Work, Play, Live and Stay

Step inside this renovated warehouse where light-industria has never felt homelier

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

Damien and Claire Van Zyl live in a renovated Salt River factory with their two children, two pitbulls, four lovebirds, seven fish and a rabbit. Damien’s not too mad about animals, but Claire insists.

“We don’t have a garden so I need to have things living with us indoors,” says Claire. “I need to have some nature in here.”

Damien is more concerned with the vehicles that share his space, which is essentially one large working garage with rooms leading off of it. There’s a Ford Fairmont, a Ford Fairlane, four Ford F100 pickup trucks, five motorcycles and then there are his client’s vehicles, which, depending on the week, could be anything from a Mustang like the one from Gone in 60 Seconds to a DeLorean like the one in Back to the Future.

Running his business, Salt River Customz, from his home could be a recipe for grease on the pillows, but Damien’s OCD personality means that everything is in the right place and the workshop is spotless. Add to this his aptitude for tools and Damien doesn’t just restore vintage American muscle cars to their former glory, he also makes his own furniture, breathes life back into antiques and even put the roof over his and his family’s heads.

Having lived out of a suitcase for 12 years in New York, Paris and the East, Damien wanted a place to call home. After hanging up his Z-card and cashing in his last modeling check, the former male model bought a derelict factory in Salt River. It's a space that's been everything from a laundromat to a twine factory, an upholstery place to a printers, and reminded him of New York City in the 90s, – before it turned into a bike lane.

“The space had so much character.  So much history. I mean, this was once a farm. My son’s room was the stable. Because the tight-knit community has lived here forever, at some point a neighbour has either worked here, or knows someone who did.”

Claire chimes in about the community.

“I grew up in Sea Point, lived there all my life, but I feel much more at home here than I ever did living there. I know my neighbours now… We greet everyone… We did a shoot here where we had a hundred kilos of tuna and gutted it outside afterwards and shared it with all the neighbours.”

That’s how these things work. When Damien first took ownership of the space he had no electricity and was running an extension cord from a neighbour’s house. Setting up a tent in the middle of the 1000-square-metre, double-volume warehouse, amongst dust and rubble, Damien began his mammoth project. He used a single cold-water tap to wash with for the first four months of renovation.

“First I gutted the place, then sandblasted everything and then I rewired the place. I did most of the details myself and got some guys to do the messier work. These 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 light and is waterproof.”

Damien has designed his place so that it can easily transform into something else if need be. At the moment there’s the living area, a workshop – Salt River Customz - and a photographic studio and agency, Six Love. It could just as easily work as offices, a supper club-style restaurant, an art gallery space, an advertising agency, a poker night venue or a furniture store. All of which Damien and Claire plan to do at some point.

For now, it’s mainly about the cars, the reason Damien wanted this particular space in the first place. His entire mood changes when he takes us into his workshop. It’s got a spray booth, a mezzanine level pregnant with carefully arranged parts, some tools, but nothing too fancy. Damien is old-school like that. Kind of like the cars he works on here.

“I’d always wanted a space big enough for my passions. I bought my Ford Fairmont at the same time that I bought this place. The two just went together really nicely.”

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 old pulley-system lift. There’s exposed brick, naked light bulbs, copper plumbing and brushed steel electrical conduits that, instead of being hidden away like in most homes, are celebrated. The result is like being inside a living, breathing structure.

“Most recently I built a bar that’s plumbed for a proper coffee machine. If I use the dining area for a supper club then the wine cellar will go here, under the stairs. Next I’ll build a deck on top of our roof because we could probably use more outdoor space. Here, come look at my plans for the GMC, I want to turn it into a food truck…”

Claire’s keen eye for beauty – Six Love Agency supplies hair and make-up artists to the ad industry – is reflected throughout the house. Relaxation is key, after all: a home should be a place to unwind, and after Damien had taken care of the basics, floor and walls, the couple met and started on the furniture and accessories together.


Working with a sophisticated and pared-down colour palette, a clever use of light, colours and mirrors make use of available light and make the space seem even larger. Darker woods warm the space, which could easily run the risk of appearing cold.

Everything in their home serves a purpose – can you sit on it? sleep on it? use it? – and style is secondary. Statement pieces like the copper coffee table from Long Street nightclub Fatback Soul work well with things like an oversized print of a photograph Damien took of some children in Uzbekistan, and an Art Deco drinks cabinet they got from friends who could no longer store it. These are all pieces that reflect whom they are, giving clues to their personalities and passions.

It’s a bit of a zoo in here, sure, and running their businesses from the same place that they live makes for some pretty weird hours, yes – but when you consider how much space the family has, and how much they love what they do, then you can see why these guys wouldn’t have it any other way.