Arnie Capitanelli III | February 01, 2011
If you've ever visited a German resort, it's probably Baden-Baden, the elegant 19th-century spa and casino town in the Black Forest—and probably not Ramsen, an altogether forgettable village of 1,800, folded into tree-covered hills not far from the Luxembourg border. Ramsen boasted little more than a fishing lake and a mid-century restaurant when Naumann Architektur's Martin and Stefanie Naumann arrived there to build and furnish a modest hotel, the Seehaus Forelle Haeckenhaus. "We kept the atmosphere of the forest very much in mind and were careful not to destroy it with attention-grabbing design," Martin Naumann says. Soon, however, the hotel attracted quiet attention from a regional audience, along with an international visitor or two, and the owners called Naumann Architektur back to help them expand into an 18th-century house down the road.
Formerly home to the foresters who managed the local woods, the house had walls of stacked sandstone and a sweetly hipped roof that could have been snatched straight from Bavaria if its 1960's clay tiles hadn't fallen into very bad disrepair. So the roof was where the Naumanns started, cladding it with old-fashioned tiles of the same material. The restored exterior now contrasts with the inventive, updated 2,600-square-foot interior of the renamed Forsthaus. "There's nothing particularly expensive, but it's more intelligent," Stefanie Naumann notes. The Naumanns painted the entry and stairwell a charcoal gray, almost black, to highlight the gleaming oak of the original central staircase. In addition, the dark color sets up a contrast with the surrounding guest rooms, painted bright white to compensate for smallish period windows.
Just eight guest rooms, with en suite bathrooms, occupy the entire house, and there's one additional room and bath in the rear garden's freestanding former laundry. (The main hotel building provides amenities, including dining and conference facilities.) Although each room layout presented a different challenge, thanks to irregularities in the old house, one particularly narrow downstairs room was the hardest. "We needed a way to make it special without screaming," Martin Naumann says. The solution involved angling the bed a few degrees off square for a cozy quirkiness that has made the Lilliputian space, improbably, the most requested by returning guests.
The Naumanns selected materials for their touchability. A tall desk "where you can stand to write love letters," Stefanie Naumann says, has a top surfaced in natural linoleum-smooth except for a shallow dent that thoughtfully accommodates a waiting pencil stub. The very reluctant cabinetmaker expressed skepticism about using the nearby sawmill's laminated pine beams, finished simply with oil and a little wax, as the raw material for the desk, a chunky four-poster, and other custom furniture, plus built-ins. Undaunted, the Naumanns opened a good bottle of Riesling and explained that sourcing locally was an ideal way to give the annex character. "Now he uses that pine all the time," Martin Naumann says.
One guest room's laminated pine built-ins incorporate a row of fallen tree branches. Each of the 50 represents a tree species in the surrounding forest, thus establishing what the Naumanns term "an encyclopedia" that never lets guests forget their woodsy location. "We're always trying to tell a story with our buildings," Martin Naumann explains. Abandoned objects, discovered in the empty house prior to renovation, sparked poetic moments in every other room. A down-lit sled hangs from a slot in a ceiling. A ladder for picking cherries was sawed into segments, one of which now provides access to a children's bunk installed in a niche above a bed for their parents. Painted on the door of each room, below a pun on the room number, is a related phrase or fragment of poetry. Martin Naumann, mindful of the mischievous youngsters who will sleep in that upper bunk, explains the words on the door outside: "In German, you say ‘to dance on someone's nose,' which means ‘to do whatever you want.'" Meanwhile, room number seven, Seventh Heaven, features the other two ladder segments-accompanying a more grown-up sleeping loft and also hanging from the ceiling, aka heaven.
"It's not only about humor. It's also the possibility of reading between the lines," he adds. In one of the aeries under the eaves, he and his wife loved hanging a banged-up 50-year-old concrete birdhouse from a hook on the wall. They populated the birdhouse with miniature figurines of a husband and wife and their children, echoing the German proverb that translates as: "There is space in even the smallest house for a loving couple." As he says with a laugh, "They might be having a barbecue." Maybe they're even grilling some teeny-tiny fish freshly netted over in the lake.