GEROLD & KATIA SCHNEIDER – LECH
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – RORY CARNEGIE
The mountains of Lech make a mesmerising backdrop for the day to day lives of Gerold and Katia Schneider. This is one of the most seductive retreats of the Austrian Alps, a highly fashionable winter resort where the Schneiders live a dual existence. Here Gerold Schneider manages the family hotel, the Almhof Schneider, while also working with Katia as a partner in Allmeinde Architecture, with a good deal of overlap between the two. Balancing the two sides of their lives takes some doing, especially when the Schneiders are obsessed with the quality and detailing of everything they do. Yet Lech, being a winter playground, also offers plenty of free time distractions and a unique sense of freedom for Gerold, Katia and their two young children.
Like his own son and daughter, Luis and Ida, Gerold Schneider grew up in Lech, learning to ski from the age of three and immersed in the life of the hotel, which first opened to guests in 1929. The success of the Hotel Almhof has mirrored the rise of Lech itself, yet Gerold did not expect to take on the running of the hotel, having studied philosophy, art and architecture in Vienna. But the sudden death of his father and the illness of his older brother a dozen years ago meant that Gerold and Katia, who first met at university, were drawn back to Lech to work with Gerold's mother, Hannelore Schneider, both on the day to day running of the Almhof and its gradual evolution into a contemporary, design rich haven.
"All of a sudden my mother was alone in the business and we were just at the beginning of our careers and said we would come and try and help out," says Gerold. "In the beginning it was tough because I never had the intention of going into the hotel business. If you are used to working by yourself and all of a sudden you have 85 staff working for you and 120 guests to look after it can be a challenge. It was the opposite of what Katia and I had been doing in Vienna. But it was important to come back and we thought it was possible to do the two things at the same time, the hotel and our architectural work. It can be demanding sometimes, but it works."
The two worlds cross over in the design work which Gerold has been overseeing at the hotel itself. This is another careful balancing act, all to do with preserving the familiar character of the Almhof – which draws guests and their families back year after year – and the need to update and even reinvent parts of the hotel for a new era. Gerold and his mother began the process by collaborating with London-based designed Tony Collett, of Collett-Zarzycki, on a masterplan for the hotel, which has progressed in phases year by year, slowly encompassing the whole building. The work has to be done in the summer months, when the hotel is closed, with designs ready to be translated into reality to a tight deadline.
"We had to prove that what we are doing is appreciated by the clients and it is quite a balancing act, with two steps forward and one step back," says Gerold. "The first rooms we did were very successful with blonde, untreated wood, a simple but sophisticated approach, local materials and craftsmanship. It's a formula that worked and one that we have been developing across the whole hotel. Now architecture is really a very prominent subject in the hotel business, whereas fifteen years ago it was not so important."
Recent projects have included redesigning the Almhof's restaurants, wine cellar, cinema, crèche and boot and ski rooms, with plans underway to extend the hotel spa. Next will be looking at the façade of the hotel and a new plan to develop Almhof chalets on land alongside. "A hotel always has to evolve," Gerold says. "My mother, when she began, brought in ideas that were quite modern for the time and now we are doing the same."
While summer at the Almhof is devoted to the building, winter is devoted to the guests, who come to Lech from around the world, with a healthy British presence. Gerold and his mother are an almost constant presence at the hotel and dine each night – with Katia as well, when she is able – at the family table in the hotel dining room, surrounded by Schneider portraits and photographs. It is a powerful generational mix, with Hannelore Schneider still very much the entrepreneurial patron, running her own restaurant in nearby Zug as well as devoting herself to the Almhof.
For Katia, too, the hotel is a constant presence, with not just design work to be done but also the desire to see visitors who have become firm friends over the years. "I am not directly involved with the running of the hotel so I can continue my other work, but of course there are always guests in the winter who we would both really like to see and spend time with," says Katia. "It's not just a question of work and duty because we are lucky enough to have guests who we really like and want to be with.
"It was never a difficult decision for me to come to Lech at all. Yes, it was going away from the city and friends and my family, but I wanted to be with Gerold and if it had been Africa I would have gone just as easily. Lech is a wonderful place so we take all the good things about living here and make the most of them and also we do have friends in other parts of Europe so we don't have to feel isolated."
Katia grew up in Beirut and Vienna, her father a UN diplomat and her mother a translator. She studied architecture in Vienna and Paris, after becoming something of a child star in the television version of Heidi, in which she played the starring role, and was shown around the world. Acting was not something she wanted to pursue, seeing it now as a happy excursion, but architecture always seemed a natural choice.
At the heart of Gerold and Katia's working and family life is the barn, a stone's throw from the hotel, which they converted together. This is the two storey Allmeinde – or 'common ground' – which has become a highly flexible and adaptable base. Upstairs the barn is largely open plan, with space enough for the Schneiders to run the Allmeinde as a modest cultural centre with concerts and exhibitions. Downstairs, Gerold and Katia have created a generous atelier plus a family kitchen and bedroom, which gives them the option of using the Allmeinde as an office and summer home, complemented by a flat in the village which the Schneiders use during the winter season. At the foot of the ski runs of the Shlegelkopf mountain, it is a wonderful spot for work and pleasure, with a veranda making the perfect place for family lunches.
"Allmeinde is like a survival platform for us, especially for Gerold," says Katia. "It's his own castle and I am lucky to be a part of it because it's important for us to have another project of our own apart from the hotel. It generates so many contacts and interesting relationships with others who are fascinated by the space. We have had exhibitions of photography and furniture. Things can happen here and we can really adapt it to our lives. It's an oasis and part of our identity in the mountains."
It is also the hub of the life of the Schneiders own architectural and design practice. As well as working on hotel projects, Gerold and Katia have designed another family business in Lech, the Schneggarei, a contemporary ski lodge bar and restaurant run by Gerold's brother Andreas. There have been store designs for the fashion chain Dantendorfer and, most recently, the creation of a new visitor centre for Italian winery Paradeis, at Alto Adige in the Tyrol. Within all their work, they draw on a rich mix of traditional craftsmanship to be found in the region and a contemporary architectural outlook.
With everything, there is always the stunning backdrop of Lech itself and the mountains. Of course, the whole family ski with great skill, with Gerold also indulging in paragliding and Luis already winning trophies at the age of seven. In summer, when Lech, is so much quieter and even sleepy, there is hiking and cycling, followed by the autumn build up to the start of the new season and another fresh beginning.
"Now we really have to take a decision about the practice on whether we should concentrate on the hotel and Lech or take some more people on and continue doing other things as well," says Katia. "We would also like to build a house for ourselves one day without waiting 20 years. Or perhaps we will build a sleeping platform next to the Allmeinde, so we can keep Allmeinde as it is but have some more space for us all. Even now we have our bed in front of the window at Allmeinde and wake up with the mountains in front of us. It's just an amazing place to be able to spend our time."
Hotel Schneider Almhof – www.almhof.at