Life In Colour

This flower-filled Johannesburg home is an explosion of colour and styles in perfect harmony.

In the garden of Mariette and Peter Theron’s house in the Johannesburg suburb of Saxonwold, there are pot plants nestle be among the herbaceous drifts of the flower beds. They peep up through the beautiful combinations of colours and textures, joining the exotic beans, heads of lettuce and strawberries that grow between the flowers. That’s because Mariette likes to move them around, as she might move the furniture and art in the house. “I garden like I decorate my house,” she says, “moving things around all the time. It’s moving but it’s not. It adapts.”

Peter and Mariette have lived in this house with their three daughters for 20 years. When they moved in with their eldest daughter, Pascale, now studying at the Eindhoven Design Academy, Mariette was pregnant with their second daughter, Andrea, who has just turned 19. Georgia, their third, is in her second last year at high school. But they didn’t change a thing about the house – not until they’d live there for 14 years.

The house itself dates back to the 1930s. It was a fairly modestly sized double-storey house with a Cape Dutch gable, a shady colonnaded porch, and tall arched windows and doorways, and a single central bathroom for the whole family to share. There were large trees in the garden (although the biggest – the reason they bought the house in the first place – recently fell, miraculously leaving house, cars, pool and garden largely unscathed) and, as Mariette says, gave them “a good feeling”. 

Well known architect Johann Slee carried out a very subtle and respectful alteration for them. “He’s a good friend of ours, and he’d known the house ever since we moved in,” says Mariette. “He always we shouldn’t lose that feeling.” So the structure remained unchanged: the footprint and façade are as they have always been. But Johann opened up some of the interior spaces, swopped around the kitchen and dining room so that the dining room better connected both to the kitchen and the living area. He also created an en suite bathroom for each bedroom upstairs. 

Outside, he shifted the driveway from the front and centre of the house to the side, clearing a space for the beautiful romantic garden Mariette and Peter have created. He also extended the stoep (patio) so that it wrapped right around the house, which made it possible to walk around the outside of the house with ease, which wasn’t possible before. “These floors are incredible,” says Mariette, referring to the intricately arranged herringbone pattern in all the new areas. “They’re handmade clay bricks from Swellendam in the Western Cape. They call them klompies.”

The rooms are resolutely un-fakeable. The old cliché about everything having a story behind it is actually true here. Usually, the people who make the claim seldom know the stories they’re hinting at. The kitchen island, for example, is a repurposed drawing office filing cabinet bought when a large Johannesburg mining house closed their head office. “They said we could have it for R150, provided we collected it,” recalls Mariette. It was on the tenth floor of a downtown buildings, and wouldn’t fit into the lift. Ditto the dining table. Similarly, there’s a trunk they had to lug from Folkstone to Dover in the UK, when they were living there as a young couple (Peter was working on the Channel Tunnel) when it wouldn’t fit in the bus. 

But the beauty of this home is not just in the quirky stories. The aesthetic consciousness – Mariette’s eye for colour combinations and design details – creates unity. It’s achieved through constant combination and recombination, the subtly shifting, adapting, evolving arrangements that cast the old in new light and synthesize recent additions with the existing items. 

Throughout the house, grand old antiques rub shoulders with contemporary furniture, local south African design with international design, 20th century design classics with little-known student designs. As with the best of eclectic homes, the quirky details of personal history somehow find a place for them in the sweep of style’s various evolutions. 

In the same way, on the walls, works by some of South Africa’s most sought-after contemporary artists hang among pictures by the Theron girls when they were children, and young and unknown artists. Mariette is a painter herself, and says she is a strong believer in the importance of supporting little-known artists. 

With Pascale in Eindhoven, Peter and Mariette have discovered much new (and some well-known) contemporary Dutch design. “We love Holland because of the quirkiness of it,” says Mariette. “They don’t take things too seriously.” Of course, they do take things seriously, but have such a lightness of touch that all effort is obscured, as it is in the Theron household. 

That’s how, while their house is anything but minimalist, somehow it seems uncluttered. That’s another way of saying that things seem to have found their place in the thoughtful ways.  They’ve been combined so that there’s harmony and balance, which is ultimately more important than the choice between minimalism or maximalism, or anything in between, anyway. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be moved again tomorrow. Because a really creative eye will find countless new combinations, new compositions and harmonies. It’s what Mariette means by: “It’s moving but it’s not.” That’s the difference between a house that’s decorated and one that’s lived in aesthetically.

A gravel path bisecting the garden leads to the three arches and the outside stoep, a cool and dim retreat in the hot summer weather. This is one of Mariette’s favourite places for painting. The upstairs balcony was incorporated into the main bedroom to become an open-plan bathroom with views over the garden and treetops. While the garden might seem wild and unruly as you walk through it, from above it’s clear that it has a carefully planned geometric structure.

The lush herbaceous garden surrounding the swimming pool makes it seem almost like a pond. The wooden stand with the terra cotta bowl used as a bird bath/feeder is from Twig, the furniture design company owned by Pretoria chef Lientjie Wessels, made using wood from invasive species collected during bush-clearing operations. Mariette habitually places pot plants in among the plants in the gardens beds so that she can move and rearrange them as the mood takes her. 


House Theron, Johannesburg, South Africa


Text Graham Wood/ 

Production Sven Alberding/ 

Photographs Greg Cox/