You Haven’t Seen a House Quite Like This Before

Athi Mongezeleli Joja and Produced by Charles Curkin
·4-min read
Photo credit: Philippe Marinig
Photo credit: Philippe Marinig

From ELLE Decor

South African artist and activist Willie Bester’s digs are not usual by any standard, and even less so by the conventions of their suburban setting east of Cape Town. With their striking blue facade patched with red and yellow, and garden filled with metal sculptures composed from found objects, these atypical living quarters are a living monument to beauty and eccentricity.

In the mid-1990s, when Bester and his wife, Evelyn, bought a plot of land in this lush, formerly “whites-only” enclave known as Kuilsrivier, the euphoria surrounding the dawn of a new South Africa was still hanging in the air. For the couple, freedom from apartheid was about more than political rhetoric: It had to be accompanied by material change for Black people. Designing a home of their own signaled a fresh beginning.

Photo credit: Philippe Marinig
Photo credit: Philippe Marinig

Bester was born in the nearby town of Montagu in 1956, eight years after apartheid was legislated in his country. His childhood was littered with evidence of the ways discriminatory racial segregation laws created disparate living conditions among South Africans. Growing up in poverty, he was forced to improvise and be imaginative; he used discarded wire and plastic bottles to sculpt play objects. Later, he transformed the same bric-a-brac—which he gathers from, among other spots, scrapyards and garbage dumps—into powerful works of art. The late curator Okwui Enwezor once described Bester’s art as fashioning “a critique in which the Black subject is able to speak.”

Photo credit: Philippe Marinig
Photo credit: Philippe Marinig

Under apartheid, space was political—a geographic and symbolic measure used to administer the ideology of separate development. When South Africa transitioned into democracy in the early 1990s, the newly freed set out to reclaim areas previously forbidden to them—places like Kuilsrivier. Although the Besters’ house is now a local source of pride, it didn’t start out that way. They initially faced much resistance to a design that clashed with prevailing aesthetic norms. “In [formerly] whites-only areas, there was a lot of control in terms of what color you could have and which type of house you must build,” Bester says.

Photo credit: Philippe Marinig
Photo credit: Philippe Marinig

The couple refused to be cowed and enlisted local architect Carin Smuts of CS Studio Architects to help them create a two-story house that could accommodate both their family life (they have three children) and a studio practice that was on the upswing. “I decided to build a house that could accommodate both,” Bester says. “It is half studio and half living space.”

The design of the house takes its visual cues and sensibility from the artist’s practice. It is also inspired by the quirky but elegant architectural style of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, and the free-form expressionism of housing built by the Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The result is both a home and a museum of repurposed miscellany—a captivating assemblage of car parts, water pipes, corrugated iron, and sections of old railway sleepers.

Photo credit: Philippe Marinig
Photo credit: Philippe Marinig

Though still a work in progress, the structure of the space is finished. Bester’s studio occupies the upper level, while the downstairs encompasses an open-plan kitchen, a TV room, a bar lounge, and a sunroom. There are five bedrooms, too, but the house is designed in such a way that none are in public sight. All of the rooms display art—whether it is Bester’s own work, or the couple’s collection of works by such South African artists as William Kentridge, Pat Mautloa, and Zwelethu Mthethwa.

Seeing the beauty in trash, as Bester does, requires us to loosen the grip of tradition over our sense of perception and taste. It forces a return, perhaps, to the avant-garde principle that art and life are inseparable. As the late visual artist and poet Peter Clarke once observed: “Weeds can also be beautiful.”

For Bester, this urge to demand space, recognition, voice, and even personality in his art is taken to another level by the way in which he has designed his house. Bester himself describes it thus: “The house is a sculpture in a meta-form.”

Styled by Sally White

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE

You Might Also Like