Photography: Adriaan Louw
Usually when a man shacks up with his girl, has some kids and gets the family dog to complete the picture, he sacrifices a little bit of himself. Slowly but surely the things that are important to him are ushered into back rooms, or garages, to ultimately become forgotten and gather dust. Not so if you’re Damien Van Zyl, who lives in harmony with both.
Having lived out of a suitcase for 12 years in New York, Paris and the East, Van Zyl wanted stability and a place to call his own. After hanging up his Z-card and cashing in his last modelling cheque, he bought a house in Blouberg which, for a while at least, he was happy to call home.
It wasn’t long before he was missing city living. Salt River reminded Van Zyl of New York City in the 90s, when it was still quite rough, and after finding a building that had been everything from a laundromat to a twine factory, an upholstery place and a printers, he didn’t hesitate.
“The space had so much character. So much history. I mean, this was once a farm. My son’s room was the stable.”
Setting up a tent in the middle of the 1 000m², double volume warehouse – amongst dust and rubble – Van Zyl began his mammoth project. The wiring had been stolen so he ran an extension cord from a neighbour’s house. Outside in the courtyard there’s a cold water tap which Van Zyl used to wash with for the first four months of the renovation.
“First I gutted the place, then sandblasted everything and re- wired it. I did most of the details myself and got some guys in to do the messier work. The walls, the floors – they’re all marbelite, like what’s used for swimming pools. It’s a nice contrast to all the dark wood, reflects the light and is waterproof.”
Damien has designed his place so it can easily transform into something else. At the moment there’s the living area, a workshop – Salt River Customz – and a photographic studio and agency, SIXLOVE. But it’s still mainly about the cars, the reason he wanted this particular space in the first place. He lights up when he takes me into the workshop. It’s got a spray booth, a mezzanine level cluttered with parts, some tools, but nothing too fancy. Van Zyl is old-school like that. Kind of like the cars he works on here.
“I’d always wanted a space big enough for my passion. I bought my Ford Fairmont at the same time that I bought this place. The two just went together really nicely. Now there are two Fairlanes, a 48 Truck, a GMC truck, some motorbikes…”
Damien was born in Kimberley to teenaged parents. There wasn’t much money, but there were stock cars, bikes and the kitchen table always had an engine on it. After his father’s bike accident and 27-Club call-up, Van Zyl became man of the house. When something broke he was the one who had to fix it. There wasn’t another choice. He was forced to grow up quickly.
His home is testament to the lessons that he learned early on, and one can’t help imagining just how great a space like this must be for his two children to grow up in.
The bedrooms are off the open plan lounge, kitchen and dining area. The workshop has been portioned off using teak art-deco doors. Solid oregon pine pillars and beams support the second floor, which is accessed via an ancient pulley-system lift. There’s exposed brick, naked bulbs, copper plumbing and brushed steel electrical conduits that, instead of being hidden away, are celebrated. The result is like being inside a living, breathing structure.