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Guide to Creating a Southwestern Kitchen

Simplicity, rustic materials and earthy, vibrant color characterize this warm, casual style.

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The style of the American Southwest is so easy on the eyes, it's no wonder it's become a popular design choice. Influenced heavily by the Native American, Mexican and Spanish heritage of that area, Southwestern design is characterized by simplicity, repetition of geometric patterns or motifs, rustic materials and earthy, vibrant color. It's also warm and casual, a big draw for most kitchens.

Two historic design movements figure heavily into the modern Southwestern look: Pueblo Revival and Spanish Mission/Spanish Colonial. The hallmarks of Pueblo Revival architecture, inspired by the multifamily dwellings of Pueblo Indians, are large exposed timbers, adobe or stucco walls, and brick or flagstone floors. Spanish Mission is a similar style, if more ornate, that often features red tile roofs, ornamental ironwork and colorful ceramic tiles. All of these rich, earthy components can be found in some form in the Southwestern decorating style.

But even though the Southwestern look is shaped by these influences, smart kitchen designers look for ways to blend historic elements with contemporary design. "I always like to mix the old and the new," says Erica Islas, principal designer of EMI Interior Design in Southern California. "The 'ancient plus modern' combination tends to work really well."

This means making bold combinations of new and old appliances, hardware, lighting, cabinetry and flooring; don't be afraid to step out of the accepted Southwestern "look" to add your own eclectic touches. Be sure to explore the delicious range of colors that Southwestern style calls for: sky-blue, turquoise, cobalt, terra cotta and chile-pepper red, to name a few. The kitchen is also a great place to work in the handcrafted stoneware, ceramic and copper accessories typical of Southwestern design.

How to Get the Look

You can achieve a stunning Southwestern look in your kitchen with small additions or major changes. Islas offers her ideas for adding this regional flavor to your design:

  • Add a Saltillo floor. Floors made of Saltillo tiles, a type of clay paver, add instant effect. "There are many types of Saltillo tiles, some more rustic than others," Islas says. "Although the Mexican 'super' (round-edge) Saltillo is less expensive, I tend to use the Spanish or Italian Saltillo most often because it's harder. It wears better and offers better resistance in a high-traffic kitchen." Islas cautions that you must seal the Saltillo tiles both before you install them and after they've been laid in and grouted.

  • Use Talavera tile. These handpainted tiles are named for their city of origin, Talavera de la Reina, Spain, which is famous for its ceramics, but they're more widely used in Mexico. Talavera tiles are intricately patterned and feature both symmetrical/geometric designs and representations of nature. "This tile is a must if you're going for an authentic Southwestern kitchen," Islas says. "In my designs, I've either mixed up several tile designs, as it's done traditionally, or I've picked a single pattern to keep it simpler. Talavera is not inexpensive, and most people use it as an accent only. But if you can afford to splurge, I always recommend using a lot of it. That gives the kitchen a rich, authentic look."

  • Choose the right finishes. Islas recommends sticking with old-style finishes for plumbing and lighting. "Avoid using polished chrome or satin chrome or nickel," she says. "Instead, opt for a more rustic approach, like a copper or oil-rubbed bronze faucet. Then use the same finish for your light fixtures."

  • Bring in a modern touch with appliances. "I tend to use stainless steel appliances," Islas says. "But if you want a more traditional look, try something like Aga appliances, which have a roundness that suggests a vintage feel. Don't use bright white; use vintage white instead. There are other colors, too, like red or navy, that would work with the right color palette."

  • Don't forget small touches. "I always say that the design is in the details," Islas says. "With a little research, you can find punched tin cover plates for light switches. These also come in copper and other great finishes. Another great detail is hand-forged, wrought-iron handles and knobs for drawers and doors." You might also stencil a design over a doorway; pattern books inspired by American Indian and Mexican traditions are widely available online.

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