Think global, design local

Imparting chic to chalets and boldness to beach houses, second-home designers are deftly melding a sense of place with individual style. Katrina Burroughs reports

The living room at Sir Richard Branson’s chalet, The Lodge, in Verbier – its interior was designed by Fiona Barratt.
The living room at Sir Richard Branson’s chalet, The Lodge, in Verbier – its interior was designed by Fiona Barratt. | Image: Ray Main

To super-busy souls, traditional holidays can sound like awfully hard work. All that planning, packing and trekking about in search of fun. The smart solution is to set up a home from home in some agreeable spot, where one can rest and play, free from the stresses of everyday life. But these sanctuaries, whether ski chalets or Tuscan villas, come with their own challenges, in the form of design dilemmas. How can a French farmhouse feel remote from the hurly-burly of the city, when the owner can’t live without Wi-Fi? Can a chalet dodge the Alpine design clichés and still be a cosy mountain hideaway? Should a Caribbean beach house have a simple local flavour, or can its inhabitants import their own metropolitan style signifiers? Ingenious owners, and their decorators, have been finding answers to all these posers, creating interior schemes that soothe, energise and inspire.

Gallerist Cristina Grajales’ retreat in New York state, by Thomas Phifer.
Gallerist Cristina Grajales’ retreat in New York state, by Thomas Phifer. | Image: Scott Frances/

During the working week, New York gallerist Cristina Grajales shuttles between her gallery on Greene Street and her Union Square home. Travel means taking exhibitions to major art events in Europe and the US, but weekends are spent serenely in Salt Point House, the holiday home in the Hudson Valley, New York state, that she and lawyer Isabelle Kirshner have created as the antidote to their hectic lives. “It’s a very simple house, a plywood box,” says Grajales. “All the materials inside – the floors, walls and ceilings – are made out of the same maple plywood.”


The striking building has an exterior painted black and cloaked in a perforated metal screen, designed by architect Thomas Phifer. “The interiors are very plain,” says Grajales. Her instinct is to curate and display, but here she has resisted the temptation to produce a mini gallery: “I had to have a lot of discipline – I don’t have any artworks in the bedroom. I didn’t want the interior to compete with nature’s beauty outside.” Understated furnishings harmonise with the timber backdrop. “In the bedrooms, the beds and the side tables are made of the same maple plywood that covers the walls of the house. On the porch, the furniture is made of the same mahogany as the floor, and it’s all painted black.” She adds: “We turn off the phone, and we don’t have a computer. When I’m there, unless there’s an emergency, I’m not interested. It’s about recharging.”

The interior of gallerist Cristina Grajales’ retreat in New York state, designed by Thomas Phifer.
The interior of gallerist Cristina Grajales’ retreat in New York state, designed by Thomas Phifer. | Image: Scott Frances/

Yet while a ban on broadband might be relaxing for a weekend, high-flyers who spend weeks at a time at their hideaway need an outside link – though setting up an office feels a step too far for most. Furniture designer Russell Pinch has devised a clever solution at his second home near La Rochelle, in western France. The property, a restored stone barn with milking sheds, is “in the middle of nowhere, with stags running through the fields”. Yet despite its remoteness, Pinch and his wife, Oona Bannon, must still steer their London business. “We’ve created an integrated workspace,” Pinch explains. “It’s on a big mezzanine overlooking everything else. You can see what’s going on, and won’t miss out on any conversations downstairs. It’s for half-working.”

One of ski-chalet specialist Nicky Dobree’s projects.
One of ski-chalet specialist Nicky Dobree’s projects. | Image: Philip Vile

The barn is populated with Pinch’s own quiet, graceful furniture designs, considerably scaled up to match the height of the vast main building. The end result couldn’t be more idiosyncratic – a tailored transplant of Pinch’s personal aesthetic. Many vacationers, conversely, take regional style as a starting point for their interior scheme. “With about 70 per cent of our clients, the personality of the design is largely decided by the location. They like the fact it’s an escape and like us to create a design that fits in with the surroundings, using local materials and local design ideas,” says Matthew Carlisle, creative director of Candy & Candy. Carlisle describes a Mallorcan holiday home in Palma, capital of the Balearic Islands, created by Candy & Candy for a retail magnate and his wife, who also own properties in London, the US and Asia. “They live differently in each place. In Palma, we designed the building, landscaping and interiors with a variety of influences, including Spanish colonial. The house overlooks the sea, so we created a chandelier in a wave-like form.”

