October 23, 2012

Touring Juan Montoya’s Country Estate

With a book about his country house released just this month (look for a review in our October issue, p. 230) and a wildly successful design firm, Juan Montoya Designs, Juan Montoya is one of the most recognizable and acclaimed professionals in our industry. In 1977, he was first featured in Interior Design and described as a minimalist, but since then the Hall of Fame member’s style has evolved dramatically.

For the past 30 years, his on-going project remains an 100-acre woodland, La Formentera, located just outside Garrison, New York. The estate is named after the small Spanish island near Ibiza where he lived for a year in the 1970’s. When he first discovered the New York site later that decade, it was crowded with trees and the only structure was a dilapidated, shingled house. Since then, Montoya has transformed it into his own personal escape.

The designer and his partner, Urban Karlsson, welcomed us into La Formentera to talk about the development of Montoya’s design aesthetic, family design competitions, and the unknown.

Interior Design: How does it feel to have a whole book dedicated to one of your homes?

Juan Montoya: I feel honored and humble. It was never our intent to turn La Formentera into a book. Urban and I wanted to document the four seasons, so we asked Eric Piasecki to photograph the gardens. He came during a two year process. It took a while because we had to cooperate with the weather. The first year, it didn’t snow at all, and we wanted to show what it looked like covered in snow. Near the end, Eric came by and said, “I have a surprise for you.” He brought a mock-up of the book. And it was so beautiful. Urban said we should present it to Monacelli. At first, we thought they wouldn’t take it because it was only about one garden. They immediately said, “We would love to have this.” We were surprised.

ID: How did you find La Formentera and what inspired you to build here?

JM: Two things. Being young and growing up in New York, I spent most of my year in the city where I experienced summer and winter, only two seasons. I said to a friend, “Let’s go somewhere where we can smell trees.” We came here first and it reminded me of home, but I wanted to keep looking. We went to the Hamptons, but even then [in the 1970’s], the Hamptons were so expensive. Connecticut was too far away. After looking for so long, the broker wanted to give up on me, but this place kept popping into my mind. I contacted the caretaker of the property to let me spend some time here. The house was so tremendously dilapidated, but I lived here. Little by little, I was convinced. It was meant to be.

ID: What, in a more general sense, inspires you? How do you develop creative design ideas?

JM: The first thing you have to consider is location. It is the most important because it gives a sense of how a place should be laid out, how it should engage with the environment. Then, I look to the client, how their lifestyle needs to work. Finally, I think about light. Sometimes people forget about this, but the light in a space can change how textures, colors, and materials look. I have to see the place in person before I can even start to design the interior.

ID: You’re quite the world traveler—Is there a place that you’ve been to that you find especially inspiring?

JM: Sweden because Urban is Swedish. I fell in love with the country because of Urban. It molded my design sensitivity. The clarity, the lines, the contours. It was simplicity and it was beautiful. It’s not that they can’t design something different or more elaborate, but they appreciate the purity of minimalism.

ID: Sweden is a far cry from your home, Colombia. How early in your life do you remember becoming aware of good design?

JM: When I was 5 years-old. I grew up in a very design-oriented environment. My family actually competed—there were different styles and tastes. My immediate family was what you would call poor-cheap, but I was able to sense the richness in fabric or the quality of a piece of furniture. My mother influenced me to become an appreciator of design. She was molding me to become an artist, without even knowing it. When I came to the States, I did many odd jobs, but I knew that I wouldn’t be happy until I was designing. I wanted to achieve as a designer.

ID: Would you say that people are more aware of good design than when you started?

JM: People are more exposed to design and fashion and art now through technology. They see things every day, some good, some bad. Exposure may have increased, but I think the client is still pretty similar to before.

ID: So how do you work with your clients to create their own spaces?

JM: I start with questions, much like we’re doing now. I find their likes and dislikes, but then I ask them not to put any limitations on the work. There are already so many limitations from the location, the space, the environment. Why would you want to put another restriction? I work with them through the process to find out what they’re dreaming, and then we work as a team to bring that dream to reality.

ID: How do you stay current in today’s interior design world?

JM: We have to be constantly aware of what’s available in the market by reading—looking for the latest lighting, finishes, fabrics. You cannot create from a vacuum. You have to know what’s available; you have to know your history; and you have to know your current trends to know how to be creative. Your exploration will inform your creativity.

ID: Do you notice any upcoming design trends or current ones?

JM: Trends are things I try to stay away from. I try to stay logical, following form and function. It is more interesting to follow the individual tastes than to form one’s tastes [according] to others. If you only follow what others are doing, you will become passé. It’s more work to create your own trends, but that’s what makes you better as a designer.

ID: If you don’t follow trends, would you say that you have a signature style or something that links all of your work?

JM: It is the unknown—a smell, a texture, a form, something that makes it unique. You cannot quite grasp it. It’s an unexpected refinement, a moment when people say, “Oh, Juan Montoya designed this room.” It is not one thing or another; it’s a unifying thread.

Recent DesignWire