In 1962, Orlando Diaz-Azcuy fled Cuba for the States. By 1976 he was the youngest vice president at the architectural giant Gensler, and in a short time he was its design principal. Emboldened by a furniture collection he had designed for Hickory Business Furniture (now HBF), he opened his own company in San Francisco in 1987. Interior design commissions flowed in. “I didn’t want them because I thought I’d be designing furniture,” he recalls. “But I’m not a person who says no.” Today, he and four associates, David Todd Oldroyd, Greg Stewart, Ian Bevilacqua, and Tamara Dinsmore, run an intentionally small firm known for exquisitely curated, minimalist luxury. “My philosophy is simplicity,” Diaz-Azcuy says. “I want everything to be understated.” The 76-year-old architect just completed the interior of a private jet, and he is working on two apartments in New York. Furniture projects, including a line of seating he recently created for Janus et Cie, also still dot his crowded to-do list. Despite his hectic schedule, he graciously said yes to Robb Report Home & Style when we asked him to discuss design and share his process.
Who has influenced your work?
George Nelson and Ward Bennett. Gensler invited George to present design lectures to the staff. It was my job to travel with him to the various offices. He was very analytical, pragmatic, and functional. Ward was incredibly rigid, inflexible about anything that crossed the border into decoration. I like some decorative elements, but his discipline really impressed me.
What informs your furniture designs?
I’m inspired by simplicity and honesty. Chinese, Japanese, and African furniture, and to some extent Scandinavian, is utilitarian and simple.
How do you approach color?
I develop colors for each specific location and situation. Palettes are very studied. I like it when I ask you what color something is and you can’t say for certain if it’s green or blue.
You create environments where nothing is extraneous and somehow avoid their becoming stark.
My mind is a curating tool. I compose a room like a painting. I have to put the right piece in the right corner at the right angle. I have a responsibility to weed through everything to find what is appropriate, adaptable, and necessary for my clients to live better. I do not believe in extravagance and flamboyance.
When Diaz-Azcuy realized in the 1990s that he was beginning to re-create his lightning-paced Gensler experience at his own firm, he pared down his staff from 35 people to about 12. Having a smaller company has enabled him to give projects more exclusive, personalized service. “It allows me to design, to push my pencil at my desk,” he says.
“I am a modernist, not a traditionalist or avant-gardist,” says Diaz-Azcuy. “I’m practicing in 2015 and designing for people who are living now. My interiors need to satisfy the client at the time they are using them.”
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Orlando Diaz-Azcuy’s Top 10
PLACE TO UNWIND: My new country house in Lucas Valley, [in] San Rafael [California]. It’s an Eichler house I’ve been restoring for two years. I want it to look like what an Eichler house would look like today.
RESTAURANT: A16 in San Francisco. Very simple Italian food and no fusion! I do not like fusion; it’s fake cuisine.
ART: Maillol, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele.
ERA FOR DESIGN: Right now! Modernism has evolved to a point where we have a freedom we have never had before.
SOUVENIR: Always chocolates, wherever I go. I also buy pieces of textiles.
POSSESSION: The Christian Bérard paintings my partner, John Capo, and I have collected.
FRAGRANCE: Eau de Cologne Impériale by Guerlain. I always pick up a bottle when I’m at Charvet.
VACATION SPOT: San Miguel de Allende [Mexico]. I’ve never seen a little place with so much self-identity. The Rosewood hotel there is the top of the top.
CLOTHES: Dior Homme for special occasions, but Cos for everyday clothes. It’s a Swedish company, and their clothes are very simple, with perfect silhouettes.
Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Design Associates (ODADA), 415.362.4500, odada.net