Domestic harmony - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle

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Entrance to the flat from the terrace in the inner courtyard

“Our work here is very diverse. In cities, you tend to be more specialised as an architect,” says Catherine Gay Menzel, leading the way upstairs to her home in the small town of Saint-Maurice, population 4,500. It is here, in the Swiss Canton of Valais, that she and her husband, Götz Menzel, established their architecture firm GayMenzel after working in New York, Basel and Hamburg. Since then they have become known for buildings, from public spaces to chalets, that draw inspiration from their surroundings with respect for the area’s traditional craftsmanship. “It’s always about context,” says Götz. “It is about revealing all these layers of context and then adding your own story to make something new.”

Today the couple are showing monocle their own home: a spacious apartment on the upper floor of a grand 18th-century building, with a view of the Alps, where they live with their two teenage children. When they moved in more than a decade ago, the apartment, which they rent from the municipality, had recently been renovated by Catherine’s father, Roland Gay, an architect whose firm specialised in buildings using wood. “We were impressed by its quality and beauty,” says Catherine, who grew up in Valais before studying at eth Zürich. “We had been thinking about returning to Switzerland from the US,” she tells monocle over tea on their sunny terrace in the building’s inner courtyard. “When we saw that the flat was available, we were able to imagine ourselves here.”

The apartment played a part in the Menzels’ decision to finally strike out in business on their own, adds Götz. “We had been wanting to open an architecture firm together,” he says. “It was a deliberate professional decision to come here.” Born in Hamburg, Götz studied architecture in Stuttgart and Lausanne and, like Catherine, practiced in New York. On returning to Switzerland, they both worked for Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, then joined Catherine’s father’s firm in Monthey, near Saint-Maurice, as employees before founding their own firm in 2013.

“Our work is different but there is still some continuity. There is a care for quality, a liveability and domesticity, and an idea of comfort in terms of the space, light and scale – all of which makes you feel good. That is what is most interesting in architecture: making a place pleasant to live in,” says Catherine, reflecting on her father’s architectural legacy. Götz concurs. “Like Roland’s architecture, ours is never quaint,” he says. “It is highly liveable, while maintaining an architectural rigour.”

Similarly, their home has a warm, lived-in feel, with art, books and plants set against a backdrop of the apartment’s historical features. “It is an old architecture with many ledges and protrusions; it’s not sleek and minimalist,” says Götz. “Even 10cm is enough to deposit objects – or for objects to deposit themselves. There is this sedimentation,” he adds, pointing to the ledge above the door to the light-filled living room, which displays a group of items with circles and triangles on them. “Historically, this was known as a sopraporta, an artwork above a doorway. This is my personal sopraporta. The items might not have anything to do with one another at first sight but putting them together immediately creates new stories.”

Painting by Benjamin Deken and table lamp by Vico Magistretti
View of the mountains from the living room
From tree to table

“It is about having objects with meaning, even if you move often,” adds Catherine. “My grandfather, who was a carpenter, put aside a tree for me, which we had made into this table. It was like a gift from him 10 years after his death.” She runs her hand along the smooth surface of the long table in the front room, where they host dinners with friends. In the living room, a pair of chairs that she drew and had made by a metalworker in North Carolina take pride of place. On one wall, a large painting by American artist Benjamin Deken entitled Mountain 2, a wedding gift, echoes the form of a nearby “Snow” table lamp from the 1970s by Vico Magistretti that they bought in Hamburg. The opposite wall features a large painting by Valais artist Gottfried Tritten, a friend of Catherine’s father. Before he passed away in 2015, he invited his friends’ children to each select one of his paintings. “It is a beautiful story about giving,” says Catherine. “It was almost a political gesture: he wanted young people to grow up with his art, which they would not otherwise have been able to afford. He gave it to us without expecting anything in return.

Wooden bench adding visual warmth

Working close to home
Catherine Gay Menzel and Götz Menzel use the design principles they apply to their home in other projects. Here are three of our favourites.

Grand Hôtel du Cervin
Val d’Anniviers, Switzerland
This neoclassical “grand hôtel” dates from 1893, when architect Elie Guinand dreamed up a hotel for tourists visiting the region to ski, hike and take in the fresh air. As of 2022, the building has been given a second lease of life as a youth hostel, with private rooms, shared rooms for up to six people, dormitories and a swimming pool – with views of the Matterhorn. 

Grange aux Fontaines
Antagnes, Switzerland
This private Alpine residence was first built as a barn in the 18th century, a time period when making the most of available sources and a deep appreciation for woodcraft prevailed. In this spirit, Gay Menzel kept elements of the original wood façade that clads the two-storey building. Inside, design choices such as sweeping windows with views over the Rhône and concrete interiors are modern touches that infuse the space with 21st-century chalet chic. 

Chalet de la Tour
Mayens-de-Sion, Switzerland
This atypical Swiss chalet from the turn of the century was the holiday home of Jean Travelletti, an engineer who played a hand in bringing railways to South America and Russia. With its dark-wood turret, the panelled exterior is more reminiscent of a Russian dacha than an Alpine chalet – an eclectic premise that inspired Gay Menzel to add Slavic touches to the interiors, including pastel-hued ceilings.

This interest in what they call objets trouvés (beautiful found objects) from a variety of life stages and eras permeates the couple’s work, including their recently completed renovation of the Grand Hôtel du Cervin, a nearby 19th-century hotel. “We do a lot of work on appropriation,” says Catherine. “It involves building up a connection to your environment – a room or building, but also a garden or city. You do not have to own it; it might even be a hotel room where you have stayed many times, which becomes your hotel. It is not about whether or not it is beautiful; it is about anchorage. Being there, being present and having feelings.”

“Creating a space is about generosity – not only financial but in terms of spirit – and being able to accept the diversity around you and live with it,” says Götz. “It is about balance. If you have a lot of stuff, you don’t need pink walls or the fluffiest carpet.” In their own kitchen, which came built-in and has a cool-grey floor, they opted to warm up the space by adding an antique bentwood bench and hanging up pictures in wooden frames. “Sometimes you just need to counteract cold spaces with warm materials.”

With its stately proportions and flowing layout, the home manages to strike a fine balance between togetherness and alone time. “I always use our outside space in the morning to have my first cigarette and a coffee,” says Götz, gesturing at the terrace. “We also use it for apéros when the sun is out. Behind the door in the living room, there is a sofa that everybody likes to use. It is in a dark, shady corner where you can retreat in the evening and hide away.”

Plants in the kitchen
Saint-Maurice’s cobblestone streets
Items with circles and triangles above a door

As Catherine points out, it all comes down to giving residents options. “In our projects, we aim to create a variety of nooks and corners, rather than one space where you spend the whole day,” she says. 

It is clear that small-town living has been a boon not just for a relaxed quality of life but also for their careers. “In the beginning, it was a huge luxury not to be looking left and right at what others were doing but to be here and doing our own work,” says Götz, as we step outside onto the cobblestone street. “Being based here is very strategic,” says Catherine. “We are not in the city but we are very well connected to the Swiss architecture scene,” she adds, referring to her and Götz’s teaching at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, which is just a short train ride away. Other work in progress includes a residential project in Paris. “This time in Saint-Maurice has been like an incubation period,” says Catherine. “Now we can take the method that we have developed here and apply it in other places.”

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