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Patterns of Inspiration

Aesthetics and designs familiar to New Mexico flourish in the larger design world

By Gussie Fauntleroy | photos by Byron Flesher

Local interior designers have long drawn from the wealth of aesthetic traditions all around us in New Mexico and the Southwest. Now the larger design world is catching on, finding inspiration in the visual qualities that tap into Earth-rooted cultures, rich colors, and the natural world. Often, designers are attracted to tribal motifs that nod to ceremony, tradition, community, and sense of place. Artisan-crafted elements seem to provide an antidote to the feeling of a disconnected, pre-fabricated world. Santa Fe–based designers Pam Duncan, Edy Keeler, Heather Van Luchene, and Steffany Hollingsworth, among others, pay tribute to New Mexico’s history, geography, and multicultural traditions while expressing these elements in fresh, contemporary ways. At the same time, especially in the use of tribal and Native American–inspired patterns, these designers are careful not to cross the line into cultural appropriation or exploitation.

New Mexico has famously evolved from a variety of Native, European, Mexican, and other global influences.  Think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s sensibility to simplicity and the high-desert landscape. Think of local trends with Saltillo flooring, carved wooden furniture, or colorful Mexican backsplash tiles. New Mexican designers have long appreciated the freedom to incorporate eclectic elements from their clients’ global travels and collections. Santa Fe’s Spanish Market, Indian Market, and the International Folk Art Market are among the wealth of resources available here.

In recent years, in-house designers for national and international manufacturers of textile, furniture, and carpeting lines—as well as in fashion—are increasingly incorporating these forms of inspiration in ways that are utterly in tune with contemporary design in the larger world today. “What we see in these lines is exciting, because we’ve been inspired by those things for a while,” says Heather Van Luchene, founder of HVL Interiors in Santa Fe. Steffany Hollingsworth, Van Luchene’s principal partner at HVL Interiors, points out that “Santa Fe sums this all up because it’s a wonderful amalgam of influences, including European, Asian, and ethnographic art from all over the world.”

One of the most prominent aspects of the current design approach, particularly in  textiles, is the application of pattern inspired by different cultures, most notably Native American and African. “You see a lot of fusion everywhere now, under the umbrella of ‘tribal.’ There’s a worldwide diaspora of cultures relocating, moving, merging, and bringing an infusion into pattern  language,” Hollingsworth says.

An HVL Interiors–designed kitchen that juxtaposes ancient inspiration with a clean, contemporary look features a steel vent hood laser cut with four-directional crosses, a motif derived from various cultures. Other nature-based elements  suggest basketry, including woven jute pendant lamps over the kitchen island and woven leather counter stools. The fridge is clad with charred wood, an ancient Japanese technique that preserves the wood.

Through the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s licensing program, designers for manufacturers or retailers can find inspiration and adapt designs based on specific items in the museums’ collections. Most of the licensing over the years—resulting in rugs, furnishings, bedding,  accessories, clothing, and wall coverings—has involved items from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) and the Museum of International Folk Art, both in Santa Fe. Pamela Kelly, vice president of licensing and brand management, who established the program in 1998, notes that there has always been a market for ethnographic-related designs. But she sees today’s cultural gravitation toward  spirituality, sustainability, simplicity, and nature as converging factors in their appeal.

When it comes to using objects or art from other cultures as jumping-off points for  pattern, designers often speak of inspiration or adaptation. But interior and textile designer Alexander Girard (1907–1993) described the process as “extraction.” As Kelly explains, “What’s really happening is an extraction of design elements, which are then adapted: changing the scale or materials used, or the pattern of a design repeat, or pairing it with something else altogether. The best designers thoughtfully analyze a design or motif and then create a new pattern inspired by that.” In order to honor—but not exploit—the culture of origin, the original object is not reproduced. Instead, extracted elements are used to create new works of art.

The licensing program requires that during the creation of designs based on Native American art, every step of the process must be reviewed by an Indian Advisory Panel (or the panel’s subcommittee) consisting of members from several Northern New Mexico Pueblos and Native curators at MIAC. While not a member of the panel, Tony Chavarria of Santa Clara Pueblo, MIAC’s curator of ethnology, is often consulted when licensing requests involve objects from the museum’s collection.

“There are shapes that are universal, but some designs have very specific meanings to that community of origin. They have meaning that goes beyond decor, graphic design, or aesthetics, but goes into the culture,” Chavarria says. Any licensee’s marketing and educational material must credit the design’s cultural source, the original artist if applicable, and the museum to which the inspirational material belongs.

While the licensing program and many designers are increasingly conscious of these issues, the question of cultural patrimony theft remains especially raw and unsettled in the world of fashion design, where fashion houses frequently borrow generously from indigenous design and profit extravagantly, offering little credit and no monetary compensation in return. “There definitely is a sensibility that needs to come with using tribal designs,” says Hollingsworth. “It’s only natural that this inspiration is going to float to the surface. People don’t necessarily intend to misuse, but it’s something that we have to pay attention to.”

Thoughtfully extracting motifs not only circumvents the cultural appropriation pitfall, it can result in compelling designs with a modern edge. “A lot of patterns are alluding to something traditional, but they’re scaled up and really fresh,” says Hollingsworth. She adds that part of the current appeal of this type of pattern language is its strong graphic quality, often involving geometric or simplified elements.

