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Paint it Black

This family of cost-conscious Hamburgers (freshly back in Germany after years abroad) converted a kitschy turn-of-the-century villa into a high-design home.

A family of cost-conscious Hamburgers converted a kitschy turn-of-the-century villa into a high-design home with a strict budget in place. To unite the quaint masonry of the original villa with the squat, ugly add-on built flush against it, the architects decided to paint the old-fashioned facade graphite gray and then covered the box next door in plain, light-colored larch. Photo by Mark Seelen.

When Hinnerk Ehlers and Katja Winterhalder moved their family to Hamburg, Germany, after seven years abroad in Canada, they knew what they wanted: a supercool, minimal, modernist house. Ehlers and Winterhalder were after lots of light, lots of functionality, and something durable enough for the kids to run around in. Ideally, they'd also get a chance to implement some of the ideas for better everyday living they’d aggregated over the years. Integrating state-of-the-art energy efficiency was nonnegotiable. Everything they found, however, was too old-fashioned, and it was all too expensive. So the couple—he works for a large frozen-foods company; she was a creative in an ad agency—went back to take a second look at a tiny 1907 villa in a great location they had dismissed the first time around.

An LC4 lounge by Le Corbusier for Cassina keeps company with a trio of large planters and a surfboard in the space between the kitchen and the dining room.

Their initial reaction was understandable. In the 1960s, the two-story, 1,070-square-foot villa with pea-green faux masonry had been all but swallowed by an L-shaped addition that once served as a minimart. The whole thing—2,200 square feet between the two structures—had since been carved into three separate living units. Only two rooms were inhabitable; the rest were filled to the brim with electronics parts and junk. “It was the black sheep of the block,” says Winterhalder. But the price was right, and an S-Bahn transit station, a school, and a bakery were each a minute’s walk away. So, even though the family couldn’t do anything to change the odd layout without giving up space under new zoning ordinances, they decided to take a chance.

With just a few months to go on their temporary housing’s lease, Ehlers and Winterhalder had to get to work. For assistance, they drew on the know-how of Berlin-based architect Frank Drewes, of the firm Drewes+Strenge Arkitekten, whose father designed the modernist house Winterhalder grew up in.

Three’s Company

Inspired by the minimal color scheme of a hotel they stayed at in Bali, Winterhalder and Ehlers decided to limit their palette to three colors: anthracite black, concrete gray, and a light larch wood. The first move was to paint the backyard wall gray. Next up for a coat of dark paint was the villa’s old-fashioned wooden staircase, which the couple didn’t like but didn’t have the budget to replace. The consistency works to unite the different styles found in the house. “Somehow,” says Winterhalder, “it all fits.”

While Drewes’s high-end, high-drama, high-design work fit right in with the cool Asian flats pictured in Winterhalder’s inspiration scrapbook, one issue remained. “We told Frank, ‘We have a small budget and no time,’” says Ehlers. “He said, ‘That’s a problem.’” They had spent two-thirds of what they could afford on the property, and the remaining third had to cover all the major renovations, repairs, and energy-savings measures required, leaving almost nothing for stylistic flourishes. Instead, the cool had to be built in from the beginning, along with the new walls and wiring.

With the help of Volker Schmidt—a laid-back, experimentally minded local who served as the construction architect—20 debris boxes to haul away junk, and lots of hours clocked on the Internet looking for the right raw materials, the team made it happen. A mere six months after signing the purchase papers, Ehlers, Winterhalder, and their two kids, Jonne and Oona, moved into a truly modernist miracle.

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