Recently I was having a conversation with some younger students and asked them what languages they would like to learn as they move through their high school and college careers. Several languages were mentioned: French, German, Russian and Spanish. At the mention of Spanish, I exclaimed, “Now that is a language you can use every day in the United States of America!”
Although the Hispanic influence in our lives is not new, immigrations
from Mexico and Central and South America have burgeoned the U.S.
population so that there is no denying how much impact Hispanic
culture has made on the United States in recent years. I admire
the new immigrants in many ways. They strive to preserve their own
cultures, much of which is so charming, open and warm, yet so many
are also willing to work hard the traditional American way—often,
from the ground up, building businesses and doing many kinds of
needed labor and providing many services. Assuredly, if we but look
around we will witness countless success stories of those, who like
the immigrant ancestors of nearly all Americans, might have come
with little in hand, but with a keen desire to make a better life
ESPAÑOL IN AMERICA
The two houses that compete as “The Oldest House in America”
are both Spanish Colonial homes. One is in St. Augustine, FL, and
the other in Santa Fe, NM. Both date to the early 1600s, before
the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in New England. The influence
of Colonial Spain took place in two veins: through the conquistadors
who settled much of the New World and through the Roman Catholic
padres. The Franciscan monks deserve special mention as they built
modest enclosed villages, or missions, and saved many indigenous
people from starvation by teaching them farming and manufacturing
skills. They also offered education and, of course, religion. Hands-on
skills included the making of hand-forged wrought iron for farming
implements and cooking tools, the working of leather and making
other items that taught sustenance skills.
The unique charm of these missions was the impetus for the Spanish
Colonial style of architecture that created the Beaux Arts era (1881
to 1945). Much of California, early Hollywood and the Southwest
was heavily influenced by the Spanish Colonial style.
The Hispanic influence in America is seen, really, in so many ways.
From the celebration of Latin music and the hip-swinging Latin dancing
to the marvelous food, the bright colors and brilliant style, the
Hispanic culture seems to have a joy of life and a connection to
people that act as a happiness transfusion to those who embrace
To create a look that is uniquely Latin American, we should first
look at what authentic Hispanic (literally, “of Spain”)
interiors were and then explore how to use those elements to create
a contemporary version of a classic look.
The term Spanish Colonial refers to the influence of Spain in the
New World from 1500 to 1840. The conquistadors and priests who brought
Spanish settlers to the New World and explored the great Southwest
paved the way for Hispanic architectural style.
Spanish conquests on the American continent infused the styles of
these different periods with the styles of the indigenous people
of Mexico to form what we now refer to as the Southwest Adobe style.
In the past century as the immigration of Hispanic peoples have
come to the United States, the influence has merged Spanish, Southwest
and Contemporary Culture.
The most commonly found colors in Spanish Colonial interiors were
variations of bright red, gold, yellow, deep forest green, orange,
some light brown, dark blue and black. Vibrant colors contrasted
dramatically with the earthiness of the architectural style. Walnut,
pine and cedar were common furniture materials. Walls were usually
off-white plaster and tile was often terra cotta colored.
In the Southwest, the colors of the earth such as found in Navajo
rugs, basketry, jewelry, pottery and crafts were influenced by Native
Americans. This palette includes earth tones with accents of salmon,
ochre, yellow ochre, mica, cocoa brown, terra cotta and turquoise
(indigenous stone valued for jewelry and trading). From Central
America, particularly Mexico, colors are vibrant, jungle-influenced
and fiesta-like. These might be termed celebration colors: flamenco
red, hot pink, parrot green, brilliant turquoise and del sol yellow.
Another direction of color is the neutral palette: beiges and neutralized
tones, a generous amount of off-white and accents of black or off-black.
High contrast is still seen in many paintings and artwork—brilliant
colors contrasted with black, for example.
Originating in Spain under the Moorish influence the majority of
early Spanish textiles incorporated abstract and geometric motifs.
After the Moors were expelled some floral and other natural elements
were added, but with a flavor of complex geometric design influenced
by Islamic patterns. The arabesque, a complex geometric panel motif,
and the sun, or del sol usually conventionalized with curving rays,
are typical themes. Pairs of birds perched in stylized trees with
bodies facing each other but heads turned away is a motif that dates
as far back as Byzantium.
In the Southwest the Spanish style merged with the skills of the
Native Americans. As trading posts were established in the late
1800s in New Mexico, Arizona and connecting corners of Utah and
Colorado the owners or traders helped local Navajo weavers develop
a style and encouraged high-quality weaving. These Navajo patterns
included stripes, zigzags, diamonds, swastikas and highly stylized
birds, flowers, corn and dancers or pictorial representations of
architecture, people or celebration of events.
