The first time Charlene Petersen stepped out onto the stone terrace of her would-be vacation home at the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, a pod of gray whales breached in the ocean just 200 yards off shore. One after another crested and dipped, a mighty, splashy spectacle just beyond the swells. The Baltimore-based interior designer turned to her real estate agent, and said—only half kidding—"Did someone just cue the whales?" Whether it was a right-time, right-place sort of thing or merely a day in the life along the Sea of Cortez didn't matter much. She had fallen hard for the rambling stone-and-stucco beach house and its watery playground.
"I saw amazing promise for this house, right from the front door," says Charlene. Indeed, the arched stone entryway frames a first glimpse at the sea, and beyond the front doors, 75 percent of the house faces the water, including four of the six bedrooms. "The idea was not only to be able to keep the ocean front and center, but also to take advantage of the home's southern exposure," says architect Roberto Contreras. "The sunrises and sunsets are magnificent, and here, you get both."
Contreras created an open floor plan centered around a great room with 25-foot cathedral ceilings and retractable glass-paned doors. Living, dining, and cooking areas combine in a convivial common area "to make the core of the house a place where we naturally converge, and that flows to the outdoors," says Charlene. Light, indigenous stone flooring unites the great room with the terrace, which edges the sand, creating a strong kinship between the house and the beach.
Despite its breezy, barefoot setup, the interior wasn't quite as beachy when Michael and Charlene bought the home. "The rooms were very formal with lots of dark trim—it didn't feel fun, or relate well to the shore," she says. She also wanted to outfit it comfortably for family and friends who would join them. To lighten it, Charlene whitewashed some of the darker stone surfaces—the rear wall in the dining room, for instance—and played up the sun-washed look of the lighter surfaces (like the flooring) with off-white linen seating, blond woods, and light wickers.
"Walking in this house, I wanted attention to go right to the sea—not the walls or the furniture," she says. Just as importantly, it needed to feel like Mexico. "As much as I needed it to look like a beach house, the palette had to reflect the country and culture." In the living room, for instance, tribal patterns, like those wrapping these Indian water vessels, mingle with Mexican abstract art.
Throughout the house, Charlene used a rich mix of reds, oranges, and blues on textiles collected over time, ranging in origin from Central and South America further east to include Persian and Moroccan pieces. For a Mexican look in one of the bedrooms, the designer hung a framed suzani above a lacquered Mexican table.
Some bed pillows and bedcovers were embroidered by Los Cabos craftswomen, and many of the pillows on the sofas and outdoor chairs are made from Guatemalan blankets—mostly vintage and discovered during her travels. Charlene also got creative with this bedroom’s headboard: it’s crafted of antique leather gym mats she found on 1stdibs.com.
Petersen also turned antique kilims, collected over the years at overseas markets, into wall tapestries and chair and pillow covers, and blended these with new fabrics, like batik-printed linen headboard upholstery and tribal-print draperies.
"We often bring family or friends with us when we come to stay, and we spend nearly all day, every day, outdoors," says Charlene. At sunset, this cozy cocktail lounge with woven swivel club chairs offers the best seat in the house at sunset. The rug is an outdoor flatweave by ABC Carpet & Home.
The weather is peerless, too. From December through May there is scant rain and no humidity, and the temperatures seldom rise above 80 degrees. Nights can be chilly, so the Petersen family often heads to the stone fire pit in the courtyard. There, a teak sectional sofa with woven-branch end panels wraps the corner of the cozy, walled room. "I loved the organic styling of the frame," says Charlene, who added big French welt cushions to make the piece softer and more welcoming, and did the same with a round antique elm table she fashioned into additional seating and placed beneath an elephant tree. "There's a real around-the-campfire feel when everyone piles on."
Most other times of day, Charlene and her guests are on the ocean side, dipping into the pool or waves, or gathering around the long trestle table under the eaves for meals together. "One of my favorite times of day here is late afternoon, just before dinner," she says. "We hang out on the lounge chairs, have a glass of wine, and the kids gallop around us. We eat dinner as the sun sets over the sea."