A Christmas Tale

A small Karoo thorn tree has been painted white to striking effect. The black, white and natural tones of the decorations reflect Steet’s overall visual theme — one that is pared down, textural and non-traditional.


Street on the daybed, with a striking white painted piece made from builders’ palettes by Phoebe’s dad. On a built-in shelf that extends from either side of the fireplace, black-and-white photographs, illustrations and natural objects form an eye-catching display.


The simple wreath made of twigs was bought by Steet many years ago and has been reincarnated many times with paint and baubles; here, it’s left unadorned and painted white.


Hand-carved wooden birds from Africa Nova make the tree feel more like an art installation than a decoration.


One of the most enviable features of Street’s home is the large industrial-style windows that let in masses of natural light. For the wreath (in the window), Street uses fynbos (an indigenous bush) which she found while walking in the “veld,” or grassy country. Several other Christmas-inspired objects with a local visual identity — a laser-cut paper nativity scene by Cape Town paper artist Pauline Irvine of Artymiss; a quirky laser-cut metal African Christmas Tree by Tin Town; graphic vases; and a handmade black-and-white festive bauble featuring the ubiquitous gecko, all from Africa Nova — also appear in the festive mix, along with Street’s framed black-and-white photographs and collected ephemera.


“We love this time of the year but aren’t big on celebrating the traditional way, especially here in South Africa where our summer is so hot. We like to make the season feel special though by doing something different with the festive decorations each time.” In this instance, the ‘we’ is stylist and creative consultant Shelley Street and her teenage daughter, Phoebe. The ‘something different’ is a striking monochrome palette that Street has fashioned by incorporating cool local crafts with organic elements – a signature of Street’s personal decorating style as well.

There’s no more apt a description of Street’s home than a sanctuary for the senses. We’re talking the whole checklist: all white sun-drenched spaces anchored by a carefully composed black-and-white palette, soaring ceilings, nubby textures, a contented cat dozing on a daybed, large sash windows offering glimpses of a milkwood tree and other tangled greenery outside, an artful mix-and-match of furniture, artworks and family heirlooms and, from the kitchen, the pleasant aroma of coffee and lemons – the entire scene set against the hushed din of a radio tuned to the local classical music station.

“I love the monochrome look as well as Scandi design and its association with light wood, so I decided to do a Scandi- Afri mix,” she says of her Christmas theme. It seems fitting, considering Street’s self-professed reverence for simplicity that the Christmas tree is a Karoo thorn, its stark graphic form enhanced by a coating of white paint. “This wouldn’t be Christmas though, if there wasn’t something enchanting, so the tree has the sweetest hand-carved wooden birds which I am in love with as well as papier-mâché baubles that are a quirky take on the usual bling versions,” she says.

Other adornments reflect Street’s affinity for South African and African patterns as well as locally crafted objects with a unique, whimsical feel: a laser cut cardboard nativity scene; a small decorative African Christmas tree made from tin; Christmas crackers that she fashioned together using patterned brown paper and African-print Shweshwe fabric; a herd of beaded zebra that, in this context, look less kitsch curio and more Afro Chic; and a black wreath that, from a distance, looks like something designed by Tord Boontje, but is in fact made from pieces of fynbos (indigenous bush), wine corks and other natural ephemera shaped together and spray painted black.


The dining area, part of the larger open-plan living space, illustrates that a monochrome interior can be warm, engaging and characterful with the inclusion of vintage, organic and rustic elements. The lunch scene is set on a simple turned-leg Oregon pine table — a junk shop find that was lacquered in glossy black — with a mix-and-match assortment of seating (visible are two original Panton S chairs).


The open-plan kitchen is the scene of many collaborative efforts by Street and daughter Phoebe; it is an inviting but practical, utilitarian space. Floating shelves host everyday objects as well as special collectibles and inherited objects. The palette is largely all-white with wood.


Street’s bedroom has a simple and unadorned purity. Decoration is limited with the exception of a small bedside vignette, two watercolor paintings inherited from her Dutch grandparents, a Tolomeo desk lamp and Jurgen Bey’s Light Shade Shade Ø70 chandelier-light by Dutch design studio, Moooi. Natural light and greenery from a tiny courtyard space lends to the meditative atmosphere.


Street’s workspace forms part of the open-plan living area and exposes her talent for making monochrome interesting and engaging, rather than austere.


The all-white bathroom suite was fully renovated to incorporate a contemporary tub with an organic form and large window framing the view of an old tree. Street is strictly anti-curtains, so a high wall that backs onto a neighbor’s property provides privacy.


Street’s black lacquered turned-leg pine table (a fortuitous junk shop find) is always the focus of the festivities each year. “The starting point of the whole theme was a collection of black-and-white plates by acclaimed local ceramist Martine Jackson,” explains Street. “I just love their loosely stylized African-influenced patterns.” Table decorations are an eclectic union of old and new, black and white, solids and patterns typical to South Africa, everything underpinned by strong black accents. Here, the subtleties are to be discovered in the layering of materials, tones and textures such as beaded placemats, a coarse hand-woven table runner, bone-, wood- and vintage silver-plated serving utensils as well as creative surprises: beaded necklaces used as napkin rings and simple white pillar candles of various sizes wrapped in brown paper. “All the colors work really well within my home and are not out of place among my collections of natural objects,” says Street. “So even though the Christmas decorations are temporarily here, everything still works together on the eye.

“Christmas is spent with family and friends and I prepare as much as possible the day before so I can relax on the actual day,” notes Street. Turkey and trifle are not featured on the menu. Rather, the table is laden with unusual fresh salads, an assortment of meats (lamb, Parma ham, simple roast chickens and gammon), potatoes with rock salt and rosemary, and for dessert, “always slabs of dark chocolate, Panettone, Italian panforte, great local wines, enough cheese to sink a ship, fresh cherries and vanilla-bean ice cream. Let’s just say, no one goes hungry,” she laughs.

“Everyone arrives around 12pm, we open presents, chat and then head to the table around 4pm. Lunch extends into evening when we light candles, turn on the fairy lights and carry on until we all begin to fade. Sometimes Phoebe (who is a talented musician) treats us to her piano tunes or plays guitar and we all sing along – alarmingly out of tune, but with an ‘A’ for effort. The place is a happy mess by the time everyone leaves and I don’t do anything except load the dishwasher. It’s always memorable for being a relaxed day with an abundance of the best sort of laughter – the kind that makes your cheeks ache.”

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