Some historians believe that the name Madrid derives from the word matrix, matrix in Spanish, since the city was once crisscrossed with small streams, underground springs, and arroyos. A popular justification for this theory is that even 21st-century madrileños call their hometown “Madriz” (yes, with the tip of the tongue against the teeth “th.”).
Taming the local waters was evidently a priority back in the 18th century when the soberly neoclassical building that houses the apartment of Iñigo Aragón and Pablo López Navarro—the creative duo behind the Madrid-based interior design studio Josephine House—was built at the northern edge of Madrid’s historic La Latina neighborhood.
“The hillside beneath our building was notoriously unstable and kept crumbling into the Arroyo de San Pedro, which used to run behind us down to the Manzanares River,” Aragón explains. “Thus, the structure was designed as much as a massive retaining wall as it was a monastic residence – essentially an inn for the large retinues of monks that would accompany important clerics at conferences and other religious gatherings.”
By the mid-19th century, the building had been confiscated from the church and sold for private development. But the building’s quirks endure: four-foot thick exterior walls; an interior divided into compact rooms (formerly monks’ cells, each with its own vaulted ceiling); and a wonky hillside site that means a ground-level apartment floats a full two floors above the street behind it.
Not every interior designer would embrace such a peculiar and—with its foot-thick internal walls—restrictive spatial legacy. Clearly, neither López Navarro nor Aragón is that type of designer. “This is our home, not a showroom, and we love the sense it provides of being in a cosseting retreat from the city,” says López Navarro. “When we entertain here it’s small groups of friends, not large client events.”
It helps that under the Casa Josephine name, the two also helm one of the chicest vintage furniture and art galleries in the Rastro, Madrid’s sprawling flea market and antiques district. Culled from their frequent trips around Spain, France, and Italy, the 20th-century pieces in the shop’s curated displays are characterized by an emphasis on handmade objects crafted of humble-yet-elegant materials like pine, clay, stone, and linen.
From the outset, the intention for the pair’s home was to respect the building’s history and use it as a backdrop for their candid and unfussy interpretation of Spanish design over the centuries. A prior 1980s renovation had removed many of the original fixtures. While they might bemoan the loss of the original pieced-oak doors, the designers were keen to respect what Aragón describes as “the spirit of the original monastic architecture while also referencing the ’80s ‘out with the old’ loftlike aesthetic” in their decor .
The apartment totals about 1,000 square feet, but is divided into seven “cells,” plus an extra room one floor below reached by an iron ladder passing through a hole in the floor and known as “the submarine.” It’s used for storage for their constantly rotating collections of ceramics, sculptures, and other objects.
One enters the home from the street, just off the leafy Plaza del Alamillo, into the library which can do double duty as a dining room. That space opens to the living room, presided over by a large tapestry fragment mounted on regal yellow linen and an abundant sheaf of wheat hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The next cell serves as the apartment’s only passage—leading to the guest room, main bedroom, and the kitchen.
Throughout, their hallmark French and Italian rustic-chic furniture is juxtaposed with one-off finds, like Indonesian weavings or brown-and-white patterned Berber clay pots bought in Tangiers. A gorgeously carved late-18th-century walnut bed in the guest room is a family heirloom, made less serious by a clutch of pillows in bright ’80s colors.
Other elements work to ratchet up the apartment’s monastic vibe: three over-scaled 1960s black-and-white photo enlargements, originally displayed in the Museu Frederic Marès in Barcelona, depict sculptures of the Virgin Mary from the Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.
Underpinning the whole look, the apartment’s floors and kitchen counters are clad in earth-toned tiles with a beautifully mottled glaze achieved by randomly tossing metal salts on the tiles while still red-hot from firing. “There are lots of buildings in Madrid with these tile floors and even facades,” Aragón points out. “But it turned out the salt technique released noxious gasses into the air and was prohibited, so the look now represents a sort of ’80s time-capsule aesthetic that we love.”
It’s moments like these that showcase Casa Josephine’s deft ability to combine the sediment of past design movements with their own sophisticated vision of the present. And while Madrid’s arroyos and streams may be long gone, as far as this design duo is concerned there’s still something in the water.
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