Ian Phillips | October 25, 2013
Two things strike you on entering this chalet in the French Alps. First is a Mexican papier-mâché skeleton for the Day of the Dead. Christened José, he sports a jaunty poncho. Second is the shiny lime-green plastic laminate, some of it perforated, that surfaces a wall incorporating closets for ski equipment. “It’s joyful, playful, and sporty. Usually, ski rooms are gray and brown,” Platane Berès says. Renovating and expanding the chalet for a relative, the principal of Platane & Ilić Associés didn’t stop there, either. The same laminate, also in bright blue, clads cabinets in the kitchen, where the backsplash is enameled in slightly different shades of green and blue. A yellow-painted wall distinguishes one guest room, while the butterfly chair in another has a red canvas cover.
Was he perhaps giddy with the altitude? Located at 3,770 feet on the outskirts of the village of Hauteluce, the property is set far back from the road and can be reached only on foot. “There’s a certain isolation. It’s like a refuge,” he says. The valley remains largely preserved—with no ski resorts, just lifts to the other side of the mountain. There are lots of cows. A neighboring village, Beaufort, is particularly known for its Gruyère-like cheese.
Completely coincidentally, 3,770 is also the square footage of the current house. A century-old chalet, wooden with a stone foundation, used to share the property with a separate storage hut slightly down the slope. Berès was therefore able to connect the downstairs of the chalet and the top level of the hut with a single-story L-shape structure. Home to that lime-green wall of closets, the connector also contains a guest room, a powder room, a kitchenette, and a sauna. All those amenities hug the same side, below-grade. Opposite, expanses of double-glazing afford spectacular views. “You have a relationship with nature even before you step outside,” he explains. The glass was furthermore a deliberate break with the Alpine vernacular. “Traditional chalets had small windows, because double-glazing didn’t exist to protect against the cold,” he continues. “By adding something that’s as contemporary as possible, I’m creating a dialogue between the old and the new.”
Because the connector is built into the slope, the roof could become one with the pasture above—Berès covered all the concrete with a thick layer of soil and let the grass grow. There’s a 10 ½-foot drop off the front of the roof, over the windows, so he asked the local farmer if a barrier was needed to prevent the cows falling off. “They’re not that crazy,” the man retorted, almost insulted.
Although the chalet is the full-time home of a single person, it has to sleep a dozen during gatherings of family and friends. Besides the guest room in the connector, there are two in the former hut, two downstairs in the chalet, and another above in addition to the master suite. The upstairs is really the heart of the house, with the living room in the center and—in a structure similar in aesthetic to the connector but extending from the uphill side—the kitchen and dining area. Their glass wall allows a close-up view of the old chalet facade. “It’s as if you stepped outside,” Berès says. “You bought the chalet because you love it, and now you can contemplate it even in winter.”
He made few alterations to the existing interiors. “Whatever is there, I always touch as little as possible,” he asserts. Furnishings are relatively sparse. Such icons as an Eero Saarinen stool and a Poul Kjærholm chair mix with a few contemporary pieces. Paired with the Kjærholm chair is Jérôme Abel Seguin’s weighty teak desk, set right in the center of the living room. This is where Berès’s relative is often found. “She’s a workaholic,” he explains. “When she’s there alone, work is basically all she does.” With company, she finds time to watch movies, as witnessed by a huge pull-down projection screen at one end of the room. All-night cinema sessions are particularly entrancing, Berès enthuses: “It’s magical when you roll up the screen at 5:00 AM and see the sun rising on the mountainside.”
He would have liked to take some early morning swims as well. While the digging work was in progress, he said to his client, “Let’s add a pool.” But she didn’t go for it. Maybe she didn’t fancy the idea of doing laps as cows grazed right at the edge.
Hélène-Sophie Martin: Platane & Ilic Associés. Stebat: Structural Engineer. Santailler: Woodwork.