Out of Africa: Home of Tonio + Anna Trzebinski

As many of my regular readers know, I am moderately obsessed with all things French.  To call me a Francophile would be putting it mildly.  What many of you don’t realize is that I am also somewhat of an “Africaphile.”  I had the pleasure of going on safari in Tanzania all the way back in 1996.  People who have travelled to Africa will agree that for some people, Africa has a way of getting under your skin, and it certainly got under mine.  Maybe it’s the romance associated with the well known characters of Isaak Dinesen’s book “Out of Africa” like Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, or tales of the Great White Hunter from Ernest Hemingway, or the ruggedly hostile landscape that also plays host to incredible natural beauty

When I first started studying interior design and collecting design books, one of the spaces that really caught my eye was the Kenyan home of Tonio Trzebinski in a book called “Safari Style.” Trzebinski was an artist who grew up in Kenya and whose mother Errol Trzebinski wrote biographies about Denys Finch Hatton and Beryl Markham (the first female licensed commercial pilot in Africa).

The Trzebinski home is a perfectly blend of the rugged and romantic nature of Africa with modern design.

The site in Langata is surrounded on three sides by a nature reserve and is only a 25-minute drive from Nairobi.  Tonio and his wife Anna envisioned a natural retreat where their children were free to roam and explore, much like they did during their childhood.

The home is a two-level building built of concrete breeze blocks clad in weatherboard that was left unpainted so the home would blend into the surrounding bush.

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The cedar veranda off the bedrooms faces a forest of olive, fig and acacia trees.  While relaxing in the sun you often would look upon grazing giraffes and 250+ bird species that nested among the dense foliage.

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The Trzebinskis wanted to continue the feel of the African bush and the romance of the safari indoors and many of the material choices reflect this desire.  Tonio Trzebinski was a modern artist, so the interiors are also infused with modernist and urban elements.  Trzebinski’s modern abstract paintings in earth tones blended seamlessly with rugged timber furnishings, modern stainless steel columns and fine fabrics.  All these elements combine to create an inviting blend of the natural and luxurious.

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Tonio Trzebinski used his skills as an artist, sculptor and craftsman to great effect in the design of his home.  The tables, chairs, light fixtures, sofas, lamps, and blinds were all made on the premises to his exact specifications.  The works of art on display were in constant rotation as he sold many of his pieces to friends and visitors.

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The stairway (above) leads to the upstairs bedrooms is a striking architectural element.  The railings and support beams were crafted from driftwood collected when Trzebinski was surfing in the Indian Ocean.

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The open-plan living area incorporated a library, lounge, dining and dancing areas and could easily accommodate 30+ revelers.  I can only imagine the parties held in this room, especially as parties would often turn into several-day-affairs as many of the guests would travel long distances for the fêtes.

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The guest bedroom is another example of how to meld the rugged and romantic Safari-feel with bold modern touches.

Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending.  Tonio Trzebinski was murdered in 2001 just outside the gates to his alleged mistress’ home.  The sensational murder led London’s Fleet Street to make comparisons to the 1941 slaying of Lord Erroll, immortalized by James Fox’s novel “White Mischief,” which was also made into a movie directed by Michael Radford in 1988.

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Tonio Trzebinski in His Studio

Trzebinski was a part of a hedonistic group of writers and artists whose antics were reminiscent of the “Happy Valley” set.  Along with Happy Valley, “White Mischief” had become fixed in Fleet Street as the generic term for white misbehavior out of bounds in Africa

Fox described “Happy Valley” in an article in the March 2002 issue of Vanity Fair Magazine:

Friends from England brought home tales of glorious entertainment in an exhilarating landscape surrounded by titled guests and many, many servants. In New York and London a legend grew up [in the 1920s] of a set of socialites in the Aberdares whose existence was a permanent feast of dissipation and sensuous pleasure. Happy Valley was the byword for this way of life. Rumours circulated about endless orgies, of wife swapping, drinking, and stripping, often embellished in the heat of gossip. The Wanjohi river was said to run with cocktails and there was that joke, quickly worn to death by its own success: are you married or do you live in Kenya?

I could go on and on about the mysterious death of Lord Erroll and the murder of Tonio Trzebinski, but I will leave it up to your intellectual curiosity if you wish to learn more.  The Vanity Fair article by James Fox can be found here.

{Note: The link to James Fox's article in Vanity Fair seems to have crossed wires with an article about Liza Minnelli and David Gest (!?).  I scoured the web and can't find a link to the original article, but found this one in The Telegraph that talks about Antonio Trzebinski's death and the parallels between his murder and the other infamous Happy Valley killing.  Enjoy!}