Raised in Knysna, Wilja says she was a fantastical child who believed in and talked to fairies. She was also fascinated by the minute details she saw through her veterinarian dad, Dr André Reitz’s, microscope and marvelled at the unseen life it represented. “Based on this experience I enrolled for a science degree at Stellenbosch University, but soon realised that it was the beauty rather than the biological that was appealing to me. I switched over to fine art sculpture, and obtained my degree in 1995.”
She started making decorative hats and couture lampshades in her spare time. “The hats probably best represent what goes on in my head, and are 3D representations of how I make sense of the many beautiful unseen things I perceive.” She got the chance for an extraordinary gap year to help renovate an uncle’s 150-year-old chateau in France, which changed her creative path irrevocably. “The skills and techniques I learned were the best and very hands-on. To this day I use that knowledge, skills set and influences when I restore furniture or make lamps.”
On her return to South Africa, Wilja enrolled for a post graduate qualification in graphic design but it was once again her after-hours passion that defined her future. “I was, and still am, fascinated by light and form, which ultimately led to me making decorative lamp shades.” Adorned with baubles, feathers, textured fabric and all things pretty, the lampshades were snapped up by Cape Town designers as soon as she walked into their shops with her handiwork. The design world so loved her work, she eventually opened her own shop, Decadence Boutique, in 2003 and became known as interior couturier of once-off lighting pieces.
The interior shop also sold bespoke and gilded furniture that Wilja had made and restored, and she completed many large commissions for private homes and corporate spaces. Among her successes was featuring in Decorex Cape together with top class couturiers Malcolm Klük, Christiaan Gabriël du Toit, Maya Prass, Kirsty Bannerman and Shakur Olla, who each selected garments from their collections, which Wilja had to match with a lamp. Her fantastical hats were equally successful and regularly featured at high society occasions such as the Durban July and the J&B Met. More recently, a client asked her to design a hat to match her designer outfit to the Royal Ascot Race Day in June last year.
Soon after she opened the shop, Wilja says she started dreaming of a baroque barn, and after ten years the images in her mind were so strong she knew she had to build it. “I was also desperately missing my family who had all by that time moved to my grandparents’ farm outside Plettenberg Bay.”
In early 2013 she closed her shop and sold her Victorian manor in Cape Town, and moved back to the farm. “I threw everything I had into building this dream and spent my entire life’s savings. By that time the picture was so clear in my head, it was just a case of realising it – eight months later, in November 2013, Ouland Royale opened for business.”