The way we live now: Chalet chic
Saturday 09 February 2008
Alpine chalets are tremendously filmic. And a bit suburban-sinister too. You think of all those bright saturated-colour Sixties and early Seventies films, you think of Roger Moore and Petula Clark types chaleted-up. And Julie Andrews. And then you think of Hitler.
Nazi gold in Swiss banks; Nazi-chasing films, and then Hitler's own house, Berghof. Berghof, to be fair, wasn't wooden and wasn't a chalet – more a hugely over-enlarged Bavarian master-race lodge. But it did have a chalet-ish setting, Obersaltzburg, literally "Over Saltzburg".
The whole Swiss-chalet look is compelling in a nutty kitschy way. The spectacular scenery. The Primula-cheese sweetness and banality of the valleys below. The cartoony exteriors of the chalets. It's almost too much. The joy of chalets for staying rather than living in is that combination of relative simplicity and fantastic expense. There's no room for fancy decoration, no time for it. The views are the decoration; the woody structures are the decoration. What else d'you need?
There is an Alpine look, of course. It comes from an emphasis on simple warmth and comfort and with a subtext of cleanliness and efficiency. But not the post-war, white-clinic look of urban Switzerland – something closer to Heidi. Switzerland is a rich country with the management of other people's private wealth as one of its key businesses. We think of the Swiss as rather selfish, careful people – and tremendously bourgeois – squirreling away their own and other people's money. And we think of expats there as tax exiles. So don't go expecting anything too idiosyncratic, eclectic or edgy in chalet interiors.
The fundamentals of the architecture itself are distinctive. There are gable roofs with wide eaves, balconies for bracing breakfasts set against Cinerama views, big windows with lovely light. And older chalets that stick to the original generic early-19th-century pattern have all sorts of decorative wood-carving ... (Am I grasping for that gorgeous German word gemütlich here?)
This particular Swiss-chalet interior isn't at all cosy-kitschy. It's rather elegant. The wood isn't varnished orange. It's a big double-height room rather than a wooden box. And the strong stone chimneypiece looks bold against all that wood. The decoration is civilised and comfortable without trying to score too many points. It's trad but not chichi. The trad reassurance comes from the faded colour of the old rug, and rather churchy candlesticks, but there's a more modern sensibility in the plain lampshade and the arrangement of pots.
Here's someone who's let the structure do the talking, played against all the cosy clichés of chalet style and even introduced a bit of low-key chic. You even wonder whether there might be a Gallic touch here.
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