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.