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Art Deco Africa: Inside A Contemporary Cape Town Pied-à-Terre

Architect Alexander McGee of Cape Town-based Urbain McGee recalls when he first walked into the ASSEMBLY ROOM of Mutual Heights, a prewar Art Deco landmark building. “It felt as if someone had packed up their things in 1960 and walked out,” he expresses.

Considered to be the finest example of Art Deco in Africa, Mutual Heights was built in the 1930s. “It has an almost Utopian quality,” notes McGee. With its classic ziggurat design and slim, prism-shaped windows running vertically along its facade, it looks like it belongs in New York, Los Angeles or even Paris.

The landmark structure was abandoned in the latter 1900s, standing empty until being redeveloped in the early 2000s and converted into residential units. However, the Assembly Room – the dazzling jewel in the crown – remained untouched. Hand-painted frescoes on its walls predated World War II and were protected by strict heritage laws, so no one knew quite what to do with it – that is, until Urbain McGee’s clients found it was for sale and snapped it up.

Adri and Vincent Clery of Atelier Interiors were soon working closely with Urbain McGee to reenvision the odd cluster of spaces as a home. “It’s both captivating and daunting, walking into a space this steeped in history,” pronounces Adri.

Adri and the Atelier team mined Art Deco designs around the world for useful references, but they kept coming back to the regional details that had been incorporated in the building’s construction, such as the Paarl granite cladding, mined locally, and the unique 115-meter-long, carved frieze around the base of the building. Given the recent renaissance of South African art and design, they were able to tap into a rich vein of local bespoke design, picking up the thread and continuing a dialogue with the architecture in a different key, as it were, without devolving into pastiche or stylistic imitation.

One of the crucial challenges facing both architects and interior designers involved a balancing act between preserving the grandeur of the Assembly Room and scaling it down. “How could we reimagine the three sections that were bought alongside the Assembly Room?” Alexander asks. After all, they not only needed to make the Assembly Room habitable but also to create three bedrooms, a kitchen and other living spaces.

The additional spaces – originally intended “to facilitate the movement of large numbers of people” – were wide, but not wide enough to make rooms. Luckily, their clients were art lovers; Alexander transformed these in-between areas into a series of galleries, adding decorative “nib walls” that created a sense of human proportion. The tall bedrooms were cleverly given human scale with split levels – mezzanines for en suite bathrooms, for example.

Nooks and odd spaces created opportunities for some quirky delights, in particular, the “cabinet of curiosity” in a repurposed former stairwell filled with an eclectic collection of items from the owner’s travels – taxidermy, whale’s teeth, voodoo dolls, bottled specimens, apothecary tannins and powders, as well as precious stones and antique cameras, all of which provided a contemporary take on Art Deco exoticism.

The color palette throughout the apartment was taken from the frescoes in the Assembly Room and the pleated blue drapery on the walls, replaced to match the originals. This, and other details such as the paneling and dado rails, which they reprised in the gallery, also helped unify the various parts of the apartment.

art deco kitchen in cape town

While the Assembly Room remains open-plan, Adri and Vincent divided it into distinct areas – a raised platform at one end became a podium for music recitals; a lounge and dining area occupy the center; and a sleek, modern kitchen fills the far end.

None of the furniture, whether in the bedrooms or in the Assembly Room, was “off the shelf.” Other than items already owned by the clients, what wasn’t found in antique stores and at auctions was either designed by Adri and Vincent and manufactured by local artisans or commissioned from local designers, makers and artists.

The palpable presence of handcrafted, contemporary design using local materials, together with antique furniture, builds a bridge to the past. In fact, you could go so far as to say the reinvention of the Assembly Room is a sophisticated reframing of the building’s history for the present, utterly contemporary and forward-looking once again, but deeply rooted in its historical setting.

Photography by Greg Cox.

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