Villa Ernst was built in 1913, designed by architect Otto Honegger for engineer, entrepreneur and politician Fritz Ernst-Curty. Ernst-Curty earned his fortune with modern hygiene, specifically with a patented system of waterless urinals. The house and its exclusive location show the string need for impressive representation: The prestigious Rococo style echoes the elegant, French-inspired country houses – a rather conspicuous sight in Zurich.
The villa’s interior only marginally matched the style of its exterior. There was no elegant parlor in the center, but a stately room which actually resembled the hall of an English country house with dark, mid-height wood panelling. The massive fireplace on the longitudinal side would also have suited a Scottish castle, in any case better than it did the two finely-worked, dark-stained columns dividing the space. This prestigious area was complemented by a room with a tavern, bowling alley and shooting gallery in the basement, which was decorated with “playful paintings” by Walter Naef-Bouvin. Overall, Villa Ernst proved a rather curious hodgepodge of various elements.
And yet hardly any of this uniqueness could be felt by 2011, when Miller & Marant began work on the house. In the early 1980s, when the villa was remodelled to accommodate the Jacobs Suchard Museum, the rooms were recast to unifying effect. All that was contradictory and unusual about the villa was expunged in favour of a somewhat staid elegance. Large parts of the original fittings were lost in the process, including the fireplace in the hall, the marble cladding in the entryway and the custom amenities in the cellar. With this in mind, Miller & Marant designed a new, third version of the spaces that skilfully integrated parts of the two older versions, while reinterpreting and combining them with elements of their own. Their most important intervention was to install a new staircase in the entrance area.
The old staircase, which (unlike the new, open arrangement) only visually connected the ground floor and the first floor, was removed. This changed the character of what was once the hall: a new fireplace at the gable end highlights the building’s longitudinal axis, forming a counterpoint to the protruding exedra, which extends into the garden. Today, the space appears as a single, central space, divided into three areas. The wall design, with a wrap around, blue-stained frieze above white wood panelling, further stresses his unity.
The house now serves as headquarters to the Jacobs Foundation and the Johann Jacobs Museum.
Circling the hall in the Jacobs Haus, which was redesigned in 2013, is a frieze filled with objects from the collection of Klaus J. Jacobs. These objects – which range from the graceful Thonet chair to the vulgar Melitta filter – testify to the history of the museum, which for many years was devoted to the European cultural history of coffee. Yet a number of these objects fit seamlessly into the museum’s current program as well: the Chinese coffee pot from 1700, for example, commissioned by Dutch dealers for the European market, or the Sèvres porcelain (circa 1750) decorated with Indian textile patterns. Some have expressed astonishment at the boisterous hanging of such precious pieces. In fact, our museum is at loggerheads with (almost) all forms of order, and instead takes a cue from Alice in Wonderland, Lina Bo Bardi’s glasshouse, or the idiosyncratic charm of Sir John Soane’s private museum.
Zurich’s “Seefeld” district seems rather unglamorous at first sight. Most of its apartments and office buildings have a ponderous, sedate look about them, like so many things in this city that wants to be a metropolis, but only a little one. But first impressions can be deceiving, and the quarter is more cosmopolitan than meets the eye. Global connections have shaped the area’s development from its very beginning in the nineteenth century.
Modern European garden art is even more strongly influenced by the process of globalization than all other arts. Many of the flowers, shrubs, and trees used in European gardens have a long (colonial) history. Even the villa’s newly-designed garden would be inconceivable without the global network of plant exports and imports extending over half a millennium, and the botanical and aesthetic knowledge that comes with it. Chinese wisteria blooms next to yellow black-eyed Susans from North America, the South- and East African Dusky Cranesbill, and the Himalayan foxtail lily.
Drawings by Zeuler R. Lima