Johannesburg-based architectural practice, Nico van der Meulen Architects, was established in 1984 by Nico van der Meulen and his wife Santa. With a focus on innovative, luxurious homes, both contemporary and traditional, over the years the company has achieved a reputation as one of the foremost South African firms for its bold but balanced approach – and its harnessing of technology, but not to the detriment of authenticity and originality.
With a portfolio of more than 4,000 buildings designed over 40 years, many of which have received international acclaim, Nico’s philosophy has always been to strive for functionality above all else. His designs, while aesthetically striking, always maintain focus on the user experience of a space and a total design philosophy. To this end, M Square Lifestyle Design and M Square Lifestyle Necessities, an interior design practice and furniture and décor service – were established in association with Nico van der Meulen Architects to complement this holistic design ethos.
Tell us about your design career, the beginning and the journey.
I studied civil engineering, but was bored to death by it, so started working as a project manager for project management companies. From there I began designing commercial and industrial buildings, as well as houses on the side. In 1984 I decided to go on my own, designing and project managing homes for private clients. Since I was working as an architectural designer, the South African Council for the Architectural Profession eventually ‘asked’ me to register myself as an architect.
To date, my designs are influenced by my years of studying engineering, functionality being the basis of all our work. I was also influenced by the mid-century modernists, especially the New York Five.
What led you to practice design in this region?
We were based in Johannesburg. From there we started doing quite a bit of work in Cape Town, then all over South Africa, and eventually the whole continent. This led to us working globally, as we do now.
What do you feel is most challenging about being a designer in the region?
Africa is still a frontier country as far as architecture and design go, and we have far more freedom to design than the rest of the developed world. This translates in more daring creations and less constraints on the designers.
How would you describe your design style, and where do you find your inspiration?
Our design style is contemporary, functional architecture with a lot of emphasis on sustainability, so we focus very much on the habitability of the structures we design. Our inspiration is mostly from commercial buildings globally, but heavily influenced by our structural competence. We often challenge the engineers who work with us to find the solutions we want.
What is your favorite design sector, and why?
In spite of the fact that I started in commercial and industrial architecture, we became famous for the homes we design, so ultra-luxury is our forte.
Where do you see the interior design industry five years from now?
Interior design as such is becoming very important, the more luxurious the building becomes, so its future depends on whether the appetite for luxurious buildings stays strong. On the architectural side, more and more emphasis is placed on designing green and sustainable. So in terms of future longevity, either architects will need to adapt their designs or there may not be anything to design!
If not an architect, what would you be?
I really don’t know; I never gave it any thought. I have been designing for 37 years, so it is part of my being.
If you could design anything without constraints, what would it be?
Most probably a small, stylish, ultra-luxurious home floating on a lake or sitting on an island.
What are you working on at the moment?
Numerous luxury and multi-family homes globally, and finishing off state-of-the-art homes in several countries.
What is the best advice you have ever received? And additionally, what would be the most important advice you would give new designers?
Wise men buy what fools built! And my advice to upcoming designers would be to design tight, sustainable buildings without unnecessary embellishment and fight for your vision. But most importantly, learn to run a business!
Lastly, who is Nico, the person behind the architect?
I’m an old man now, enjoying my grandchildren and our home in Italy where we spend half of our time. I still like driving, and try not to miss the Porsche training sessions at Kyalami.
I have travelled the world and realised how similar people are, and to what extent we all have the same dreams and aspirations and hopes for our children.
I like to work with young people who have fresh ideas and the aptitude to bring their projects to fruition.