WALK­ING IN MEMPHIS In a clean­lined Stan­ford farm­house, the spirit of the Memphis Group lives on


A col­lec­tor’s cu­ra­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture, art and de­sign is syn­chro­nised in a moun­tain­side farm­house in South Africa’s Over­berg re­gion, pay­ing homage to iconic cre­ators and Memphis Group masters


Perched atop a hill amid 40ha of in­dige­nous fyn­bos, the house that Harry Poort­man shares with his part­ner Steyn Ja­cobs on a farm just out­side Stan­ford in the Western Cape boasts panoramic views of the Klein­riv­ier Moun­tains. The 30m-long pitchroofed, barn-like abode that the cou­ple built along­side the two-bed­room farm­house al­ready on the prop­erty is of­ten mis­taken by on­look­ers for a chapel or wed­ding venue. Con­nect­ing the new build­ing with the orig­i­nal house is the cou­ple’s flat-roofed cor­ru­gate­d­iron of­fice, com­plete with red trim­mings that ac­cent its ev­er­green sur­round­ings.

‘Why should a ta­ble have four iden­ti­cal legs? Why should lam­i­nate ve­neer be only for the kitchen and bath­room and not for a lux­u­ri­ous liv­ing room?’ When Ital­ian ar­chi­tect and de­signer Et­tore Sottsass posed these ques­tions in re­la­tion to the Memphis Group, a de­sign move­ment he spear­headed in Mi­lan in the 1980s, he’d al­ready caused a stir by cre­at­ing asym­met­ri­cal fur­ni­ture in kalei­do­scopic colours and un­ex­pected ma­te­ri­als. The fur­ni­ture, light­ing, tex­tiles, jewellery, home- and glass­ware pro­duced by this col­lec­tive of de­sign­ers be­tween 1981 and 1988 fol­lowed no set rules. A mul­ti­coloured, un­ortho­dox de­par­ture from Modernism’s more pre­dictable, clin­i­cal aes­thetic, the ex­per­i­men­tal Memphis de­signs popped with vi­brant hues and pat­tern – think leop­ard-print Formica and colour-block crazi­ness.

Ger­man fash­ion de­signer Karl Lager­feld took to it in­stantly, fur­nish­ing his en­tire Monte Carlo apart­ment with Memphis pieces, while English su­per­star David Bowie’s mon­u­men­tal Memphis col­lec­tion re­sulted in record-break­ing bids when it was auc­tioned by Sotheby’s af­ter his death in 2016. But not ev­ery­one was as in­trigued by the bold­ness of this avant-garde move­ment, and prod­ucts were of­ten crit­i­cised for their ir­rev­er­ence and seem­ingly point­less shapes.

Dutch-born South African res­i­dent Harry Poort­man, how­ever, felt a com­pelling at­trac­tion to­ward works pro­duced by the Memphis Group, es­pe­cially be­cause of their risk-tak­ing struc­tures and tones. A for­mer ar­chi­tect and de­signer him­self, Harry’s home is re­plete with cel­e­brated items from the short-lived era. ‘ These de­sign­ers were work­ing at a time when ev­ery­thing was min­i­mal­is­tic,’ says the col­lec­tor, ‘and they in­tro­duced a counter-de­sign move­ment filled with pat­terns and in­ter­est­ing forms that I was drawn to.’

The pieces col­lected by Harry in­clude a one-off ta­ble by Sottsass that was never man­u­fac­tured en masse, French ar­chi­tect Mar­tine Bedin’s play­ful Su­per lamp on wheels, a rug by French pain­ter Nathalie du Pasquier de­signed for a cin­ema the­atre, and Ital­ian de­signer and ar­chi­tect Michele De Luc­chi’s chec­quered Kristall ta­ble – Memphis Group cre­ations that, be­cause of their in­tri­cate crafts­man­ship, didn’t go into mass pro­duc­tion, and are now sought-af­ter col­lec­tor’s items.

In the home Harry shares with his part­ner Steyn Ja­cobs on a farm out­side Stan­ford, just two hours’ drive from Cape Town, their Memphis Group col­lec­tion is com­ple­mented by other iconic works of art and de­sign, in­clud­ing fur­ni­ture by Jasper Mor­ri­son, an English de­signer who recog­nises the in­flu­ence that the Post­mod­ern move­ment had on his work. Hav­ing at­tended his first Memphis show at 20, Mor­ri­son is quoted as say­ing that he was both re­pulsed and freed by what he saw, ac­knowl­edg­ing that the col­lec­tive’s rule-break­ing men­tal­ity en­cour­aged him to ques­tion ways of work­ing and de­sign­ing.

Harry re­lates to this non-for­mu­laic mode of con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion. Hav­ing the lux­ury of a 40ha hill­top farm to build on, he veered far from con­struct­ing a tra­di­tional six-bed­room farm­house, and in­stead co-de­signed an un­con­ven­tional, slinky, 30m-long, 6m-wide pitchedroof barn-like struc­ture to sit along­side and echo the two-bed­room pitched-roof house al­ready on the prop­erty. The cou­ple con­verted the orig­i­nal abode into a guest­house, join­ing it to their own new open-plan ‘barn’ with a cor­ru­gated-iron pas­sage­way that houses their of­fice.

‘Harry co-de­signed our new house ac­cord­ing to his ar­ray of fur­ni­ture and art to cre­ate a gallery-type en­vi­ron­ment,’ says Steyn, re­fer­ring to the all-white walls and long, nar­row slit win­dows that al­low his part­ner’s 40-year col­lec­tion to main­tain its promi­nence.

‘He bought his first art­work while still a stu­dent,’ says Steyn, point­ing to the oil paint­ing of three fig­ures by Dutch artist Ange Lina that hangs along­side a work by Czech artist Ivan Rado­can and a one-off pro­to­type sculp­ture by Cape Town artist Frank van Ree­nen in the liv­ing area.

Sur­rounded by olive groves, fruit trees and abun­dant in­dige­nous fyn­bos, the new sec­tion of the home was de­signed with full cog­ni­sance of the outdoors, max­imis­ing the views of the ocean and sur­round­ing Klein­riv­ier Moun­tains. Both widths of the home – the bed­room on one side, and the liv­ing room with can­tilevered bal­cony on the other – are en­tirely glass-fronted to their 6m apex points. ‘It means we get to con­tinue our re­la­tion­ship with na­ture while we’re in­side,’ Harry says, adding that this dra­matic use of glass en­ables an ur­ban aes­thetic within a ru­ral set­ting. ‘The build­ing makes it look like we’re in the heart of a city, but ac­tu­ally we’re in the mid­dle of nowhere.’

With fur­ni­ture by no­table names such as US de­sign brand Eames, French-Swiss ar­chi­tect Le Cor­bus­ier, French de­signer Philippe Starck, Dutch de­signer Benno Prem­sela and Dan­ish de­signer Hans J Weg­ner find­ing per­fectly cu­rated spa­ces in­side, and with the sounds of wildlife waft­ing in from the out­side, the blend of ur­ban and ru­ral liv­ing be­comes a syn­chro­nised the­atri­cal show­case on this prop­erty.

Sottsass once likened Memphis de­signs to ‘static mon­u­ments’, say­ing, ‘There’s only room for one mon­u­ment in a room.’ It seems that Harry and Steyn have found the se­cret to mak­ing way for more.

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