Designer Andres Escobar on His Colombian Roots, Montreal Home and NYC Projects

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You can hear Andres Escobar, the prolific international interior designer, smile when he speaks, his lovely sense of humor behind his words. “If he looks like a gypsy, if he walks like a gypsy, if he lives like a gypsy, he’s a gypsy,” he said, sing-songy, semi-self-deprecating, while he talked about his New York residence.

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Escobar, who is in his mid-50s, has been commuting from Montreal, near weekly, for nearly two decades. Born in Medellin, Colombia and raised throughout that country, Montreal has been home since he first traveled there to learn English on a trip meant to last three months. That was more than three decades ago. Escobar’s still exercising his linguistics in a life and home of four—French, English, Portuguese, Spanish—with his wife of 33 years (she’s from Portugal) and their two sons, both in their mid-20s, neither following in their father’s footsteps. Once upon a time, that was tradition, if not expectation. “They think I’m an idiot,” laughed Escobar, who himself deviated from the family practice—his father and grandfather were engineers. “I love what I do so it appears I’m a workaholic.”

You could forgive them for thinking so. The February morning Commercial Observer met Escobar at 362 Fifth Avenue, his new office space, he’d already done a 7 a.m. site visit, completed a series of calls, had meetings planned into the evening, a work dinner, and a non-threatening expectation of returning to his hotel by midnight.

“Food, restaurants, travel, doing new projects, meeting people, everything that is challenging and a discovery is what makes me tick,” Escobar said. “Ninety-percent of my business was generated through dining and going out.”

He’s not kidding. 

“We were introduced at a party I threw in an art gallery for a building I built in Chelsea in 2007 called 100 West 18th Street,” Scott Aaron, the managing principal at Socius Development Group, told Commercial Observer. He hired Escobar to create a luxury version of a Downtown artist loft at Exhibit at 60 Fulton Street, a 23-story rental building between Ryders Alley and Cliff Street. The project completed at the end of last year.

“I was interested in the 1970s, early 80’s New York City music and art scene, and the photographers that captured it on film,” Aaron said. “Mixing the photography, the artists and the rawness of the imagery with the luxury we see in the design was brilliant. I wasn’t surprised it worked out as well as it did. We knew we had something special that wasn’t done before in residential design.”

Escobar was surely the right designer for the job. As a boy he planned to be a musician when he grew up. And his first New York City project, the one he said made him who he is here, and introduced him to people elsewhere, was The Gretsch at 60 Broadway in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. The 200,000-square-foot building went up as a factory in 1916 to make Gretsch guitars, basses and drums. It was converted to luxury condominiums, with Karl Fischer as architect, in the early 2000s, a leader in the borough’s transformation.

“Brooklyn 18 years ago was not what it is today,” Escobar said. “A lot of celebrities actually lived in the building, famous musicians, changing the stigma. A lot of people started taking me seriously after The Gretsch.”   

Escobar played guitar—he admitted he was still pretty good but not good enough to be, say, Eric Clapton—and until one day, in his early teens, he wondered, critically listening to a recording he’d made, who was that singing? “You realize it was you,” he said, “and either you are deaf, or you realize that’s just the way it is.”

It’s impossible not to join in his laughter.

Years later, still in school studying design at the University of Montreal, it became clear he’d become another sort of hero. His wife’s uncle needed to renovate his house. “I had no clue about this and I just did it and it came out really beautiful,” he said. His first design project. His first client. That was 1984. He kept in mind that the walls support the roof (try not to laugh with him).

Escobar said his work ethic became evident at his first formal job, working for a busy retail design firm in the 1980s. “I was insatiable. I just wanted to understand, learn, know how these guys managed to get such a prolific firm and delivered so much retail.”

In half a year the partners identified him as someone who understood and could give clients what they wanted. They nurtured him and let him grow. He left to take on larger, non-retail, projects, in Europe and, eventually, New York City. He’s been in the Big Apple for three, four or more days a week ever since, though his home is surely in Montreal.

He has a bit of a dream his local clients don’t know he lives outside of New York City, which is a statement about his work ethic, but of course they do.

“I run into him at the airport,” laughs Lloyd Goldman, the president of BLDG Management, who first hired Escobar three years ago for a 35-story rental building at 110 First Street, in Jersey City, N.J. Now they’re working on 222 East 44th Street in Midtown, a 454,000-square-foot former factory with garages, expected to open in June as a 428-unit, mixed-use property. Recently, when reconsidering carpets while standing in the Stark showroom, Goldman called Escobar who quickly had a staffer at the showroom, and was there himself the following day.

“He’s very good at working with owners,” Goldman said. “We’ll discuss a space, he describes his vision—‘I see this and that,’ [and] we come to consensus.” Goldman described the plans for 222 East 44th Street between Second and Third Avenues, which include a discreet morning coffee and espresso station, free to tenants, off the grand, classic lobby. “Andres has a great sense of modern sensibility with respect to classicism.”

Escobar attributes that balance to his parents, characteristics that made him who he is today. The classicism from his dad who adored buildings in European cities like Paris, and shared his fascination with his son via cardboard models to build of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. The appreciation was passed down, as were the math skills, but the creative tendencies, like drawing were greater.

Another note: Goldman said Escobar’s renderings are the most impressive he’s seen. He cannot say enough about their quality. 

“That’s the basis of creativity, to be able to express what you want,” Escobar said. “Either you have it or you don’t. There are incredible creative technicians but not a lot of creative creators.”

