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This Is Why Design Experts Are Flocking to Barcelona

by Rick Anderson

It’s doubtful Antoni Gaudí ever contemplated the perfect selfie. But the Catalan architect’s dizzying oeuvre, a phantasmagoria of shapes and colors, makes taking one almost irresistible. On a recent sunny day in Barcelona, crowds clamored toward the mosaic walls of Park Güell, smiling for the camera. And all around town, arms stretched up to snap Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Família , an omnipresent masterpiece with melting façades and spires topped by hulking cranes. More than 135 years in the making, the basilica is now a decade away from completion—a milestone some thought might never come.

Until then, Gaudí fans can delight in some more happy news: the restoration of Casa Vicens, the architect’s very first residential project (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Tucked in the quiet neighborhood of Gràcia, just below the Park Güell, the single-family home was commissioned in 1883 by stockbroker Manel Vicens i Montaner and later converted into apartments, remaining under private ownership for more than a century. Three years ago, a Spanish bank bought the property, intent on transforming it into a museum. Meticulously rehabilitated thanks to the local design studio DAW, which worked in collaboration with Martínez Lapeña-Torres Arquitectos, Casa Vicens opened to the public this past November.

Antoni Gaudí’s newly restored Casa Vicens.

“Vicens is very important for understanding Gaudí’s career,” explains DAW founder David García Martínez. “Here you start to see the beginnings of his relationship to the natural world.” Unlike Casa Milà and Casa Batlló, with their catenary arches and rippling façades, Vicens is intensely linear, more Moorish in spirit than Gaudí’s signature modernisme. (In fact, the architect based the house on the standard square tiles produced by local artisans.) Nonetheless, fanciful ornamentation abounds, from the front gate’s cast-iron palmetto leaves to the French marigolds and dianthus that adorn the exterior’s ceramic tiles. All throughout the interiors, painted ceilings reveal trompe l’oeil visions of flora and fauna, and textural papier-mâché tiles create faux foliage on the ceilings and walls.

Modernisme—Catalonia’s hallucinatory answer to France’s Art Nouveau —still defines the city, electrifying the senses and luring aesthetes like Anna Karlin, Reinaldo Leandro, and Zak Profera. “Barcelona has fully embraced this very courageous, exciting aesthetic from its past,” says design dealer David Alhadeff of the Future Perfect, who visited last summer. “Locals continue to create a place that’s completely inspiring and unique.”

As Catalonian pride surges (at press time, the region was in the midst of a struggle to secede from Spain), Barcelona’s latest design destinations all remain steeped in history. Four years ago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, reopened as a cultural and research center. Built between 1902 and 1930 by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, it dazzles with stained-glass windows and mosaic ceilings in glistening golden hues. Just a short stroll toward the sea, a former social club has been reborn as Sala Beckett, a contemporary theater designed by local firm Flores & Prats, which uses traditional ceramic tile (reclaimed from other parts of the building) and a ribbed ceiling that nods to the Catalan vault. Even the new outpost of Soho House embraces its roots. Set on the former site of a convent, the hotel and members’ club boasts vaulted ceilings, tiled floors and walls, and exuberant textiles.

“Thanks to Gaudí, Barcelona is a celebration of curves, color, and detail, inside and out,” says interior designer Amy Lau, another recent visitor. “His man-made structures echo the randomness and organic essence of nature herself.” Gaudí, who famously mused, “Nothing is art if it does not come from nature,” couldn’t have agreed more.

More To Do In Barcelona


Check out as many Gaudí buildings as you can stand—and try to schedule appointments in advance to avoid the lines. The shimmering Casa Batlló (casabatllos), undulating Casa Milà ( lapedreraom ) , and newly opened Casa Vicens ( casavicenrg ) are a great buildup to the architect’s magnum opus: the Sagrada Família ( sagradafamiliarg ) . Then take in the view from the top at the fantastical Park Güell ( parkguellat ) . Experiencing sensory overload? Cleanse the visual palate with a trip to the Mies van der Rohe–designed Barcelona Pavilion ( miesbcnom ).


If you’re hungry for a fresh catch, try the family-run mainstay La Taberna Gallega ( latabernagallegaom ) , which Alhadeff calls “as authentic as authentic gets.” For tapas, Bar Mut ( barmuom ) delivers faithful classics, while Bar But, just down the street, offers contemporary twists like waffle-shaped patatas bravas ( barbus) . And should you tire of finger food, head to Céleri, the open, airy kitchen of Michelin-starred chef Xavier Pellicer, where fruits and vegetables sourced from local farms are carted in daily for rotating seasonal dishes ( tribuwokiom ) .


Sleep beneath a Catalan vaulted ceiling and hang poolside on a candy-striped lounge at Soho House, tucked inside an 18th-century building (once the site of a 13th-century convent) in the Gothic Quarter ( sohohousebarcelonaom ) . Textile designer Zak Profera recommends the low-key cool of Casa Bonay ( casabonaom ) , steps from several Gaudí sights. Or keep it classic at Barcelona mainstays like the Cotton House ( hotelcottonhouseom ) and Majestic Hotel ( hotelmajestics ) .

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