Homes: Making mid-century modern blend in colonial Mérida

Robert Holtby and Emile Romain let their strong preference for clean, crisp design follow them from Vancouver to Mérida. We asked Robert 5 questions:

Mayan Modernist Dream
The Mayan Modernist Dream brings crisp lines and high drama to the Centro Histórico.
Yucatan Expat

You built the Modern Mayan Temple and the Modernist Mexican Villa, and now you’re offering the Mayan Modernist Dream, the third in your series. Three houses with clean lines and contemporary finishes. What inspired these homes?

The biggest influence on my architectural and interior design work has always been mid-century architecture, but I am also completely inspired by the Moorish architecture of Andalucia and I have certainly brought some of this inspiration into my homes here in Mérida.

The Mayan Modernist Dream
A neutral palette is playfully interrupted with pops of bright color in the Mayan Modernist Dream kitchen.

As well, I have discovered some wonderful mid-century style homes in this city (many of which are now sadly being bulldozed to build yet another mini-mall) and have taken some of the local vernacular of their design and tried to blend it with modernist forms, creating homes that feel modern yet not out of place in the Centro Histórico.

I incorporate local materials as much as possible, but utilize them in a different or unexpected way, so that my homes reference their historic neighbors, yet feel completely fresh and contemporary with their own individual personalities. But mostly I build houses I love and want to live in!

{ Slide show: See all three homes in the series designed by Robert Holtby and Emile Romain }

In an area where many people are wedded to “hacienda style” and traditional Mexican designs, do you find people are surprised to see neutral colors and a more international approach to your decor?

Soft lighting is soothing to the soul on the terrace at night.

I think people are actually welcoming the change! The demographic of buyers is changing in Mérida and with that comes a desire to move away from traditional designs. People are looking for floor plans that are more open, more “living-friendly,” less formal, have less superfluous space, which is why you have seen in the last few years some “colonial” homes being renovated in a modern aesthetic. Buyers are more interested now in homes that feel tropical, feel different than “those at home,” but don’t have to follow a set standard for Mexican design. As for decor, the truth is that in this tropical climate softer, muted tones are much more cooling and relaxing. Merida is not a quiet city, so creating a calming oasis inside your home is that much more important here. While I personally prefer the look of raw materials in interiors, another reason I use only natural concrete finishes and not paint is that these finishes are basically maintenance free, no constant repainting to repair humidity damage.

Are you designing homes elsewhere? Are they similar in style to what you’ve built in Yucatan?

Soft neutrals bring calm and harmony in the bath, in an otherwise dramatic modern Mérida home.

No, my partner and I relocated to Mérida six years ago and we only build one house at a time here. We are far too fixated on quality and detail to handle more than that!

Can you tell me a little about yourselves? 

We moved to Mérida after 15 years in Vancouver. I am originally from the Toronto area and Emile is one of those rare Vancouverites actually born in B.C. I am responsible for the architectural and interior design of the homes, but of course Emile has a lot of input as well. We spent seven years restoring our 1951 mid-century home in Vancouver before selling it to start our own business, saving and restoring small mid-century homes. Prior to that, I worked as an interior designer for a large international home furnishings retailer, designing stores around the world. I also appeared on two different HGTV Canada programs and have had work published in national home décor magazines.

What advice would you give to someone with a modest budget and a yearning to build or renovate a home in Mérida?

Hmmm, that’s a tough one! Of course it depends entirely on your definition of “modest.” After all you can buy a spectacular home in Mérida in the mid $300s or a rather dingy one bedroom condo in suburban Vancouver! I guess my main advice would be to keep your design simple and source as much as you can yourself … and to prepare yourself for the fact that it may take you the same amount of time to source fixtures, fittings and furniture as it does to build the home! Canadians and Americans don’t realize how spoiled we are for home furnishings shopping choices until we move somewhere like Mérida. In general, I think it is getting harder and harder to buy and renovate a modest property in a good part of the centro historico for under $200k US, so a much less time-consuming and relatively stress-free option could be to purchase a home that has already been renovated and then just tweak the style to better suit your own. There seem to be many inexpensive homes for sale here that people pass over for reasons of aesthetics that could well be worth a second look.

A glass wall blurs indoors and outdoor spaces.

Mayan Modernist Dream is listed with Joel DeLeon at Mexico International.