The house that interior designer and her husband, Don, built in the Mexican hill town of San Miguel de Allende began as a bit of an adventure — an opportunity for a designer who “gets high on cement and sawdust,” as she says, to embark on a new project. The couple had always planned on living outside the United States at some point. Rela grew up in Belgium, the daughter of an Israeli father and a Czech mother, before she came to the United States, where she and her husband founded Summer Hill Ltd., a furniture and design business for which she served as creative director.
But returning to Europe would have taken the couple too far from their two children and four grandchildren. Mexico is only a three-hour flight away from their other house in Napa Valley, California — and yet this area somehow still feels like a world apart. San Miguel’s townspeople, despite a large expat incursion, have succeeded in preserving their deep sense of community. The Mexican city, which has attracted artists and a bohemian jet set for decades, quickly worked its magic on the Gleasons.
In the dining room of Rela and Don Gleason’s home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the table and armoire were designed by Rela and made by local artisans. The chairs have custom leather slipcovers, and the goatskin-and-iron ceiling fixture was inspired by lighting at the Leon Trotsky museum in Mexico City.
They are hardly alone in succumbing to its charms. With its maze of narrow streets, lush gardens, and temperate climate, San Miguel has been catnip for the likes of Bianca Jagger, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; now it is luring a new creative generation. Dallas decorator Michelle Nussbaumer has a hacienda there, and media entrepreneur Bob Pittman and his wife, Veronique, named their tequila brand Casa Dragones after the house they bought there. They have also set up a tasting room at a new concept house, Dôce 18, the brainchild of Mexico City designer Sally Azar and her husband, architect Roy Azar.
The living room’s sectional is custom, the armchair has a slipcover in natural white linen, and the leather chair is from the . The cocktail table is an inverted polished tree stump, a stone mill wheel serves as a side table, and the 16th-century monk’s chair in the entry hall is from . A Persian rug is layered on a cowhide, and the painting of the Guanajuato countryside is by Margarette Dawit.
Casa Lala, as the Gleasons call their house, is an ode to both the old and the new in San Miguel. Rela swept aside all the Colonial clichés to create an austere structure of stone, plaster, and ironwork that is flooded with San Miguel’s crisp mountain sunlight. There is not a terra-cotta tile in sight. Instead, Rela pays tribute to Mexico in the craftsmanship she devotes to the house and in a selective series of flourishes.
A staircase in the entry courtyard leads to a second-floor guest casita with a trumpet vine-covered roof. A schefflera tree grows beside the swimming pool, which is framed, along with the flooring, in adoquín, a local paving stone.
“I wanted to take the local language and give it a new dialect with flashes of Colonial whimsy, which I exaggerate in very bold gestures,” she explains.
A donkey peeks into the Gleasons’ dining room, where a charred-wood wall is hung with baskets, hats, and totes from their online store, .
The 3,000-square-foot, two-story house is set behind the high protective walls of an old hacienda. Rela adapted the design of baroque scotias on the posts of a park outside to fashion a large whorl over the front entrance.
The 11-foot-long table in the living room is from Wabi, the vintage Savonarola-style chair was purchased in Palm Beach, the steel windows are custom, and the candlesticks are from ; the ceramic platter is Mexican, and the bronze bust is by .
In the house’s courtyard, her most dramatic feature dominates one side: a giant two-story industrial window she designed after those in a local former textile mill. The iron-and-glass structure reaches up past the living room to the master bedroom above. “It’s like a light lantern on the face of this muscular house,” she says.
In the dining area off the kitchen, the Saarinen table is by , the settee and armchair have white denim slipcovers, and the vintage Mexican chair was purchased in town. The blue-and-white vintage plates were mostly found on the couple’s travels, and the throw is Mexican.
The entire ground floor is covered with adoquín, a Mexican stone more typically used to pave streets; in a nod to Colonial architecture, the bookcase in the living room is set into a plaster niche with its shelves made of reclaimed timber. Upstairs, antique wooden doors open into the master bathroom, and a reclaimed-mesquite beam in the guest bathroom is an unexpected accent.
The kitchen’s refrigerator is by , the cooktop is by , the ovens are by , and the sink fittings are by (left) and (right). The island is encased in wood that was charred on-site and topped with Carrara marble, and the backsplash is local granite with a leather finish. The 1970s stools are Italian.
Throughout, the decor is a mix of flea-market treasures and fine antiques. In the entry hall, a 16th-century colonial monk’s chair stands against a simple white wall. Nearby, a staircase is decorated simply with a sculpture by the Puerto Rican artist Ángel Botello and an old black bean pot from the neighboring state of Michoacán.
The master bath’s tub is by and the faucet is by , the side table is from , and the antique doors were found at a local thrift shop.
Gleason placed a Saarinen table by Knoll at the center of a dining area off the main kitchen and combined it with a classic Mexican round chair, known as an equipal, made of leather and wood strips. Plates from around the world and antlers Gleason purchased in Montana complete the bodacious combination.
In a guest bedroom, the four-poster bed is custom, and Rela painted her mother’s vintage vanity table white; the basket is from Oaxaca and the throw is an antique suzani.
Ever since the house was completed two years ago, the couple have begun to spend more than six months a year in San Miguel, hosting their family along with regular visitors. Taken by the city’s design tradition, Gleason has begun a new business, Crema, selling items created by local artisans.
Gleason added iron posts to the master bedroom’s bed, which is covered in a Hinson fabric and draped in a linen canopy. The bedding is by the , the vintage indigo throw is Indian, the 18th- century Danish trunk is from a Tel Aviv, Israel, flea market, and the kilim is from .
And she and her husband have quickly folded themselves into the social scene, throwing dinner parties that last for hours at the round table in their stone-paved dining room, under the light of a goatskin lamp. “There is always a festival, a dinner party, a music recital, or a lecture,” says Gleason. But then, she adds, “We are able to retreat into this gem of a house.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of ELLE DECOR.