Orlando Diaz-Azcuy's award-winning furniture is in hotels, offices, and residences on all continents. The Cuban-born international star's designs are the "antiques" of tomorrow, the pieces that will reside in museums. His Chalice Line Hickory Business Furniture catalogue has been acquired by the Smithsonian Institution.
Today we are meeting in his fabulous San Francisco atelier, and he is
dressed in his usual white coat, the general size and shape as the ones
doctors wear but much more elegant. Everyone in his office wears them, in the French tradition. His refined face has an ascetic look, but his smile
suggests an appetite for life's richness. Warm, smiling, cultured and
amusing, he makes you feel like a lifelong friend at the end of an interview.
"An office shows an expression of a company's attitude, its image to
the public," he says. His atelier certainly does. It reflects his acclaimed highly refined aesthetic, his pride in his planning capabilities, and his style, which he calls "sumptuous minimalism." He elaborates, "I truly dislike a cold, bloodless environment. I balance the austere and the ornate.
If the architecture is simple, the furnishings should be ornate. To little, add much; to much, add little." To reach his atelier you walk up a flight of stairs carpeted in a bronze-olive color. One wall is brick, natural red at the entrance and fading into painted beige at the landing. The other wall gleams with black lacquer, and the banister is an elegant hardwood tube. At the top of the stairs, the carpet changes into a two-tone gray with a triangular inset pattern.
Describing his colors presents problems, as they are always subtle blends that look different as the sun rises and sets. His ecru walls reflect his
love of texture; one might be brick, another covered in fabric, a third
plaster. In the anteroom, a five-foot tall rectangular Saito bronze sculpture fashioned to look like cardboard. On an adjoining wall hangs an 18th Century French screen painted in the style of Watteau, and, on the opposite wall one finds a painting of two pale figures against a nearly black background by Korean artist, Mun Chiu. There's a spectacular 18C key-carved gilt and black lacquer Chinese chest, a piece museums covet.
His personal art collection ranges throughout history, as one would expect, and includes works by Sol Lewitt, Jake Berthola, and Porfiro del Donna. He feels Cy Twombly is the
finest working artist in the US today, as Anselm Keifer is in Europe. A sandblasted glass door leads to a salon, and it is largely, though not entirely, furnished with pieces he designed. Now he and I enter the salon and sit at a long white table with tubular beige metal chairs upholstered in tooled leather and he sands an assistant for water.
"I have too many assistants," he says, “and they are making me a semi-invalid. When I started out, I did all my own plastering, cabinetry, electric wiring. Now I need an assistant to plug in a lamp." He then discusses the metal chairs we were sitting on and explains that it's much easier to manufacture a prototype in France because they're done by hand.
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"It will cost around $600," he says, "but in the U. S. machines do the work but end up producing a chair that costs $100,000." His pristine walls are bereft of framed citations, but they could be papered with them, as he has won virtually every major design award. He was among the first in his profession to be inducted into the industry's prestigious Hall of Fame, sponsored by Interior Design Magazine. Other awards include Interiors Magazine selection as Designer of the Year in 1982, Star of Design awards from both the Institute of Business Designers and the Pacific Design Center; twice the Charles S. Gelber-Best of Competition Award, the Gold Award from FACE (Facts About Cuban Exiles) and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley. He also received an honorary doctorate from International Fine Arts College in Miami.
He always won the school art prize when he was a little boy in Cuba, and when he arrived in Miami, he was absolutely penniless. The Red Cross had to take care of him. He was enroute to Catholic University in Washington, DC, where he graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Architecture, then a Masters
Degree in Landscape Architecture, and a Masters Degree in City and Regional
Planning, both from the University of California (Berkeley). In San Francisco he first practiced with Lawrence Halprin, one of the masters of American
Landscape Architecture. "From him I learned firsthand the importance of refined details in design," he says.
In 1976, he joined San Francisco headquartered Gensler Associates. Over the next eleven years as design principal, he helped the firm become the most respected and successful in the country. During this period he completed projects which earned international recognition and awards, such as the headquarters of Levi-Strauss & Co., the Bank of Canton, and the International Terminal of the San Francisco airport.
In Los Angeles he designed the offices of entertainment industry tycoon Marvin Davis, the headquarters of Northup Corporation, the Steelcase Showroom in the Pacific Design Center, the USC/Norton Comprehensive Cancer Center & Hospital. And the Jessica McClintock store in South Costa Mesa.
He founded his own firm in 1987 and took on international projects
like the spa in the Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel, and a suite of
law offices in London, The Peninsula Phuket Hotel in Thailand, and the Yomitan Membership Hotel in Japan. At home (San Francisco. he also has a co-op in New York), he redesigned the "Intermezzo" Lounge for San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. He also worked on his ever-expanding furniture line. "You're the top," I say. "Please do not call me the top," he insists. "The minute a man decides he's on top he begins to deteriorate. Recharging is important to the aesthetic process; it provides energy. I really dislike ego-driven design."
