If ever we needed paradise, especially a paradise we can hold in our hands to revisit again and again, that time is now,” writes Wendy Goodman, design editor for New York magazine, in the foreword to a recently released book, “Designing Paradise: Juan Montoya.”
Countless people from coast to coast heeded these words as they searched for homes of escape during much of the pandemic. Vacation home sales rose by 16.4% in 2020, according to NAR’s 2021 “Vacation Home Counties Report” — and they’re still surging this year. During the January–April 2021 period, sales of vacation homes jumped by 57.2% year-over-year, more than twice the 20% growth in total existing-home sales during the same period.
World-renowned designer Juan Montoya knows all about creating homes built for pleasure, relaxation and escape. His work takes him all over the world — from the mountains of Switzerland to the beaches of Fiji. Named as a Dean of American Design by Architectural Digest and a frequent fixture on the publication’s AD100 list of top designers, he has been inducted into Interior Design’s Hall of Fame and distinguished with the Legends Award from Pratt Institute, among other honors. He is best known for creating “magical interior worlds for his clients” that are grounded in history, art and a respect for local artisanal talent, according to Goodman. This particular skill served him well when it came time to interpret his signature refinement and simplicity for his clients’ vacation homes in tropical locations like Miami Beach, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, featured in the book.
Each home expresses a juxtaposition of textures, colors and volumes while balancing scale, lighting and spatial qualities with special objects that reflect an interest in a variety of cultures. For a home in the Dominican Republic’s Cap Cana, for example, he incorporated a painted 18th-century double front door from Colombia’s coffee-growing region and mixed a sisal carpet with touches like a custom-designed ebony table with bone inlay surrounded by Anglo-Indian chairs, a glass-fronted display cabinet from the Philippines, and a red Chinese console. The result is a relaxed yet refined atmosphere. In another Dominican Republic retreat, textural exploration took on the form of the combed plaster of dining room walls, woven rope detail on a sitting room coffee table and bedroom headboard, and intricate beadwork on the sitting room ottomans.
For Mexico’s 1,500-acre resort and residential community, Punta Mita, Montoya “spent one and a half years traveling from town to town in Mexico, looking for artisans to produce the furniture so it would have an authenticity to its location,” he says. Folding the influences of the specific geographic location and regional culture into the design “allows us to explore something new,” he explains. “It gives you a sense of belonging. It also helps to support the local craft and artisans.”
Montoya is no stranger to the idea of escapist fantasy. As a child, his family split time between Bogotá and a rice farm in a remote town called Puerto Tejada, where he first understood the importance of how design relates to its physical location and geographical climate. Today, the prolific design icon himself divides his time between an apartment in New York City and a sprawling 100-acre country estate in the Hudson River Valley, which he named La Formentera after one of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain.
“Greenery is very important for your health and peace of mind,” he says. “On our property [in Garrison, New York], we live amongst the wildlife, birds and flowers. However, it is important to come back to the city to revisit your vendors, friends, craftspeople and people you work with.”
A connection to the outdoors is another Montoya calling card when creating an elevated sense of paradise. For La Formentera, he aimed to achieve a place of solace and splendor inspired by the Mediterranean island’s rocky terrain. Over many years, he daringly intermixed stone sculptures, a captivating pool complex, rough-hewn shelters and a rushing brook that empties into a pristine lake, transforming them into a beautiful natural wonderland. Echoes of his appreciation for nature can be found throughout his tropical portfolio, too. For the Cap Cana oasis, he designed the lush jungle-like landscaping himself, nestling thatched palapas among palm tree groves or hidden at the end of walkways to create a sense of allure and mystery. Outdoor rooms, from an elegant dining palapa artfully arranged among verdant palms and elephant ear plants to a monumental outdoor living room surrounded overhead by an open-air mezzanine, pay homage to the sun-soaked landscape. In a Fisher Island apartment, Montoya played up the visual connection to the water by removing doors that blocked views of adjacent rooms and expanded the space laterally into a sort of crescent-shaped enfilade.
Still, Montoya’s tropical design is not all palapas and sisal rope. In a Surfside, Florida, eighth-floor apartment, for example, he included glossier nods to the seaside surroundings like custom silver entry doors feature a fish-scale motif, a tile floor that mimics the waves, an aquarium as backdrop to a bar and curvaceous furniture silhouettes. Other projects offer a sophisticated homage to Miami’s art deco tradition or an art deco twist on a residence inspired by an ancient Hindu temple. “The fluidity with which he can shape-shift as needed and with such panache is part of what has made Montoya a celebrated name in the world of design,” writes book author Jorge Arango.
Indeed, Montoya’s visual language has transitioned “from the stark, monochromatic rooms with which he first established an international profile, to the more opulent yet relaxed interiors of today,” observes Goodman. Even Montoya himself acknowledges his work is “more mature, more daring and more concise.”
At a time when everyone seems to be looking — or at least dreaming — for an escape, Juan Montoya offers up a new vision for living founded on beauty, creativity, functionality and sense of place.