Ingrained Grace

Images do not adequately reflect the earthy warmth and gentle embrace of a bedroom clad in oak, ensconced in a tower with views of a neo-Gothic church spire and the mountains on all sides. Sometimes, feeling is believing, writes BIANCA DU PLESSIS.

The oak-clad staircase that ascends from the living space to the two bedroom levels marks the beginning of the wooden cocoon. To the owners, it symbolises the portal to their private haven.

Ironically, a dramatic reinvention wasn’t initially on the cards. “A spiral staircase ignited the entire process,” says architect Johann Slee of Slee & Co. Architects. What started as a desire to remove an unsafe staircase and to reappropriate under-utilised areas in a compact apartment, soon evolved into a remoulding of the very essence of what it means to inhabit a space.

Situated at the top of Dorp Street, Rozenhof owes its robust design to the then town clerk, Walter Blersch, who modelled it on a military hospital in Türgingen, Germany, with the addition of a few art deco finishes. The building served as a women’s residence from 1937 to 1977, after which it was subdivided into 11 residential apartments.

LEFT: The slant of the staircase creates an intimate space for the dining room table, while its central positioning ensures flow between the kitchen and dining area and the living room beyond. RIGHT: A thoughtfully designed kitchen for a passionate cook. The owner bought the large steel workman’s cabinet to anchor the space and provide additional shelving in the compact space.

The owners, Vosloo and Amanda Bekker, spent 24 years living and working in Nigeria and purchased it as their South African bolthole. As they were planning to return to South Africa indefinitely, the 131m2 space required some remodelling, starting with the problematic staircase.

“One could philosophise about design principles, but my intention was simply to create a haven for Vosloo and Amanda,” says Slee. The previous tenants had created a loft in the roof area and later also moved into the tower, but it was a very uncomfortable scenario with low ceilings and windows, and limited access.

The mid-level houses the spare bedroom, where roof windows were installed to optimise natural light.

The starting point was the staircase. Slee wanted to remedy the flow of the main living area and incorporate the charm of a loft room and tower into the apartment. As the warmth of wooden walls is so typical of a loft, they decided to use the oak cladding extensively and pulled it through to the staircase leading from the tower to the interim level, and down to the main living area, which has broad oak floor and ceiling boards and beautifully crafted solid oak shutters.

The oak-clad interior was Johann’s idea but he had no intention of recreating an alpine chalet in the heart of Stellenbosch. To this purpose, unpanelled surfaces in the main area were painted a dark shade of anthracite to make it subservient to the wood.

“Wood is wonderful at binding different spaces together,” he says. His commitment to the material is uncompromising. “I don’t think anything beats the feeling of living with wood. It binds you to the earth and has become integral to our architectural vernacular.”

The Bekkers never saw the refurbishment in progress. In January of 2022, they placed the keys and their complete faith in the hands of Johann and project leader Antoinette du Plessis, and returned in November for the reveal.

LEFT: The oak cladding extends into the bathrooms, which are situated on the mid-level. RIGHT: The oak-clad Dormer window frames the beautifully crafted solid oak shutters.

Before they inhabited the space, the unadorned wood had a sleek Scandinavian minimalism to it. “But you don’t become a minimalist overnight,” says Johann. “Downscaling was very challenging for the Bekkers. The shift in energy has been tremendous, as they’ve brought their own history and artefacts to the space.”

Of course, the owners did receive photos of the work in progress. But nothing could prepare them for the warmth and magic of it – it required extraordinary creativity and engineering to add an entire additional floor. “For Johann to be so bold as to build a staircase in the centre of the main living area, was incredibly courageous,” says Amanda Bekker.

“The staircase is where the wooden capsule starts. To us it symbolises absolute privacy, the portal to our sacred space.”

The oak-clad staircase that ascends from the living space, symbolising a portal the owners’ private haven.

“What Johann Slee has achieved here, transports you to another world. It’s like a cocoon that embraces you. It has made me rethink my humanity and my priorities. We have so much stuff and this place pulls you away from all of that. It invokes kindness, which we want in our life. We want love and a softness, and that’s what this apartment gives us. It softens your eyes,” says Amanda.

“You cannot wake up here with hard eyes.”