Staking a Claim

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Mountain Life 1005

Dining room chairs made of transparent plastic, a sofa so streamlined you mistake it for the coffee table and an armchair referred to by its designer's last name. This is the formal rigidity you'd expect in any home belonging to renowned interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud—whose current projects include bringing New York City's posh but aging The Carlyle hotel into the 21st century.

But walking through Champalimaud's sturdy chalet high along the hills of Taos Ski Valley is a bit like touring an international flea market museum. "This bed is from the east coast of Africa, an island called Simi," Champalimaud says, flicking a finger around each room in charming tour-guide mode. "This is an old 17th-century Czech bench. Those candles we bought in Mexico." Her design business takes her all over the world, and she ships crate after crate of items she finds back to the States. "It's my profession; I love it. But you have to know what you want."

Champalimaud's fluency across a spectrum of styles and her ability to fuse them effortlessly into seamless wholes—a difficult kind of design to do well—makes her one of today's most sought-after designers. She will tell you, proudly, with the international accent of one who's been brought up abroad (born in Portugal, raised in England and moved to Canada before coming to the U.S.), that she doesn't have a style. "It isn't possible to describe these things with a one-liner. If you stereotype your work, you limit yourself. I don't want to be 'English country' or 'Louis XIV.' My job is to mix it all together and come up with something unique."[NEXT ""]

Which is why Taos, which has long played host to the artistic and eclectic, from Georgia O'Keeffe to Dennis Hopper, is the perfect mountain town for her and her husband, Bruce Schnitzer, an equity investor from Texas with the warm features of an avuncular character actor. "It's also got a hell of a mountain," he points out. "Very good skiers hold this place sacred. The mountain's high, but it's very far south. It consistently gets 300 inches of snow and 300 days of sunshine. Those are good things."

Ten years ago, the couple—who live most of the year in Manhattan—heard those good things from friends they skied with over the years in Vermont. "They said, 'Anyone who likes the mix that makes Mad River Glen what it is is just going to fall all over Taos,'" says Schnitzer. He and Champalimaud were convinced of its appeal during their first visit. "We enormously enjoy Aspen and Sun Valley," he says. "But as they grew, they became different places. Taos is terminally small; it's in the middle of a national forest, and has very little developable ground." What little land that's left is held by grandfathered mining claims—one of which, a 2.5-acre plot facing Kachina Peak, the couple snapped up in 1996. "Our four kids, who love to ski, and ski very well," Schnitzer proudly says of their adult children, "told us, 'This is the place.'"

The resulting house, completed in 2001, sits at 10,400 feet and is, its owners say, the highest residence in New Mexico. It's just across a small valley from the ski area's El Funko run. "At the beginning, the locals were concerned," admits Champalimaud. "And with good reason: People get lost. Sometimes you have cash in your pocket but you don't know what to build, so you build big and bold, with Jacuzzis and marble and big garages." The first architect they hired, a non-local, drew up plans that required digging 40-foot retaining walls into the hillside. They quickly dumped him—and his plans. "This area is an extremely fragile part of the world," says Schnitzer. "When you spread dirt, it doesn't grow back next year."[NEXT ""]

They met a builder, Mark Wilson, tending bar down the road at the St. Bernard Hotel. Wilson introduced them to Brad Reed, a local architect. "I always want to do what is appropriate to a place," says Champalimaud. "And local people know how to build here." Their first meetinng with Reed was in a refurbished mining shack on Ajax Mountain at Aspen; the design they eventually settled on would draw its influence from just such a structure. "Mining shacks and rusty tin belong here—not bright-blue and spanking-new metal roofs," Champalimaud says, waving her hand. "We wanted the house to disappear into the mountain."

Thus they erected a 3,200-square-foot modernized miner's cabin set into the contours of the hillside and built from reclaimed wood and other local materials. Its outline resembles that of a Vermont sugar shack, with a steep roof culminating in a kind of top hat that runs along the roof's peak and is lined with skylights. The couple bought the silvered wooden bulk of an old Connecticut Winchester rifle factory, which would become some of the Taos house's structure and much of its siding. When they ran out of siding, Champalimaud told Reed and Wilson, "Don't worry, just use rusty tin," which peeks from under the handsome pine here and there. That rusted tin also covers the roof: "I didn't want anyone to see the roof from the mountain," she says. The same metal was carried inside and pounded into flat squares for light-switch plates. "We needed to think like miners."[NEXT ""]

The home's interior is divided into three sizeable apartments. The size—and the separation—is useful. "The kids all have fabulous boyfriends and girlfriends," says Champalimaud, "so the house is always full-full-full." Friends from around the world also join the couple during the four or five Taos trips they make during the year. Each section of the house has its own bathroom; two have kitchenettes wrapped in red sandstone. The third section sits just off the great room, which comprises the dining room, a petite and stylish kitchen, and a large conversational area heaped with more of the designer's exotic collection. ("I had the couch fabric woven in Africa. It took six months, and none of it matches up, but I think it's great," she says.)

Drawer handles have been fashioned out of smoothed pebbles. The hanging lamps above are repurposed Japanese fishing nets, lined with parchment and outfitted with bulbs. The master bed is made from walnut trees grown at Champalimaud's mother's house in Portugal; a curtain encircling it is made from linen she found in New York's Chinatown. "You don't need to have expensive things," she advises. And they don't need to be pristine: A long fir dining table is warped toward one edge. "I don't really care—I think it's fun. Except sometimes the sugar goes shhhup off the table."

Champalimaud's deliberate layering of styles—the slender wooden desk from Cote d'Ivoire in the corner, or the Amish rugs overlaid by a tiger-shaped Tibetan rug—has a curious effect: It makes you feel at home. "Each piece has to have soul, age, style," she says, running her hand over the African bed. "You won't find any of this ready-made in a shop."

Location: Taos Ski Valley, N.M. Elevation 10,400 feet Closest Skiing Taos Ski Valley Resort, 10 minutes away Square Footage 3,200 Lot Size 2.5 acres

Architect: Brad Reed Builder Mark Wilson Materials: Most of the home's wood is recycled, and the roof is rusted tin.

Design Strategy: The owners hired a local architect, builder and stone masons to create a cabin that looks as if it's been there forever.

Noteworthy Piece: The coffee table in the great room is carved from African olive wood that was salvaged from a sunken dhow, a traditional East African sailboat.

October 2005