His mother fostered his creativity with a love of cooking. Ask him about the mixing of seafood and meat in dishes. “Creative is in everything you do,” Escobar said. “How you look, approach life, talk to people. It’s not just what you produce, it’s the aura, what you project.” 

If a person can be a presence and subtle at the same time that’s exactly what Escobar projects. He met CO clad in black from suit to scarf to laces on his leather Louis Vuitton high-top sneakers.

“I was a Prada guy but it’s all about the design,” he said, leaning down to illustrate the convenience of a zipper on a shoe for someone continually traveling. He laughed before revealing a little more about his footwear choices and himself. “I used to wear Ferragamo women’s shoes. No one knew. If the shoe fits.”

His tastes lean towards the expensive but anything designed well, artistic, with a sense of value, could capture him. A beautiful, set dining table, for example. “I like everything,” he said. “I like jewelry, clothing, food, architecture, cars, gadgets. I like stuff. But I like stuff that is well thought out.”

That’s evident in everything he does.

Escobar’s eponymous firm, where he’s principal and creative director, moved into a new space earlier this year to manage the 30-something projects underway. Some still in concept, some in design development, some in construction with delivery expected in three and four months. His new office, the eighth floor at 362 Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets, across from the CUNY Graduate Center, was chosen for its proximity to clients and their projects. It’s easier to move around the city from Midtown than Downtown where he had operated for the 10 years prior.

Not that he has any problem getting around. He thrives on it. Hotel hopping, he said, noting his four years of hotel residency in Soho, another four by Central Park, and stints in Meatpacking, Uptown, Midtown, Flatiron District, has enabled him to understand the city in ways that single-neighborhood dwellers might not. “I love being transient,” Escobar said. “The subtleties of each neighborhood are very interesting. The voyage I did in New York City allowed me, in my business, to have a sensitivity to that.” 

Escobar-designed projects feel like their place. “Oh, this is really Chelsea,” he said, an example of a sentiment he might have. “It’s different, it’s changing again.” And if clients want something else, he can figure that out, too. He recalled the owner’s brief for 200 West 72nd Street. “They wanted essence of the Upper West Side with a Downtown flair. When someone tells you that, you have to understand the entire city. How do you mix the two together?”

This, he said, is what makes design so interesting: Everything morphs. Literally.

Escobar merged with Lemay Architecture, a 60-year-old Canadian firm, in 2015, 26 years after establishing his own practice, to broaden his firm’s offerings to meet every need of a client. This is part of his strategy: approaching architecture and design in a holistic manner. Lemay’s expertise includes infrastructural development and transit integration, master plans and large-scale mixed-use projects.

“Trans-disciplinary will be the name of the game in the future. A lot of people don’t want 10 different consultants around the table,” he said, naming roles like architect director, design architect and interior designer. “I don’t understand why, sometimes, landscape is removed from architecture. It’s all part of the same thing. Today, what we’re looking for, is actually trying to cross that line where inside is out and outside is in.”

His firm—with its dozen people in New York and some 450 in Montreal—includes award-winning experts in the design of universities, museums, libraries, health facilities and landscapes, experts who come together and look at everything in unison. “You have to make sure whatever you put inside of a building cohabitates in its environment and isn’t forced in.”

Building a team, he added, is not about throwing people into the mix. “It’s about casting the right individuals to be able to perpetuate what you are trying to achieve,” Escobar said. “My main vision is that we are perceived as the most knowledgeable individuals in New York. We understand the idiosyncrasies.”

Escobar also understands the value of a lobby.

“If I’m not doing the lobby I don’t want to do the project,” he said. “I can do beautiful kitchens and bathrooms and corridors and amenities but a lobby is the heart of a building. In the hierarchy, the facade, the arrival, the lobby set the tempo for everything that else should happen in the building.”

He paused to consider, then smiled. “I’ve really been lucky and fortunate,” he added. “Every project I’ve worked on I managed to convince ownership that I should be doing [the lobby]. It’s the image you want to project. It’s what you walk away and remember”

Among his favorites: Tishman Speyer’s 45 Rockefeller Plaza outfitted with what he called “the most exquisite collection of art”; RXR Realty’s 75 Rockefeller Plaza and its “huge sculpture of dogs taking photos of you.”

Lobbies like these, Escobar said, convey a level of sophistication we’ve forgotten. “People appreciate art,” he said. “This is the next stage of lobbies. Curation. Simplicity. A chair becomes a piece of art, a water feature becomes a piece of art.”

Escobar’s favorite New York City lobby is the Renzo Piano-designed 620 Eighth Avenue, home to The New York Times. “It has all the elements that make it new,” he said, “timeless and significant. I love that garden in the middle, that message.”

There are several lobbies he’d like to redo, chiefly because what’s there now is disrespectful to the original architecture. He’s too polite to name names. Instead he introduces us to 27 West 72nd Street, one of his projects, built in 1925. “Beautiful architecture, columns, elevators, the old marquis with the glass, the regal entrance, the history of 72nd Street,” Escobar said. “I was adamant about not removing the history out of something that has great bones.”

The floor, however, was damaged. Inspired by the Bergdorf Goodman women’s collection basement flooring—“terrazzo brought to a different level,” Escobar created something flowing and whimsical, in sync with the space. “It’s arguably art,” he offered. “It makes you happy.”

Happiness is a theme. It’s why he’s a designer. It’s why he does everything he does. And he wants to share it with everyone else.

“What’s the point of a bottle of Chateau Petrus on your own?” He laughed. But he’s serious.