Zumthor was born in Basel, the son of a cabinet-maker. He apprenticed to a carpenter in 1958 and studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in his native city starting in 1963.
In 1966, Zumthor studied industrial design and architecture as an exchange student at Pratt Institute in New York. In 1968, he became conservationist architect for the Department for the Preservation of Monuments of the canton of Graubünden. This work on historic restoration projects gave him a further understanding of construction and the qualities of different rustic building materials. As his practice developed, Zumthor was able to incorporate his knowledge of materials into Modernist construction and detailing. His buildings explore the tactile and sensory qualities of spaces and materials while retaining a minimalist feel.