From the gates of Namib Tsaris Conservancy, a private reserve located in a remote valley of the Namib Desert, it’s a 30km drive to The Nest. The journey is best undertaken during the day, for at night, stars alone illuminate the dirt roads, and leopards and hyenas prowl the land. On approach, a swimming pool and a grid of solar panels are the most visible signs of human life, for the isolated hideaway itself, with its thatched roof and soft lighting, is a barely-there silhouette in the landscape.
The nearest town is 125km away and wildlife, which congregates around a floodlit watering hole, provides the only company. Seclusion is just one of The Nest’s selling points. On hand are a local chef, butler and guide, as well as a helipad. It’s a short flight to the World Heritage Site of Sossusvlei, home to glowing red sand dunes, and Deadvlei, a graveyard of 700-year-old camel thorn trees.
A custom-built desk and wardrobe in one of The Nest’s three en-suite double bedrooms. Like most of the furniture, it was built on site by local artisans using hardwood from Angola. Photography: Katinka Bester
It was on this same spot that, eight years ago, South African designer Porky Hefer and Swen Bachran, owner of the 24,000-hectare conservancy, camped out. They had come to survey the site as a location for a dwelling that could be a scaled-up version of the ‘nests’ – pod-like furniture – that Hefer was becoming known for (last year, one of his ‘Humanest’ hanging chairs, handwoven in kooboo cane, sold at Sotheby’s for £12,500).
While they dreamed up their crazy scheme (Hefer had never designed a house before and materials would need to be transported from 480km away), they observed the vast, labyrinthine nests of the local sociable weaver birds. Such nests can house hundreds of birds, who gather in different ‘rooms’ – outer, cool spaces during the day, and warm, inner areas when night-time temperatures plummet. Why not apply their efficient techniques to a house for humans, thought Hefer?
‘It was an organic process. We built everything on site using local artisans and materials in the traditional style of the area. Building off the grid was both a difficulty and a blessing,’ explains the designer, who spent three years finding a local builder up to the task. ‘It meant we could do what we wanted but logistically it was insane.’ Audience participation was also a hindrance: baboons dismantled the outdoor shower and a leopard cub shacked up under the foundations.
In the living area, a sunken lounge with leather banquette pays homage to the organic and experimental work of the late American architect Bruce Goff. Photography: Katinka Bester
Hefer and his wife, designer and curator Yelda Bayraktar, began work on the interiors, later handing over to Cape Town specialist Maybe Corpaci. They opted for ‘built-in furniture, much like that of a nest, accented by a few great pieces with a modernist touch’.
While Hefer drew every last detail, Bachran was on a quest of his own. In 2010 he had bought the original plot of land, a former farm, as a weekend escape from Windhoek and Cape Town, where he runs property businesses. He soon acquired more land and, ‘fuelled by a passion for nature’, he set about ‘rehabilitating the results of a hundred years’ worth of bad farming practice’. The area was once populated by abundant wildlife, thanks to its almost year-round natural pools and waterfalls. Bachran installed new roads, removed miles of fencing and is gradually reintroducing antelopes, zebras, giraffes, big cats and rodents. There are plans to reintroduce the endangered black rhino too.
Seen in the living room, the thatching is made from reeds sourced from the banks of the Zambezi river in northern Namibia, and provides natural insulation. Photography: Katinka Bester
Bachran will continue to grow the reserve. Hefer, meanwhile, is working on more vernacular houses elsewhere. Next up is a coconut palm-thatched treehouse for a new resort in the Maldives, and some ‘Tadao Ando-esque designs’ in Rwanda, where he is working with local architects who build with sticks and mud using ancient techniques.
While the Namibian hideaway was taking shape, so too was Hefer’s reputation: his nests and, more recently, his oversized seating pods depicting endangered species, handmade from eco-friendly materials, have propelled him onto the world stage as an ethical designer with a mission. ‘For years, I pitched my nests to safari camps and lodges. People didn’t get it, but I kept on trucking. Finally, I met someone mad enough to say yes,’ he says. ‘Swen and I are a pair of obsessives who never take no for an answer.’ §
As originally featured in the November 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*236)