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Design style 101: southwestern – a beautiful mess

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above: Apartment Therapy

Southwestern style packs a whole lot of history into one single interior design genre. The iconic look of the “Wild West” manages to meld together elements from multiple cultures and periods of history, but it's translatable to modern homes in our day. Here are a variety of contemporary styled homes that heavily rely on the traditional style of the American Southwest. 

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  • above: Ruemag / Anthropologie (old image)
  • above: DigsDigs / Country Living via Cavern
  • Spanish Influence
  • The Spanish were the first contemporary Europeans to successfully settle the American Southwest, making Spanish style hugely influential in the region even to this day. Traditional Spanish style adobe homes are still being built in the area, even though every modern American architectural element is available to home builders in the region. The orangey terracotta color exterior with its textural stucco walls marks this look, with the interiors usually done in a white stucco with molded edges and nooks.

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    Along with white walls, interiors in Spanish-inspired homes will often see practical clay tiles for flooring and trim, and sometimes elegant decorative tiles, particularly in kitchens and baths. Architectural details like railings and grates will usually be in wrought iron or beautifully carved woodwork in more upscale spaces.

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  • above: Mark D. Sikes
  • above: Apartment Therapy / Design Sponge
  • Native American Influence
  • Before the Spanish came along, Native Americans were the only inhabitants of the American Southwest, with the Navajo tribe being the most influential when it comes to style. The Navajo have a long history of textile craft, passing down their iconic weaving tradition through hundreds of years. I'm sure you recognize the graphic style of their blankets, as they're wildly popular these days.

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    Along with woven textiles, Native Americans contribute other arts to the southwest style, like basket weaving, pottery, turquoise and leather goods. While a lot of modern retailers sell copies of Native American designs, the most respectful way to purchase a Navajo-style rug is to directly buy from Navajo artisans who make the rugs. A simple Google search will show some authentic Navajo vendors. Here's a shop I found that offers some really beautiful rugs made and sold directly from Navajo artisans.

  • above: Design Sponge / Design Sponge
  • above: Apartment Therapy
  • American Influence
  • The first of contemporary Americans to settle west were mostly ranchers and missionaries. Hardworking men and women braved the unplowed, wild landscape to raise cattle and farm the land, living simple lives in rustic homes often built out of mud. Their textiles were crudely handwoven or else fresh off an animal's back. Furnishings and fixtures were utilitarian wood and fixtures sometimes got about as fancy as hammered metal. The rustic rancher look is translated to modern southwest style with decorative elements like ram's horns, cowhide rugs and upholstery, and the frequent use of leather in upholstery.

    The missionaries who settled the West also understandably had simple structures. The style of furnishing was often what they brought with them in their wagons or what was easily fashioned after arrival in their new homes. Most missionaries had lived simple lives even back in the East, so the furnishings you would often see in missions were simple, Shaker styles like ladder-back chairs and large cupboards and wardrobes with simple decorations, like the heart shape cut-out in the hutch shown below left.

  • above: Apartment Therapy / unknown
  • Get the Look
  • It's so easy to translate southwestern decor into your own personal style. Stick with white walls and accent with earthy color tones, like terracotta and shades of brown. Maybe add a pop of turquoise to borrow from that azure sky. Medium and dark stained wood with leather and hide elements make great accents alongside more elegant Spanish-inspired fixtures. And let's not forget about the beautiful Native American textiles, weavings, baskets, and pottery. Select the elements you like, and mix to your heart's content! Here are some of my favorites below:

  •   1. Papier-mache ram's head
  • 2. Hammered metal pendant
  • 3. Orange linen pillow
  • 4. Looped woven pillow
  • 5. Highland cows print
  • 6. Navajo rug
  • 7. Bobbin ladder back chair
  • 8. Pueblo vase
  • 9. Leather and hide footstool
  • above: The Brick House
  • Of course, if you'd rather exercise your green thumb, you can always buy an easy-to-care for cactus to infuse your space with some southwestern style! You don't have to get a giant one, per se, but how awesome is this sculptural cactus in the corner of the room above? It's got me wondering if I could keep something like that alive in my sometimes-sunny Ohio home. -Mandi

    Credits // Author: Mandi Johnson. Images: Noted individually.

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