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He created his first piece of furniture when he was fourteen and television had first arrived in Cuba. His sister bought a set, and he created a table for it - a glamorous version of TV stand. She still has it, but when U. S.- Cuban relations open up, he hopes to bring it here. We predict that one day a museum will do a retrospective of his work and will want to include it.
Even that early table has style. In it one sees promise of the man whose sensibility perfectly balances the timeless and the modern. "I believe furniture should be created for the real world, the world in which we live," he says. "I am not sci-fi or futuristic. Not gimmicky. I
strive for beauty, comfort, and practicality. You have to sit in a chair to find its soul, move around it, and use it to work at your desk. I like to design chairs where you can sit in different positions and not be caged."
He does not prowl through the Grand Siecle furniture rooms at the Louvre trying to decide how to update.
"I don't deconstruct a piece thinking I could do this leg with that top. Good designers study the work of other designers. Great designers study everything." He will accept a project in some part of the world, and let's say the mandate is furniture design. He will spend time there, ask people what they manufacture, grow, find out about their politics, tastes, esthetics. He will walk every street of the area and absorb it. "Then
I return home and do nothing for two months. Next, I begin to sketch, and the
forms rise from a mind that is saturated with all these images, fused them. I
try to get to the heart of a culture and what it represents. I don't just do
a job, I try to push design forward. As long as I feel I can, I will continue
He designed 22 neoclassical pieces for HBF, each
infused with his sense of architectural elements and possessing clean,
lyrical silhouettes, and fine materials. When the designs launched,
he discussed many pieces in terms of sources. Regarding the Chalice
chairs, he said, "I came away from the King Tut exhibition with a visual
impression I felt compelled to portray someday in a piece of furniture."
He described the Athenee pieces, "The elegance and softness . . .are very typical of 17th and 18th Century French furniture. It has an ease and refinement that has always inspired me." His Havana pieces are "very transparent from the sides, light and informal." Regarding the Miami series, he says, "When
you walk down Miami Beach you see wooden white slat chairs sitting
on porches with the ocean and wind blowing through them. I wanted a
piece with this same sense of comfort and reclining."
All the HBF pieces use cherrywood, but with different finishes. Soon the texture and materials-loving Orlando would be working with all new elements. His furniture can fit into any decor. The rooms he designs have rich textures and elegant lines. He likes to make sense of spaces, whether they are small or sprawling and often uses floor planes as a primary means to differentiate varied
rooms and to introduce a sense of material. His
sofas and chair colors will be neutral with splashes of gold, violet,
red _ any beautiful hue _ in the occasional pillow. "Color adds light and freshness, sparks a piece, but the eye can stand
only so much of it," he says.
He has designed furniture for McGuire Furniture Co., HBF, Stow Davis, and Steelcase; textile design for HBF Textiles and Pallas Textiles; and a lighting collection for Boyd Lighting.
Presently he is designing for McGuire. He kept
hospitality in mind for his first series of bamboo and rattan pieces.
His next series added wood and became "less patio-like," in his words. Octagonal glass tables replaced rattan. "I was inspired by 18C Asian designs," he says, "and
the Umbria chairs recall 1920s Italian furniture.
His latest line has fully upholstered pieces
as well as metal, wood, and other materials. "They are fresh," he says, "more modern." Many of his favorite pieces reflect an African influence. "I was inspired by Africa the way Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright were," he says, and I fused elements of 1920s Paris furniture."
He also considers ergonomics in his furniture design, as his
overriding concern is comfort. "I always reflect and elaborate on the needs and problems I have encountered working as a designer and at home," he
says. He often designs textiles used in his furniture, and originally
he used only natural fabrics: cotton, silk, and wool. Now he feels
synthetics have improved and they add durability and flexibility, so
he uses blends, say, 85% silk and 15% nylon.
Apart from his contract designs, he creates unique
pieces for individual clients. He gives an example, "A woman wanted
an upholstered settee on silver legs, so I suggested silver plate.
'Oh, no,' she said. 'I must have sterling.' When I finished the piece,
she asked, 'What will I do if the sterling tarnishes?' I replied they
would have to be polished. As she didn't like
that idea, she had me plate the silver in nickel."
We say good-bye, and he removes the white working coat. Underneath one can always find clothes by designers who have a simple cut, like Jil sander, Calvin Klein, and Issey Miyake. He wears black, dark gray, indigo, and midnight blue, and only solid colors, never prints or pattern.
His parting words about furniture are, "I like to find the common denominator
between beauty and comfort. A barcalounge is comfortable but ugly;
another piece might be beautiful but you want to get up right away
or you keep moving trying to find the right position for yourself."