Design Style 101: Southwestern

Southwestern-modern-living-roomabove: Apartment Therapy

Southwestern style packs a whole lot of history into one single interior design genre. The iconic look of the "Wild West" manages to meld together elements from multiple cultures and periods of history, but it's translatable to modern homes in our day. Here are a variety of contemporary styled homes that heavily rely on the traditional style of the American Southwest. 

Bright-colors-in-southwestern-styleabove: Ruemag / Anthropologie (old image)

Southwestern-neutralsabove: DigsDigs / Country Living via Cavern

Spanish Influence

The Spanish were the first contemporary Europeans to successfully settle the American Southwest, making Spanish style hugely influential in the region even to this day. Traditional Spanish style adobe homes are still being built in the area, even though every modern American architectural element is available to home builders in the region. The orangey terracotta color exterior with its textural stucco walls marks this look, with the interiors usually done in a white stucco with molded edges and nooks.

Along with white walls, interiors in Spanish-inspired homes will often see practical clay tiles for flooring and trim, and sometimes elegant decorative tiles, particularly in kitchens and baths. Architectural details like railings and grates will usually be in wrought iron or beautifully carved woodwork in more upscale spaces.

Tiled-kitchen-backsplashabove: Mark D. Sikes

Southwestern-fursabove: Apartment Therapy / Design Sponge

Native American Influence

Before the Spanish came along, Native Americans were the only inhabitants of the American Southwest, with the Navajo tribe being the most influential when it comes to style. The Navajo have a long history of textile craft, passing down their iconic weaving tradition through hundreds of years. I'm sure you recognize the graphic style of their blankets, as they're wildly popular these days.

Along with woven textiles, Native Americans contribute other arts to the southwest style, like basket weaving, pottery, turquoise and leather goods. While a lot of modern retailers sell copies of Native American designs, the most respectful way to purchase a Navajo-style rug is to directly buy from Navajo artisans who make the rugs. A simple Google search will show some authentic Navajo vendors. Here's a shop I found that offers some really beautiful rugs made and sold directly from Navajo artisans.

Southwestern-interiorsabove: Design Sponge / Design Sponge

Cactus-dining-tableabove: Apartment Therapy

American Influence

The first of contemporary Americans to settle west were mostly ranchers and missionaries. Hardworking men and women braved the unplowed, wild landscape to raise cattle and farm the land, living simple lives in rustic homes often built out of mud. Their textiles were crudely handwoven or else fresh off an animal's back. Furnishings and fixtures were utilitarian wood and fixtures sometimes got about as fancy as hammered metal. The rustic rancher look is translated to modern southwest style with decorative elements like ram's horns, cowhide rugs and upholstery, and the frequent use of leather in upholstery.

The missionaries who settled the West also understandably had simple structures. The style of furnishing was often what they brought with them in their wagons or what was easily fashioned after arrival in their new homes. Most missionaries had lived simple lives even back in the East, so the furnishings you would often see in missions were simple, Shaker styles like ladder-back chairs and large cupboards and wardrobes with simple decorations, like the heart shape cut-out in the hutch shown below left.

Southwestern-styleabove: Apartment Therapy / unknown

Get the Look

It's so easy to translate southwestern decor into your own personal style. Stick with white walls and accent with earthy color tones, like terracotta and shades of brown. Maybe add a pop of turquoise to borrow from that azure sky. Medium and dark stained wood with leather and hide elements make great accents alongside more elegant Spanish-inspired fixtures. And let's not forget about the beautiful Native American textiles, weavings, baskets, and pottery. Select the elements you like, and mix to your heart's content! Here are some of my favorites below:

  Get-the-look-copy1. Papier-mache ram's head
2. Hammered metal pendant
3. Orange linen pillow
4. Looped woven pillow
5. Highland cows print
6. Navajo rug
7. Bobbin ladder back chair
8. Pueblo vase
9. Leather and hide footstool

Modern-southwesternabove: The Brick House

Of course, if you'd rather exercise your green thumb, you can always buy an easy-to-care for cactus to infuse your space with some southwestern style! You don't have to get a giant one, per se, but how awesome is this sculptural cactus in the corner of the room above? It's got me wondering if I could keep something like that alive in my sometimes-sunny Ohio home. -Mandi

Credits // Author: Mandi Johnson. Images: Noted individually.

  • I feel like southwestern interior decorating can sometimes look really tacky – maybe a little too “cowboy”, but this looks really nice and modern! It was interesting to read about the Spanish and Native American influences on the style too – I learned something today!

  • Thank you for opening my eyes, Mandi! I am redecorating my bedroom at the moment and had never thought of adding these elements. I had this preconceived notion on what southwestern style was and I wanted nothing to do with it. But now I do! I will definitely add rich textiles ,woven baskets and aloe plant too, of course!

    Coco
    http://craftylittlecoco.com/

  • Great style and inspiration! I am on the look out for for inspiration as I am planning to do a home make over soon ♥♥

    summerdaisy.net

  • I really like a few of these images! I didn’t think I liked Southwestern influences, but given I now live in New Mexico, I thought I’d better read this post. Since I’ll probably end up in an adobe house (they really are everywhere here) it’s good to know there are some aspects of SW style I wouldn’t mind mixing in.

