If you’ve ever been to a Mondrian hotel and felt like you were a celebrity, it’s by design—Benjamin Noriega Ortiz’s design—and not accident. It’s all part of the brand that he has helped to develop, apparently catering to our need to feel like stars walking the red carpet, making an entrance, all the while keeping an eye on ourselves in lavish mirrors. Oh well. As he says, hotels have always been about pampering the ego in one way or another and he does it very well. His work is glamorous and playful, well suited to the big name clients he draws, like Lenny Kravitz and Sean Combs but his own home is pure white with a delightful terrace dappled with early spring sunshine filtered through a quartet of pretty, potted trees. And if you want to know the trick of how to live in an all-white environment, it involves installing a washing machine at the front door, disrobing immediately as you enter, slinging the outside clothes into the machine and putting on “apartment clothes”. We, however, were not asked to disrobe (however, we did remove our shoes).
So I have to ask you about this whole stage set thing – you say that you approach design as a sort of theater set.
Yes, that is true. Everything that you do is a performance … like you’re performing right now. So I’m creating the background for your performance. One of the reasons that I wanted this apartment to be all white is because I want the set to be perfect.
But you don’t perform in your own home – it’s fine for hotels but not for a home.
Yes, you do perform in your own home. Everybody’s performing.
Well what is your definition of performing then?
Performing doesn’t mean that you’re doing theater. Performance just means you’re acting out your own personality.
But performing is to do with artifice …
Not necessarily … I’m not talking about something that is fake.
Artifice isn’t necessarily fake … it’s a device used to portray something else. It involves practice and it’s intended to be done before an audience of some kind.
I think that everything that you do every single day is a kind of performance. Maybe you don’t see it that way but I see it that way. When you dress up in the morning to go out, you’re dressing up for other people.
But home is your sanctuary. Home is where you don’t need to do those things.
Well, when you are at home, you are still moving within your environment and that movement that you do in your home is your performance in your home. You’re performing for yourself.
So your definition of living is performance?
I do see it very much in your hotel-spaces-as-sets … because in those sorts of spaces, people are definitely performing.
People are really the decoration of the hotel. So a hotel is the background. If you think about it, your room is also the background for you. When people take selfies, the background is part of it.
But even someone like Lenny Kravitz, for whom you’ve worked … I mean doesn’t even he just want to withdraw from the world when he goes home?
No. [His home life] is part of the world. I worked for Lenny for five years and his life, looks like a theater piece. His life is exactly how we think a rock star would live but it’s really his life. He gets up and there’s a gorgeous model with him and then there’s a chef that cooks his food … his friends are famous people but for him they’re just his friends.
Can you tell us how you go about the first stages of designing for a hotel interior, especially considering that you’re designing a space for lots of people?
With a hotel, the brand establishes what the hotel will be. I am fed the information initially. The Mondrian brand was a very interesting project because the Mondrian was not branded when I started. One of the first things I had to do was define the brand for them. Ian Schrager had just told them, “Call this guy.”
So what did you do to brand it?
The logical thing was this: because it was in LA, is that it was “Hollywood”; it’s “red carpet”; it’s “seen and be seen”; it’s whimsical. It’s about adoration of the body, so mirrors are really important. Because it’s “Hollywood” nothing is either really modern or really old—it’s a mix of everything. Then there are certain brand elements that can carry through every Mondrian hotel: the sense of entrance. It’s very, very important how you enter a hotel … it’s part of your own runway show, or it’s part of being on the red carpet.
So you’re a star when you enter the hotel, right?
That’s very, very important for the Mondrian hotel. You are a star in every hotel. They have a brand director now and they have expanded on that idea. It’s very different from a W hotel, which is all about innovation and design—people are young, hip and happening or they want to feel like they’re young, hip and happening. They have design [elements] that they call the “wow” part of the brand … that’s the “W” means.
When did hotels become these ego-stroking machines?
They’ve always been like that. You just weren’t aware of it.
Do you see yourself as a brand?
I think so. I’m always asked questions like: “What is your style?” A style is the way you do things and a brand establishes the rules of how to do that. The name is always a brand and the style, well I like things that are a little whimsical, informal and exciting.
But how can it be informal if it is all so stage-managed? Where is there space for eccentricity or spontaneity in all of this?
In order to be spontaneous you have to have certain elements planned. There has to be something planned so that the other things look spontaneous. To me formal means there’s only one way to set up the space. And the way to set up the space is very expected and informal is the opposite of that. I mean in this room, you wouldn’t expect to have a 14-foot long sofa at an angle against a mirror.
I want to ask you about John Saladino – I’ve heard he can be very difficult.
I got on very well with him. I speak Italian and he speaks Italian. He really respects people who know about the history of design— for example, I knew Palladio’s work very well. I got the essence of his design very quickly so I became the head designer very quickly. We never really fought. He would yell at other people in the office. I remember the first project that we did, he came to my desk and he yelled at me about something that was not my fault. I went to his office and I closed the door and I said, “This is the first and the last time that you yell at me in front of the entire office.” He apologized profusely. He yelled when he was nervous. He doesn’t yell as a mean thing, just when he’s trapped. Most people do that.
I thought it was interesting that it took you a long time to shed his influence.
Years! I’m still trying to shed it! It’s such a strong brand! I follow a lot of the principles, the classic organization of the space, which is one of the first things that he does. He does color first and we do color first but our work is way more whimsical.
We didn’t really get to the bottom of why you did all-white in here … why did you?
Because I wanted to experiment with something I rarely get to do in other designs. I deal with color a lot, all day long, in other projects.
I read in the Times that when you come in the door you take all your clothes off and put them in the washing machine … do you walk around nude after that?
No, we put our apartment clothes on, clothes that have not been outsides, usually shorts. And we tell guests, not that we have so many guests, that there will be no shoes on inside, so like if you have an outfit that is all about your shoes, it’s best not to wear that. You could wear nice socks though.
Oh. Do you serve red wine?
Yes. Only red wine! There’s a spray that you can use on stains and it comes right off, but I can’t remember the name of it.