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Picture Perfect

Inspired by New Mexico’s history and landscape, an artist turns her creative eye to a run-down adobe she just couldn’t resist



Audrey Hall

For 30 years, aesthetic consultant, interior stylist and fine art photographer Susan Stella wanted a home in New Mexico. “I started coming here in the late ’70s and was completely affected by the color, the light, the native architecture,” she says. “I loved the colors of the earth here, the subtleties of the tones.”

Stella got her wish when she found this 900-square-foot adobe in Tesuque, just north of Santa Fe. It was hand-built in the 1970s by a couple who lives just down the road. It had good bones, as they say, but it needed restoration, both structural and aesthetic. No matter: Stella had fallen in love.

Despite its shabbiness, the home had a few handsome features that inspired its new owner. The adobe walls “undulate slightly, so beautifully,” she says. The window frames “are like art objects” with their simple, thick wood headers. And the willow doors to her daughter’s bedroom, and the matching kitchen cabinets and shutters, add texture and depth.

From the start, Stella knew she would honor the area’s design vernacular and its natural beauty—the very things she loved from her first introduction to New Mexico—and add a few modern influences. She found inspiration in works by mid-20th-century artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Paul Strand, who lived and worked in New Mexico and contributed to its cultural history. “In New Mexico, you’ve got this powerful historical reference,” Stella says. “You have the Pueblo-style architecture that really reveres materials and you also have a cultural lineage from artists who integrated a beautiful midcentury aesthetic. My design approach grew from the combination of these influences.”

Stella left the home’s simple layout as it was: long and rectangular, with a bedroom on each end and living space in the middle. Then she added a few elements to enhance the home’s connection to its place while making the space itself more unified. With help from contractors at PK Works, she added 3-inch-thick sills of ponderosa pine to all the windows. “They feel very Old World New Mexico,” she says. For the kitchen, she designed an adobe island topped with four-inch-thick planks of warped ponderosa pine. She painted all the home’s walls with a soft white clay paint except the wall behind each bed, which she covered in American Clay’s earth plaster in warm rose and adobe brown hues. “I was going for that tactile, solid feel in materials,” she says. “Simple, minimal, but real.”

Designing a home is a lot like creating art, Stella says. “You work with color and composition, and then you tend to the details and textural elements.” And the details here are exquisite: worn antiques, feel-good fabrics, midcentury furnishings, and contemporary artwork created by Stella, her friends and her daughter. The living room blends a Saarinen Womb Chair covered in olive green mohair velvet from Knoll with a tulip table, an ethereal Isamu Noguchi paper lamp, and a weathered green hutch Stella found at Recollections in Santa Fe. A light fixture that displays gorgeous Mexican tinwork crowns the room. The effect is at once soothing and mesmerizing.

The master bedroom gets similar treatment: Stella used a cream-and-black Donghia fabric (found on eBay) to cover her headboard and Moroccan ottoman, and to create the curtains that separate her bedroom from the living space. Two 19th-century antique Guatemalan tables flank the bed, and across the room stands a late-19th-century New Mexican wood desk, found at local art gallery Shiprock Santa Fe. Artwork fills the in-between spaces.

The home pays tribute to the unique New Mexican beauty Stella loved for decades before living here. “When you find a land and a space that speaks to you, it’s almost like a calling; it’s hard to ignore,” she says. “I feel like this home is alive again.” 

 INTERIOR DESIGN Susan Stella, Santa Fe, NM susanmstella.com RESTORATION AND CUSTOM CARPENTRY Pete Kuzov, PK Works, Santa Fe, NM pkworks.org POTTERY (Living Room & Bedroom) Lisa Jensen-Nye artist, Handartes Gallery, Truchas, NM, 505-689-2443, handartesgallery.com MEXICAN TILE, SINKS (BATHROOM) AND TIN LIGHT SWITCH PLATE COVERS Artesanos, Santa Fe, NM, 505-471-8020, artesanos.com BEDROOM TABLE 19th century New Mexican antique, Shiprock Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, 505-982-8478shiprocksantafe.com PHOTOGRAPH (above table) Jack Spencer artist, Andrew Smith Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, 505-984-1234, andrewsmithgallery.com BEDSIDE TABLES 18th century Guatemalan antique, Ranchos Antiques, 575-751-9323, ranchosantiques.net BEDDING Les Indiennes, lesindiennes.com LIVING ROOM CHAIR and MARBLE SIDE TABLE Shack Up Studio, Bozeman, MT, 406-552-0015, shackupdesign.com

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