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In the Heart of Mexico City, an Ever-Evolving Townhouse

By Michael Snyder

Lorena DarqueaLeft: In Kinet’s bedroom, an 18th-century portrait hangs above an antique Yucatec chair and a vintage Mexican dresser. Right: Painted chairs from the 1970s upholstered in H&M tablecloths around a midcentury Danish table. Kinet painted the murals himself.
Left: In Kinet’s bedroom, an 18th-century portrait hangs above an antique Yucatec chair and a vintage Mexican dresser. Right: Painted chairs from the 1970s upholstered in H&M tablecloths around a midcentury Danish table. Kinet painted the murals himself.

THE STORY OF how the Flemish interior designer Dirk-Jan Kinet found his Mexico City townhouse is not a straightforward one. Kinet had been living in the city for two years when, in 1997, he found his first apartment in its historic centre: a modest flat in a timeworn Colonial Revival palazzo down the street from the national cathedral. A dim, damp stairway connected the entryway, crowded with coin shops and taquerias, to an interior courtyard whose high, whitewashed walls erased the metropolis beyond. The building may have been in shambles, Kinet says, “but it was charming, like being in a village: not like the city at all.”

Kinet spent the next 11 years refurbishing the stairwell, filling the patio with plants and, on more than one occasion, refinishing the heavy wooden doors that opened onto the street. He got along well with his neighbours, but his zeal for home improvements, often undertaken without permission from the Jesuit landlords, could verge on the tyrannical. “When I start to look after a house, I can be very demanding,” he says; his landlords subsequently kicked him out. With such short notice, the only place he could find in 2009 was a 600-square-foot apartment in a recently restored Art Nouveau building, so rather than look for a place to store all the furniture, art and antiques he’d accumulated over the years, he decided to sell everything and start fresh. That sale, patronised by friends in the art and design worlds, as well as by a growing stable of rich clients — many of whom avoided the Centro, an area they associated with crime and chaos since the devastating 1985 earthquake that had left it in tatters — was a success, a model for the events that would later become central to his design practice.

The Flemish designer invites T into his home in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico.

 

But from the moment he arrived in his new apartment, Kinet, now 54, became fixated on a stately townhouse on Calle República de Uruguay that he passed on his daily walks to a nearby bakery. One morning, he saw a man slip out the front door and followed him to a cluttered hardware store called La Montañesa, open since 1918, whose owners, Kinet learned, had bought the property he coveted back in the 1970s from the Spanish family that had built it over a century before. Rather than move in themselves, they turned the house into a warehouse, or bodega — still the most common use for such buildings in the Centro — filling its rooms with boxes of locks, latches and door pulls.

After that fateful introduction, Kinet spent weeks pleading with the owners to rent the house until they finally agreed to give him a tour. “All the wood doors and trim were painted in dark brown oil paint, and all the doors had 10 locks each, because the whole house was filled with their goods,” Kinet recalls. Still, he felt the 1,700-square-foot, three-story house was meant to be his, and after a bit of convincing, the owners agreed to move their merchandise to storage rooms off the ground-floor patio; in 2010, Kinet became the first person to reside in the house since the family who had built it.

Lorena DarqueaLeft: A 1960s oil painting by Norman Millet Thomas hangs on an oak-panelled wall; a plaster foot sits atop an 1890s leather travel case in the corner of the living room. Right: Garden furniture, a vintage mirror and a painted cabinet in the kitchen. The wallpaper is from Pierre Frey.
Left: A 1960s oil painting by Norman Millet Thomas hangs on an oak-panelled wall; a plaster foot sits atop an 1890s leather travel case in the corner of the living room. Right: Garden furniture, a vintage mirror and a painted cabinet in the kitchen. The wallpaper is from Pierre Frey.

