com­pelling about it – apart from its el­e­vated set­ting and vast view – was its orig­i­nal char­ac­ter and fea­tures, as well as its sense of au­then­tic­ity. ‘The struc­ture has been largely un­changed, which is rather un­usual in these houses,’ he says.

Fed­erico points out that, de­spite some quite grand fea­tures, it was a fairly or­di­nary house for its time. That is, how­ever, what makes some of its de­tails even more re­mark­able. ‘ There’s some­thing about the qual­ity of the build­ing and the pro­por­tions that were part of a stan­dard vo­cab­u­lary at the time, which now you get only in ex­cep­tional cases,’ he says. Draw­ing at­ten­tion to the arch over the front en­trance, he says, ‘Just look at how beau­ti­fully this arch grows out of the brick­work. It’s got such great pro­por­tion and is exquisitely crafted. It has a kind of grace and grandeur with­out be­ing pre­ten­tious. This is a skill peo­ple had at the time. You only get it now if you’re work­ing with a good ar­chi­tect and are pre­pared to spend money on pro­por­tion and fin­ish.’

The ar­chi­tec­ture of the house may be­long to the ‘imag­i­na­tion of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion’, but Fed­erico’s taste for a more mod­ernist aes­thetic comes through in his glam­orous Art Deco fur­ni­ture, with its ‘clean lines and lux­u­ri­ous ma­te­ri­als and ve­neers’, as well as in the contemporary ab­stract art. ‘I also have an emerg­ing taste for Ori­en­tal de­signs – Chi­nese car­pets, Coro­man­del screens and ce­ram­ics,’ he says.

He may make fun of his var­ied tastes, say­ing that they are ‘caught some­where be­tween a cer­tain his­tory of sub­ur­ban Joburg and a kind of nos­tal­gic ex­oti­cism’, but there’s a crit­i­cal eye and an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of de­tail ev­i­dent in the way the aes­thetic in­flu­ences in his home have been in­te­grated into the space, cre­at­ing a sense of in­ter­nal co­he­sion.

There’s also a cer­tain light-heart­ed­ness at work in Fed­erico and Neil’s home. The main en suite bath­room, for ex­am­ple, has old sa­fari posters that re­in­force its vin­tage travel theme, which be­gan when Fed­erico bought an ele­phant-shaped lamp on a whim. ‘Be­cause I’ve got this old­fash­ioned taste for the 1930s, I have to guard against be­com­ing too fussy, like Granny’s house,’ says Fed­erico. ‘It’s saved by the fact that my part­ner and I both re­ally like contemporary art and tend to­wards the ab­stract.’

Fed­erico’s love of ab­stract art is linked to his in­ter­est in early to mid20th cen­tury aes­thet­ics (he was the South African cu­ra­tor of the Henri Matisse Rhythm and Mean­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Stan­dard Bank Gallery last year) but it’s also a gut re­sponse. He sim­ply prefers art­works that ‘re­quire some work in look­ing at them’ rather than fig­u­ra­tive art, which he sug­gests can be di­dac­tic. He is drawn to ‘things that have a sense of fin­ish, things that have a kind of fac­ti­tious­ness about them – that ex­ist com­pellingly in the world as ob­jects in their own right.’

The art through­out the house in­cludes in­ter­na­tional pieces by Vic­tor Pas­more and Hans Har­tung. But South African works pre­dom­i­nate, rang­ing from 1960s and 1970s pieces by the likes of Cecil Skotnes, Robert Hod­gins and Ken­neth Bakker to contemporary ones by Peter East­man, An­drzej Ur­ban­ski, Mary Wafer and Kyle Mor­land, tak­ing in Mongezi Ncaphayi and Joni Brenner along the way.

Fed­erico’s home is re­mark­able not only for its in­di­vid­ual trea­sures, but also for the way it cre­ates co­her­ence from di­verse in­flu­ences. There’s glam­our and shab­bi­ness, se­ri­ous­ness and wit, his­tory and in­di­vid­u­al­ity here – all of which work com­pellingly to­gether.


Ele­phant fig­urines re­flect the main en suite bath­room’s vin­tage travel theme; in the main suite, an Art Deco chest livens up the char­coal walls, which are adorned with a paint­ing by Trevor Wood and a small piece by Wal­ter Olt­mann.

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