  • Thank you thank you for commenting on how important it is to purchase Navajo art and designs from Navajo artists, and suggest checking out artists from the Hopi and Diné tribes as well. There are some truly exceptional ones out there, and purchasing from them (rather than an anonymous retailer) allows them to keep creating in a way that celebrates and supports their own culture! A beautiful round-up, and some great tips I’ll keep in mind!

    Fiona

  • I love this. I recently told my mom that I have a fantasy of adding a big soft leather chair to my living room to go with my giant cactus. And she said, why? I’m glad someone understands this. ; )

    cactiandmountains.com

  • Yes, I was going to ask why ABeautifulMess wrote that Navajo is most influential in terms of style. A lot of the stuff that is marketed as “Navajo” is not actually a representation of Navajo style but is some generic geometric thing claiming to be native american, or it is actually from another tribe such as the Hopi or Dene tribes. Cultural appropriation is not just about taking from another culture but also throwing a whole bunch of cultures together and treating them like they are all the same.

  • I’ve been really enjoying these style profiles! They have all been so detailed and comprehensive! I love the southwestern style, but it doesn’t really go with my 1920’s home. I do like add leather accents and cacti (of course), so I do get teeny tiny southwestern peaks! Thanks for sharing!

  • I am LOVING these posts! Just the right mix of ooh-aah inspiration photos and how-to guidance. Can’t wait to see what style you feature next!

  • I’m absolutely loving these little guides to interior styling! I have so many pins on pinterest boards, but actually making them a reality is a little harder to see in my own place. I love all the little suggestions for different styles!
    xo April | April Everyday

  • I agree, I was really pleased to see the comment encouraging people to buy from actual Navajo artisans and not from companies that STEAL and then mass-produce patterns, designs, and imagery from native cultures (ahem, Urban Outfitters). While it’s true that many other tribes have art and influence apart from the Navajo, I don’t think ABM was necessarily being insensitive by stating that the Navajo are one of the largest influencers of “southwestern” design…although it’s good to always be aware of lumping the hundreds of unique native tribes into the umbrella term “Native American,” or worse, assuming they are interchangeable and mixing up cultural identifiers, ie, calling all “native” prints “Navajo.” I don’t think that was done here though.

    So thanks, AMB, for taking a small step in the right direction in the blogosphere…now let’s talk about your love of Forever 21 and cheap, exploitative fashion, hmm? (Half joking…)

  • I love this article. It’s quite the departure from the normal feel of A Beautiful Mess posts. I especially appreciate that the author stated to respectfully decorate with a Native American influence is to buy rugs directly from them. I would like to say that goes for any Native American decorations, jewelry, etc. There are several Native American artists who sell their work instead of just buying Native American inspired pieces from Anthropology or wherever.

    Thanks for this post!

  • Hats off to abeautifulmess (love your name by the way)!!! We were very surprised to see our weaving and link in the blog, what a treat! We have been working with the Navajo and other Native American Artists for over 40 years. We are very happy to see the recommendation for using these artforms in todays interior design for accent, art, and just plain utilitarian use.
    The Burntwater design pictured was woven in the 1980s, using natural dyes harvested from the Navajo Nation, and prepared by the weavers. Burntwater is a place (and design) on the Navajo Reservation. The colors were very popular in the 1980s – happy to see their return to favor.
    Thank you Abeautifulmess for your Blog. We will stay tuned!!!
    p.s. We also love “apartment therapy” – more beautiful minds at work!!!

  • Decoration adds life to a house, and I believe that even how small it is, you can still find ways how to make it attractive and beautiful. Thank you for sharing this very awesome interior design specially the traditional Spanish style. Great article!Continue to inspire your readers the way you inspire me.

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  • As a historian, I just wanted to make a little correction. The “Spanish” adobe homes and such were actually influenced by the Pueblo and other Native American tribes in the area who had used that architecture for thousand of years.

  • Lovely images and examples, but there’s one that I think you are really stretching to include in the “southwestern” category. Picture 6a00d8358081ff69e201b7c7e535b6970b-800wi comes from the Marion House book written by a famous Canadian. The blanket is a very historical northern design as well, sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

    Other than that, the bonsai tree and platform bed are inspired by the “reminiscent of Japan” style that started last century, but certainly not before that. The metal and grey are nods to the industrial trend. The only “southwestern” element is the animal head, but animal heads are part of many trends and styles.

    It’s a beautiful room and I like it quite a lot, but the designer was going for “modern cabin” not southwestern.

  • Hi Natika! This post is meant to showcase the Southwestern style as well as show ways in can be incorporated into other compatible style genres. I’ll bet you’ve got a great sense of design (judging from your great assessment of the styles in the photo you mention), so I’m sure you’d probably agree that modern design sense is more about mixing styles than sticking to one in particular. So these design style posts are more about how to incorporate styles than to create a home entirely made up of one single style. Hope that makes more sense now! 🙂 -Mandi

  • Everything just looks great and an inspirational.No style is complete without those beautiful carpets ans rugs. Liked the ideas as we also deals in rugs,carpets,furniture and handbags.

  • I have a townhome I’m struggling to incorporate MCM and southwestern influenced decor in. It’s definitely been interesting. Thanks for this!