A mosaic of color and texture floods the senses as you enter Alhambra de Taos. Rugs, antique tables, cabinets and mirrors in rich reds and golds fill the store, which is located just south of Taos Plaza.
The store is named for the Moorish Alhambra castle in Granada, Spain. The name means the “place of the red earth” in Arabic, referring to the sun-dried bricks of its outer walls.
Robert Vander visited the castle during his extensive travels. He says, “The castle is a place of sublime simplicity in its total harmony of design. When I saw it, I thought that if I ever started a business, I would call it Alhambra because I hold that harmony in high esteem and recognize it as something valuable.”
Exotic and eclectic
Vander travels the world seeking exotic, eclectic pieces for Alhambra. In this way, he provides a service, sharing some of the joy and pleasure that he experiences in his travels. He says, “Not everyone can go to a bazaar in Samarkand in Uzbekistan, so I buy these things and bring them here.”
There is a trend toward smaller furniture in the market now, notes Vander. He recently returned from a trip to China and he saw the trend there. He says, “Things change, almost imperceptibly; but the change can be rapid. You have to be aware of it.”
He points out that a trend can begin when something like smaller furniture is featured in an architectural magazine. It can create a demand. “At Alhambra, we do think small and are very conscious of the choices we make,” he says.
“Personally, I like to keep it simple in a subdued or Zen-like way,” says Vander, although he also purchases more ornate pieces from India and China. He says Tibetan designs can be quite wild: painted in a fantastic array of colorful images that often reflect religious beliefs.
Vander seeks to find unique pieces that are affordable. He is noticing in his travels to Asia that people are becoming more aware of the value of their vintage pieces. “In the past, they didn’t have a use for their grandmother’s chest and now they are seeing the value, holding on to it, fixing it up. As a result, some pieces are becoming more expensive and rare.”
In his last trip to China, Vander only had a few days to visit some of his regular vendors in the Beijing area. He often prefers to go to smaller towns, as he was able to do during his visit several months ago.
Wherever he visits, he tries to think about what his customers in Taos and Santa Fe might enjoy. He also has a strong national customer base made up of visitors who come from across the U.S. – all the way from Florida to Washington state. They make a purchase from Alhambra when they are in Taos. Vander says, “They are usually happy with the piece they bought from us and return when they visit again.”
Much of the furniture in the showroom comes from Asia. When asked how these pieces fit Southwest décor, Vander points out that there is a certain unity of design that allows pieces from different parts of the world to work together. “The Zia symbol that we find in New Mexico can also be seen on a piece of furniture made in Mongolia. Designs that are universal can be integrated well together,” he says.
History of Alhambra
Taos has been home since 1969. Originally from the Netherlands, Vander had traveled in Asia and Europe before coming here. He loves living in Taos and also getting to travel. “It is not a bad situation,” he muses.
The store was begun by his wife on Bent Street as Afghan Caravan. Vander was a contractor and cabinetmaker. When his wife was killed in a car accident, Vander took over the business and raised his two young children. “She left me with two beautiful children and they needed more time than I had as a builder,” he says.
He moved the store near to its current location on Paseo del Pueblo Sur – next to the Cantu Hardware and Furniture storeand then eventually into the hardware store space 20 years ago. He has had stores in Albuquerque and Denver, Colorado, as well as other locations in Taos, but now focuses his attention on this store, which is just perfect for him.
Vander says, “I couldn’t have built this business without the help of some very dedicated employees, some of whom are no longer with us. Many capable people have helped us grow the business. Some of them stayed with us for the duration and now there is a new generation of people in the store helping, too.”
Search for Art Deco
When asked about a favorite adventure, Vander recounts visiting China about 12 years ago. He was in search of an art deco-design rug that had been made in limited production in Kashgar in far western China in the 1920s. The factory was destroyed in the 1930s and only a few rugs remained. Vander went from house to house searching for the brightly colored rugs with fanciful designs of stylized flower pots and tables with ornate legs. He would see them hung on the wall behind the benches used for both sitting and sleeping.
“I drank hundreds of cups of tea, ate loafs of bread, along with goat and sheep dishes,” he remembers. He did find some of the pieces he was seeking. Some of the carpets were in bad shape, but he purchased about 20 rugs and was able to breathe new life into them with the help of a master carpet restorer in Beijing.
Craft of the work
Looking back, Vander says, “It’s been a delight, an interesting ride.” He says that he has never considered Alhambra work or a job. He comes to the store happy with what he is doing. And the associated travel has offered him much freedom. “Retirement is always over the horizon,” he says with a smile.
Like the work he did building cabinets, he sees his work collecting beautiful treasures as a craft – one that he continues to enjoy.