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Serene Sculptural Garden

At this refuge, what’s important is what’s left out

Written by Rebecca Christian
  • Eric Piasecki

    "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," Henry David Thoreau once wrote. Colombia–born interior designer Juan Montoya went to the woods for the same reason. That is, the woods on the eastern shore of the Hudson River. In those woods surrounding the whisper-quiet hamlet of Garrison, New York, the wind tells its secrets to the pines, and houses are hidden from view.

    In 1982, Juan was seeking respite from the accelerated pace of his life in Manhattan, where his Juan Montoya Design firm is based and where he still lives during the week in an apartment on Madison Avenue. The young designer was driving along Old Albany Post Road—once a Native American trail and later a stagecoach road—when a site seized his imagination and has refused to free it in the 31 years since. Never mind the house covered in white asbestos shingles in a graveyard of rotting cars, the access via a road so overgrown he could hardly drive up it, or the head of a commune renting there who told him to go to hell. "The property spoke to me," he recalls. "I knew it would tell me what I should do with it. I saw its potential in big brushstrokes. It had a stream I knew I could turn into a lake. I knew the home should be stone."

    After buying the shambolic house and 110 verdant acres in 1983, he vowed never to cut down a tree unless necessary and to leave the house sited as it was to make the most of its radiant light. The garden’s Zen-like aura comes from Juan’s focus on wood, water, and stone. It’s called La Formentera because its rocky terrain is like the Spanish island where he once worked. "I kept old farm equipment we found here and the stone fences that were used to keep sheep," he notes. A timeless global spirit is fostered by colonnades from Indonesia, cobblestones from Boston, antique fountains, and monolithic sculptures designed by Juan. Coming from a place where the equatorial sun is constant, Juan is enchanted with seasons here. The palette is mostly green, but Wordsworthian daffodils swathe an island in the lake with yellow in spring, masses of creamy white hydrangeas bloom in summer, and trees that blaze in autumn are blanketed with white in winter. "I work on the property little by little, expanding the horizon and creating layered spaces," he says. "Sculptures are focal points that lead to the next surprise."

    Juan studied architecture in Colombia and graduated from Parsons School of Design. He’s often asked to design for showhouses; a favorite is New York’s Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse.  As much architect as decorator, he hired Portuguese masons to clad his home’s exterior in stone. He gutted the interior, creating huge   rooms with walls of windows for intuitive indoor-outdoor flow.

    Urban Karlsson says of their book-filled, mostly unplugged weekend haven, "There are beautiful views from wherever you look in all seasons, but I love most the one from the living room, where you can see the pool." The pool, which sits atop a natural slope where a fragrant herb garden grows, has a watery floor designed after a floor in a palace in Urban’s native Sweden.

    The secret to creating a space that takes a visitor’s breath away with its largely unadorned beauty? Juan’s answer is simple: "Knowing what to leave out."

    Photography: Eric Piasecki

    Design: Juan Montoya,

  • Eric Piasecki

    Garden Sculpture

    The round "doughnut" sculpture is set off by an Indonesian colonnade. The columns are buried rather than permanently set so Juan can move them around as the garden evolves.

  • Eric Piasecki

    Lush Patio

    The little round table on the patio behind the house is a favorite place for Juan and his partner Urban Karlsson—a passionate cook—to linger over lunches brightened with aromas and tastes from their herb garden.

  • Eric Piasecki

    White Blooms

    The petals of a leggy wild aster ruffle in the breeze.

  • Eric Piasecki

    Boxwood in Box

    When Juan found this 20-foot boxwood tree at a nursery in Maryland, he debated about planting it but decided to keep it as it was because of the rustic box’s sculptural quality. 

  • Eric Piasecki


    Juan Montoya, left, and Urban Karlsson, business manager for Juan’s company, with Astor, their Coton de Tuléar. 

  • Eric Piasecki

    Textural Art Installations

    One of many sculptures on the property designed by Juan, this stone obelisk has a tactile quality that makes touching it irresistible.

  • Eric Piasecki

    Stacked Wood

    Even the firewood by the pool looks like sculpture.

  • Eric Piasecki


    Juan prefers mostly white and green plant materials in his garden, enhancing its serenity and keeping the focus on textures and patterns of foliage and the moss he "encourages."

  • Eric Piasecki

    Garden Fountain

    Water, fire, wood, and stone relate to each other throughout the grounds.

  • Eric Piasecki

    La Formentera

    This lovely book with the photographs of Eric Piasecki and a winsome introductory essay by Karen Lehrman Bloch began casually as a personal project when Juan asked his friend Eric to take pictures of his home in every season. (The Monacelli Press, 2012)