At designer Juan Montoya’s woodland refuge, what’s important is what’s left out.
Written by Rebecca Christian
Photography by 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.”
Designer: Juan Montoya, juanmontoyadesign.com.