Travels Inspired Designer Michelle Nussbaumer’s Family Getaway in San Miguel de Allende
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Nothing Michelle Nussbaumer had seen in San Miguel de Allende, the romantic Spanish Colonial city in Mexico’s Bajío mountains, was pleasing her exacting eye. “I want something unusual,” the Dallas decorator told a real-estate agent a dozen years ago, at the start of her search for a getaway. “A ruin, even.” Instead, she found herself trudging through glossily renovated houses that were “just plain weird.”
One afternoon Nussbaumer spotted a dilapidated wall and decided to climb over it. Behind it, the stylish trespasser discovered a U-shape building, much of it dating from the 16th century, that included a hacienda and a multi-chamber granary with barrel-vaulted ceilings rising more than 30 feet high. As for the lot, it had been used as a dump site for as long as anyone could remember. Forlorn, malodorous, shaded by sickly trees—it was absolutely perfect. With the help of friends, she tracked down the “totally adorable” owner, who had forgotten that the woebegone acreage was among his numerous properties.
“I bought it on a handshake, which is so unusual in Mexico,” Nussbaumer recounts. Thus the name that she and her husband, Bernard—a movie producer and cofounder of Texas’s Buda Juice beverage bars—chose for their new home away from home: Hacienda Buena Fe, the House of Good Faith.
Today the property’s buildings have been restored, connected, expanded, and augmented, here wrapping around fountained courtyards, there sprouting sunny terraces and shady loggias. Additional buildings have joined them, from a poolhouse to guest quarters to pavilions. The abundant gardens—also created by Nussbaumer, though she admits that she has no training in that regard—seem to go on for miles. (Frankly, to document it all would take a special issue of AD.) Though the compound gives off the authentic Mexican vibe that the decorator desired, many of the details bear witness to her inspiringly magpie approach to design, architecture, and landscapes.
“Whenever I’m traveling, I take pictures of any details I think I can use,” Nussbaumer says, going on to compare her cherry-picking to that of explorers “from a long time ago who would find plants in Fiji and then try to grow them in England.” That intrepid spirit informs Ceylon et Cie, her Dallas Design District showroom, where cultures collide and colors coruscate, and it’s showcased in her exuberant 2016 book, Wanderlust: Interiors That Bring the World Home ($50; Rizzoli). “How can you not document the things you see and reproduce them in some way?” Nussbaumer says. “Or at least reinvent them?”
Some of her photographic aide-mémoires have been adapted by an army of local craftsmen, who battered the building materials so Hacienda Buena Fe would look aged rather than new. “Whatever you can dream up, they can do,” the decorator explains. “I would show them fireplaces in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul or the arches in a fab place in Morocco, and they’d say, ‘OK, sure, señora.’ Sometimes the results would be the wrong scale and have to be torn out, and sometimes they would be perfect and amazing.”
Though the rusticated lava-rock pilasters that flank a pedimented door reference something similar that Nussbaumer had seen in Rome, and the living room’s painted floor is a rustic take on geometric marble paving at Château de Versailles, many of her grace notes are Arabic at heart. “Arab style made its way to Spain and then across to Mexico,” she observes. “That was my impetus for the house. To my mind, Mexico is America’s Morocco, and Morocco is Europe’s Mexico.”
Scallops cribbed from Andalusia’s historic Mudéjar architecture create a jaunty ridge atop the former granary. The tub in the master bath is framed by an elaborate Mudéjar lobed arch like those at Tordesillas’ 14th-century Royal Convent of Santa Clara. Other Arab arches trim a loggia and shape doorways that had been punched through thick walls in the development of a hospitable floor plan.
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