I’m just back from a filming trip to Mexico and as well as having an unseasonal tan, which I’m parading around town before it fades, I feel quite fired up by all things Mexican. It is a tremendously passionate place: full of Catholic fiestas, crazed tequila nights and Mariachi-filled Days of the Dead and while you’re there it’s easy to get carried away – I even toyed with growing a Zapata moustache for a moment – but, l with a little restraint, you can also gather lots of great inspiration for your home back in the UK.
We were filming a Christmas special for House Doctor (I think they go out on Christmas eve and the week before on C5) largely focusing on the Mexican home of Ann Maurice, the feisty American who stars in the show. While her TV therapy for British homes is all about stripping down and de-personalising, her home in San Miguel de Allende, 3 hours north of Mexico City, is a surprising riot of ornament and theatricality.
Like most of the old Spanish Colonial homes in San Miguel, Ann’s house is built around a courtyard where, in the Mexican heat, most of the day can be spent. Around this all the rooms radiate. In traditional Colonial properties these rooms would be very dark and cool, so with her Californian flair, Ann’s done quite a lot of remodelling – building a second courtyard in the lot next door, adding windows and skylights. There was a stonemason living in for 18 months apparently!
But what’s most shocking for British viewers is the mass of colour and ornament that Ann uses. As she admits in the show, the San Miguel house is her creative outlet – a chance to really splurge after all those lectures on decluttering!
There are religious icons from this intensely Catholic area. There are vivid but co-ordinated shades of red, blue and green. There’s a horde of plunder from her travels in Damascus, Istanbul and other Islamic cities and there’s paintings all over the walls from local artists.
In short she’s let herself be inspired by Mexico but also by the countries she’s visited. Which leads me to a very important point.
Visiting countries abroad can be very inspirational. The state of Guanajuato where Ann lives, for example, is famous for its beautiful ceramics. Everywhere you go you see buildings clad in stunning tiles, startling azures or intricate arabesque patterns. And it makes good financial sense to buy a box of these tiles to bring home. They only cost a peso each. But beware – not all exotic styles translate well.
Many beautiful things abroad are beautiful because of the native setting. Everything in Mexico is brightly coloured and the people adore decoration. So one more multicoloured woven mat or ceramic washbasin won’t look out of place. Bring it home to your semi-detached in Woking and you’ll wonder why you bothered.
The secret is selective inspiration. Be aware of what works only in Mexico and what will work anywhere.
For example, one of the key factors in Mexican interiors is light. As I mentioned Mexican homes are built around a central courtyard or jardín. During the day this is floods the home with the harsh hot light of the Mexican sun. Only the cool surrounding rooms are spared. And this play of light is crucial in the choice of décor. In the glare of the midday sun, pale colours completely wash out. So everywhere in old Colonial towns like San Miguel you have deep blood reds and terracottas, dark greens and azure blues on the walls. In the sun, they pulsate with luminosity.
In the UK, the light is much more diffusing. Even with a blue sky, the sunlight is weaker and doesn’t cast such deep shadows. Very deep colours often become oppressive. We need to amplify the light with walls of white or pale paint.
Similarly with those ceramics. In the contrasting shade of Mexican interiors, the intricacy of all four walls covered with elaborately patterned tiles makes sense. It works like a busily intimate counterpoint to the vast sweeps of big colour outside. In the UK, where inside and outside light is very similar, (we have lots of windows compared to Mexico), they would look paranoidly busy.
With that caution in mind, you can also let yourself be swept in different directions. Perhaps the current emphasis on minimal, stripped-down simplicity in British homes is a little too austere. Maybe it’s time for a 2-foot Virgin of Guadalupe for the corner of your sitting room or some Day of the Dead skeletons for your mantelpiece!
Seriously though, the secret is to temper your foreign inspiration with British realism.
Think about introducing some strong colour in a magnolia room. But instead of all four walls, do a feature wall. One wall – it’s best to pick the one facing the source of daylight – painted in a deep matt colour is better that four ragrolled in a non-colour. That way you have drama but not melodrama.
Bring in ornamentation but be bold. Don’t fill a largish living space with loads of little itsy-bitsy nick-nacks. Chose one strong item that you really love (that 2 foot Madonna, for example) and set it off against a plain wall. Make it the centrepiece of the room and cherish it every time you walk through the door!
And if you couldn’t resist that gross of tiles for 100 pesos, then use them sparingly. Instead of lathering the whole kitchen wall with them – use them as an accent scattered through otherwise plain ones. (In fact do what our director in this shoot did – buy yourself a box of plain white tiles. They’re still beautifully fire-glazed and a whole lot cheaper than Fired Earth!). That way you have ornamentation without a retinal haemmorage each time you make a cup of tea!
Viva Mexico in your home, I say. As long as you water it down a little with British restraint. But if you want to see the whole enchillada, Mexico undiluted and pumped up by the creative imagination of my friend Ann, then tune in over Christmas. Hasta luego!
Have the colour of your convictions. Mexicans love very bright colours on their walls… and their clothes. Everywhere in fact. But then Mexican has very bright sunlight. Remember in the UK too much bold colour can be oppressive. Try a feature wall rather than the whole house. Be bold but not too bold.
Be completely outrageous – (but don’t overdo it) You fell in love with that life-sized carved Aztec jaguar sculpture and several dozen other quintessentially Mexican items. In the drab space of your one-room flat, you’re at a loss. Answer: give away the smaller items as gift immediately and make a strong feature of the jaguar. Clear a space and get a spotlight.
Let the sunshine Wherever you are living, let the sunlight dictate how the décor goes. If you fancy doing a feature wall of strong colour, paint the wall opposite your main light source. If you have no sunlight then dark colours will make your home cavelike and small.
Ceramics! Ceramics! Ceramics! Mexico – but also Spain and Portugal for that matter – is awash with beautiful ceramics. But think realistically before you lug 600 home in your handluggage. Often a handful works better than a whole wall. Or how about buying plain ones. Boring but often beautiful in situ.
Inside Outside Because of the weather, much of Mexican living is done out in a courtyard in the centre of a home. Obviously in British mid-winter this isn’t so practical. But where you can, optimize your outdoor living potential. Buy a chiminea, they’re stylish and compact – or if you’re a little flasher one of those terrace heaters. Then you can pretend you’re in Acapulco.