Juan Montoya puts a radical purist spin on design's hallowed idea of one of a kind that can leave the less committed unsure and wobbly, and struggling with a case of creative vertigo. The Colombian-born designer is like Heraclitus, believing you never step into the same river twice: It's not the same river, and you're not the same person — especially if you're a creative. For Montoya, a few bespoke furnishings or accessories are not enough. Nor is a room or project that thrums with only a quasi-special vibe. Every project must spring from its own inspirations, and then manifest uniquely. Repetition is the only thing verboten in Montoya's work. "I don't want to repeat myself," the renown designer says in the soft voice that belies his fierce standards. "I have an obligation to give myself more."
Montoya's obligation to his clients is a given, since like all artists he feels he has a higher master cracking the whip. With himself as his final arbiter — and harshest critic — he stays en pointe, tirelessly awhirl for the untilled interior landscape, and the next toe-dip in the river. Whereas a client might find a filched design concept acceptable or even desirable (anyone ever clipped a magazine photo to duplicate the look at home?), Montoya would find it treason. No surprise, his work is not easily niched, but for art's primacy in all his designs — and for how those designs end up reading like works of art in their own right.
Montoya's Paris apartment in the historically colorful Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter of the city's 6th arrondissement is both evidence of and inspiration to his concept of one of a kind. "Friends called and said they had found this jewel of an apartment that I must see before I left for the airport," he recalls. Built in 1710, the 800-square-foot apartment was in "what was basically a tenement building. It was in shambles — it had no kitchen, no bath, and all the floors were of a different material that were a conglomeration of the centuries," Montoya says. "But it had these beautiful doors opening onto a terrace, and fourteen-foot ceilings."
And who could resist a hang-out in Saint-Germain?
"It's close to all of the galleries and vendors I use for my business," he adds. There's also the inspiration of the area's past. This is where the famed fine arts school, École des Beaux-Arts, was launched, and where Delacroix lived and painted in the 19th century. In the mid-20th century, the quarter gave birth to France's existential movement — Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir called Saint-Germain home. The thriving post-war culture of artists, writers, and jazz musicians remains almost palpable, the spirit of the Hemingway crowd (aka tourists) still filling the original cafes close to Montoya's apartment.
With so much history within its crooked walls — the main living room wall is distinctly angled — the apartment was a done deal. "It made sense for my work with my European clients," says Montoya, whose primary residence is a Manhattan apartment, but who also keeps an apartment in Bogota and a country home in upstate New York. He retained touches of the past including the slanted wall, which he embellished with lacquered wood squares. He exposed the original beamed ceiling, and tore out the mishmash of flooring for salvaged wood planks that provide a "pieced" look he likes. "Centuries ago, the apartment had had a fireplace so I brought it back, but in a different way." He added a tiny galley kitchen and an elegant diminutive bath that includes classical references including a faucet that flows water from a sculpture's mouth.
The narrowness of the spaces presented challenges that Montoya conquered with custom designs and art. The living room began with a bold circular painting by Takesada Matsutani. "Its graphite texture is wonderful, and its scale was important. I didn't want anything small. I wanted drama." To service the long, slipcovered sofa below the painting, he designed a sufficiently long coffee table with four rows of airy maple legs and a rich slate top — functional art in its own right. "With the circular painting dominant, I wanted the coffee table to be linear." And, its skinny width is a definite asset in the narrow room. Yet while their opposing shapes create tension, a table and painting form a friendly bond through their darkness. "Usually I use a lot of color in my work, but not here. I wanted the apartment neutral, with the only color coming from the views of Paris outside."
To stand between the glass doors, Montoya designed a sharkskin cabinet. Scaled for the room, it reveals a lipstick red interior when opened. "We needed something beautiful to look at between the windows, but we also needed storage for barware." Mathias Bentsson's aluminum Slice chair lingers to one side, fluid as a puddle of water and fine as art. A Scandinavian chair keeps the conversation engaging with its blend of geometric and round shapes.
"All of these decisions were very well planned to create a dramatic look yet one that would be easy to live with," says Montoya of this latest incarnation of his time-worn Paris apartment.