There is a photograph of Mary Blakstad standing at the port of Ibiza, looking up at an arriving boat from Barcelona. It was taken in 1962, even so, through the black and white tones you can see how tanned Mary’s legs are, her wide expectant smile greeting whoever is above. She holds a traditional woven basket and has a scarf wrapped around her head, her capri pants and flat sandals speaking of an in-born sense of style and selfhood. She and her husband Rolph Blakstad had already lived in Ibiza for six years at that point. In the gramd scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago but the Ibiza that welcomed the Blakstads in 1956, when they first arrived, is very different to the Ibiza we live in today.
Rolph had competed his Fine Arts degree at the University of British Columbia in 1951 and was awarded a scholarship to study the old masters in Florence. The young couple had left their native Vancouver on an adventure to Europe. From Italy, they moved to London where Rolph worked as an inspector of ancient monuments. They returned to Vancouver in 1953 and Rolph began working as a set designer and then as a documentary filmmaker for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. On the side, he started to build his name as a painter. Both Rolph and Mary’s curious natures led them to return to Europe in 1956, where on the way to Mallorca their ship stopped in Ibiza. In the forward to the book Ibiza Blakstad Houses, their daughter Sabrina Blakstad says: “They said it was like landing in another century.” Enamoured, the Blakstads stayed.
One of the first things Rolph had noticed about Ibiza was the shape of the dwellings. The couple’s life here started in the cobbled laneways of the old town, where the jigsaw puzzle of white-washed cubic homes built one upon another piqued Rolph’s interest. Eventually the family moved to Santa Eulalia and then to their final home, a farmhouse ruin, in Morna Valley. At first, Rolph continued his work in television, travelling back and forth, but he longed to spend more time at home. The trans-Atlantic commuter lifestyle was no longer sustainable. He still painted but with a growing family, the life of an artist was becoming tricky.
A polymath with an insatiable curiosity, Rolph turned to one of his earlier career paths that he had cast aside. His father had been a master builder and carver and Rolph had apprenticed under him as a youth. And so, armed with an intellectual hunger to understand the unique architecture of the island, along with his background in building and design, he turned his hand to creating homes. In 1967, the Blakstad name was attached to a burgeoning architectural firm that was located at the family’s kitchen table.
While he designed and refurbished houses for the island’s residents, Rolph started to collected notions, ideas and evidence of the historical importance of the local architecture. Over the years, he collated his sketches and the results of his research into a book published in Catalan in the late 1990s. The Houses of Ibiza became an iconic work of architectural research, which will soon have its first English translation. The 230-page tome is the result of a remarkable mind that crossed millennia, drawing conclusions on the cultures, methods and materials that created the island of Ibiza. Architects and architect buffs across Europe have used this work as a reference to understand this ancient culture of design and how it affects our lives today.
The kitchen table soon turned into a proper office with two employees plus the services of the Blakstad children. Eventually Rolph built the space where the office is now located using Solomon’s Temple as described in the Old Testament as a template. Here, the company has grown to employee 15 people. “He became extremely conscious of maintaining the traditional architecture,” says his son Rolf, now the director of the company and an accomplished designer in his own right. “Those traditions were being lost at the time,” he continues. “There were still a lot of old fincas around that he studied. He became quite traditionalist.” However, as his work and research expanded, Rolph came to see that a pragmatic approach was necessary and aimed to find ways to keep the architecture pure without forsaking the comforts of modern life.
This is an ethos that runs deep through the Blakstad Design Consultants philosophy. “We are still faithful to the traditions,” explains Rolf. “But we integrate a more contemporary style and with modern finishes. In a way, we bring more light to the traditional design.” It’s a physical and metaphorical light – today a Blakstad home uses natural light to illuminate daily life, thereby bringing an overall lightness of being into the spaces where we live. The architects and designers working in the firm today have no doubt that their founding father would approve.