Sporting cool linens the color of hot beach sand, designer Thomas Bartlett strolls the manicured gardens of Hacienda La Penita as though he hasn’t a care in the world. In fact, he doesn’t have many—his red-tile-roofed, white-stucco vacation home in the tiny seaside village of La Penita de Jaltemba, an hour’s drive from Puerto Vallarta, is working its faithful magic.
"Even though it’s only a three-hour plane ride and an hour’s time-zone difference from my home in California, it’s a totally different world," says the Napa designer, whose work has appeared in Traditional Home. "And it doesn’t require a lot of preparation to get here. Then the relaxation kicks in. Concerns vanish, and the margaritas begin to flow," he says between sips from a glass thickly rimmed with salt.
Frequently opening his home to guests, he is the consummate host. In April, five house guests enjoyed his hospitality—as always, the food and margaritas were abundant—and he anticipates more celebrations ahead.
"Last year, I was here 13 times for a total of 14 weeks. My goal is to stay four months." Thanksgiving and his daughter’s birthday are celebrated in the Mexican vacation home. One week each year, vintner Robert Mondavi and his wife enjoy a stay at the home, the vacation their prize as high bidders in a Napa museum fund-raising auction.
"They love the peacefulness, as do I. There’s no TV, and the only time I play music is during meals," says Thomas. "Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoy the sound of the waves and the many different species of birds that are always chattering."
Birdsong helps explain why the urge to unwind begins before even entering the house. It starts in the 2 1⁄2-acre garden with a profusion of palm fronds waving in the breeze. (Thomas grows 13 palm species.) A crisp allée of 48 citrus trees tempers the palms’ undisciplined edges and sweetens the air in the garden and house.
Skeins of blue trumpet and cup-of-gold vines spill over the garden wall and the house, and blue plumbago and white and yellow hibiscus splash color everywhere else. Ferns planted in traditional talavera (Mexican majolica from Puebla) pots flank entries and outdoor sitting spaces; leaving no area of the gardens without greenery.
Thomas Bartlett designed this canvas-covered equipal sofa; Huichol yarn art above it is displayed in a silver-gilt frame custom-made in Puerto Vallarta. Mixed with the Mexicana is an 18th-century French chest and a fine French linen-and-cotton rug.
If the garden doesn’t trigger alpha waves or a milder state of sublimity, there’s always pet therapy: A pair of irresistibly friendly Chihuahuas have the run of the house all year long. Mexican staff members spoil them as much as Thomas does, and his attentions are shameless.Topping out at almost 6-foot-4, he’s a study in contrasts as he totes a tiny bundle under each arm from the house right up to an outdoor dining table. "Nothing’s too good for Señorita Quatro," he purrs. The dog taps her nails on the tabletop while Romeo, her male companion, quietly observes from Thomas’s lap. "But it’s really the white cat who rules the roost," he says, nodding to the cat placidly sunning on the patio below.
Because he believes outdoor living is as important as indoor, he carries the decorative design seamlessly outdoors. "I wanted to evoke ocean and sky, so I did the house in blues accented with pale yellows and whites.
One-of-a-kind candlesticks by a Mexican metal artist feature ceramic angel faces.
I wanted to use furnishings indigenous to Mexico, mixed with a European feeling inspired by Portuguese style, with a little Italian—as though Andrea Palladio [the Italian architect of Palladian window fame] had visited Portugal and somehow ended up here ," he explains.
An 18th-century-style console caddies ceramic tiles and vessels.
A traditional tin-and-glass cross
Equipal furniture—classic Mexican seating of leather stretched over wood—is a recurring native design. But Thomas’s pieces are larger than most. "I had to have them custom-made in Puerto Vallarta to fit my scale." Accessories throughout the home also represent the country. "My rugs are from Oaxaca. The tin-and-glass sconces are from Tlaquepaque. And the chest of drawers in the dining room is an adaptation of a fine Mexican antique."
The exquisitely painted hand carvings on the gate, doors, and headboards were a team effort: Thomas drew the designs; accomplished muralist Antoinette, the Baroness von Grone, transformed them to full-size cartoons; and decorative painter Carole Lansdown did the final coloration. "This place is a lifetime project for me. I’ll never be done," Thomas happily insists.
Homeowner and interior designer Thomas Bartlett strolls through his garden.
Photography: Colleen Duffley
Produced by Carla Breer Howard