Kahlo style
Color, passion, intimacy are the heart of artist’s decorating style
Maya at home
Frida Resurrected: San Francisco artist Maya Christina Gonzalez in her Mission District home. Chronicle photo by Liz Mangelsdorf

Angelica Pence, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Incessant blues, rain forest yellows and blood-soaked reds: Artist Frida Kahlo’s style and color palette were far from timid. She dressed her home as she dressed herself: with quintessential, in-your-face Mexicanismo.

Kahlo was perhaps best known during her turbulent lifetime as a disabled, communist painter and wife of the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera. But it was her ardent sense of mestizo style, her grit in the face of angst and her raw self-portraits for which she is still venerated and misunderstood.

Now, with the release of “Frida,” the long-awaited biopic, there is sure to be a resurgence of all things Kahlo — particularly for the home.

“The Frida frenzy is here,” says Mia Gonzalez, owner of the Encantada Gallery of Fine Art in San Francisco.

What exactly is Kahlo style?

“Three things immediately come to mind: intense color, intense passion and intense intimacy,” says 38-year-old San Francisco painter Maya Christina Gonzalez, who, like Kahlo, is of German and Mexican descent. “She was really willing to bare her soul, and do it within a context of her complex cultural identity.”

So-called Kahloism fuses indigenous elements with bohemian chic and European sophistication. The Surrealist icon openly borrowed from her Mayan, Toltec, Aztec and European roots to forge an identity all her own.

“She used herself as a walking art piece,” says Mia Gonzalez, who sells traditional Mexican glass and tableware and is exhibiting art — including that of Maya Christina Gonzalez (no relation) in a Day of the Dead show starting Oct. 19 — in her Mission District gallery and shop. “She had fabulous jewelry, handmade clothing, a fabulous collection of precolonial pieces, and her kitchen — her kitchen was her pride and joy.”

Little has changed inside Kahlo’s Casa Azul (or Blue House) in Coyoacan, Mexico, since the summer of 1954 when she died at 47. Inside and out, the home is serene, startling and thick with the energy of the controversial painters.

Half a century later, Kahlo’s cultlike following is multiplying, in part “because she was an extremely independent woman in a very machismo society,” says Aldo Picchi, co-owner of the Polanco gallery in Hayes Valley. “That’s what people relate to. She suffered but still was her own woman — very outspoken, very atypical for a woman of her times. And her art is incredibly beautiful.”

Despite the complexity of Kahlo’s life and work, there are simple, inexpensive ways to inject your home with a shot of Kahlo.
“First of all, you have to paint, and paint with really bright colors — really intense blues, yellows and vibrant pinks. You have to be willing to go out of control a little bit,” says Maya Christina Gonzalez, who unabashedly swathed her Mission District home in lilac, fuchsia, amber and saffron hues.

Gonzalez’s kitchen is tiled bright red, and her walls are blanketed with indigenous masks and dolls from Puerto Rico and Mexico. She also painted her doors — one with calla lilies, another with pomegranates.

Perhaps just as important, Gonzalez says, is displaying mementos “that have meaning to you, things that reflect your personal story and allow your environment to reflect your inside.” For Gonzalez, that’s her art and a 1940s doll collection that she inherited from her aunts.

“Frida’s house is the same thing,” she explains. “She didn’t just make art, she created an environment in what she wore and what she used. Her paintings were just an extension of that being.”

No need to tear down walls, says James Eddy, owner of Colonial Arts gallery in Pacific Heights. Start small, incorporating a few basic items like papier- mache flowers, papeletas, retablos, exvotos or milagros.

Retablos or laminas — small oil paintings on tin, zinc, wood or copper venerating Catholic saints — can be inexpensive, easy to find at Mexican folk- art stores and ideal for small spaces. Dating back to the conquistadors, the devotional pieces were used to adorn home altars and churches, and for protection against plagues, fires, temptation, poverty, infertility and sin. Kahlo and Rivera wallpapered entire walls inside their Casa Azul with the pious postcards.

Milagros, small medallions representing various body parts or human figures; and santos or bultos, statues typically carved out of wood and representing a Roman Catholic saint, are also typical of the time and look.

And then there are the skeletons.

“There’s always a skeleton present — as a reminder of life and death — somewhere in a Kahlo house,” Encantada’s Gonzalez says.

Patronizing local, contemporary artists who work in the various offspring genres of Kahloism is likewise an affordable way to decorate with a sense of Kahlo without paying Kahlo prices. (Madonna, an avid Kahlo collector, reportedly paid $2.9 million for two of her pieces.)

“It doesn’t need to be pricey,” says Picchi, who carries works from several artists who worked on “Frida,” the movie, at his Polanco gallery. Kahlo “had everything from a simple bowl that she bought at the street market to elaborate colonial (art) pieces. But no matter what it was, it always had an earthiness, an integrity to it.”

Kahloism is best suited for traditional Mexican, Spanish Colonial or Southwestern architecture and their modern counterparts, such as those by acclaimed Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, who is known for his use of traditional colors and natural light to create clean, geometric forms. But Kahloism can be folded into any home style.

“You’re able to use specific (Mexican) colors and concepts in most any space,” says Steven House, of House + House Architects in San Francisco. “The use of courtyards and indoor-outdoor spaces, for instance. Mexicans use color beautifully to accent walls. But you can take one of those colors and use it on one wall, making for a fairly subtle accent.”

To be sure, Maya Christina Gonzalez says, she’s “seen frightening suburban square boxes transformed simply by using more color.”

“The point of Frida’s power was passion. If you just attack a space with the same sense of passion, you’re moving in the right direction.”

— Dozens of galleries, shops, architecture and interior design firms throughout the Bay Area deal in Spanish Colonial and Mexican folk-inspired designs. Here are just a few in San Francisco:
— Encantada Gallery of Fine Art: 984 Valencia St.; (415) 642-3939.
— Colonial Arts, 463 Union St.; (415) 505-0680 or
— House + House Architects: 1499 Washington St.; (415) 474-2112.
— Lee Carter Tzin Tzun Tzan/Colbert Collection: 2476 Harrison St.; (415) 824-2004 or
— The Mexican Museum: Fort Mason Center, Building D; (415) 202-9700 or www.
— Polanco: 393 Hayes St.; (415) 252-5753 or
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