Interior Design 08·02·2021
Casa Josephine and the art of interior design lifestyle
Cultured yet unpretentious, harmonious and ever-evolving, and artistic with a firm eye on the decorative style of the context. This defines the ambiences created by this design and architecture studio that knows how to listen to – and respect – the spirit of a space.
Never have such modest ideas resulted in something so spectacular. We don’t know whether in 2008, when Pablo López Navarro and Íñigo Aragón opened Casa Josephine, a self-catering house in the town of Sorzano in La Rioja, they could possibly have imagined they’d end up being invited by ARCO to work on two of their official rooms for the 2019 and 2020 fairs. What we can be sure of is that the secret of their success and renowned approach to design lies, in the words of Pablo himself, in starting from a point of absolute freedom in their ideas and never setting limits when working.
Such was the stir their refurbishment of the late 19th-century manor house in La Rioja caused – converted into self-catering accommodation with an exquisitely vernacular aesthetic on a low budget – that they soon began to receive enquiries for decor projects, gradually building a professional business and culminating in the official opening of their interior design and architecture studio Casa Josephine in 2014.
Today, Pablo and Íñigo, trained in art history, fashion design and photography, have a showroom in the heart of Madrid’s Rastro (and also online) where they sell mostly French, Italian and Spanish 20th-century anonymous and signature design pieces. They currently have four architecture and interior design projects in various stages of implementation, so “we’re working with the sensation of having four different brains“, says Pablo, discussing the past, present and future of a studio that has succeeded in turning interior design into art.
Question: Just a few years ago, achieving sophistication in the rural setting seemed like a pipe dream… Casa Josephine was a pioneer in creating cool ambiences in a village environment. Do you think this has now changed or is there still work to do?
Answer: The way we look at the rural setting has changed in every way. In aesthetic terms, we tend to categorise villages as having a uniquely agricultural past, or see them through a romantic, paternalistic lens of manual labour and attachment to the land – it has nothing to do with the reality of rural Spain’s history. When we renovated the La Rioja house 13 years ago, we were working along very authentic aesthetic lines: it was a simple, relaxed summer house.
Q: Would you approach the design of a space differently for ARCO than for a village in La Rioja?
A: In terms of starting with the absolute freedom of ideas there isn’t much of a difference, because we always start work without setting any limits. Only when we get further into a project do we begin to adapt to the more practical issues, such as budget or the use and durability of materials. If we look specifically at your example of designing two official rooms for ARCO and the village house in La Rioja, what the two have in common is that the context determined the style. In La Rioja, the context was the region’s traditional decor – we wanted to respect that; and at ARCO, a contemporary fair with thousands of exhausting visual stimuli – this dictated us creating particularly homogeneous spaces, self-contained, restful, orderly and peaceful. In one case, we incorporated the context into the design, and in the other we rejected it: but both were shaped by the context as the central concept for our proposal.
Q: You never stop – just recently you went back to redecorate Casa Josephine in La Rioja.
A: That’s right. We had to do it and get rid of all the French, romantic, vernacular and vintage pieces – we wanted to maintain the overall relaxed feel, always reminding ourselves of the home’s unpretentiousness.
Q: What did you update?
A: We collaborated with artist Elvira Solana, and commissioned her to paint a series of murals inspired by the house with a new colour scheme featuring black accents and ochre tones, which will run through the new decor. We’re also building new built-in furniture and adding designer pieces from the 70s.
Q: How do you successfully integrate antique pieces into 21st-century spaces?
A: When there’s a major contrast between the eras, we look for commonality between the piece and the space because we like to achieve harmonious results. But this is a personal preference, other interior designers prefer more jarring results. We try to achieve harmony or logic with colour, materials or forms, but also with quality. Well-designed pieces made in good materials will always fit better in any space, no matter which era they date from.
Q: Are artisan and signature pieces fundamental to your projects?
A: Handmade pieces and the concept of authorship add a different quality to projects. As for artisan work, we love textiles in almost all their forms.
Q: Do you have favourite materials?
A: A few years ago we’d have answered an affirmative yes to this question, when we hadn’t been working for long and would have taken our experience to mean a preference – but that’s no longer the case. Generally speaking we don’t use many ultra high-tech materials or anything futuristic looking, but we’re not closed to the idea in principle.
