Andres Escobar is the best designer you’ve never heard of. Until now. The Colombian-born design guru hit New York running, garnering almost a dozen local projects since he won a contest to design a Williamsburg condo slightly more than five years ago.
Since then, Escobar designed the interiors for the Manhattan nightclub Duvet, the hotel le bleu (which opened this past week on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn) and the interiors, common spaces and kitchen and baths for The Olcott and Harsen House on the upper West Side. He’s also worked on 50 Columbus in Jersey City, 92 Greene St. in SoHo, the Gretsch Building in Williamsburg, the PowerHouse in Long Island City and The District, Wall Street’s newest residential building, where nightclub owner Amy Sacco is the lifestyle director. Sacco is also a homeowner there, buying a penthouse in the building.
“This will be the best rooftop in New York by far,” says Sacco, owner of New York’s celebrity hot spot Bungalow 8. ” I took the leopard-print kitchen that Escobar designed. It’s an incredibly rich feel. I can’t wait to cook and entertain.”
That’s exactly what Escobar intended when he chose the Macassar Ebony leopard stripe-shaped wood paneling for one of the kitchen finishes.
“I think people in the Financial District are stressed from working hard all day with numbers,” says Escobar, who speaks fluent Spanish, French, English and Portuguese. “They need a way out. I want these apartments to make them feel like they have their own club, bar or lounge. The behavior of people dictates my designs. I am very market-geared.”
Escobar thinks fast, walks fast, talks fast and designs fast. Everywhere he goes, he sees and thinks in design parameters. When in New York, he stays at 60 Thompson, eats at Balthazar, drinks at Cipriani’s and talks to everyone he meets.
“I network, network, network,” he says. “That’s my style. I become friends with everyone.” On the streets of SoHo, his eyes dart back and forth, up and down, from store windows to people’s shoes.
“I look at everything,” says Escobar, whose favorite New York neighborhood is SoHo, by far. “I can’t help it. I have to take it all in. I look at tablecloths, flower arrangements, distressed walls and all fashion. Interior design is progression of all that.”
Escobar’s start in interior design came from a film he saw when he was 11. It’s why, he says, he joined the profession.
“I went to see ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ when I was a kid,” says Escobar. “I went right home and told my mom, ‘I want to look like that.’ I never wanted to be conventional or do things that people thought they had to do to be normal.”
But the Montreal-based Escobar, who has a four-person office in Tribeca, says breaking into New York wasn’t easy.
“After I won that contest in Brooklyn to do the Gretsch Building, I thought, ‘Okay, I did my New York thing,'” says Escobar, who wears all black from head to toe. “New York can be impenetrable if you don’t live here. It’s a city that categorizes people.”
Escobar talks from experience. While being courted by local developers looking to do a building on the upper West Side, he was told he was too downtown.
“I said, ‘Guys, you got it all wrong,'” says Escobar, smiling. “A guy playing piano in a rock band could have started as a great classical musician. In design, to do minimalist well, you have to know neo-classical, too.”
Escobar got the job and designed the lobby, common spaces and interiors of The Olcott, at 27 W. 72nd St. The lobby combines prewar bones like wood moldings with Hollywood-glam black marble columns and carved brass elevators. “I took the opportunity to show people we were capable of jumping from one style to another,” says Escobar.
Whether in SoHo, the Financial District or Jersey City, Escobar has a high hit ratio of getting jobs. “I always talk to the person making the decision,” he says. “I don’t talk to a go-between who can mix up messages. And I can see what the other person wants. I get in their heads. I know exactly what they want. And my ideas come right at the first meeting.”
For a corporate headquarters for Canadian retailer Point Zero, the owner of the company told Escobar he wanted something “Gucci-esque” and contemporary with a walk-through experience.
“After hearing that, I said, ‘Okay, thank you, that is all I need,'” says Escobar. “I went back to my office, drew up some visuals and e-mailed my ideas. He responded back immediately and said, ‘Right on.’ That kind of thing happens a lot.”
Unlike Philippe Starck, who some think has become predictably outlandish, Escobar designs livable environments. There are no dwarf stools or giant faucets. With Escobar, in his own words, you get “noble materials.” Strong lines and hard woods go with an edgy tiled flooring. His designs work as strongly in Tel Aviv as they do in Turkey.
“I’m global,” he says. “I love wine, travel, food, people and spaces. That’s why I have so much fun putting them together.”
The glossy pages of Development New York magazine feature some of the ritziest addresses in the Big Apple and give the lowdown on the city’s overheated real estate market.
