When a New York City couple builds a Scandinavian-modern weekend retreat in Bovina, New York, the center of their work and social lives unexpectedly shifts to the small community in the Catskill Mountains. These days, the native Nordics use their Brooklyn apartment for short getaways to the city.
After both of her parents died of cancer, Jeanette Bronée, an interior designer in New York City, completely turned her life around. She became a health coach and founded the Path for Life Self-Nourishment Center to teach people about their own power to heal the body. Being mindful of self-nourishment and tending to your soul is never easy when living with habitual stress, especially in a metropolis of millions. For Bronée, who grew up in Denmark, reawakening that sense of taking care of oneself and the remembrance of what being outside feels like was pivotal. "Nature has always been a big part of my life, even as a child," she says. She needed to get out of town, at least on weekends.
Two Nordics in New York
Then, six years ago, Bronée met Torkil Stavdal at a design event. The Norwegian photographer, who travels the world for advertising clients and magazines, had recently moved to New York City. "We started talking about kitchens because we both love food and cooking." She giggles at this memory of their first encounter. The two spent the evening talking about how important the world we create around us is to feeling nourished. "So not long after we met, I told Torkil about my desire to get out of town for a weekend getaway." Having just arrived, the newcomer to the Big Apple was reluctant at first. He craved the urban experience. But the photographer soon caught up to Bronée in needing periodic time-outs from New York City.
Their search for a country escape narrowed to the western Catskill Mountains, approximately three hours north-north-west of New York City by car. "We wanted to get far enough out of the city—not just Woodstock, which is a weekend destination—but far enough to get a sense of the area while fitting it into our budget," Stavdal says. He admits to burning through "a lot of weird realtors" before finally connecting with an agent who smartly sent them on a drive around Bovina, New York. "We fell in love with the picturesque little town before even seeing the first property," he remembers. "Then she showed us a place called the ‘Secret Meadow.’ When we walked in, it was like a little jewel in the middle of nature. It’s very beautiful land." The Stavdal-Bronées were allured at first sight by the tree-rimmed rural acreage at the end of a 500-foot-long (152-meter) private driveway.
"Then she showed us a place called the ‘Secret Meadow.’ When we walked in, it was like a little jewel in the middle of nature. It’s very beautiful land."
Creating something new
Stavdal and Bronée knew from the start that they wanted to design and build a new home rather than buying and restoring one. Bronée substantiates that decision with her European heritage: "We build stuff!" She laughs, then continues more contemplatively, "My dad always built our houses in Denmark, so I was used to creating something based on what we needed and what we wanted in our lives."
"My dad always built our houses in Denmark, so I was used to creating something based on what we needed and what we wanted in our lives."
To help them realize those needs and wants, the European expats enlisted New York City architect Kimberly Peck, who worked for Bronée when she had a design studio in the city. "Kimberly was sensitive to what we wanted to create because we already knew each other from the past," Bronée says. "Part of coming up here was the distinct vision of wanting to implement design ideas I’ve had over the years for others, and now I finally had the space to create something for myself."
The couple, who share a deep appreciation for midcentury-modern design, needed to decide on an architectural style for the Bovina house-to-be. "I’m inspired by monolithic Japanese concrete buildings," Bronée says. "I love that very severe design." Her husband, on the other hand, dreamed of a cozy Scandinavian cabin, modern and flooded with light. After considering (and dismissing) the idea to build a modern prefab, the two compromised on a house that Bronée says "feels like a loft and a barn, so this was the perfect combination." On the outside, the Nordics both wanted the dramatic, modern aesthetic of a black facade that would remind them of their common Scandinavian roots. "Back home, the cabins and houses are black," says Stavdal, referring to the traditional dark exteriors of Scandinavian homes typically brought about by a mixture of linseed oil and tar.
Building for light
Keeping the house low maintenance was not the only reason they chose a steel exterior. "Aesthetically, mixing this style of building with that material was fascinating," Bronée notes. "It created this monolithic feel to it, and in certain light the house almost looks velveteen. It doesn’t look like corrugated metal—it looks strangely soft." The former interior designer, who back in the day created contemporary spaces for fashion boutiques, showrooms, and in-store shop concepts, was also inspired by the many Dutch architects currently using corrugated metal on modern houses. But merging the Nordic-inspired modern exterior with conventionally sized American sliding windows would not have worked. "In Scandinavia, we have longer slit windows, so we were taking elements of our heritage and mixing it in. We also wanted that European idea of pushing the windows out in autumn." After a pensive pause, Bronée adds, "I think our architect thought we were half nuts with some of the things we wanted, but she was up for it." And Stavdal adds, "I’m Scandinavian; I’m light-dependent. Having three huge sliding doors letting nature in is a huge thing for me. I need light. Part of our living up here is that we as Scandinavians come alive asthe sun comes out, so we spend most of our time outside." Much of their everyday life happens on the spacious deck. Stavdal even installed an outdoor shower and bathtub. "As soon as the frost is gone in the spring, we don’t shower inside anymore. We have a little tub out there."
