Down Mexico Way
In a house by David Howell, furniture designer John Houshmand lives the enchantment of San Miguel de Allende
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 6/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
John Houshmand was not looking to buy 9 acres in San Miguel de Allende. Although friends had long encouraged him to visit the artsy Mexican town, their enthusiasm had the opposite effect. "I'd been avoiding San Miguel like the plague," the New York–based furniture designer jokes. But when he finally did go—for a 36-hour stopover en route to the Yucatán—he overheard someone on the street mention land for sale. Houshmand may be a contrarian, but he also believes in destiny, and he took the stranger's comment as a sign from above. "It was like the invisible hand of fate pushing me," he says. He bought on the spot.
Houshmand and architect David Howell, weekend neighbors in the Catskill Mountains, had a few false starts in planning the 12,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom house that now stands on the San Miguel property. "I'd initially sketched a glass box, but I changed direction once John described his childhood home," Howell says of Houshmand's courtyard-style house in the Philippines. "It had a special place in his heart. Plus, that vernacular made sense in this climate." A floor plan configured around a courtyard could also offer a balance of communal gathering areas and private spaces, a situation ideally suited to accommodating hordes of vacationing friends and family as well as potential renters. So the two collaborators flew down to Mexico, revised blueprints in hand. But standing on a swell in the landscape, taking in the far-off mountain views and surrounding desert dotted with cacti and blossoming bougainvillea, Howell realized that his design was totally backward. As Houshmand recalls, "I looked over, and David was flapping the blueprints over his head, upside down. I thought the heat was getting to him." No, he was just having a eureka moment, flopping the layout 180 degrees to embrace the western views and glorious sunset.
David Howell Design's site-sensitive dwelling still centers on a courtyard, which is inhabited by a square concrete fountain and a pair of ancient mesquite trees original to the property. Seen from the outside, the house appears to float in the middle of terraces paved in the reddish stones that Native Americans used to build makeshift altars—still a dominant feature of the landscape. Howell tinted the plaster of the exterior walls to match. To bring the structure back down to earth, he built corner rooms and a few other elements from local volcanic rock.
Views in and out are maximized by 10-foot-high windows fabricated, like everything else, entirely on the premises. Even the concrete blocks inside the plastered walls were made by hand, without electricity or even standard levels. "The craftsmen use water instead," Howell marvels. "The process is low-tech, yet everything aligns. It's a testament to their artistry that the core structure is so precise." He enlisted other vernacular strategies to deflect sunlight during the day and hold in warmth at night. The thick masonry walls prove effective insulators. Floor tiles are terra-cotta, heat-absorbing but cool to the touch. Many areas, including the dining portico, are partially open.
"We preserved the most functional elements of the hacienda style but abstracted its visual language," Howell explains. Textured finishes soften the otherwise spare lines. Most of the ground level and the master suite are capped by domed bóveda ceilings with elaborate brickwork—the effect is almost knitted. The kitchen is enlivened by handmade ceramic tiles glazed in a luminescent yellow. Other walls are surfaced in rough gray plaster. "We were going to paint them," the architect says. "But the plaster looked beautiful going up, so we stopped there."
Interiors feature eclectic vintage items from antiques shops dotting the highway nearby: small wooden train wheels repurposed as candleholders, two blue-painted mesquite doors now bolted to the wall to form a head-board, bathroom sinks fashioned from sheep's troughs. Houshmand's own furniture, which celebrates the organic beauty of wood, includes a free-form willow dining table, a pair of curve-backed cherry sofas facing off in the living room, and a swooping maple headboard in a downstairs guest room. Howell's wife, Steffani Aarons, designed the simple steel pendant fixtures throughout. Local artisans were enlisted to make pieces, too, such as an Aztec-pattern flat-weave rug and vibrantly striped bedding sewn from Mexican cotton. Even the bath fixtures are bespoke. "They can make anything out of concrete. Why buy a standard white porcelain tub when you can have a custom design scaled to the exact size of the room?" Howell asks—an especially good idea, since most rooms here are quite generously proportioned. (The master bath has its own lounge.)
Ultimately, craftsmanship is what this house is all about, from Houshmand's sculpted furnishings to Howell's hands-on sensibility and the rewarding process of building in a remote area when job-site communication is largely confined to sketches and hand gestures. Howell reflects, "It's not often you get to build a project that helps support an entire artisanal community." And improves your Spanish.
PROJECT TEAM MATTHEW WILKE: DAVID HOWELL DESIGN. VIVEROS RUSTICAS: LANDSCAPING CONSULTANT. PATSY DUBOIS: CONSTRUCTION MANAGER. PRODUCT SOURCES FROM FRONT JOHN HOUSHMAND: CUSTOM TABLE (MASTER BATHROOM), CUSTOM TABLE, SOFAS (LIVING ROOM), CUSTOM TABLE (DINING PORTICO), CUSTOM BED WITH MAPLE HEADBOARD (GUEST ROOM), CUSTOM COCKTAIL TABLES (PAVILION). ARTES DE MEXICO: CUSTOM PENDANT FIXTURES (MASTER BATH, LIVING ROOM, KITCHEN, GUEST ROOM, PAVILION), CHAIRS (PAVILION), STOOLS (KITCHEN), SEATING (DINING PORTICO), LAMPS (GUEST ROOM). KOHLER CO.: SINK FITTINGS, TUB FITTINGS (BATHROOMS), SINK FITTINGS (KITCHEN). GLEN RAVEN: CHAISE FABRIC, UMBRELLA FABRIC (TERRACE, PAVILION), BANQUETTE FABRIC (PAVILION). THROUGHOUT ICAPELLI: UPHOLSTERING, CUSTOM WINDOW TREATMENTS, BEDDING, OUTDOOR FURNITURE.