A Zurich couple reimagines a centuries-old chalet as a modern-rustic weekend retreat
Those dreaming of a classic Alpine getaway could well imagine something a lot like the Swiss country house of Patrick Schaffter and Werner Jahnel. Its shallow sloping roof, framed by a mountain panorama, tops a facade with an intricately carved wood balcony. Cowbells on embroidered leather straps hang above an entryway stacked high with cut firewood. It’s all so picturesque that visitors might easily assume the home is owned by a lederhosen-bedecked yodeler rather than a pair of Zurich-based professionals nipping out of the city for a dose of the simple life.
For Schaffter, a medical-research administrator, and Jahnel, an international-business lawyer, the house represents a welcome change of pace: a chance to trade in the stresses of city life for rural pastimes. In Brienzwiler, a village of fewer than 500 people in the country’s Bernese Oberland, those might include harvesting the town’s plentiful plums for making jam and brandy, or attending weekly bread-baking get-togethers around its communal oven (which happens to sit at the base of the couple’s property). But the dwelling, half of a 200-year-old chalet, wasn’t always so idyllic.
When Schaffter and Jahnel first visited the spot after seeing its online listing, their reactions were decidedly mixed. Jahnel was enchanted by the traditional structure, which reminded him of the country retreat in the Austrian Alps where his family had spent
Christmas holidays since he was a child. Schaffter was a bit more hesitant, and with good reason. Inside, the home’s antiquated features verged on the peculiar. In addition to the sea of dark, synthetic paneling that covered every surface, they found that the only access to the second floor was a staircase located inside the bathroom. “The state of the place could have constituted grounds for divorce for some couples,” Schaffter jokes. Still, they were aware of how rarely houses like this come up for sale. So they jumped at the chance to turn the warren of small, gloomy rooms into the simple yet sophisticated sanctuary they’d imagined. “We had to believe in the project and dare to engage in such an adventure—[taking on] substantial work without any guarantee that we could restore and keep the original structure.”
Over the course of seven months, they carefully stripped out the paneling and restored the spruce-and-fir-lined interiors—a process that involved several building experts and conservationists because of the home’s landmark status. Centuries of coal- and wood-burning heating methods had left the newly exposed walls blackened in places, which required extensive cleaning and sanding. But the result was well worth the elbow grease: a crisp, bright volume that belies its period exterior without disrespecting the historic setting.
“In Zurich we live in a modern environment,” says Schaffter. “In the chalet we wanted to create a cozy country style that fits the house and the area as a whole.” The design is utilitarian and rustic, but the dominant warm wood tones ensure that it never feels sparse. To the newly sleek shell the couple added a mix of traditional pieces (the region is at the historic center of Switzerland’s rich wood-carving area and contemporary works that incorporate their urbane aesthetic. In the dining area, a hefty cupboard—for jam storage, of course—picked up in the canton of Jura is paired with an antique farmer’s chair and a work by midcentury Swiss photographer Hans Baumgartner. But lest things get too trite, Schaffter and Jahnel chose a pair of Le Corbusier lithographs to frame the cupboard’s twin in the living room. Such unlikely juxtapositions are repeated throughout: an 1860 hutch in one corner underneath a quirky Neumarkt lamp shaped like a tea kettle; a Biedermeier table next to a bed dressed with IKEA linens in the master suite.
The homeowners also incorporated items sourced at flea markets and on their extensive travels. “The house is filled with antiques as old as the chalet,” explains Jahnel. A fir-framed grandfather clock from Germany provides a stately presence in the dining room; a bell from Catalonia and a wooden sled discovered in Montreal decorate the stairwell (which, thankfully, is no longer located inside the bathroom). A few larger pieces left by the previous owners lend an air of permanence to the minimally furnished rooms. The only flagrantly modern element is the stainless steel kitchen—a welcome respite from the wood-lined rooms, and a necessary luxury for a pair of urban dwellers.
“The biggest challenge was the fact that we wanted to leave the house as authentic as possible, while at the same time having all the modern comforts,” says Schaffter. The two have certainly achieved their goals, down to the last detail; thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the couple can even turn on the heat before leaving Zurich. Thus, upon arrival they can get right down to the order of the day—bread baking, jam making, and other quintessentially Alpine concerns.