For Erik Zappon and his family, a strong yearning for a peaceful getaway from the structured urbanity of their penthouse in downtown Århus, Denmark’s second largest city, inspired them to take action. As Zappon puts it, "We needed space that wouldn’t constantly bomb us with impressions."
A man of few words, Zappon is a prolific cinematographer of critically lauded Danish films such as Okay and Aftermath, known for their graceful asceticism and the showcasing of actress Paprika Steen, the Cate Blanchett of Copenhagen. Zappon’s wife, Ingrid Söe, is a costume designer on his films and others.
Working with a spouse is often thought of as a risky proposition, but apparently not in Denmark. The architects on the project were another married professional team—Mette Nygaard and Morten Schmidt of the architecture firm Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen (though this project was completed through their own firm, Concept). Schmidt is an old childhood friend of Zappon’s, so the collaboration was an obvious choice.
The collective aim was to create a coolly modern sanctuary that echoes the elegant austerity of Zappon’s films. And, indeed, the house’s minimal materials let nature do the talking, providing a respite for the couple and their three children, Clara, Lauritz, and Sarah.
The location—a pristine waterfront district on the east coast of Jutland, just ten miles south of the family’s central Århus home—also had strong ties to Zappon’s personal history, as he spent childhood summers in the same area. "I feel very connected to the spirit there," he says. Construction began on a plot of land with an overgrown garden and rolling hill that provided the perfect mix of pastoral and rugged landscapes the family was searching for.
In 2004, a year after the house’s completion, an Århus architectural committee declared it the best new building of the year. And there’s good reason for that, as Zappon is eager to relate: "The house is prize-winning for the rather ascetic design combined with a simple and very clear choice of materials."
Like the forest and beach that surround it, the house has diverse textures. "There are contrasts all over the house in light and dark, warm and cold, hard and soft—and it changes all the time," Zappon explains. The raw concrete of the floor and walls is softened by gigantic white curtains that billow playfully in the living room. The curtains function as room dividers, or, one could imagine, as catalysts for a riveting game of hide-and-seek. The back wall of the living room is covered with perforated metal to better integrate with Zappon’s slick stereo system and other technical enhancements necessary for the home life of any filmmaker.
The expansive, industrial nature of the living room contrasts with the refined design of the bedroom wing, which is covered entirely with ash wood on the floor, walls, and ceiling. The hall between the living room and bedroom contains the master bathroom, constructed in concrete with a circular bathtub and accompanied by a parallel circular cutaway in the roof that allows contemplative bathers to view the stars from the tub.
In the open kitchen, tall cupboards are coated with black matte paint that can be used as a chalkboard, a clever and practical use of the surface space. The color matches the exterior of the house, although no one has yet to use the front door as a chalkboard, even with the constant presence of the children and their friends.
The house is surprisingly devoid of furniture, aside from the elegant Alinea table and Eames chairs. In lieu of a sofa, the family has placed some white beanbags (or "sack chairs," as Zappon refers to them) in the TV area.
In this way, leisure time is more of an improvisation than a La-Z-Boy mandate. As Zappon puts it, "Everybody can relax as they choose to."
The exterior of the house is clad in horizontal wood panels, giving the building an elongated effect. Unlike a horizontally striped sweater, however, this element manages to flatter the structure. In the rear of the house, a wooden terrace mirrors the living room. "[The children] love the outdoor space," Zappon says. "They are all dancers so it has turned out to be an ideal rehearsal stage."
In the front yard, landscape architect Torben Schönherr created a huge circular stone fireplace, excavating it right out of the site. Essentially a large fire pit that would make any budding pyromaniac giddy, the inclusive design allows for the family to gather after a swim or shower and perhaps sing a campfire song. Or not.
Thanks to the shifting Danish climate, the whole house is warmed (and cooled) by geothermal heat, which lies discreetly beneath the flooring. In fact, the only problem with the home seems to be the difficulty inherent in abandoning it and heading back to the city.