Few interior images are as enduring as that of the Tonga basket- clad wall at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. Having outlasted the trends – first in print, and later in social-media spheres – it’s a scene that epitomises the term ‘having legs’. The installation, completed 20 years ago by Falcke, has unintentionally become a calling card of his work as an interior designer.

It was a masterful stroke, where one basket would have looked like 100 others, but 100 together transformed that symbol of African craft into a dramatic and artistic expression, conjuring a sense of magic that today’s Instagrammers and Pinners can’t resist. ‘Two decades later, people still phone and write letters about it,’ Falcke muses.

For his work at the hotel, he won the 1999 Andrew Martin Interior Designer of the Year award and was fêted for having reinterpreted an African aesthetic, using texture, pattern, colour (grading it from brown through to beige) and repetition to bring cohesion to a formerly awkward space. It’s Falcke who Andrew Martin founder Martin Waller credits as having made the biggest impression of all in the brand’s 22-year award history.

Irresistible as it may be to try to define his style, Falcke exercises great freedom with the language of his interiors. Looking at his anthology of work, the diversity in his aesthetic is vast, ranging from a grand listed heritage home in London to a minimalist South African bush lodge and a Moroccan-inspired London abode alive with vivid colour.
The nuances, however, are consistent. No matter the chosen style or context, Falcke’s interiors are soulful, generous and detailed… they’re convincing. Rather than a varnish that gets applied, he creates spaces from their very DNA to their outer shell. He speaks of his love for making and breaking rules, and describes himself as a purist who enjoys a twist. ‘Maybe I’m part of the old school of decorating, but rooms need to breathe,’ he says. ‘I’m a fan of lived-in rooms with dogs on the sofas.’
Nowhere is this penchant more apparent than in his own Johannesburg home, where Falcke’s gift for layering is evident in the stylishly undone interior. Here he teams handsome polished antiques with retro moulded pieces, zebra skins and Asian and African artefacts with modern art, resulting in a space that’s unaffected and as individual as a fingerprint. It’s calculated chaos – and it works. ‘A lot of my interiors are made up of the history of things. In my own home, everything has a story,’ he explains.

Eclecticism is a constant throughout Falcke’s body of work and he cites famed London designer and his first employer, David Hicks, as the man who schooled him in the art of mixing high with low, large with small – and how to employ colour with aplomb.

But make no mistake, it’s a studied balancing act: close attention is paid to scale, symmetry, proportion, geometry and, not least, context.

Falcke was plucked from London’s Chelsea School of Art & Design as a final- year student in the late ’70s to work for Hicks. There he learnt about the parallels of architecture, and interior and garden design. ‘David, and later Lionel Levin, had a huge impact on my early career,’ he muses. Back in Johannesburg, working for Levin, Falcke embarked on the monumental task of doing the decorating for Sun City. Projects of that scale soon became manageable for Falcke, who’s since designed the 200-room Da Vinci Hotel in Sandton.

With the recent launch of his book, A World of Design, to a gathering of 600 fans, friends, industry leaders and media, it’s apparent that Falcke’s influence is enduring. Leafing through the impressive tome of 500 pages and 40 design projects, it’s that same iconic image of the baskets that opens the book. ‘I didn’t want to compromise,’ he says of it, with a shade of the meticulousness for which he’s famous. In the case of A World of Design, seeking perfection meant compiling the pages over many years and self-publishing it, using a local designer, writer and photographer to shoot every single interior. The latter, Elsa Young, has been capturing his work for decades and is without doubt SA’s foremost interior photographer and someone who Falcke humbly attests has as much right to the book as he.
‘It’s been a wonderful journey,’ Falcke reflects upon his decades in the design industry. ‘One thinks that as a designer, you’ll get involved with curtains or cushions. While that’s a facet of it, my career’s taken me to wondrous places. I’ve learnt a tremendous amount and am still learning today.’

stephenfalcke.co.za

Text: Mila Crewe-Brown; Photographs: Elsa Young

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