Back to earth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

Before hardware stores were an option, people had to make do with the stuff around them to build their homes. Indigenous Americans in the southwestern United States, for example, used clay. They mixed it with sand, water, sticks and straw to create a material called adobe.

Along came the Spanish, who showed the natives how to form this adobe into bricks. Soon entire villages and towns were built from adobe bricks. The towns became known as pueblos and the inhabitants as the Pueblo people.

One of the most famous pueblos is Taos, in New Mexico. Taos is home to a multistorey adobe residential complex that is more than 1,000 years old. It's a Unesco World Heritage site and still has some 150 residents.

Traditional pueblo architecture features stepped massing (tapered levels that allow the roof of the lower floor to act as a terrace for the one above), flat roofs, long timber support beams and packed-earth floors.

The pueblo-revival style (also known as Santa Fe style, due to its prevalence in New Mexico's capital city) was hugely popular throughout the 1920s and 30s. Rather than using traditional materials, pueblo revival is a homage to the aesthetic itself. For much of the 20th century, the adobe look was replicated with concrete or brick, then stucco was applied to resemble clay walls, which were painted in earthy colours.

And it isn't just the architecture of Santa Fe that's been replicated, but the interior-design aesthetic, too. In the early 90s, a Santa Fe-style serving platter was a common sight in kitchens. In the living room, there would be a Santa Fe-style cushion on the sofa and a Georgia O'Keeffe print on the wall.

The Santa Fe style was earthy, set off by pops of colour, usually turquoise, green or clay red. Terracotta tiles were used to create the traditional earth-floor look. Aficionados even went so far as to install rustic timber-front doors painted turquoise or green. And a kiva (rounded fireplace, like a beehive) was de rigueur.

Interior walls were off-white and a bright feature wall was often included. Black wrought iron was everywhere, from bedheads to front gates. But it was the finishing touches that really set the style apart: the native American dream-catchers hanging in the corner, Navajo floor rugs and Kokopelli statues.

Nowadays, except in the ethereal climes of Santa Fe itself, decorators are loathe to attempt a Santa Fe style.

'It's dead and I can't see a revival anytime soon, not even in a contemporary sense,' says Senija Lukacevic of Focus Design Group.

However, Greg Natale of Greg Natale Design is not so sure.

'Have you seen [fashion designer] Tom Ford's ranch in Santa Fe? It's amazing,' he says. 'The white-washed interior with rustic elements is combined with super-slick black furniture. He's added a purple Andy Warhol painting for a splash of colour. He's reinvented Santa Fe in a really modern way.'