The moment we touched down on Mallorca a few weeks past, with the spare and rugged landscape coming into view like an Impressionist painting, a very special Mallorcan property came to mind. It, for me, represents the soul of this ancient island steeped in the convergence of Muslim and Catholic history, bringing together the patina of the Old World and the exoticism of Moorish and Moroccan decorative influences. In fact, this Mallorcan fantasy is my idée fixe in terms of how a Mallorcan villa should look and feel. Neither grand nor especially decorative, it is a comfortable and well-appointed country house that feels welcoming and at home in its place. Ironically, the villa is new construction, not old with patina, nor is the owner or designer Spanish or European or British, for that matter. It tends to present itself as the home of an Anglophile who has fallen head over heels in love with Majorca – like so many other nationals who have discovered its Mediterranean charms.
Villa Ses Murtares, the name it had been given for a single myrtle growing in a courtyard, was discovered by long-time American clients of American interior designer Michael S. Smith. They were looking for a new and different atmosphere, a break with the Italian aesthetic and lifestyle they had come to know. They found it in this then nondescript villa near the charming village of Deia, down the road from the monastery Chopin and George Sands retreated to in hope of improving the former’s health. Yes, if I were to buy a villa on Mallorca it would be in Deia. Of the towns and villages on Mallorca, Deia is perfectly sited. There is a small ancient village without a plaza, containing a few shops, a grocer and a restaurant or two, perched high on a hill with commanding 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside and sea. The pace is slow and sleepy, the atmosphere bohemian – a perfect haven for nature seekers, sybarites and artists alike. It is the kind of place you want to retire to, even if only in spurts.
Smith’s design program for bringing Ses Murtares to life was not renovative but decorative. He worked within the confines of the structure and layout of rooms, dressing them in his indelible layered aesthetic. Influenced by Majorca’s diverse past Smith incorporated the decorative traditions of Spain, England, France, Italy, and Northern Africa throughout the house. I don’t think there is anyone who does Hispano-Moroccan-revival better than Michael S. Smith. He synthesizes the patina and theater of Mongiardino with his unique talent for understanding the essence of time and place, infusing comfort and ease nonpareil.
To set the tone Smith had the entrance walls treated with a Venetian-plaster trompe l’oeil that resembles large honed-stone blocks, providing a grand statement in a rustic setting. Furnished with dark woods in the spirit of a Catalan country house there is a Regency leather sofa and a Spanish table arranged for style and convenience. Above the entrance doors is a dark and moody painting of Cain and Abel attributed to Filippo Vitale, reminding us we’re on pious land.
Another view of the entrance hall reveals a wonderful layering of Old World-style decoration, where a tapestry fragment is overlaid with a Neo-classical silver gilt looking glass above a mid-17th-century Neopolitan cabinet with hand-painted drawers.
The villa was first published in The World of Interiors and later Architectural Digest. I have pulled every photo I have, including a few Instagram photos Michael S. Smith posted while he was spending time with his client-friends at the villa. The main living area extends the length of the main house, which Smith divided into three areas – seating areas at either end with a dining area at center. The dining table (above), surrounded by upholstered 20th-century walnut dining chairs in terra-cotta-colored fabric, and the worn leather chairs along the wall, instill the space with an impression of antiquity.
This view of the dining area, in the opposite direction, reveals how a long and large room can be made intimate and inviting by layering styles, periods, textures, patina and scale within distinct groupings. A formidable English Gothic bookcase (one of two), worn tufted leather chairs, a mother-of-pearl inlaid Indian table, a refectory table from Héléne Aumont, a japanned Portuguese chest, and a Russian architectural model mix effortlessly, producing an imagined past in the European tradition of collecting. Smith researched local decorative traditions and based the trellis design of the walls on ones he discovered. Simple rush matting covers most floors, overlaid with Persian carpets in some areas – further contributing to the high-low mix that is engaging and seemingly effortless.
To break up the monotony of an earthen palette informed by existing wooden beams and terra cotta flooring, Smith introduced colors of land and sea, with deep sofas upholstered in green and two armchairs covered in a blue-and-white flame stitch, or tela de lenguas, handwoven on the island, and used elsewhere in the residence. The comfortable arrangement is interesting in its mix of rustic charm, European elegance, and its Anglo-American sense of comfort and ease.
Much of the furniture and decorative arts that furnish the house came from the sale of items from the collection of the March family—a Mallorcan banking dynasty—as well as auction finds from designer David Easton’s upstate New York country house, Balderbrae – including the Spanish mirrors and candle sconces that hang above the mantels at either end of the great room. Had we never been told these rooms were newly crafted it would be easy to believe they had evolved over decades, even centuries. The greatest compliment is that they are believable, appropriate, and subtle in their reinterpretation of the past.
When it comes to country houses, where there is often a great deal of earthen wood and tile, there is no better counterpoint than the cooling affect of blue-and-white – especially within the context of a Mediterranean-style country house. Blue-and-white serves as a relief mechanism from the somber rustic hues of earth. Brilliant Alhambra-style tiles line the walls of the kitchen, exploding the subtle introduction of the same inky blue used for covering armchairs in the living room beyond – where a portrait attributed to Gilbert Jackson, framed by blue-and-white porcelains, looms large above an antique sofa.
In another view of the kitchen painted cabinets balance wooden beams, shutters and an Indian table surrounded by antique oak dining chairs.
The design for the master bedroom began with a subtle plaid stenciled pattern for the walls that Smith discovered at La Granja, on Majorca – home to the Seguí family since the 13th-century – providing a warm refuge accented with blue-and-white. An exuberant antique Mallorcan canopy bed and Gothic over-mantel mirror enliven the room’s otherwise calm ambiance.
A local muralist painted the feathery and delicate trees for the master bath walls, inspired by the island’s foliage.
The guest suites are contained within a detached guest house, stacked three high. Smith used the same blue-and-white flame stitch that covers the living room’s armchairs for the walls and curtains of this guest suite, adding a Mallorcan bed and bench for an added note of regional character.
The scheme for a second guest suite was informed by a pale Persian carpet, accented with stenciled walls inspired by local decorative painting.
For the ground floor guest suite Smith covered the walls in a striated Bujosa textile to complement the exposed timber beams, doors and windows.
In both The World of Interiors and Architectural Digest the client remains anonymous, which always brings out the sleuth in me. I immediately recognized the classically-inspired patio furniture from Janus et Cie from another Smith project for Francine and Neil Afromsky, owners of Westerly Vineyard in Santa Ynez, California (see California Tuscan). Could this be their Mallorcan villa? The article in The World of Interiors did pronounce, after all, that they “ran out of Italy” for Majorca. Perhaps, after 18 years of Italian-style homes, it was the Afromsky’s who were looking for something new and different …?
A view of the bougainvillea-covered main house and guest house set into the slopes of an olive grove.
Architectural Digest; November 2013. Photos by Tim Beddow.
Photography by Simon Upton for The World of Interiors