By C. Helen Barners
A Lisa – cuckoo4kitties contribution. Thanks a lot!
AS THE SCENARIO UNFOLDS, the time is midwinter and the place is the appealing chalet of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Viertel, located in the Swiss Engadine. The house lies in a quiet hollow cloaked with fresh-fallen snow. Branches of the surrounding forest of black-green conifers are brushed with white, and enormous feathery snowflakes swirl in the ice-gray sky.
The exterior of the house conforms to the classic chalet look prescribed by the city fathers of nearby Klosters for structures lying within its boundaries. Thus, the village maintains its charming and definitive character, and the appearance of architectural anomalies is prevented.
Though it is extremely cold outdoors, all is cozily warm and inviting within, where a fire blazes on the living room hearth and the ample oak table before it is laden with accouterments for tea. Seated in a fireside chair, and looking radiant, is Mrs. Viertel, actress Deborah Kerr. “We built this house just twenty years ago-moving in at Christmas,” she recalls, “and since that time, virtually nothing has been changed. Peter designed it, together with a local architect, Arnold Thout, who’s very good at adapting his ideas to those of his clients. In this house Peter and I wanted to combine features from both Switzerland and California.”
Having lived in California, the Viertels are accustomed to a relaxed way of life and an open architectural style. Accordingly, these rooms are spacious, whereas the classic chalet is divided into small rooms. And instead of the traditional small casement windows, the living room is endowed with a row of larger windows, which form an L at one corner, providing a panoramic view.
The living room ceiling is both handsome and surprising. Made of dark oak beams secured with wrought-iron studs, and curving downward at opposite ends, it seems to suggest an old sailing vessel.
“That was Peter’s idea,” says Miss Kerr. “He also designed some of our furniture.” The table holding the tea
tray is one example. “My sole contribution was to ask for tons of cupboards, which, incidentally, I got.
“The house is built into the side of a hill,” the actress explains, “so the lower floor, which contains three small bedrooms, the laundry and the heating equipment, is half underground. For the same reason, the upper floor, where we live, is divided into two slightly different levels.”
Down the hill, in the deepest part of the hollow, are the swimming pool and the old barn, the latter converted to guest rooms and a secretary’s apartment. The hayloft, untouched, functions as a changing room. Other architectural adaptations reflect a blending of cosmopolitan personal taste and local tradition. “From California we brought the idea of having indoor walls of whitewashed brick, which the Swiss thought was crazy;” says Miss Kerr. “The living room fireplace, also of whitewashed brick, is of Scandinavian design. But all the wood used inside the house is the local Arevnholz, which is similar to knotty pine. The Engadiners use it for their furniture because it lends itself well to elaborate carving.
“The oriel, which appears supported by a carving of dolphins on the façade, is one of the most distinctively Swiss details of the chalet,” she adds. “Another is the carvedwood sideboard in the dining room; and then, of course, there are the coffered wooden ceilings in both the dining room and our bedroom.”
In the Viertels’ bedroom, firelight warms the rustic, mellow Arvenholz architectural details. “I love having a fireplace in my bedroom,” Miss Kerr says. “It’s the thing I like best about this room. That and the adjoining dressing rooms-one for each of us. They really simplify our lives.”
Peter Viertel writes his novels and screenplays in the study, which adjoins the main house but has a separate entrance. This, too, is a cozy room with fireplace, in part filled with writing desks and the paraphernalia of creative endeavor, and in part furnished with comfortable chairs and a sofa. In one corner, a table holds a painter’s palette and paints, and an easel supports a painting-in-progress, somewhat symbolic in concept; it is the work of Deborah Kerr.
In every room of the house, walls are lined with books-the Viertels are voracious readers-and small objects
are displayed in decorative profusion on shelves and tables. “I know there are too many,” Miss Kerr admits, “but what can I do? Each one of them is a treasured gift and has a meaning for me. I couldn’t bear to part with any one of them.”
Life in Klosters changes with the weather and the holiday intervals. “The Christmas season is hectic,” says Miss Kerr, “but between seasons it’s very quiet, and skiing is easier. At times, our children come to stay with us, and now there’s a small grandchild to liven up the house. Unfortunately, we haven’t spent much time here during the past six years, because I’ve been active in the theater, both in London and New York, and on tour.” When schedules permit and the Viertels prefer sun and sea, they go to their beach house on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where Miss Kerr enjoys gardening. There, she says, her efforts produce “instant flowers,” for which she claims small credit.
But the chalet at Klosters is where the Viertels inevitably return-with continuing pleasure. Deborah Kerr explains: “Peter discovered Klosters twenty-six years ago, while he was staying in Davos, a short distance away, combining a skiing holiday with work on a film script. He was so struck with the charm of the place that he built a small ski lodge here. Then, when the time came for us to build a permanent home, we chose Klosters without thinking twice.”