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The Inimitable Juan Montoya

Acclaimed New York-based interior designer Juan Montoya is celebrated the world over for his clean, sumptuous, and sophisticated designs, where grand works of art and antique treasures feature among thoughtful shadows, scales, and spatial layers. Originally born in Bogotá, having spent his formative years as a youth at his family hacienda in the Colombian jungle, Montoya, is no stranger to nature’s abundant wealth. He even constructed an ethereal woodland retreat in Upstate New York called La Formentera, inspired, in no small part, to the mystical Balearic Island off the coast of Spain. Moreover, his training in New York (at Parsons School of Design), coupled with time spent working in global capitals, including Paris and Milan, makes the designer a global denizen whose language of design transcends both time and culture. Here, he takes a break from the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris to tell us about his own approach to design, the people and places that inspire him most, and his decorating advice to those who are starting anew.
On his design process

I don’t normally sit down with a pencil and paper to sketch. I go to sleep sometimes and dream of it. I build and destroy, build and destroy. That is the process that goes through my mind over days. Sometimes, I’ll go jogging, and during that jog, I’ll build and create because I’m visual. I can see the walls, the windows, the ceiling, the texture, the color. I go through it and start eliminating and cutting through. I start making it like a beautiful pattern that will have all the details that are necessary.

Surrounded by nature, yesterday and today
My father was growing spice and he had a farm very far away from any communication. So we were basically growing with nature and what nature had to give us. That allowed us to not only enjoy every morning when we woke up, but it was the source of how we fed ourselves. It was instrumental in looking at nature very early on. I was able to be in contact with it, to live with it. And how that translates to [La Formentera], a very sophisticated environment one hour and a half from New York, it’s completely different—you are completely transported because there’s stone and granite. There are huge trees too. The terrain is quite hilly, whereas the land where I grew up was mostly flat, almost as if you were in Africa, and the sensation of it felt like very, very long distances. Huge groups of birds would congregate in the expanses where rice grew. You would see them at different times in the day and the light was magnificent…so all of that has to do with what I do today and what I’ve done before.

Everyday inspirations
Everything inspires me. Even looking at a woman dressed a certain way inspires me. But besides that, I think some of the great inspirations I’ve been able to have was from being able to travel. I think that traveling is a great source of inspiration. And in terms of the house in the country, I think it is also a wonderful inspiration because it is nature. Nature in itself is art. So by looking at a leaf, by looking at a flower, by looking at a configuration of elements that are all together that don’t seem to make too much sense, but when you look at them individually, they are really very beautiful. They can serve as inspiration for a chair, the inspiration for a sofa, the inspiration for a lamp.

On the notion of home
Home is what I make of it. I don’t think it’s necessarily where I grew up. I left Columbia many years ago when I was in my twenties. Now, when I go back, I feel at home because I make it home. And when I’m in Paris, I feel at home because I it reminds me of the steps I took when I experienced Paris at 21, the steps I took when I was 27. All of these become part of my life. When I was invited by architect Kenzo Tange to experience Japan, I spent about a month and a half really understanding and connecting to the culture. When I worked on the house in Garrison, New York, which is Japanese in design, I had never been to Japan, and yet, when I got there, I went to Kyoto and stayed in one of the inns and felt, “Oh my God, I’m at home!” I didn’t know! I was able to find something that I became very attached to and comfortable with.

Architects to admire
Louis Kahn would be one of my favorite architects. I was able to study with a pupil of Louis Kahn who was teaching at Parsons when I was there. He was very influential because he knew him, he felt him, he sensed him, he loved him. All of this translated to how I enjoy the geometry of architecture. Then, when I was connected to the architecture in Sweden, Asplund was a great working part of my education in terms of what he did for public buildings that are very famous in Sweden.

Favorite travel destinations
Far, far away Patagonia in Argentina is very illuminating. I would also say parts of Chile are beautiful. I have traveled through Brazil. I wouldn’t say it’s the place to be, but I would like to, so that’s in my agenda. I think that one of the most magical places that I have ever been is Colombia, where I was born, among small towns, small places, and small cities that are not necessarily written in tourist books. There are many places and things to discover, I couldn’t even begin to tell you!

Design tips for the uninitiated
My advice, whether your space is big or small, has high ceilings or low ceilings, a view or no view, is to just live in it for a while. Don’t go out and buy anything, just feel it. Enjoy it for a little while, then the place will tell you what it really wants. The place will talk to you and say, “This is what I want.” And in that dialogue you have with yourself and your space, you discover how to create. It allows you to build and design. When you discover it, you refine it. It’s not like all these stores in your metropolitan area or suburbia who sell packages, where, if you get the nice bed, you get the nice tables; if you get the nice tables, you get the nice dresser; if you get the nice dresser, you get the armoire. That’s the wrong approach. When you get the package, you skip design, you skip the beauty. People don’t understand beauty and that is what I think is lacking. Beauty is all about peace. Beauty is all about looking, so you have to be careful about too much integration of the Internet and the systems that we have today to purchase. We purchase food on the Internet. We purchase fashion through the Internet.

What’s missing in the
design industry today
I want to see more quality, not things that just appear and invade your eyes. There’s a lack of quality, and quality is so important in everything. We are living in a world that is so fast that we forget about quality, we forget about that element that makes a difference. It is better to have the most beautiful chair that is perfectly proportioned than to have twenty chairs from Ikea. I think one element sometimes is more important than many. Now, I’m not putting down Ikea—they have some great things, but you just have to look. When you look through it, you have to see, and then you have to look twice. All that surrounds design today is how much something costs instead of how much quality it has.