Suddenly flush with space, he decided to create an office and workshop as well as a home. Every three to four months, the designer would sell off most of the things he’d accumulated, and then begin anew. At the same time, his design practice was taking off, driven in part by commissions like the 2009 refresh of the former space of Enrique Olvera’s now iconic restaurant Pujol, whose tiny dining room Kinet turned into a dramatically lit black-box theatre. As he filled and refilled his new house with antique furniture and odd flea-market treasures, the beige-and-black neutrality of his earlier projects gave way to a style that he says is “more colourful, more risky.” Kinet, who had “always felt like an orphan” under the leaden skies and Gothic spires of Sint-Niklaas, the midsize city in Belgium where he grew up, had finally found his place and “a posture that was really my own” in the irreverent juxtapositions of a neighbourhood where Baroque, neo-Classical, Art Deco and Colonial Revival buildings often coexist within a few blocks of one another. As if to pay the city back, he turned the house on República de Uruguay not only into a showroom for his firm but into a foster home for orphan objects.

Lorena DarqueaLeft: Outside, a ’70s black metal chair, a tablecloth by H&M and a green glazed Mexican artisan vase. Right: In the kitchen, a cupboard with Kelly Wearstler wallpaper and a Le Creuset pot on the stove.
Left: Outside, a ’70s black metal chair, a tablecloth by H&M and a green glazed Mexican artisan vase. Right: In the kitchen, a cupboard with Kelly Wearstler wallpaper and a Le Creuset pot on the stove.

While those details remain the same (though the facade has been revived by the city with a coat of ocher paint), the rest of the house has evolved dramatically. Subject to change at Kinet’s whim, the place feels as much like a baroque Wunderkammer — rich with detail and devoid of explanation — as it does a home, particularly in the six rooms on the second floor that ring the interior veranda and form the house’s primary living space. In the current incarnation of Kinet’s bedroom, for instance, tucked into the house’s quiet back corner, concentric circles of shimmering gold butterflies paper two of the four walls, hovering over turquoise wainscoting and an azure four-poster bed. Nearby, in a small street-facing parlour, oil portraits punctuate the space like heirlooms of a family that Kinet invented for himself. Here and elsewhere, the sheer accumulation of things — some sublime, some kitsch, some both — make even the smallest rooms seem palatial, their walls and 18-foot-high ceilings accommodating a hodgepodge of treasures.

Wandering through the house’s nine inhabited rooms, including a pair of bedrooms, a dressing room and a small terrace garden on the top floor, it’s clear that Kinet has as much affection for his genuine finds as he does for what he calls “the silly cheap things I can’t imagine I’ll sell.” He still seemed surprised to have stumbled upon a pair of lounge chairs from the 1960s that sit in the parlour, currently covered in black velvet and linked by a built-in table that bends around their backs like a brass knuckle; he seemed equally shocked — hurt, almost — that no one had yet bought the Art Nouveau copper vase that stands between them. In the airy, 500-square-foot drawing room, a small oil of banana trees painted by the 19th-century master Gonzalo Carrasco Espinosa hangs above a Mexican midcentury couch upholstered in a lurid blue-and-red floral fabric (it was originally a series of tablecloths from H&M). In that room, the walls are painted with gestural daubs of indigo, Delft and robin’s-egg blues, spangled with glimpses of canary-yellow wallpaper underneath, the same that still hangs in the ground-floor bathroom. Rather than competing with the room’s artful clutter, the effect is calming, as if you’re inside a vast gallery hung with De Koonings or Twomblys.

Lorena DarqueaA neo-Gothic glass door leads from the central courtyard to the kitchen.
A neo-Gothic glass door leads from the central courtyard to the kitchen.

LIKE THE CENTRO itself — where underwear and stuffed animals hang on wire racks next to 18th-century churches, and where people from every corner of the city come to shop and eat and protest — Kinet’s maximalist fantasia is, ultimately, both grandiose and democratic: open to every influence, constantly in flux and profligate in its use of aesthetic motifs, as though each of the house’s new identities might be its last. Now, after a decade, that’s likely the case. During the Covid-19 crisis, the owner, who for most of Kinet’s tenure has made herself scarce, started coming by daily, using some of those storage rooms on the ground floor as a makeshift office for her own nascent design practice.

As much as Kinet loves the house, he is sanguine about the prospect of leaving: After all, nothing here has ever been permanent. It’s a surprisingly accepting approach for someone so enamoured with the act of accumulation. It might also be the only sensible way to think about objects in uncertain places and uncertain times. All ownership is provisional. All possessions have lives of their own. And home, wherever you choose to make it, is not a place but a process, never quite finished, always in the midst of transformation.