Ernest De La Torre

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Interior designer, Ernest De La Torre, is a very patient man. After my tape recorder went on the blink (not once but twice) he good-naturedly agreed to be asked the same questions over (and over) again. Growing up with Cuban parents in the Midwest, Ernest’s first career was in business with design as a sideline. After casual assignments grew serious he packed up and headed to Manhattan to study. He worked for both Peter Marino and Ralph Lauren before hanging his own shingle. Clearly, the combination of his corporate and design training has clicked and although I did wonder if he wasn’t a little too serious, he assured me that he is more than capable of indulging—good food being top of the list.

I saw you in Elle Décor recently – it’s so important to get your work out there. How hard is it to get into these magazines?

Oh there’s so much competition. It’s funny, but growing up in Chicago and for anyone living outside these metropolises, they think they can’t get into these magazines because it’s all New York and L.A. based, and it’s the opposite. If you have really good projects that aren’t in New York or L.A., then you have a really good chance of getting into the magazines because there are so many New York or L.A. people competing. They [magazine editors] told me: We can’t keep showing just New York apartments.

L. to r.: A Louise Nevelson wall sculpture hangs in the front entryway.; Jeff Koons signed the cover of a program for his lecture at The Times Talk Lecture series.
L. to r.: Ernest designed the pair of pedestal cowhide lamps with custom horsehair shades.; Signs of nature.
One of a pair of wood chairs by Eugene Printz purchased at Christies in Paris.
A trio of blowfish is a quirky accent piece.
Sheer textile art from Lucca & Co. is displayed atop the Chinese chests of drawers.

You’re pretty young and you’ve done pretty well – did you use a PR person to get launched?

You know, I sent stuff around and it was a lot of work. One of my employees was friends with somebody who owns a PR firm and I saw him at one of the showhouses. He said: How would you like to work together for a year because I think your work is really great. They sent things to magazines and they started to get to know me. But then one of the people at the PR firm contacted an editor at House & Garden and the editor said to me: Listen, I don’t want to get anything through them – just call me directly. [laughs]

Obviously your work appeals to design magazines – what is it about your work that appeals to say, Elle Décor?

Because of my stint at Ralph Lauren, I definitely have an eye for how it’s going to photograph, which I think is ultimately how it is going to appeal to the eye—period.

Wide open southern views from the London Terrace studio.

A view across the apartment. One of a pair of linen-covered armchairs in the style of Jacques Adnet stand in front of the studio’s southern facing windows.
A stunning 1970s Paul Evans custom bronze fireplace is the focal point of the studio.
Details of the Paul Evans bronze fireplace.
Detail of Ernest’s 1920’s Chinese export chest of drawers from eBay.

Do you think seasons affect how your clients look at their new projects – if they begin in spring, do they start off with brighter colors than they might in winter?

No … it doesn’t really affect them too much.

How does your training in the fashion business influence your approach to designing rooms?

I think what people are comfortable wearing sort of shows up in what they are comfortable with in their home. That said, there is the person who can live outside themselves. They never wear color but want color in their home. The English are an example of that – they love color in the home.

I read that you started in business and then you made the leap.

Right, I worked for IBM out of college, for five years, as an account executive. I was renovating houses on the side. I think I did about seven houses and apartments.

A mink-covered bed designed by Ernest was based on a design of a bed he slept in as a teenager.
Hannah at leisure. A round telescope table by Charles Duodoyt from a Paris is often used for dining.
A photograph from the ‘Palazzo Series’ by Matthias Schaller hangs on the wall behind a bed designed by Ernest.
L. to r.: Another look behind the bed.; One of a pair of wood chairs by Eugene Printz purchased at Christies in Paris.
Ernest added a mica front to a mid-century console he found in upstate New York. The iron lamp is from Fantoni and the 1960s painting is by Robert Mann purchased at auction.
L. to r.: A grouping of vases, including one by Jean Dunand, are arranged atop the mica-fronted console.; An orange crocodile covered pillow adds a lively accent to the linen covered armchair. A unique crystal light sculpture by Israeli artist, Ayala Serfaty from Christina Grajales stands on a custom pedestal by Callidus Guild painting.

So you first approached it as a businessman …

I didn’t really think that interior design was a serious business. You know, my parents used an interior designer and I didn’t think that he was a businessman but that he was a bit frivolous. I was always really business-oriented and I thought the way to do this was through real estate, which, in the end, is not creative. I started interviewing with designers and they all said: Are you crazy?! Stay in real estate development – that’s where we all want to be!

I have to tell you that to me you don’t seem like you have an ounce of frivolity …

[Laughs] I am indulgent … I do love a wonderful meal. I was out with my parents and we ate at some great French restaurant and I was oohing and aahing with every course and my father said: You really get into this, don’t you? Food is food to him.

Do you get passionate?

Oh yeah!

An exotic bluestone kitchen floor punches up the neutral hues of the sycamore cabinets; Porcelain cups and bowls from Alessi are cleverly stored on hooks in the kitchen.
Black and white photos of flowers by Judy Thompkins are perched atop the kitchen countertops.

Your father is originally from Cuba, is he?

Yes. My parents came over when they were in their twenties. My dad was at Northwestern Medical School and then he sent for mother shortly after that. He’s a psychiatrist.

Ohh …

Double whammy.

Did you feel like you were being very closely watched?

My dad made a point of not analyzing us—to the point where he didn’t know a lot of stuff about me. They were wonderful parents. My dad was super-practical, so if you said you were studying art history, he would say: what, do you want to be a teacher? He was not the kind who would say: Oh that will make you a well-rounded person. He thought you do something to reach an end goal, especially in education, which is not the way I think.

Ernest designed a classic style bathroom with Samuel Heath hardware and Waterworks fixtures in keeping with the Pre-war architecture of the building. Striped Tripolino marble covers the walls and floor.
Work (and play) clothes.

So you’re not that goal-oriented.

I am …but I see my nieces and nephews getting so wrapped up in “if I do this now, I’m going to have to be this” and I’m like: Listen – I studied economics and finance and I’m an interior designer. Just study what you love. Learn how to learn and you’ll figure it out. You don’t have to figure out exactly what you’re going to be doing when you’re seventeen.

So you love what you do?

Oh yes!

I can’t end without asking you how do you survive living in a small studio with your partner?

[Laughs] It’s not a studio—it’s a big hotel room. That’s how we think of it.

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