The Green Garret

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Smith’s primary rule is first to create a monochromatic canvas on which to layer contrasting textures and juxtaposed design features from different periods.
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‘It’s like a museum,’ says Smith’s son, Hero (13), about his dad’s ever-changing vignettes and displays. Birds are an obsession, and taxidermied parrots, crows and ravens feature strongly, as do skulls. ‘My son says we live in a museum, because I’m always styling displays.’ With his love of gardening, Smith has given this industrial space the feel of a lush oasis.

Rupert Smith’s industrial loft in Cape Town, South Africa is an exercise in storytelling, with natural light and contrast in the starring roles.

“Visual merchandising is the art and science of attracting and engaging potential retail customers by bringing merchandise alive,” explains Rupert Smith, co-owner of VM Central & Olive Studio, South Africa’s only accredited visual merchandising school. “It’s all about creating a visual narrative.”

While their portfolio includes work for such iconic international brands as Harley Davidson and Heineken, it’s hard to imagine a more distilled demonstration of what he means than his own living space.

This compact loft is infinitely more than the sum of its parts; in Smith’s hands, the somewhat clinical, static industrial steel and concrete space breathes with life and vibrancy. It’s at once both dramatic and nurturing, both streamlined and layered: a sublime balancing act in which seemingly contradictory elements find coherence and consistency and come together to create a narrative world with its own internal logic and unique character.

“I was drawn to the industrial elements, like the steel windows and staircase, and to the volume, but I didn’t want a soulless, run-of-the-mill modern, cold space,” says Smith. “What I also liked was the sense of life unfolding all around me (the block and the surrounding area hosts residential and commercial units equally). The bigger context is one of people working, playing, living, resting, retreating, entertaining, and I wanted to bring this multi-dimensionality into the heart of my home.”

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With his passion for gardening and magpie nature, Smith was initially reluctant even to consider the compact loft space. It was its generous double-volume proportions, abundance of natural light and industrial “bones” that clinched the deal. “There was also something about the view looking out over the rooftops that reminded me of London,” he says. “I’ve added so much greenery that I don’t even miss the garden.”

The biggest drawcard for Smith was interplay between the loft’s airy volume and its abundance of natural light. “With this in place, I knew I had the essential elements for my own canvas,” he tells. When it came to that “canvas,” Smith followed his own golden rules: “First, I start with a black and white frame and then build and layer from there.” And while it might seem counter-intuitive, the dramatic black feature walls in no way shrink the space, nor do they add any sense of confinement – thanks to the swathe of glass windows, the natural light, and the clever way that Smith then built over the monochromatic base

Maximizing available light is another design rule that Smith swears by, and it’s masterfully achieved in this loft. “This becomes about texture, gloss and reflective surfaces,” he explains. It’s to this end that one of the apartment’s most dominant features is the ongoing repetition of glass vessels and glossy finishes. On every available surface and at every level, these refract and accentuate light, shining and drawing the eye while seemingly extending the actual spatial footprint by linking the interior to the outside and drawing coherent relationships between items from wildly disparate contexts. The gleaming leather of a midcentury modern Scandinavian lounge suite happily coexists with the marble sheen of an antique French table; burnished wood corresponds with glistening metal; and the porcelain tiles’ patina forges a relationship with polished brass and chrome.

Another equally powerful layer is added by the proliferation of greenery and living plants – a direct counterpoint to the bones of the building. Not only do these leaves’ luster further the amplification of light, but they also turn the entire notion of a sterile urban industrial space completely on its head and imbue the loft with the overall feeling of an incongruent but welcoming, lushly fecund oasis.

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On the mezzanine, Smith’s bedroom is a luxurious retreat. Texture is everything: Wood, wool, brick, bone, fleece and linen combine to create a sumptuous, serene cocoon. The stairs lead to Hero’s room.

It’s this abundance of greenery and light that underpins everything, and it’s greatly enhanced by juxtaposing it with a deeper layer of rougher, less refined texture – the hessian artwork against the black wall in the living area, the throws in the mezzanine bedroom, and the sumptuous natural pile of white fleece rugs.

The last layer is the detail – to which Smith meticulously applies his eye. “My son, Hero (13), says our home is like a museum,” he laughs, pointing to the various groupings of interesting objects that punctuate and add further depth throughout the loft. Most notable among these must be the taxidermy birds, which add a playfully macabre note to the lush oasis. “I’m obsessed by birds,” shares Smith, “and I’ve always been a bit of a Goth!”

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