For Manuel Villanueva, co-founder of Deia-based architectural consultancy, Moredesign, the perfect project is about identifying the sweet spot that lies at the crux of contradictions, then translating that essence into real life. This search for illusive harmony has taken him to locations all across Europe, where he’s learnt from some of design’s most inspiring and complex minds. Now based in Mallorca, he works primarily alongside his partner, Oro del Negro, and together they’re making an international impact on the scene, regularly landing on the pages of the world’s best design magazines. Here, the Moredesign creative talks to us about buying a home in the Balearics, the challenges of new builds, and why sometimes being the best means having more than just qualifications to your name.
Tell us a bit about your architecture journey, what led you to Moredesign?
I studied in Madrid, and once I’d finished my studies I was lucky enough to start working for Jean Nouvel, who had various ongoing projects taking place in the city. After two years, I had the impression that Spain was falling into an economic crisis so I applied to several European companies and eventually ended up working at OMA in Rotterdam. That was a huge learning experience for me, but it was also extremely demanding, especially when it came to time spent on projects. So eventually, I decided to continue my journey elsewhere and was hired by Herzog De Meuron in Switzerland. I spent another two years there and then I was sent to follow up on a project I had been designing for them in Madrid. Some moments in life seem to have special weight, and this was one of them — I decided to return to Spain and try my own path.
I originally met Oro during my studies. In fact, he was the first person who hired me. It was a small project but it probably settled our future partnership. I came to Deia for a few months and in that time we were offered our first renovation. Unlike in the past, I had all the time in the world, so I worked with him on that project for a year. It was a slow process of learning and getting to know everybody. Oro grew up with his mother, who always had great vision. She too, used to buy houses, renovate them and then sell them on. I think he had been through around 10 construction site homes by the time he was 18, and it was through that process that he was able to hone his craft. Many projects followed and in the past three years we’ve experienced huge expansion.
What’s the Moredesign ethos?
We are very eclectic, with far-reaching roots. I have a wider architectural background but Oro has an expansive vision that journeys beyond architectural training — he has life experiences.
For the most part, we work in highly protected areas that have a deep architectural identity. So we expand our references to include not only local architecture but also to vernacular architecture that has developed in the Mediterranean. We also have strong links with many artisans on the island, and often incorporate their craftsmanship into our designs.
Finally, we apply a contemporary approach to the way we live. We believe in houses that are romantic, practical, open, hedonistic, family-centred — both simple and complex. We want its best moments to come years after we are gone, when time has played its part.
What encapsulates Mediterranean architecture for you?
Simplicity, local resources, light, nature, and a responsibility to protect.
What can people expect who are looking to build or renovate a home in the Balearics?
The Balearics incorporate many different lifestyles and landscapes. For example, the north west coast is a narrow strip of land compressed between mountains and the sea, while the east is full of calm, turquoise waters. So think about your lifestyle, then try to explore the island a bit. The first thing you should do is consider the way you want to live — do you want to be isolated or in daily contact with people? Do you want sandy beaches or rocky calas? Do you want your kids to be able to walk to the local village?
What are the main technical challenges you face on Balearics-based projects?
Time and bureaucracy unfortunately. The process of attaining a licence can be long. The good news is that gives you more time to enjoy our services!
How do you incorporate traditional techniques into a modern build?
Buildings have become very tech-focused these days. We now integrate KNX or Loxone in the design process for our houses. I typically recommend doing a simple installation with limited technology, which is user and maintenance friendly, but it ends up being a client decision. Insulation and materials have also developed greatly over the last decade.
What’s your favourite kind of project to work on?
I love both new builds and renovations, to be honest. In a way, a new build is more challenging than working on an old structure.
What project are you most proud of and why?
I am particularly proud of Casa Lleo, as it took us to another level. We delivered a house that was technically very difficult, and which explores not only local architecture but a wider vision. The roots of this project stretched from a small atelier in New York City, which provided some lamps, to a collaboration with the best lime company in the world, which helped us with the walls.
What are your design inspirations?
Nature, vernacular architecture, and also a few design offices that have made an impact on me both in the present and over the past 50 years. I have found beautiful experiments from great architectural masters hidden along the coast of Spain. For example Bofill, whose architecture I admit I don’t particularly like, has one of the best houses in the Mediterranean I’ve ever seen. A jewel.
I love what studio Ko are doing, mixing tradition and contemporary architecture. Going further afield, Studio Mumbai is amazing.
What are the most challenging legal elements of a build and a renovation? What's the best way to anticipate them?
In existing properties, houses often have areas that were not built with the appropriate licences. In that instance, we need to properly identify them so clients know what they are buying and understand potential limitations — some can be legalised, some can be kept as they are, some need to be demolished. But by having the right information clients can make the best possible decision.
With new builds, and with existing buildings, planning applications can be long processes. Unless the renovation works are small and you can request what is called minor license, the waiting period can range from one to two years to receive the relevant permits.
Fortunately, we’re able to use this time to develop the project, prepare budgets and select materials. So it is not time which is lost. It also gives time to really understand their property, and in time, amend their approach.
Ensuring there’s a clear pricing process and selecting the right builders are also extremely important factors.
What gets you out of bed each morning?
A glass of water with lemon, the early morning light, good coffee and tones of emails to respond to!
Who's your design hero?
Those anonymous geniuses who build the amazing, humble houses we all long for.