"Interior designer Richard Mishaan unveils a family getaway with a cross-cultural beat-- and spectacular views of old-town Cartagena.
Bougainvillea blossoms cascade across the painted facades of Cartagena's old walled city, adding to the exotic palette of flaking yellow, persimmon, chalky orange, and pomegranate-red. As a child, Richard Mishaan spent his winter holidays in this Spanish colonial port on Colombia's Caribbean coast. "It's an enchanting place," says the interior designer, who grew up in Bogota and is now based in New York. Returning to Cartagena a few years ago to work on a commercial project, he fell in love with it all over again and was soon looking at real estate. When a 16th-century residence near the center of the historic district caught his eye, he decided to buy it and renovate it as a retreat for himself, his wife, and their two teenage children.
Because the area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mishaan was obliged to follow stringent preservation codes. "I had to start thinking in a clever way," he says-- something of an understatement given the amount of renovation he would do. The interiors had been chopped up into small rooms by previous owners, so the designer had to use an elaborate system of scaffolding to support the facade while he selectively gutted the core. This was complicated by the fact that the interiors, which bracketed a central courtyard, were in two different buildings-- an older single-story structure in front, now containing the living and dining areas; and a more recent three-story one in back, made up of mostly public rooms on the first floor, with bedrooms above.
The demolition process was strangely freeing. Mishaan began envisioning the house as a marriage between antiquity and modernity, a place to commune with the past while enjoying the comforts of the 21st century. Instead of mimicking vernacular styles, he decided to simplify the layout and organize rooms in a logical progression, creating a balance between romance and reason, at the same time adding historical allusions throughout-- sometimes tongue in cheek-- with objects and furnishings that would play off the dwelling's colonial past. Wherever possible, he stripped back the accretions of age to uncover original features, including 500-year-old Brazilian wood beams in the living area, and then restored them. The project took two years.
Antiquity strikes the first note in a pair of heavy wood doors, original to the house, that welcome visitors in from the street. The traditional Spanish zaguan, or arched foyer, boasts freshly plastered walls, which Mishaan stained with an ocher pigment and highlighted with small gold-leaf squares. The floor of veined black marble has been newly laid, while the 24-foot coffered ceiling, an elegant stitching of ivory and ebony inlays against dark wood, was painstakingly reconstructed based on existing fragments.
The foyer's relative duskiness gives way to a brilliant, sun-drenched courtyard whose white walls and minimalist detailing are very much of the present. The former owner had maintained a tropical garden here that Mishaan felt was oppressively lush, so he cleared it out and planted just a few slender palms. A pool and fountain were redesigned as well, and now a waterfall rushed down a wall faced in marble-mosaic tile, producing a calming sound that helps to muffle noises from the street.
Though separated by the courtyard, most of the interiors share the same crema marfil marble floors and white-painted walls, both chosen by the designer to foreground the glimpses of nearby architectural details visible through almost every window: cupped terra-cotta tiles, a sloping buttress stained by age, stone finials, corbelled rooflines. These picturesque views (neighbors include an old Catholic church and an 18th-century palace, lately operating as a hotel) become an integral part of the decor and, in a sense, complete it. Throughout the house, Mishaan opted to keep the furniture, much of it from his own eponymous collection, pared down in profile and limited to a range of subdued tones-- ivory, natural flax, dark blue-- while deftly mixing in geometric-patterned fabrics of pre-Colombian influence.
Perhaps the one room that strays from this clean-and-simple approach is the high-ceilinged living room, where tabletops and a wall of oak shelving hold a collection of eclectic object suggestive of the old treasures that were once shipped through colonial Cartagena: Here are vellum books, prayer beads, artifacts by indigenous peoples, a pair of 16th-century gilt-wood crowns. The master suite, on the third floor of the newer building, continues the maritime theme, but in a more whimsical way. Arrayed on a grandly scaled wall is Armada, a work by New York artists Jessie Henson comprising found paintings depicting idealized views of ships on the high seas.
The house culminates on the level above, a terrace with a vista that feels like a sudden release after the teasingly seductive views measured out below. This is Mishaan's favorite spot at the end of a long day.
"When I was young, Cartagena felt like a very remote place," he says, and the romance of that sentiment carries into the present. Here on the terrace, with the city revealed on a scale that encompasses its full tapestry of fairy-tale towers, sun-flecked tile roofs, Baroque cupolas, palm trees, and the ubiquitous bougainvillea, the rest of the world is decidedly easy to forget."