A bedroom at Sophie Mills’ beach house on Ambergris Caye, Belize.
A bedroom at Sophie Mills’ beach house on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Design that reflects the region to which they retreat is important to escapees. Architectural interior designer Sophie Mills and her lawyer husband, Lee Taylor, used furniture, textiles and artwork created in local materials with traditional artisan skills to put together their beach house on the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize. “We felt it was important to support the local industry,” says Mills, “so we made a conscious effort to use local craftsmen and artisans, who made all the indigenous hardwood furniture to my design.” This wasn’t entirely altruistic – imported furniture often has a short lifespan in the Caribbean climate. “In a house that sits right on the beach, with the doors permanently open to the trade winds, the wood needs to be able to withstand big swings in humidity and the salty sea air.” To avoid “island pastiche” and in a nod to their metropolitan life – the couple live in a warehouse apartment in Wapping, east London – Mills made hangings from Marimekko fabrics, picking prints with a tropical feel, and added cushion fabrics in dazzling hues and ikat patterns from Christopher Farr. “The textiles had a huge impact in stamping my style on the place,” she says.

A luxury chalet in Les Collons, Switzerland, designed by Gilly Corkery’s company, The Interior Design Partnership.
A luxury chalet in Les Collons, Switzerland, designed by Gilly Corkery’s company, The Interior Design Partnership. | Image: The Interior Design Partnership, Edinburgh

The design of ski chalets, like beach houses, is constrained by the climate. And because their interiors are so functional – machines for pre-ski preparation and après-ski relaxation – they are often decorated without great imagination. Owners who don’t want their décor to fall into the usual antlers-and-skins Alpine clichés call on one of the talented designers who specialise in bringing unique, contemporary interiors to the mountains. Currently working on chalets in Klosters, St Moritz, Crans-Montana and Verbier, Nicky Dobree says her clients, who are often in the City or entrepreneurs, are after design with a strong sense of place, but an individual feel. “They want a home with a soul,” she says, and suggests some of her favourite decorative devices: “Exposed timbers, beautifully lit, are a reminder of where you are. I also love to contrast textures, blending the roughness of timber and stone with layers of cashmere and wool.”


Fiona Barratt is a chalet specialist, most of whose clients are entrepreneurs. Sir Richard Branson’s Swiss chalet, The Lodge, was her first commission in Verbier and cost about £4m to renovate and refit. Barratt aimed for “a rustic feel, because you are in the mountains, but with a modern setting, for a nice contrast”. She added spectacular lighting by Kevin Reilly to the traditional timber backdrop, and on the walls she hung work by young artists: an astronaut print, Intergalactic by Ben Allen, with a background of brightly coloured graffiti, takes the place of the regulation set of vintage skis.

Interior designer Gilly Corkery says some of her clients view their holiday homes as places to experiment with original ideas: “Because you aren’t there all the time to get tired of it, you can be a little more adventurous.” She designs customised artworks for her chalets, and reports that coloured-up portraits are particularly popular. “We’re just doing an Andy Warhol-style photo of one client’s family.”

Those with an art addiction delight in using their overseas escape as a backdrop for their collection. Martin Hulbert, whose decorating CV includes the QE2 and The Dorchester Spa, is currently working on an Italian villa belonging to an American telecoms entrepreneur who is an ardent collector. “It’s just outside Lucca, on the side of a mountain; an old villa with its own chapel and guest houses, set in olive groves and gardens. These villas have wonderful wall space,” says Hulbert, “and a lot of space outside for sculpture.” His starting point was to maximise daylight. “Italian interiors tend to be very dark; they have tall narrow windows and shutters to keep the interiors cool,” he says. Hulbert describes how he “simplified” the floorplan and kept the rooms light and neutral. Then he and the client began a treasure hunt for artworks, visiting antiques stores, markets and contemporary art fairs. The resulting décor, says Hulbert, is lively and stylish.

There’s usually a compromise to be struck between stamping a property with the owners’ individuality and preserving a local flavour. But what if the second-homer adores the area except for one detail – say, the weather? Maurizio Pellizzoni received a curious request from one of his clients: could he bring the south of France to Scotland? “The client is an art dealer,” he explains, “and her husband works in finance. I’d done their home in Milan, and she had bought a house near Inverness. She is Scottish, but she didn’t want a Scottish theme. And she is in love with the south of France.” He adds: “I used to work for Ralph Lauren, and every second summer we would do a Riviera theme – so it was easy to get the look. I used Ralph Lauren fabrics and mixed in a lot of vintage.” The interior cost about £100,000. Pellizzoni produces photos to illustrate his points: the pale painted-wood walls and furniture and sky-blue-and-white fabrics have transformed the grey Scottish light into something approaching Mediterranean sunshine. It looks as if he has supplied the weather with the soft furnishings. Now, that’s an impressive second-home solution.