Sixteen years ago, Alejandra Cisneros traveled to Bali and became entranced by its simplicity and beauty. The Del Mar native had found a new home.
After moving to the Indonesian island, Cisneros — a Torrey Pines High School graduate who had practiced architecture in San Diego for 12 years before that fateful trip — began designing homes almost entirely made from antique teakwood and traditional materials.
Cisneros, who lives in the town of Ubud, shares her insights on reimagining traditional homes and the thinking behind her craftsmanship in a new book, "Seen | Unseen," which was released in August.
The book features stunning photos of 11 homes designed by Cisneros, as well as an interview with the architectural designer.
She recently spoke about her intentions with the book, what she's learned from Bali and what made her fall in love with the Island of Gods.
This Q&A has been edited and shortened for length.
Q: What made you want to put this book together?
A: I never ever had the idea to put the book together, at all. I used to work with an architect here in San Diego, and then I moved to Bali 16 years ago. I had just been working there quietly, very much under the radar. I do have some family members who are architects, and my cousin's husband came, and he looked at the houses and said, 'Alejandra, I think there's a book here.' ... He put me in touch with some publishers in Australia, who specialize in architecture and design books. Somehow, I ended up with this book.
Q: When you went on your first trip to Bali, what made you decide to stay?
A: I had been wanting to move to Mexico. That was my plan. In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time kind of going back and forth, and I couldn't quite pull that off. I decided to take a sabbatical. I had sold the house that I had remodeled and used that money to go to Asia. While I was in Thailand, I decided to visit this island that people had mentioned to me -- Bali -- and it just took my breath away. The thing about Bali that's very different from other places is the reverence for beauty. It's very much a part of their everyday lives and their spirituality. ... If you are a designer or an artist, and you show up on Bali, you can make anything. The Balinese are such talented craftspeople. ... It took a number of years to actually build a clientele. People had to trust me. I had to build my own project first so I could build my portfolio. I built my own house.
Q: What was it about the architecture that drew you in?
A: I kind of fell in love with these old teak structures that were ceremonial structures at the end of the last century. ... Basically, they are these wood structures that are made of teak. I decided that I would buy one. They all come apart. I saw one that they happened to have on Bali, and I decided to buy it. When it arrived, it was all taken apart. It was just a pile of wood. It looked like a big bonfire of wood. ... Slowly, I pieced it together. It's not really meant as a house. They were really meeting areas. There were no walls in between. I kind of created the walls. I bought other panels that I put in to separate the bedrooms. I decided to leave the living room completely open, so there are no doors in the living room. It's like an open pavilion. Bali is one of the few places where you can do this because it's very safe and the weather is very mild.
Q: How do you come up with the designs for these structures?
A: The styles can vary quite a bit depending on the clients' tastes and what they want. For instance, I did one project for a Finnish family. They had a child, so we ended up making quite a long structure with two bedrooms, two baths and a big living room in between.
Q: What can people here learn from the people who live in Bali?
A: From the very beginning that I arrived in Bali, I realized their great love of living with simplicity. Even though the Balinese don't exactly have a house like the ones I design, people rarely have more than a simple two-burner stove. Even restaurants have two-burner stoves. They're not at all, yet, as consumer-oriented as we are. You learn that you don't really need as much. I used to design kitchens that cost $100,000. There's nothing wrong with spending that money, but I try, in Bali, to make everything by hand as much as possible -- poured cement, countertops, the cabinets are just a two-by-four frame with whatever leftover wood we found. ... It's almost like a piece of art. We spend a lot of time crafting each little piece. Each house is completely one-of-a-kind and can't be reproduced. ... It is a little bit like a tiny house. The spirit is a tiny house spirit.
Q: Where does the name 'Seen | Unseen' come into play?
A: Seen | Unseen is very much the central part of Balinese spirituality. Everything that you see -- the ceremonies and everything they have going on -- isn't the important part. The really important part is what's underneath that; the unseen portion of life. I love that because it's the life force that the naked eye can't really see. That's important. I like these photos of my houses and this book about photographs of my houses, but that's not the important part. What is important is what is underneath. ...
In the book, I also talk about my own personal story. My brother and I were my father's unseen family. In a way, there's kind of a full circle about that in the book, and it's the first time I talk about being my father's secret family. He had another family in Venezuela. When we were children, we were told we could have a great life as long as nobody saw us. We got that message. ... It does make you see life in a different way. We grew up very differently. We also can appreciate this other kind of life force that isn't the most readily seen.