10/19/2011 09:05 am ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011

Johannesburg: An Unexpected Design Destination

Johannesburg's reputation is as a safari gateway or a necessary first stop on a direct flight from the States, but it shouldn't be overlooked as a design, art and shopping destination.

Factor in a day or two on your trip, en route to Cape Town or a safari, and stock up on beautiful art and sophisticated accessories in a class above the knickknacks and animal-shaped napkin rings you'll no doubt amass before the end of your adventure.

Spend a night at the glorious Saxon Hotel (Egoli Suites from $1,100 per night), which was built in 1990 as the private residence of businessman Douw Steyn, who also owns the renowned Shambala private game reserve. This is where Mandela chose to edit his best-selling autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, which will provide historical context, though heavy, reading during your stay. Leave any non-shoppers behind to enjoy the serenity of ten acres of landscaped gardens, six pools, an award-winning spa, and tip-top service.

Make your first stop the Everard Read Gallery (6 Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank), which dates from 1913 and is run by third-generation Mark Read. Their current home, since the 1980s, offers light-filled galleries and a roster of artists including Phillemon Hlungwane, Augus Taylor, Dylan Lewis, Thea Soggot and Deborah Bell--both Africans who are internationally known and emerging talent and foreign artists whose names might still be new to you. On view through the end of October is "Horse", tributes by 60 artists to the animal. Across the street is its two-year-old sister, Circa, a building whose striking architecture underscores its cutting edge collection. The space, with its poured concrete floors and moveable walls, hosts exhibitions, lectures and private functions and provides a thrilling setting in which to explore contemporary art that still feels somehow "native"--primitive and sophisticated at the same time.


Down the road, at the Goodman Gallery (163 Jan Smuts Ave, Parkwood), the bright white gallery would feel at home in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York or London. It dates from the mid-1960s and has an illustrious history, supporting and promoting artists throughout Apartheid, and the gallery and its artists continue to pave the way under new owner Liza Essers at worldwide fairs include Art Basel and Art Basel Miami. A few doors down, at Kim Sacks' eponymous gallery (153 Jan Smuts Ave, Parkwood), the ceramicist offers many iterations of clay, both functional and purely artistic, including works by Katherine Glenday. You'll find stacks of textiles from across the continent, like kuba raffia cloths from the Democratic Republic of Congo and colorful ewe cottons from Ghana; jewelry, metal and woodwork. In short, a great place for souvenirs where the dollar still goes a long way.


Finally, for those pieces that certainly won't fit in your suitcase, end with a visit to Amatuli (6 Desmond Street, Kramerville) where you can fill a shipping container with artifacts and reproductions of altars, doors and over-sized woodwork from across Africa and abroad, sourced by owner Mark Valentine's travels around the continent and to India and the far East. Exhausted, you'll be ready to sample the delicious cocktails poolside back at the Saxon (try the Hemingway Daiquiri and Saxon Sunset).