Last month’s issue inaugurated a column by Andres Escobar and touted his cutting-edge designs. Escobar has worked on interiors all over New York City, from Brooklyn lofts to Chelsea restaurants complete with “dining beds.”
Now sought after in design circles in New York, Escobar’s home base is, in fact, Montreal. But in an all-too familiar story line, his career really took off when he set his sights south of the border.
“I never thought New York would become my principal income,” said Escobar, a native of Colombia who came to Canada at 19. “But then I saw an opportunity.”
With lucrative contracts coming his way, Escobar has expanded his Montreal office and hired managers to handle some of the business aspects of running his firm. And while New York accounts for the bulk of his work, Escobar is busy diversifying, with projects as far afield as India and Israel.
Mondays are a down day in Escobar’s globe-trotting schedule, leaving him time to meet over a cappuccino at Le Renoir, the posh restaurant and bar in the Sofitel hotel in downtown Montreal.
The 46-year-old Escobar is easy to spot with his trademark shoulder-length black hair, which he wears loose, Yanni-like, over a silver earring in one ear.
Escobar designed Le Renoir, and as he sat in a brown leather club chair, he glanced at the backlit onyx bar and dark stone floor and decided his design has aged well.
“I love Montreal, I live here, but I go to New York every week to get the adrenaline,” said Escobar, who talked excitedly about his career and latest projects. “It’s happening, it’s quick – you never get tired.”
Escobar has lived in Montreal since 1980, when his parents packed him off from their home in Bogota to do a portion of his engineering studies here.
But once he landed in Canada, Escobar, who loved making models and playing with paints as a kid, decided to pursue studies in design instead, to the initial chagrin of his father, an engineer.
“In South America, you’re either a priest, doctor or lawyer or have an other classical career,” Escobar joked of parental expectations.
Although it meant returning to college-level courses, Escobar enrolled in design at Dawson CEGEP.
After graduating, he stayed in Montreal, where he had met his wife-to-be. After a few years of working for others, he struck out on his own, first with a partner and later solo, starting Andres Escobar & Associates in 1995.
The firm had reasonable success designing corporate offices, restaurants and residential projects.
But Escobar caught a big break six years ago when Karl Fischer, a Montreal architect who had been doing work in New York for some time, recommended Escobar for a condominium project in Brooklyn.
“It took a little bit of convincing because he wasn’t a New Yorker, but once they saw what he could do, they were willing to give him a chance,” said Fischer, who has since collaborated with Escobar on other contracts.
The $75-million conversion project involved turning The Gretsch Building, a 10-storey former musical-instrument factory, into 130 high-end units. With a view over the East River toward Manhattan, prices for some of the condos ran over $2 million U.S.
“I had carte blanche,” Escobar said of landing the contract to design the Gretsch lobby – in black granite, tempered glass and stainless steel, and loft interiors with their exposed concrete beams and floors of reddish Australian Jarrah wood.
Since then, word of mouth has landed Escobar a slew of other contracts in New York.
“If a project is good, they will find out who is doing it,” he said.
After hearing about Escobar from Fischer, developer and builder Joseph Klaynberg hired the designer for several projects, including the Chelsea Club condos in Manhattan.
Meant to have the feel of a hip hotel, the Chelsea Club features leather-clad elevator cabs with plasma televisions.
“Our view of design is something very edgy, new, something not done before,” Klaynberg said of why he clicked with Escobar. “He’s extremely creative and his team is excellent; everybody’s sharp, everybody’s good.”
With his profile rising in New York, Escobar added a permanent presence there with an office employing three architects who handle project management.
And Escobar’s Montreal office, housed in the converted Dominion Textile building near the Lachine Canal, has grown to 25 full-time employees.
“At first I did design, was the draftsman, did the taxes, the accounting,” Escobar said of being a jack-of-all-trades when he started out. “I never embarked on this to be a businessman, but if you’re not a good businessman, you can’t do it.”
Despite his success in the U.S., Escobar still works in Montreal, where he lives with his wife and children. Recent projects include the glitzy new head office of clothing company Point Zero, which features a soaring lobby with glass passerelles and a sleek, circular showroom.
Howard Ellner, Point Zero’s executive vice-president, said Escobar quickly tuned in to what the company’s owners, Maurice and Nicole Benisti, had in mind.
“His suggestions hit right on to what they envisioned,” Ellner said.
Cosmopolitan and restless – he speaks four languages – Escobar says he’s not content to focus solely on New York, despite that it now accounts for almost 70 per cent of his business.
“I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket,” said Escobar, who has just made a pitch for a hotel/condo project on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
He hopes his success will inspire others who think they can’t cut it in international markets.
“It’s a lesson for everyone in Canada,” he said.