The Central American motifs add zest and life to these patterns
with floral patterns in lively colors. Hand-embroidered designs
are small geometric or flora-inspired.
These three directions often merge to become a pleasant combination
of geometry and foliage. In addition, scenery of deserts and mountains,
representations of folk lore and legend, which depict warriors and
serpents, beautiful maidens in dangerous circumstances, and religious
icons and figures are an integral part of the contemporary Hispanic
Important texture in south-of-the-border-style interiors includes
leather matelasse (pocket-weave or double-cloth), tweed and twill
textiles of cotton, wool and linen. The Spanish Colonial style also
incorporated wonderful textiles originating in the Spanish Renaissance
and Baroque periods—a variety of rich cotton, silk and linen
velvets, brocade and brocatelle, and damask textiles.
In upscale applications, sheers and semi sheer fabrics of cotton,
linen or wool screened the sun’s warm rays. Widely accepted
textiles originating in Spain included printed calico, corduroy,
denim, leather and more expensive lengths of linen and silk.
Hand- and machine-loomed textiles such as the Mexican blanket and
knock-off Navajo-style rugs and sturdy upholstery fabrics are imported
from Mexico to America today. Further, hand-made folk textiles include
embroidered items that are lively and charming.
The Spanish designed their furniture to be durable as well as visually
appealing. The frilero, an original Spanish armchair, was covered
with dark, geometrically tooled leather and was fastened with hand-tooled
or brass nails. Velvet or leather was used to create the seat cushion.
Later models covered the leather with silk or velvet and adorned
it with rich galloon and fringe.
Another style of chair was the sillon de caderas (the hip joint)
known as the Moor’s seat of dignity. Variations of this scissor-frame
style are the Italian Dante and the Savonarola chairs, which replaced
the sillon de caderas in popularity during the Renaissance.
Because of their ease of construction, benches were found nearly
everywhere. Upholstered benches were viewed as pieces of luxury
furniture and could be found in the homes of the upper class. Upholstery
fabrics included leather or velvet quilted into lozenge or crescent
shapes with stitching of heavy raw linen thread. Chests often were
used as tables or chairs and stored clothing, linens, silver, tools
A favorite contemporary piece is the Mexican Pigskin Chair, a simplified
barrel chair strung with leather with woven base or back of wood
bark. Southwest (or perhaps Intermountain West) log furniture has
become a part of this style, including benches, settees and beds.
Upholstery and bedding are decidedly Southwest/Hispanic in flavor.
Spanish-style beds were often substantial in scale, heavily carved
or ornamental. Of wood or wrought iron, colors were often dark,
though sometimes gold leaf or lighter colors indicated a Baroque
influence. Most had headboards and occasionally footboards, sometimes
tester or canopy styles were made. Oak was carved in geometric patterns.
In formal settings, upholstered headboards were seen.
In the Southwest the Victorian Renaissance Revival influence merged
with the Spanish Colonial for a heavy, ponderous look in a stucco-walled
setting. Today simpler designs, including the log furniture style,
are a much-loved rustic bedding type. Coverlets or comforters in
fabrics as listed above are appropriate.
Spanish Colonial window treatments such as shutters, blinds and
lattice screens were used because of Spain’s arid climate.
These treatments were long-lived and relatively impervious to the
sun’s ultraviolet rays and heat damage.
The Spanish Colonial style also incorporated wrought iron drapery
rods and heavily textured, richly patterned or colored, complex
textiles. More formal Baroque and Renaissance drapery fabrics such
as damask, brocatelle, matelasse and moiré were heavily trimmed
with fringe, passementerie, rope and tassels. Patterned braid was
especially loved during the Hollywood Beaux Arts era and still influences
the Hispanic look today. Combined into long draperies topped with
ornate pelmets and valances, with semi-sheer shades or curtains,
these treatments soften and diffuse the glare and bright light.
In less formal interiors, plain and oxford weave fabrics such as
muslin, linen crash, osnaburg and similarly natural and coarse fabrics
were pleated simply and attached via wrought iron rings onto the
wrought iron drapery rods. More than one treatment may be preferred—a
hard treatment under draw draperies, or a pouf shade under draperies.
Occasionally, leather was used as a window covering.
Today, alternative treatments are appropriate: shutters and wood
blinds as well as horizontal lines of cellular shades or metal blinds
give a simple and practical background to any window. For more elaborate
contemporary rooms, designer hardware and luxury fabrics are still
the ticket for a richly appointed Hispanic style.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor
of design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several
books including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors:
An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for
Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion,
education and merchandising.