Trends come and go, but certain furniture pieces – whether inherited or newly acquired – stand the test of time.
We all have one – a piece of furniture that just never goes out of style. Indeed, many of them still enjoy pride of place in our homes, but even if they are a bit worn and faded, we simply can’t get rid of them – or even dare to paint for fear of Grandma spinning in her grave. They’re part of our heritage and will hopefully make an equally grand statement in our children’s homes one day.
The riempie bench
As South African as can be, old Cape chairs and benches had one of four seats: riempie, cane, solid wood or upholstery – in that exact sequence of common to rare. Where and by whom the tradition was started no one knows, but the earliest Cape chair, the so-called tolletjie chair (because of its plentiful turnings), dates from the late 17th century – and it had a riempie seat. Between 1950 and 1970, riempie seats were revived for ball-and-claw lounge suites, and today this icon sports a fresh new look: designer Haldane Martin finishes his version in a slick, contemporary style.
We mixed old and new to create our cover look
There’s no denying that a chandelier adds instant glamour to any room in the home – hence the ongoing demand for them. Fortunately, they’re no longer massive spheres of lights up to 10 metres tall in entrance halls. The crystal chandelier first became popular with the development of lead crystal in England in the 17th century. Today, you’ll find these magnificent light fittings everywhere – even the kitchen and the bathroom – thanks to their romantic elegance. The latest insideout trend, with chandeliers shaded by translucent fabrics or acrylics, means they’re now suitable for even the most understated décor.
The Butler’s sink moved out of the school science lab ages ago. These days they’re highly sought after for kitchens, and Home regularly fields calls from readers wanting to know where they can buy them. Fortunately, you no longer have to dig around in junkyards because most hardware and sanitaryware stores now stock them.
Locally, the word ‘armoire’ refers to Cape double cabinets (two doors, with three or four drawers underneath) that are usually gabled. Where the French name comes from and why it’s used is uncertain, because in France an armoire is a wardrobe or a clothing cupboard. Armoires were crafted between 1750 and 1795 – usually from stinkwood, yellowwood, satinwood, beefwood and sometimes cedar wood – into French, German and Dutch designs. The shape was always baroque, but by the end of the 18th century the decorative motifs had become distinctly rococo. These pieces were meant to impress and enjoyed pride of place in reception rooms.
‘Any piece with a history, sentimental value and a good design can be used in any environment,’ insists well-known interior designer David Strauss. Vintage pieces can acquire a completely different character in a contemporary setting, so don’t worry about whether a particular piece matches your new design and instead, focus on the pleasure it brings. David is particularly fond of using old Sandveld pieces in contemporary settings – these simple, handmade furniture pieces are not only useful, but their organic forms turn them in to sculptural pieces. Other favourites of David’s are showcases (old store display cases) and civil-service furniture that, in addition to quality and comfort, offers no-nonsense good looks.
‘I’m wildly excited about the young crowd. The generation between 14 and 24 walks into our antique stores, is mesmerised by everything and can’t stop saying “cool”. I agree – heirlooms are cool!’
The four-poster bed
Did you know that the high frame of the fourposter was originally designed to carry heavy curtains? These hangings were essential to keep out the cold night air and guarantee the lucky owner a warm night’s sleep.
Many of us would love to have a claw-foot Victorian bath. The bathing ritual originated in the Roman Empire when a daily visit to the public baths was standard practice. You probably won’t inherit an original, although they can still occasionally be found at secondhand dealers and in junkyards – but lookalikes are within most people’s reach now, thanks to modern technology and the use of acrylics.
Hallstands were the height of fashion in the Edwardian era, when they stood in the entrance hall. Their position was directly determined by their function, as hallstands were used to accommodate hats, coats, umbrellas and walking sticks – the clothing and accessories that one didn’t need indoors. Only later did the hallstand lose its function and become a showpiece or collector’s item that moved to more unconventional areas such as the living room or the bedroom. The majority of hallstands found in South Africa were imported from America at the turn of the 19th century and they were generally made of oak. The use of kiaat indicates that a hallstand was made in South Africa, but ‘Cape’ (ie, made in the Cape) hallstands are extremely rare. The one shown here is more exceptional than the typical oak version, which was made until the 1930s – it’s a late-Victorian example (circa 1890) and is made of mahogany.
