Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz's foolproof NYC design tricks, from Lucite to shag carpets

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Who would think living in an all-white apartment is a good idea in New York City? Interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz does. Though he loves a monochrome space, be it bold hues or all white, as in his own place in Chelsea, when it comes to clients, his first rule is to avoid rules and focus on making a home modern and creative.

Named one of the top ten designers working today by House Beautiful, Noriega-Ortiz's latest book, Suspending Reality chronicles two decades of work with celebrities, including Lenny Kravitz and Sean “Diddy” Combs, private and retail clients, and luxury hotels.  

Here, the designer explains what he learned from Donald Trump, why shag carpeting is modern, and how to update a home with little fuss:  

Above, the living room in Noriega-Ortiz’s all white Chelsea duplex includes shag carpeting and venetian plaster embedded with mica dust. (Photo credit: Barbël Miebach, courtesy The Monacelli Press.)

You live (with husband  Steven Wine) in an all-white, two-bedroom duplex in Chelsea. Dirt trap or heaven?

Heaven! We have 20 shades of white in the apartment, but all the upholstery is washable, and we remove our city clothes and shoes when we come home. It’s extremely serene living with all white, and we can change the color of the space with accessories. Underneath our sofa we have lighting, so we can make the living room [blue for a party]. We can accessorize with flowers. I think people need to stop fearing all white.

You love shag carpeting and Lucite furniture. Please explain.

Shag carpet is really practical, it doesn’t show dirt, and it’s textural and gives you a visual softness. I love the transparency of Lucite [furniture] and the combination with wood or metal. Lucite is fantastic for a small apartment. You can look “through” pieces so rooms look bigger. Lucite also reflects light.

Blue, like the color scheme in this Tribeca guestroom, is associated with harmony, he says. (Photo credit: Peter Murdock, courtesy The Monacelli Press.)

What do you see are your design signatures?

I like open spaces that are light and airy, and for some projects using an abundance of one color. Also, a home should be a story about the whole interior and not specific furniture. You shouldn’t be able to focus on the price of pieces, or their provenance, it distracts from the space. You should just walk in and say, wow.

Favorite celebrity job?

I love the apartment we did for Lenny Kravitz in Soho. [He also designed a home for him in Miami.] He was on tour and had very little time, so we had to work fast. When he came back the place [which includes a Lucite baby grand, and a custom cement tub] was done and we missed out on a lot of changing this and that around. So for me it was kind of a pure design.

Is it true that Donald Trump changed your mind about a design?

We designed this presidential suite [for a Miami Golf club] for Mr. Trump, and the entrance foyer was in proportion to the suite. And he said no, the foyer has to be bigger, so guests feel like they are walking into a mansion. He said, you never have a second chance to make a first impression, and this will set the tone. And I agreed, and he was so right.

The title of Noriega-Ortiz's latest book, above, was inspired by the idea of a "visual vacation" for readers

What makes a room work?

Lighting and scale. Make sure your furniture is not too big or small for your room. Then take care with lighting, it makes the room. If  lighting comes only from the ceiling you can create shadows under your eyes. Lighting should enhance people and furniture.

How do you create the perception of space in a small room?

Firstly, don’t be afraid of mirrors, they add depth. Second, get rid of clutter, and one of [the] ways to do this is limiting the horizontal surfaces you can put things on.

Quickest way to update a home?

Color. Remember it’s only paint, so you can change it out. But I think if you do one color [shade], it becomes kind of bland, so use different shades in the same room. Also choose a color you look good against.

You’re not a fan of copying a room down to the last detail from a magazine.

Your home has to be about you. Before you start decorating, research things online, create a Pinterest board or scrapbook of ideas. This will start defining your taste. We are so used to buying online we forget we need to go to the store, so sit on the sofa and test the table.

This entry hall has a folding screen, Chinese table and Queen Anne chair to give continuity to a small space. (Photo credit: Antoine Bootz, courtesy The Monacelli Press.)

Favorite places to shop for decor in NYC?

For high end furnishings I like Maison Gerard, and 145 Antiques has a great mix. Restoration Hardware has a great selection of furniture and CB2 and West Elm have collections that are original and well priced. For fabrics, go to Mood. People think it’s only for fashion, but they have amazing upholstery fabrics. Best, you can buy it on the spot and not wait ten weeks.


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