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Step inside a holiday family home in the Lapalala Reserve

Carved out of surrounding rock, layered with heirlooms and artfully curated with indigenous crafts, this family home reverberates its natural surrounds

By House & Garden South Africa | June 24, 2022 | Design

With cracked plains sprouting unruly thickets of stubborn brush, skies slicked marigold at dusk, big game snoozing in the shade and tiny insects scurrying through the dust, the Lapalala reserve is staggering in its natural beauty. It’s against this scene that you’ll find Modumela House, a structure that seems to blend into – and grow out of – its rugged surroundings. This is the holiday home of Swiss-Filipina businesswoman, television host, newly published author and all-round style maven Stephanie Kienle Gonzalez, her husband Chris and their three daughters. But as Stephanie explains, ‘It’s not just a holiday home for us. It’s being custodians of this beautiful place.’

Modumela House Terrace

The couple first alighted on the land while on safari seven years ago, when they were introduced to Peter Anderson of Anderson Wildlife Properties. Along with the members of the board on behalf of the patrons, Peter had devised a plan to preserve the abundantly biodiverse Waterberg territory through investment, protection and tourism initiatives. ‘We were blown away by not just the landscape, but the conservation mindset behind the project. It wasn’t simply about creating a beautiful home somewhere but feeling that we could be part of something special in its infancy and see the reserve develop throughout the years,’ says Stephanie.

So how do you place a manmade structure – a holiday home – amid all this natural splendour without imposing on the landscape? For Stephanie, it’s with as light a touch as possible. To help her realise the vision, Stephanie sought the expertise of Julie Williams, an architect known for delicately balancing the man-made with its environment. The house is set alongside a dramatic craggy cliff on one side and a lush green plain on the other. ‘We tried to build out from the geological mould of the cliff,’ notes Stephanie. There are clear lines that fuse the home to the land, parallels that bond this building with this natural site: excavated rock from the site was used to construct walls, and they relied on local materials for the reed ceilings, joinery and slatso. ‘Julia helped us make these clever decisions, which were architecturally challenging but rewarding,’ she says.

One of those decisions was the rooftop garden, designed by Tim Steyn and peppered with succulents, which blends into the landscape and connects the main house with the guest suites. This is Stephanie’s favourite architectural feature: ‘It merges design and nature beautifully, and that’s very important to us.’ It is an ethos that resonates strongly with Stephanie; she titled her coffee table book Embracing Natural Design (R1 200, Exclusive Books). Detailing her projects, it also pays tribute to international residences by India Hicks and Nate Berkus, among others whose designs celebrate nature inside and out. ‘I’d like for the reader to be inspired to create an authentic home.

I hope I encourage people to make more conscious design decisions.’ Back at Modumela – which means ‘echo’ in Sesotho – there are plenty of conscious decisions to learn from. ‘We tried to keep our footprint as small as possible,’ the homeowner explains, noting the use of solar energy, rain catchment containers and evaporative cooling to keep things as carbon neutral as possible. Working with Joburg-based interior designer Yvonne O’Brien of The Private House Company, Stephanie incorporated South African artisanal crafts with Filipino touches. ‘We wanted to blend these two cultures in the home and make sure they were representative of a slower way of doing things,’ she explains. ‘We wanted pieces that support local craftsmanship and champion conscious design.’

In her nine-to-five, Stephanie is the managing director of Philux, a Manila-based contemporary furniture brand, and – from the dining room table to the girls’ beds and the desks in the living room – you’ll find her designs throughout, too. ‘It’s so much more meaningful to have a piece with soul. In every space I create and layer, you’ll always find these bits and pieces with stories behind them.’

In Modumela House there is a palpable harmony between Filipino and South African ways of life. For example, the terrace – a lanai, as it’s called in the Philippines – a cool, shaded space where the family and guests gather on hot days. Instead of tea, we have what we call merienda (a traditional afternoon tea). This zone is akin to the lapa in a traditional African homestead, where loved ones gather for meals, celebrations and important events.

Ultimately, this is a family home inspired by generations before. Stephanie’s love for Africa grew out of the stories she heard from her dad and grandmother, who lived, for a time, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ‘I’m trying to live vicariously through my father’s childhood, but at the same time, I’m creating my own memories with my family,’ she says. And while carefully layered, this is still a space where kids chase riotously through rooms, dive bomb into the pool and leave little grubby handprints on lustrous surfaces. ‘All of this was designed keeping the kids in mind and thinking about what we’d be enjoying while they’re playing around us,’ Stephanie says. ‘I’m ecstatic with the outcome because we share really beautiful moments there as a family.’

Text by Jessica Ross