Not that long ago, a house in the southern suburbs of Cape Town wasn’t anywhere remotely on Jo Springthorpe and Jeffrey Liss’s radar.
But thanks to the insistence of a real estate agent friend who knew of Jo’s passion for homes with architectural authenticity — in particular mid-century design — and encouraged her to view the single-level property, the couple was soon envisioning a life within its handsome walls.
Though of a modest scale (“part of its appeal for us, actually”) and in need of an update, there was so much to commend the house. Designed and lived in for decades by its original owner-architect, Dennis Elliot, the typical 50s characteristics were unmistakable and, to design aficionados such as Jo, utterly iconic: a simple box form, pitched roof, white painted bagged brickwork, timber ceiling paneling and parquet as well as clay tile floors.
“It was so expertly designed and in such brilliant condition,” says Jo. “We discovered that the original builder was an Italian master builder and it really shows. There was no damp, zero structural or roofing issues at all, which is a miracle for a house of this age and one in an area known to have its own little microclimate that can be quite wet and overcast.”
As “relaxed purists”, renovating the house was always going to be a balance between respecting the original design and preserving the best of its architectural and material features while modernising the structure’s functionality and aesthetics.
The conversation on how to do this began with Jo’s friend, renowned architect Paolo Viotti.
“He walked through it with me and we spoke about how best to keep the essence of the house, which I loved, while creating more flow and distributing the footprint more efficiently.”
Paolo came up with the initial concept of “dynamic flexibility” by moving outwards to create an external space for each of the rooms. He drew to-scale concept plans of these “sort of pop-out hubs” to extend the lines of the building, effectively bringing in more light and giving the family a greater sense of space.
To inject fresh ideas and drive the project, Jo called on Cape Town-based Spanish architect Ana Corrochano of Fusion Architects.
Ana’s brief included amplifying the interior’s engagement with the garden and its north-facing orientation; establishing a connection between the closed-off kitchen and living areas; the creation of an income-generating, Airbnb-style cottage that could be unobtrusively separated from the rest of the home or used for guests; as well as to incorporate a bedroom for university student Oscar in such a way that it could form part of the main house or the aforementioned cottage.
In order to enhance how the family and their visitors experience the home, Ana has reframed the main flow. Living room, dining area and the kitchen form the centre of the house in a way that now feels completely open from one end of the property to the other.
Leading off this zone to the front is the high-walled, lush garden and to the back, a light-drenched courtyard that gives access to Jeff and Jo’s work-from-home studio. This studio was formerly old staff accommodation “compartmented into very small rooms”: these partitions were demolished and the new space opened to the back garden and courtyard.
Large glass sliding doors that recess fully into the walls enhance the overall seamless visual flow, while the garden that encloses the inside perimeter of the property is framed by every window and is accessible from every room. The two private zones — to the back Oscar’s bedroom and the guest cottage and, to the side, the couple’s bedroom, dressing room and bathroom — are accessed with an assist from two distinct corridors (created as part of the renovation) that can be closed off at different points, reinforcing the idea of “dynamic flexibility”.
One of the freshest aspects of the makeover was what Ana evocatively describes as structural “clip-ons”, realised by “pushing spaces out” from the central core. The scullery and guest bathroom, Jeff and Jo’s bathroom, Oscar’s bathroom and the guest cottage all form part of these architectural interventions that have a modern yet authentic integrity.
“It’s a great marker of success for me on this project that we did so much to configure the spaces and yet everything feels as one,” says Ana. “The work is invisible. It looks so simple, but like all things that are simple, it required a lot of thinking, hard work and sweat!”
From an aesthetic perspective, former model and fashion editor Jo was always going to understand exactly what the home needed. It was, if you believe in these things, serendipitous that much of what you see here has lived with them over the years in their former homes.
“I’m quite eclectic and love furniture from most periods but have always been drawn to Mid-Century Modern through to the 70s, especially Swedish and Danish pieces. Over the years I’ve also obsessively collected textiles from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that I’ve had made into cushions and throws or used to upholster furniture. I’ve always been a bit of a magpie. It gives me way more of a thrill to scratch and search for something than to walk into a homeware store and buy something off-the-peg. So almost everything of mine is, quite literally, vintage or antique or off auction or some sort of hand-me-down …”
And what of her obvious penchant for green, which touches every surface from textiles and rugs to ceramics and kitchenware? “I find green a very peaceful and calming colour and there are endless amazing tones to be found. Being in Newlands, our garden is also very lush and green. The way that the home is designed, with so much glass, the garden and home feel like they’re one. It’s so great to live on one level for a change, where your garden is way more integrated into your home. I’ve got so many Pinterest pages dedicated to green I’ve realised I’m totally beyond help,’ she laughs.
Jo was responsible for sourcing most of the light fittings and other fixtures, the majority of which are from the same era that the house was designed. Two of the cheekier design elements are also Jo’s doing: “I had to have slightly kitsch mid-century touches such as decorative concrete breeze blocks in the courtyard wall and the slate ‘crazy paving’ in the courtyard, studio and passages,” she says.
“We love being here in suburbia. Honestly, we were homebodies before but now really have to force ourselves to go out,” confesses Jo.
If there are boxes to be ticked, this home marks them all. With its compact but spacious proportions it’s perfectly suited to their life as a family of three (plus pets). Oscar’s university is a mere five minutes away (“he walks or cycles when he wants to”).
The cottage rental is proving popular with overseas visitors and local out-of-towners. And the big-enough-for-two studio is also accommodating of Jo and Jeff’s respective occupations.
Jeff is currently focussed on his board shorts brand, Chasing Bees, with a percentage of profits donated to wild bee habitat preservation and research. He is also a talented fine artist whose recent exhibition was a sell-out success.
Jo’s primary focus is her and her partner’s swimwear and lifestyle label, Pintuck Resort, for which she designs new collections and bespoke pieces (all using original fabrics of her design), organises pop-ups and runs Pintuck Resort’s social media.
“I’ve never been on a project where everybody, across every role, was just so into it,” says Ana of her challenging but overwhelmingly positive design experience. “We all had this shared obsession that everything — from the structural, very technical side of things to bringing in new or salvaged materials and finishes — had to perfectly sync with the original features.
The timber, for example, whether new internal doors, window frames or extensions of the tongue-and-groove ceiling, has been perfectly matched down to the exact tone and dimensions of the original Oregon pine or Meranti wood. The same goes for the parquet flooring and clay tiles.
“Even when we introduced aspects of the 21st century like the charcoal powder-coated aluminium window frames and the white subway tiles in the main bathroom, there was this consciousness that it should all be beautifully balanced and in tune with the era. It’s not easy to explain how incredible the whole achievement has been but, honestly, the finished product feels more like a work of art than a renovation.”
“I think I’d always been looking for a shell to express my love for mid-century modern,” concludes Jo. “And this home has completely sealed my style.”