Design editor and photographer Newell Turner highlights the best of Mexican design in his new coffee table tome.
The images are threaded into Turner’s own story of rediscovering his version of the soul of México. Turner spent his magazine career chronicling American style at House Beautiful & MetHome and now his eye has turned to México, Merida specifically, where he spends half of the year.
I’m in Merida right now looking at a 10 foot tall iron window grate that Turner and his partner Douglas Clarke gave me from their amazing Merida mansion, which was once a school. I’ve installed it as a trellis on a 20 ft high concrete wall at the end of my lap pool.
As we’re both in Merida at the moment, I asked Newell a few questions…
Speegle: So, when did you get the idea for the book?
Turner: I decided I wanted to do this book just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down New York. But the roots of my interests in México go back a few decades and involve several things that I experienced.
In the early 90s I produced a story for Metropolitan Home magazine on artist Michael Tracy, who lives on the border in San Ygnacio, Texas. I also worked in Texas for two years where there is a much more dynamic design and lifestyle exchange between our two countries.
When the pandemic first locked down just about everything, I started diving deep into the IG feeds of Mexico-connected friends, tastemakers, and artists of all types. It was literally a new and flourishing world of design that felt completely fresh, yet grounded in this rich history of Mexican culture.
We both just created homes here in Merida from the ground up, so we could off on a tangent easily, but I know for myself I looked at a LOT of stuff on Instagram and Pinterest and I kind of steeped myself in it. The sensibility here seems to overlap with lots of warm cultures, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Spain, etc. Were you looking for universal images, things unique to Mexican culture… or did you just follow your eye?
I followed my eye, but my interests are wide ranging. Instagram made it possible for me to do so much more and a much wider range of exploration. Plus, I bought a lot of books to educate myself on Mexican history from Pre-Columbian times to the present.
Design really doesn’t and can’t exist in a vacuum—at least great design can’t. So to explore design here, I had to have some understanding of México’s past and present.
Perfect segway into the chapters of the book; Pre-Columbian, Baroque, Colonial, Neo Classical, Art Noveau, Art Deco, Surrealism, Modernism & Contemporary. It seems that in terms of decorating, in 2023 people seem primarily interested in employing two of those styles, at least here in Merida –Colonial & Contemporary. Do you see it that way?
That’s true generally speaking, but as with everything in México there’s always at least a little blending that makes new constructions or renovations really interesting and wonderful to experience. For instance, the warmth of hand-built minimalist architecture is so much more appealing than extreme perfection.
On the other side, an elegant contemporary piece of furniture or even decorative object can make a traditional room sing, so to speak.
I use the analogy of a mole vs a simple gravy in my book. Moles have at least ten ingredients. Some can have 30+ ingredients—exotic, local, rich, humble. The result of this Mexican staple is unforgettable.
It feels very fresh. You are kind of debunking the old cliché ideas of what Mexican design and culture are thought to be and at the same time, giving us some history. People don’t automatically think “Mexico” when Art Deco comes up…
Art Deco was used much more extensively in México.
In the States, we typically think of it or know it in commercial applications from theaters to sky scrapers. Here, though, it was used extensively in domestic architecture, at luxurious and humble scales.
I think the Maya and other indigenous cultures connected with Art Deco through the materials like cement and the decorative designs and patterns.
Mexico even developed a unique style of Art Deco called Mayan Deco. There are wonderful examples here in Mérida.
So, you’re doing your first book signing in Houston next week. Now that it’s out and in the world, what’s next design-wise?
This book is only the beginning of my journey of discovery...
I hope to contribute in some way to a more vibrant, two-way dialogue of design between the United States of America and the United States of México.