"Part of our living up here is that we as Scandinavians come alive as the sun comes out, so we spend most of our time outside."
The light junkies, however, elected to have no windows at all on the driveway-approach side of the house. The windowless front added further to the monolithic impression of the house. And they liked the idea of a hideout. It’s not until visitors walk into the house that they get to see the magnificent view of the secret meadow, with the Catskills beyond. "It illustrates the idea of bringing the outside in," says Stavdal. "The land opens when you get into the house."
Above all, the Stavdal-Bronées wanted to build an energy-efficient house from materials that were both economical and sustainable. The winters can get extremely cold in the Catskills, so insulating the house well was critical. Throughout the design and building process, Stavdal gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about building materials and their different properties, which he believes ultimately determined many choices and decisions during the construction.
A timber frame salvaged from a nineteenth-century barn, restored and transported in pieces to the building site, forms the main structure of the house. The barn frame was raised first—"the good old way," Stavdal says. "They put it together on the ground, and then five guys raised it up with ropes. That was so cool." The barn frame erected, they installed structurally insulated panels—or SIPs—that were prefabricated and delivered in sections. The vertical pieces, which are six inches (ca. fifteen centimeters) thick and four feet (ca. one and one-fifth meters) wide, rest on a sill around the exterior perimeter. Toward the top, the panels were cut to accommodate the shape of the gable.
"We stacked the SIPs around the house…like Legos. It’s a simple way of raising a house. The exterior of the house was completed in only three days." Making all joints between the SIPs and around windows and door openings extremely airtight paid off: "Our house is so warm in the winter, and our heating cost is a fifth of the usual cost up here," Stavdal says.
The 1,945-square-foot (181-square-meter) house sits on a concrete slab with integrated radiant heating. Polished and left exposed, the top of the slab serves as the interior flooring surface. Once the contractors had finished the exterior of the house, Stavdal completed all the interior work himself. He built the second story’s floors and ceiling and the stairs from reclaimed barn wood. Furnishings are sparse but comfortable. A sleek black woodstove centers the living room. On the opposite side of the wide-open great room lies the dream kitchen Stavdal and Bronée started to plan that night they met in New York City.
Space and time for creativity
"Being up here, I feel more creative with the things I do," the nutritionist says. "I get ideas for articles and things I want to teach and communicate because I have more thinking time but also because I have a big kitchen—a crucial part of the house—for having people over and for sharing a meal." Bronée, who develops recipes in her Bovina kitchen, grows her own vegetables and frequents the area’s organic and free-range farms. "It’s become a very food-oriented place," she says. "We also built a yoga platform in the woods. The whole thing feels like it supports that nourishing lifestyle of reflection and touching base with myself when I’m here and being able to create space for thinking and not so much doing but…being"
The locals are peers
At the time they bought the land, the Scandinavian couple didn’t know anything about the local community—a huge bonus, it turned out. "Our social life has just transferred to Bovina," Stavdal says about their unexpected sea change in lifestyle. "We work from Bovina. Jeanette writes a lot here. She wrote her book up here. Literally, New York has become the getaway, and this has become our home." The Nordic transplants quickly felt like locals in Bovina.
"I have a lot of peers here. Photographers are a dime a dozen—we are littering the place," he quips. "This seems to be a playground for the creative community. We have a lot of friends living in the Catskills who are cinematographers, directors, photographers…we find like-minded people." He doesn’t sorrow over losing the city folks who are unwilling to make the long drive. In Bovina, a small community of 600 or so that is still a relatively poor area compared with the rest of New York State, he doesn’t notice a big divide between weekenders and locals, and weekenders don’t expect to be catered to by the locals. "The Catskill Mountains are undeniably becoming a destination for New Yorkers. Instead of going to the Hamptons, they’re going to the Catskills," Bronée says about the "New York expats" who flock to the area to create businesses in the hospitality industry or to take up farming. "Some of these dairy farms up here have now become artisan dairy producers who make good cheeses, all that good stuff." She remembers worrying initially that options for buying fresh, quality food were limited, but upon discovering a small co-op, the healthy-living sage knew she could stay here. Meanwhile, the couple has cultivated a food orchard on their own property, with a 1,000-square-foot (ninety-three-square- meter) kitchen garden.
"The Catskill Mountains are undeniably becoming a destination for New Yorkers."
Urban life, by contrast, feels more "hour to hour," Bronée contemplates. The couple now drive to New York City for external inspiration. "We work in both places, but the city has a different energy and pace," her husband adds. "We ended up using the Brooklyn apartment more to go to sleep and work. While here, we work and live. So this feels more like a home." △
"We ended up using the Brooklyn apartment more to go to sleep and work. While here, we work and live. So this feels more like a home."