Design consultant Graeme Roberts has transformed a previously nondescript Zinkwazi beach cottage into a place of unrestrained elegance and relaxation.
There’s something very special about the farthest reaches of the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastline. With warm, moody seas, black rock pools, endless wild beaches and lush vegetation, this part of the world is awash with the kind of relaxed weekender homes that have been in local farming families for generations and that are prized because they offer a respite from the area’s searing summer humidity.
Decorator and design consultant Graeme Roberts is one such lucky soul. With homes in Durban and England, Graeme has been coming to this particular beach house overlooking the lagoon and sea since he was a child. And despite his globetrotting lifestyle, he manages to get here at least three times a year. ‘It’s an incredibly beautiful location, just above the lagoon with views out onto the sea beyond it,’ adds Graeme. ‘It’s relaxing as you don’t need to drive anywhere; everything you need is right here in front of you.’
Built in 1902 as a single mud-and-thatch abode, the house – which is owned by nine family shareholders – has, over the years, had various incarnations. Brick replaced the mud structure in the ’50s only to be knocked down and rebuilt in the ’80s when it was made into two houses so as to accommodate two separate wings and the ever-expanding family members. But with just one bathroom and four bedrooms, it was neither functional nor efficient and so, a couple of years ago, a unanimous decision was made to turn it back into one residence.
‘That’s where I came in,’ laughs Graeme, who was given carte blanche to make it all happen. No stranger to renovating and decorating, Graeme, together with his late partner, the acclaimed South African artist Deryck Healey, has lived in a number of spectacular homes, from a Queen Anne Rectory in Surrey, England, to his current Bauhaus-inspired modernist glass box in Essex. And his home in Virginia, just north of Durban, is equally modern and inspiring. Graeme took on the challenge with customary gusto. ‘It was a big job,’ he says. ‘The only things we kept were the outside walls and the roof, in consideration of cost and planning permission.’
In order to make each of the four bedrooms in the house en-suite, Graeme made the rooms smaller without the need for built-in cupboards or any furniture for that matter. This pared-down approach called for built-in beds and shelves on which to store luggage and clothes. ‘I was inspired by the many bathrooms I’ve seen in Greece: there’s usually a shower in the middle of the room and no shower door or enclosure, which takes up a lot of space. Yes, you get your feet wet but it’s a beach house, so it’s all part of the experience.’
An outbuilding with original terracotta roof tiles was transformed into an en-suite cottage, and there’s also an outside shower enclosed in riet fencing for communal use.
A seamless flow of space between the indoor and outdoor living areas was a must to make the most of the views and the lawn that leads down to the lagoon. The original house led straight out onto the open veranda from the living area; Graeme enclosed this verandah with balau wooden shutters and foldaway doors. ‘The idea was that you could lock and shut the shutters and leave all the windows open inside the house to get the cool sea breeze during summer.’ It’s also another space in which people can spill over when the house is full of guests.
A feature in the living area is a wall clad with old floorboards and Oregon-pine planks that gives warmth and a contemporary edge. Granite countertops in the kitchen and central island were found for R400 a sheet in Durban and were also used in the bedrooms as benches, on the bathroom countertops and behind the bedheads. ‘It’s very satisfying when you come across such finds. Sometimes a limited budget forces you to be more resourceful with your fittings.’
A floating shelf in the lounge, against the wood-clad wall, does double duty as a shelf and a display cabinet for a family member’s vast collection of shells. ‘We painted it blue inside and then filed it with this incredible collection that has been accumulated all over the world.’
And for the rest, it’s all low-maintenance. ‘Being near the sea is hard on furniture and fittings, and so I went for concrete floors, natural wood and no metal. All the doors and windows are balau wood, designed to be left to go grey with no need for oil or varnish. The last thing you want when you come on holiday is to be doing maintenance – this house has been designed to preclude the need for any of that.’
At a Glance: Graeme Roberts
- Having lived in both, which do you prefer: period or modern architecture? Modern, without question.
- What garden designer do you follow avidly? Russell Page and Mirei Shigemori for design, Piet Oudolf for planting style.
- And architect? Internationally, it would be John Pawson, and in South Africa, Joy Brasler.
- What recommendations would you give to those wanting to take on a renovation? No matter how carefully you plan, there will always be complications. If necessary, don’t be afraid to adapt your plans, even if you are in the middle of the job.
- What are the key elements necessary for a beach lifestyle such as this? Adaptable spaces: being able to move the core of activity, depending on the weather and the needs of the people in the house.
- What is the single best thing for you about holidaying in Zinkwazi? The luxury of looking at the sea from sunrise to sunset.