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House Tour: A Cape Town Heritage Home Gets a Sensitive, Modern Update

See how meticulous research, custom design and careful curation preserves heritage and embraces modernity

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By House & Garden South Africa | July 7, 2024 | Interiors

A big part of a successful and sensitive heritage design is the work you will never see, the research behind the scenes that fosters a seamless transition from past to present and translates traditional features through a contemporary lens for modern life.

Master Studio’s Yaniv Chen is known for his appreciation of vintage design and craftsmanship that often defines period pieces – across the ages. His designs always reference this attention to material and manufacturing integrity. He will tell you himself that he is ‘allergic’ to anything transient in design terms.

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar

So, his recent update of a heritage house in Cape Town was a fitting project – a symbiotic process that epitomises Master’s reverence for the past and how it can slot seamlessly into the present.

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar

‘We draw a lot of inspiration from history and avoid trends like the plague. Our clients hired us based on this – they put a lot of trust in us,’ says Yaniv. While deeply respectful of history, his ethos transcends every era, but is deeply rooted in an emotional and aesthetic response to a space. ‘We took them through timbers, brass patinas, shapes and design eras and asked how each made them feel. Our client’s emotional response to things also informed the foundation of our practice.’

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar

To honour their client’s vision and the heritage framework they had inherited, they had to start at the beginning. ‘The first thing we assess when taking on a heritage project is its bones, which involves a full stocktake of all fixtures and finishings – fireplaces, skirting boards, fireplaces, and any other detailing – and putting in the research to ascertain if they are original.’ If they are, Master then identifies traditional artisans to refurbish or create exact matches of the heritage features to restore cohesion and authenticity. This task might sound deceptively easy, but many artisans skilled in such specialist work do not exist, so finding niche craftspeople was challenging. ‘We spent countless hours finding the correct artisans,’ he says.

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar

Working from a newly refreshed base, layering more contemporary and personal decor elements could begin. Of course, the studio worked in close consultation with their client. ‘Often, homes are driven by the designer or architect’s ego rather than the client’s personality and tastes. We try to combat that through our practice and how we work.’

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar

For this project – a tightrope walk between retaining the house’s character and creating a contemporary yet friendly living space – off-the-shelf items were not going to cut it. Instead, Master custom-designed most of what you see in the space or updated and adapted vintage pieces. These nods to tradition – playful takes on timeless tweeds and cheques and carefully sourced antiques – are not only in deference to the house’s history but also with future sustainability in mind. ‘We enjoy restoring furniture. It is more sustainable, and we try to incorporate it into our practice wherever possible.’ Where Master created new pieces, they considered sensitivity to the environment – instead of international timber, okume and African mahogany for its richness and significantly lower carbon footprint.

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar

Despite all these disparate elements and eras – Victorian, mid-century, Cape, Georgian, custom-contemporary – there is a sense of cohesion, which Yaniv attributes to a feeling. ‘We find that, in each era, you can always find a consistent tone, for example, a sombre, moody tone in the Art Deco and Edwardian periods. The trick is to find pieces whose tones mesh well rather than defaulting to those from the same period.’

Photographs by Inge Prins. Styling by Sanri Pienaar.

It is not just the larger, more noticeable pieces that the studio has carefully considered. The smallest details and finishes, from beautifully elegant wardrobe handles to a sleek and cocooning headboard and fluted glass server drawers, allude to the notion of craft that runs throughout. ‘These elements so often go without any thought or care, and we feel that this detailing is what turns a house into a home. The elements you touch daily influence how you feel in your space.’

Words by Julia Freemantle