The Cape furniture tradition is rich in tables of all types. The earliest – ‘tea tables’ – date from the late 17th and early 18th century, and were small tables that stood in the middle of the room so that people could drink tea or coffee around them. The dining table only became fashionable in the middle of the 18th century, when dining trends dictated that people sat down at a table for meals, and large tables became more popular. Most Cape kitchen tables are made of stinkwood and yellowwood and are very popular today, with the sixseater version being the most common. Tables that seat 10 are very popular but also very rare and can cost up to R75 000. This kitchen table, dating from the 1900s, may have been made of oregon pine and was probably imported from America.Cool collectables
The list is endless and if you haven’t inherited one, scout around secondhand stores or even chain stores, where many of the classic designs are now available in new incarnations.
With the Victorian era came theconvenience of indoor plumbing.Consequently the washstand – with a hole in the centre to hold the basinsteady – become increasingly popular.In Europe, marble tops usually dealt with the problem of splashing water, butmarble was difficult to come by in theCape, so wooden tops were the orderof the day. Basins and jugs formed anintegral part of the washstand ensembleand today they’re collectable pieces intheir own right. Often made of enamel,the prettiest were generally those made of decorated porcelain.
The daybed made its way to South Africa in the late 17th century – and is still highly popular for laidback days on the stoep.
Young interior designer Steven Graham pays no attention to trends. All his clients usually have a beautiful piece or two of furniture hidden under a pile of newspapers that they insist they inherited from their grandmother and simply didn’t have the heart to throw out, he says. Those selfsame pieces are then effortlessly reincarnated as absolute gems. Steven has a special love for all things handmade – at school, on a craft course, whatever – these, he says, are wonderful conversation pieces that weave a wonderful fabric of charming tales around a home.
Hmmm, yes, the ubiquitous display cabinet – show us a South African home that doesn’t have one – with statuettes of cute doggies (or ducks, or…), Granny’s starched, crocheted doilies, the porcelain tea set… The display cabinet dates from the Renaissance and in the 16th and 17th centuries it was used to display exotic plant and animal materials. In the 18th century that made way for oriental ceramics, followed by European porcelain and glass in the 19th century. Now we use them to display ornaments of sentimental value.
The sideboard cupboard, or buffet, came to the Cape with the English in 1806 and instantly became all the rage. Heavy armoires were unceremoniously thrust aside to make way for these lighter, neoclassical pieces that were often designed with practicality in mind. At the turn of the 18th century, eating habits changed and it became highly fashionable to display and serve food from the sideboard. The Cape’s feel for trends is obviously not new!
To paint… or not
It’s a controversy that rages on. One school of thought says paint away rather than dumping the piece, while purists insist that painting is a sacrilege. Interestingly, the experts at Piér Rabe Antiques in Stellenbosch say that the trend of painting furniture is not new. Over the years, people have painted furniture to protect it (paint helps prevent weathering), to match a new colour scheme, or simply just… because. Restorers and antique dealers no longer buy painted pieces because stripping them is time-consuming and seldom completely successful – the remnants of the paint often leave an unattractive green, red or white residue. So, if you’re going to paint, use cheaper furniture made of pine or supawood. Good wood shouldn’t be painted and this is particularly true of lighter woods such as yellowwood, cedar, satinwood and oak. The paint is literally absorbed by the top layer of these soft, fairly open-grained woods so, if you sand them later, you completely destroy the patina. Instead, strip off old varnish and use a natural polish to bring up the shine of your 1930s kidney shaped imbuia desk from Thesen. And, just as a matter of interest, foreign visitors rave about the beauty of our darkwood furniture.