It almost seems like a natural that someone like Deborah LaChapelle would end up building, restoring, and designing homes in Mérida.
She would have inherited an affinity for historic properties from her grandfather, who was a Boston antique dealer. In her youth, she grew up in US border states and was educated in San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, another connection to her current vocation.
But LaChapelle, who possesses no formal art training and says she never took to classrooms, says she wasn’t always considered just so capable.
“Nobody thought I was artistic or interesting or anything, least of all me,” LaChapelle says, adding that she was a bit of a rebel, dropping out of school on numerous occasions.
After two decades in Mérida, LaChapelle’s homes are among the most distinctive around. They are richly styled, embrace available materials and connect to their surroundings.
Her path here was filled with obstacles before she made it to the airport.
“I woke up that morning, I had a B&B in Tucson where I was living, and my assistant — who was going to stay in my home while I was gone — said, you gotta turn on the TV,” LaChapelle recalls. “Why would I turn on the TV at 6 in the morning?” she asked herself. It was 9/11, and all air travel had halted for obvious reasons.
“I eventually took a bus down to the border to Nogales and I made my way on another flight to Mérida. So I bought a home in Santa Ana. It was a complete ruin, I could hardly see the house,” LaChapelle remembers.
Building on her experience restoring a farmhouse and a barn in Maine, an adobe in Tucson, and a Victorian in Los Angeles, she turned that property into a bed-and-breakfast.
“I’m not an architect, I’m a designer and I’ve become a builder since I’ve been here,” LaChapelle says.
Years later, she sold it and decided to keep buying and restoring buildings.
“I’ve worked with a really wonderful crew of Mayans,” she says. “It’s almost one family, father, brothers, a son, a couple of uncles, and so on. And they have been with me for at least 10 years.”
Together, they have consistently built and sold houses that reflect her concepts that “mush things together,” as she puts it. “I like old and new, kind of Mexican modern meets romantic rustic Mexican hacienda. I like modern lighting, modern kitchens…”
But what stands out first is her use of color. Her palette isn’t necessarily bright or forceful, but rather deep and textured.
“I like to juxtapose colors that seem odd together. I like to do very deep colors, like in the bedroom which is a martini-olive green. I like to do washes,” she says, pointing to a wall in a recently completed house, which is on the market, “like turquoise — eight layers of paint. It’s paint dropped in a bucket of water.”
On another wall: “This is a color that’s not dark and triste as my guys would say, it’s just deep. And deep colors make things look bigger. It pushes it back.”
“All the tile in the house is the tile that was originally here,” says LaChapelle. The new section raises the roof four feet and incorporates original pieces or older elements found in salvage shops she routinely scours. “I like to work with what’s here, and then build new. So new doors, old doors,” we admire another wall with rich yet mellow hues.
“Deep colors are not dark, they’re just wonderful, in my opinion. And I like surprising combinations, like ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ I like patina, I like juxtaposed mixed-together stuff.”
A version of this story originally appeared in our print edition in 2021. Subscribe to Yucatán Magazine, and purchase past issues, here.