A Swiss Home So Well Designed It Needs Just One Door

Estimated read time 4 min read

As their careers took them to various cities in Europe, the United States and Asia, Stef Claes and Michiel De Meulemeester, who are both Belgian, were used to leasing whatever lackluster apartments they could find. But when Mr. Claes, an architect, and Mr. De Meulemeester, a business executive who manages Mr. Claes’s firm, settled down in Geneva, they began thinking about creating a more appealing home.

After leaving Paris, where they had a 320-square foot apartment, “we lived, for the first five years, in a rental,” said Mr. De Meulemeester, 37. “In Geneva, our apartment was two-and-a-half times as big, so we felt like kings. But after a while, we started to dream about acquiring our own little home.”

When they began hunting for a property in 2017, there wasn’t much on the market. They had seen a listing for a ground-floor apartment in a 1930s building facing Lake Geneva, but ignored it because they wanted to live on a higher floor.

When they ran out of other options, Mr. Claes finally decided to take a look, and was surprised by what he found. “Good energy, good light, nice proportions,” said Mr. Claes, 40. “There was also a little garden it looked onto, which was super cute.”

The 1,400-square-foot space was in dire need of renovation, as it hadn’t been updated in decades, which made it ideal for a couple looking to put their own stamp on a home. They bought it for 1.3 million Swiss francs (about $1.47 million) near the end of 2017 and began planning an overhaul.

Mr. Claes reimagined the flow of space: Where the kitchen was previously pushed into the back of the apartment, he brought it to the front and made it open to the living room, reflecting the reality that the couple would be spending much of their time there.

“We were actually very lucky to be on the ground floor, because we could use the basement to get ducts and piping to the front, which we wouldn’t have been able to do on the higher floors,” he said.

Because they planned to work from home, he carved out space for a dedicated office, in addition to a primary suite and a second bedroom. To make it easier to have business meetings as well as parties with friends, he designed a series of folding and pivoting floor-to-ceiling panels that look more like movable walls than traditional swing doors.

One sliding panel can conceal the primary suite, while another can conceal the living room and kitchen. From the foyer, pivoting panels — which blend into walls paneled in stained birch plywood — lead to the office, the second bedroom, a bathroom and a laundry room.

“We only have one door, and that’s our front door,” Mr. Claes said.

To give the space character, they chose materials rich in texture and patina. The narrow-strip oak floor, for example, looks as if it has always been there. “I told my wooden floor maker that I wanted it to look like a New York bike shop, with stains, oil and life,” Mr. Claes said. “It’s weathered.”

To create a kitchen island with an industrial look, he designed a wooden box with rounded edges and corners, and had it painted in a metallic lacquer with a nickel finish. “It makes it look like a massive metal element in our living room,” he said, adding that the island is taller on the side facing the living room to conceal dirty dishes.

They chose waxed linen curtains and a sisal rug for the living room before adding a plush sofa slipcovered in off-white Belgian linen and intriguing vintage finds: small wooden coffee tables in the manner of Pierre Chapo, 1950s spindle-back lounge chairs by the Swedish designer Yngve Ekström and a dining table by Angelo Mangiarotti.

Construction began in April 2018, and the project was finished that September, at a cost of roughly 650,000 Swiss francs (or $735,000), during which time the couple tried to soothe the nerves of their new neighbors with little gifts. “We sent out many bottles of wine and chocolates,” Mr. De Meulemeester said.

Since then — thanks to the wine and chocolates or, perhaps, their ongoing thoughtfulness — the couple have made many friends in the building, adding to their sense of community.

After years of peripatetic living, Mr. Claes said, “we’re so happy here that the apartment keeps us in Geneva.”

They still travel regularly for work and pleasure, but they always come back.

“Sometimes we think, ‘Oh, shouldn’t we grab a new opportunity or move somewhere else?’” Mr. Claes said. “But it’s so nice to have created this space.”

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