Longtime Santa Fe–based designer Pam Duncan, founder and principal at Wiseman & Gale & Duncan Interiors, remarks that it is “nice to see new textiles come out with tribal-inspired motifs.” She and design partner Buffy Kline, who is of Navajo, Mexican, and Filipino descent, have found that negotiating the boundary between inspiration and appropriation involves respect and acknowledgement. “Taking the time to educate oneself about the item in question allows it to be used in a respectful and appropriate way while  giving a nod to the culture from which it was derived,” Kline says.

Duncan and Kline also appreciate fabrics and upholstery that celebrate other aspects of New Mexico’s past, for example, designs inspired by Spanish Colonial embroidery. And in keeping with the global connections of many who are drawn to Santa Fe, they source furniture, fabrics, art, and accessories from around the world.

Duncan, who opened her Santa Fe studio 26 years ago and recently moved her offices and showroom to Canyon Road, sometimes hand-draws interior designs for clients. “I pull things from all kinds of places and see how they go together,” she says. This may include combining Pueblo pottery, Chinese fabric design, and an ottoman featuring a Schumacher braid based on a weaving from a Guatemalan backstrap loom.

While the old can be made new, New Mexico designers have long made their work timeless by incorporating original Native pottery, basketry, rugs, and regional art from clients’ collections. “I always try to include something from this geographic area,” Duncan says. “A sense of place is important—it’s why most people are here.” Original folk art and textiles from other parts of the world also find a welcome place in contemporary design. In one project by Duncan, Bolivian blankets with wide, strong stripes were used as upholstery on steel chairs. Employed in a limited way, such an element can be “the star of the room because it adds so much drama on a background of more neutral colors,” she says.

Warm, rich colors, often those suggestive of the Earth, have been integral to regional aesthetics since Puebloan peoples began weaving baskets and textiles and working with clay. The Spanish brought traditions that included brightly painted retablos and bultos—two- and three-dimensional representations of saints—which continue in Spanish Colonial art. In Santa Fe, structures by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta (1931–2011) feature intense exterior palettes, while Moroccan influence has long added vivid color in carpets and tile.

“There’s definitely a big push in saturation of color that we’re seeing,” Hollingsworth says of the larger design field. “But here in New Mexico, we celebrate it and get to incorporate it all the time.” She adds that one factor in the emergence of bolder color in the larger design field may have to do with the economy. “With a flourishing economy, people tend to make more chances with color and pattern. Several years ago it was very neutral,” she says. Duncan has noted the shift as well: “The sky is the limit with color—lots of hot pink, purple, orange, red, turquoise, and green. I’m just happy that people are thinking beyond checks and stripes and plain colors.”

Edy Keeler of Core Values Interiors has held a particular affinity for color since the start of her design career some 20 years ago. Working with her husband, architect Robert Zachry, in a Santa Fe subdivision where exterior color is not limited to shades of brown, she delights in finishing Zachry’s ultracontemporary homes with stucco or plaster in eye-catching hues. One home, for example, features a wall in a mottled eggplant shade.

Hues that Keeler calls “real color” are available these days in natural-earth plaster from such companies as Sara Dean Plaster Color in Santa Fe. While a deep red or sunflower yellow exterior clearly reaches beyond Northern New Mexico tradition, Keeler points out that such hues contrast well with natural materials including reclaimed wood, flagstone, and other stone. In addition, light fixtures made with natural- material shades can soften interior wall colors in a subtle, attractive way. Yet in a counterintuitive twist, even unconventionally colored walls can serve as a pleasing backdrop for art. “It’s a long-held misconception that art must be hung on white walls,” Keeler says. “The first time I was in Florence I was enchanted by the coral-colored walls in the museum. There was wonderful centuries-old Renaissance art on them and they looked fabulous.”

Among Keeler’s recent kitchen remodels is one featuring deep red cabinets contrasted by off-white, all-glass tile in a combination of matte and high-shine finishes, for an ultracontemporary look. Another leans toward the more traditional, with deep teal-green cabinets and refined-pattern Spanish tiles in primary colors. Still, “white can be exciting too,” Keeler says. She’s thinking of a chef’s kitchen remodel in high gloss white, paired with rich, charcoal-hued soapstone countertops.

Another central feature of quintessential New Mexico design is the mark of the artisan’s hand. There was a time when locally hand-carved wooden furniture was virtually all that many people had, and the appeal of the handmade has remained strong, especially in traditional homes. Recently this interest has expanded with the international maker movement, Hollingsworth says. When it comes to furniture, textiles, and accessories, she says, “People are gravitating to an off-the-loom sensibility. They’re looking for authenticity and honesty.” Tracking licensing requests over the years, Kelly recognizes these yearnings in the larger market as well. “Consumers want products that are meaningful and imbued with a sense of history,” she notes.

In a made-in-China world, with plastics turning up at the bottom of the ocean and global uncertainty compounding daily, it’s no surprise to see a desire for aesthetics that feel nurturing, honest, and made by hand. Carved wood, fabricated steel, hand-forged ironwork, stonework, and items formed from found natural and organic materials are among them—all handcrafted by local and regional artisans. In New Mexico, this phenomenon is nothing new. At various periods of the state’s past, creatives were drawn, in particular, to Santa Fe and Taos to escape what they considered the soullessness of industrial and commercial life. Today’s international pull toward the aesthetics that New Mexicans have long understood may reflect the latest version of a perennial human search for the real. As Kelly puts it, “It’s part of the zeitgeist at work in the world today.”