Q: Colour is your ally. Do you have a favourite?
A: No preference. Each project – and its timing – calls for a certain colour palette. We take the study and use of colour very seriously, as an element that needs to work in all three dimensions and have a profound sense of meaning. It can create harmony, create journeys, define zones, illuminate, direct your attention…
Q: Playing with the walls seems exactly that – to you it’s like playing a game. You can see it in the apartment you designed in La Latina (Madrid), for example.
A: That’s true, we definitely approached colour from a playful perspective there. It was pretty much ephemeral decor, and we were looking for an effect – for it to be photogenic; but it isn’t a constant in the way we identify ourselves or our style.
Q: We can also see this colour and geometry in the gallery and agency projects in Madrid. Is it your hallmark?
A: Colour and geometry are always at the heart of our design process, but we no longer use them in the same way as in those projects, which are already a few years old. In the projects we’re working on now, there isn’t a defining geometry through blocks of colour or visible geometric forms; rather there is an atmospheric use of colour and geometry in the order of the spaces.
Q: Is respecting the original features of a space a standard for you? Do you think people need to be taught to view the past with fresh eyes?
A: Designing a space that respects (as far as possible) what already exists is a starting point that we like – it’s about showing appreciation for other people’s work and recycling the efforts already made. We also like working this way because respecting the context gives you more authentic, meaningful results. We don’t think of decoration as a superficial layer you can place on top of a space, so if there are features worth preserving in a space we’re working on we try to do so: the context of a space exudes a particular language or style. We like the theory of places having a spirit, a genius loci we need to listen to.
Q: Is it fundamental for a client to see themselves reflected in their home, or does their home reflect the type of person they are?
A: We listen to our clients and use this information for our design. Houses are of course a reflection of the person living there, but an interior designer can help to make a space communicate only the good parts of the client’s personality. In this sense, a customised, well-designed house almost acts as a reminder of what they can be. Alain de Botton explains it very well when he says that “the materials around us will speak to us of the highest hopes we have for ourselves” and that “domestic architecture, no less than a mosque or a chapel, can assist us in the commemoration of our genuine selves”.
Q: Like the Atocha apartment belonging to illustrator Silja Goetz…
A: Yes, the Silja Goetz project is an example of this. She told us that her previous house reflected a version of herself (improvised, casual, temporary) that no longer existed. She wanted to see herself in an environment that would have made the same progress that she had, in social, aesthetic and aspirational terms – a bourgeois and intelligent, balanced and homely house.
Q: In Casa Alamillo, you successfully integrated cult Italian design from the 80s into the rooms of an 18th-century convent. How do you achieve this type of thing?
A: It had already been done, so we were really just continuing a tradition. In the seventies and eighties historical buildings were being restored in Italy following very respectful, austere and pure criteria, with visually stunning results – acting as sets for the presentation of ultra-modern designer furniture. As already seen, to an extent it was a contrast that could already form part of the collective memory, and it made sense in this case because the space – an 18th century convent – had already been restored in the eighties. The dialogue between the eras worked well in this case.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: We’re renovating a Madrid apartment for a young woman and have agreed on a modern, industrial loft style, with stainless steel and mirrors that buck the trend entirely (which is precisely why we’re interested); a late 19th-century mansion in Geneva for an aristocratic family where we’re looking at a concept of restrained, balanced luxury (also new for us); and an apartment for a Beijing television presenter, still in the definition phase.
Q: The fourth project Casa Josephine’s working on is a house you’re renovating, again as your own business…
A: It’s the most advanced: accommodation in a town near Riofrío Palace in Segovia. We chose the site because we were thinking about finding a getaway or retreat less than an hour from Madrid, and also because of the landscape – at the foot of the mountains and in a region the Cañada Real passes through: it’s stunning, and protected. In terms of style decisions it’s been an exhausting job. We wanted to move away from the rural language and vernacular of rough ceramics, wicker and matt terracotta – which we’re tired of now because it’s everywhere – but we wanted to create a discerning project with meaning and a respect for the context.