Juan Montoya is thoughtful and courteous and, despite having really ‘lived’ in what many may think of New York’s Studio 54 heyday, has retained a certain reserve that seems to come from what he described as his conservative family in Colombia. His design sensibility is international and sophisticated, fed partly by his split existence between the U.S. and Paris, where he owns an apartment. His New York apartment, which he shares with his Swedish partner, Urban Karlsson, is small and serene, with little explosions of color or shape to delight the eye.
You come from Colombia – how old were you when you came to New York?
Eighteen. I came to New York … and, er … are you taping?
Yes. Does it make you nervous?
No, no. [laughs] I won’t think about it. I had finished my architecture school and then I went to Parsons School of Design.
So when you were living in Colombia, you had already set your sights on that?
I started as a painter and my mother encouraged me to paint very early on. Then later on she allowed me to do a lot of things in my room and from my room, I graduated to do the living room.
How old were you when you did the living room? What did you do? That’s really very open of your mother.
I was about ten. She never said be a garbage collector or be a … whatever. So that was the beginning. What I did was that I wanted to change the colors. I come from a very conservative family. Most of the furniture from the house was Victorian, mounds and mounds of books, all hidden behind glass doors. It was a treat to even address my grandfather and [ask] to go to the library because it was always closed. He would take them out for me. I was not allowed to take them out. I used to go a lot to his house and my aunts.
Did you come from a wealthy background?
Yes … not exactly my side of the family but it’s like looking at the rest of the family enjoying a lot of wealth. It didn’t really matter except when you went back home and instead of having two cars you had a little old Chevy. Obviously at the end you feel that you want to really progress, make it for yourself and prove in a way to other people that you can do better.
Does it matter to you, now that you are successful, that your family views you in that way?
You know what matters to me lately is to be able to help other people in different ways. I have been able to succeed in what I do and now is the point where I really feel I have to give back. I’m not Mrs. Astor [laughs] but in a way I feel that what she was able to achieve through her life and her money … it’s a very important thing for everybody to consider.
How are doing that then?
Now I have an old people’s home in Colombia where I have five people to whom I give money. It’s like a nursing home. I try to make their lives a little bit easier.
How did you get into that?
My sister. My sister and I are very close because my two other brothers died young.
That’s terrible. How old were they?
My brother died when he was 30 and my youngest brother died when he was 18.
Were they in accidents? Yeah. One was in a motorcycle accident and one, the older one, he fell down the stairs. He left two kids … so in a way they became my children.
Are you close to those children?
Yes, very much. One is 23 and the other one is 24. Actually I’m going to his wedding.
When you came to New York, was it a very difficult adjustment?
When I came to New York it was a very difficult adjustment because I had had my home, my things, you know, I had no problem. But when you come to New York with no money, then you have to struggle. And I did odd jobs and all kinds of things to able to support myself and go to school. I lived with my aunt in Queens.
Did you enjoy Parsons?
Very much, because it was a time of transition. Parsons was going from decorating school into architectural school so they called in ‘Environmental Design’ and couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted to be decorating or architecture so they hired all these people like David Easton, Luke Goodman … they had a psychology course and [a course] on color [taught] by someone from Yale who had been a pupil of Vasarelli … and so on. You didn’t know where you going to end up.
You have homes in quite a few places don’t you?
I have a house in Garrison, N.Y., a little place in Miami, here and Paris, in the Rue Jacob. I live half of my time in Paris … just about the time I graduated, I left [New York] and I went to live in France and I wanted to make my home in France. Well, that was a problem because it was not as easy as I thought. What they paid me, I couldn’t even afford to live in the apartment where I was living …
Did you start to build a business though?
No, I went to live in Italy. But a friend of mine said to me ‘Whatever you are doing there it’s great but I think that your place is here, right now.’ And it was true. It was the late 70s and I felt that there was so much in design here. The energy was great
A good time to be in New York.
Yeah … Studio 54
Did you go? Did you have fun?
Oh yes! I met all the right people and it was nice.
So that really lifted your design business. What was your style then?
My style back then was black and white with a little bit of red. So it was very minimal, very industrial. A lot of things that you found in the garbage became [begins to giggle] important elements in the home … [still laughing] … you know, I used stretch vinyl around columns, I used industrial lighting. I used industrial carpet. I was one of the first (not the first) within that group that did that.
Is there anything that you absolutely won’t do, a style that you hate?
Yes. If somebody came to me and said ‘I want an 18th century room’ I would say there are better people than I am. Why? Because I don’t want to reproduce a room.
Is there anything that is currently inspiring you?
Texture is very important today. Something to embrace you. I look for fabrics that fall and have a sense of softness. You can talk about cashmere, or parchment. It is an interesting element to use … different kinds of leathers.
Coming from that conservative background, you must have changed a great deal, but is there still a conservative streak still in you?
Well, I think I have my background there. You know when I go back home you become again a little kid [laughs] … even though I’m not a kid anymore! [still laughing] … but …oh, I think it is innate, it’s when I see my mother, the memories. Like for instance lunch on Sunday was a ritual. I was only seated at the table when I was 12. Before that I was in the kitchen. That’s a formality. And all of those little details grow into what you are going to be tomorrow. For instance I am a left-handed [sic] … but when I sat at that table to eat in my grandmother’s house, I had to eat with the right [hand]. And my mother would pinch me when I changed hands!
What rituals do you have today that you have carried over?
Well, I love a beautiful setting for dinner, for lunch. I love beautiful objects that are part of, in a way, my upbringing… flowers … you see casual things are okay. I’m not saying that I can’t eat a hamburger at McDonald’s but I feel very comfortable having a nice dinner, having a beautiful table. That makes me very happy.
So you are a homebody, and why you have so many homes.
Well, I’m a Taurus. I feel that I’m best at home. So that’s the reason why I have little things all over so that I can put my head to sleep. That’s part of my nature.