Home Tour: South African Designer Howard Green Blends Antique and Modern Elements In His Heritage Apartment
Built in 1924 by the renowned British-born architect John Abraham Moffat for maverick New York entrepreneur Isidore William Schlesinger, who made a vast fortune in South Africa from insurance, film, property, and hotels (including the majestic Polana Hotel in Maputo), Whitehall Court is arguably the finest example of neoclassical colonial architecture in the Gauteng district of Johannesburg. The American mogul’s massive apartment filled half of the building’s second floor, while the rest of the structure housed offices for his various ventures. At the end of the Second World War, however, the three-storey building was revamped into a series of private residences.
“I didn’t even know this building existed until I was driving past oneday [25 years ago] and I thought I was having a heart attack,” Green admits. His apartment is a subdivided part of Schlesinger’s original, which had a sense of scale and grandeur unmatched in the building, and details like the intricate plasterwork finishes are rare. “You don’t find features like this often,” he adds.
The apartment’s interiors more than live up to the grandeur promised by the building’s pristine white exterior. Here, for over a quarter of a century, Green has built up a remarkable collection of furniture and art, painstakingly selecting each and every piece. “I’d rather live in a bare room than have something that I don’t like, quite honestly,” he says. Indeed, nothing is strictly utilitarian for this designer.
But the image that immediately strikes you as you walk through the door is deceptive. The strikingly powerful spot painting by artistic enfant terrible Damien Hirst hints at unconventional sensibilities lurking beneath a classic façade.
The rooms might, at first, appear to be an image of comprehensive perfection, and at one time the apartment was a gilt shrine to French antiques—unsurprisingly given Green’s Francophile tendencies and his background in couture—but now its eclecticism is quite staggering. “I’m not really crazy about French antiques anymore, but I like a little touch,” he says. “It gives the place a bit of a lift.”
The furnishings in any given room are likely to veer from gilt antique French pieces through mid-century modern classics and then take in contemporary designer pieces, too. “If you have a look around here, you can see that nothing matches,” Green says.
The furnishings in any given room are likely to veer from gilt antique French pieces through mid-century-modern classics and then take in contemporary designer pieces, too
In the sitting room, for example, modernist classics such as Jean Prouvé’s Guéridon table and Eero Saarinen’s Tulip table and armchair for Vitra rub shoulders with a number of French antiques. The work of contemporary designers is also well represented, as seen in the presence of Moooi’s Oblique bookshelf by Marcel Wanders, the Bouroullec Brothers’ Facet sofa for Ligne Roset, Patricia Urquiola’s Driade flow chair, an iconic three-legged stool made of birch by Alvar Aalto, and Philippe Starck’s Pratfall chair. There are even examples of modern South African design, as seen in the Albert coffee table crafted by local firm Tonic Design.
Green’s restless eye is what resolves the disparate elements. “It’s actually quite hard to get a room together,” he muses. Of the sitting room he says, “I look at this room and almost think there’s too much stuff.” Then he reflects: “I think the yellow rug really pulled this whole room together, at last.” Later, he expresses concern that the bedroom, which he thought he’d perfected, might be too empty. For Green, it’s a matter of constant refining until “the place feels like that’s how you want things to be.” But he adds, “I love things that are a little bit offbeat.” (The Damien Hirst spot painting that greets you in the entrance hall should be a clue that an unconventional sensibility is at work.)
“I think the yellow rug really pulled this whole room together, at last.” Later, he expresses concern that the bedroom, which he thought he’d perfected, might be too empty. For Green, it’s a matter of constant refining until “the place feels like that’s how you want things to be.” But he adds, “I love things that are a little bit offbeat.” (The Damien Hirst spot painting that greets you in the entrance hall should be a clue that an unconventional sensibility is at work.)
Perhaps the item that best captures the spirit of Green’s home, however, is the pair of Light Shade shades by Jurgen Bey for Moooi. There’s one in the entrance hall and one in the living room. Their cylindrical mirrored surface hides a surprise. “When you look at it from the outside without the light on, it looks very modern and simple,” he explains. When switched on, the mirror turns translucent and reveals an old-fashioned chandelier inside: a ghostly classicism inside the modern exterior. The flat itself might also be the opposite: offbeat and modern inside a classical envelope.
Ultimately, Howard Green’s home is not about an idea or a concept. “It’s just about living with things that give you joy,” he says. “It’s not done to impress anyone, because there’s no-one to impress. It’s just to be happy in your space: to just look at things and love them over and over again—because I do.”
- Words Marga Manlapig
- Production Sven Alberding / Bureaux
- Photography Greg Cox / Bureaux