At night, when the interior of Reynaldo Gonzalez's French Quarter apartment is illuminated like a jewel box of minimal, modernist design, passersby frequently wave and give enthusiastic signs of approval. "I get lots of thumbs-up as people walk by," he says. "At night, it's particularly fun because everyone is out having a good time and people tend to be more expressive."
Hip and urbane yet warm and soothing, Gonzalez's home is a prime example of his design style, which has won over New York socialites and local cognoscenti alike. "It doesn't matter if you're designing an airport terminal or a tiny apartment," he says. "It's what you do with the space and how it functions that matters."
Gonzalez's appreciation of historic architecture comes from his heritage. His family lived a well-to-do life as livestock ranchers in Cuba before immigrating to New Orleans in 1964. Though he was only 4 years old when he left Cuba, he wasn't surprised to learn the 220-year-old Creole townhouse where he resides is architecturally similar to many buildings in his mother country.
Raised in New Orleans, Gonzalez moved to New York at 23, spent a decade working for an international airline and dabbled in design on the side by helping friends with their homes.
"I always loved design, but I didn't really know what it meant," he says. "I grew up loving fashion and architecture. My parents tell a story about how one of my first Christmases here I put aside all my presents and started building houses with the boxes. The actual [process of] building was what fascinated me."
At 37, he decided to turn his hobby into a career, enrolling in the rigorous interior design program at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, where he began to develop a design philosophy. "I didn't want to be influenced by anyone or anything," he says. "I wanted my work to be about just the purity of design. I wanted to develop something that was very me."
Now in his 10th year of business, Gonzalez spends most of his time working in New York and New Orleans. Select pieces from his mirror collection are available at www.vivre.com, the website of fashion, jewelry and home decor curated by international style icon Eva Jeanbart Lorenzotti. His very first Manhattan job, a big-budget renovation that combined a one-bedroom apartment and a studio overlooking the Hudson River, gave Gonzalez the opportunity to collaborate with renowned designer Vladimir Kagan.
The two cities where Gonzalez has spent most of his life — the Big Easy and the Big Apple — are interwoven in his work, which marries the high-ceilinged elegance of old New Orleans parlors with the clean, pared-down styling found in SoHo lofts. Working in New York, where limited space often demands made-to-fit furnishings, provided a training ground for his custom designs, the part of his metier he enjoys most. "I shop each project freshly," says Gonzalez, whose custom home accessories line includes mirrors, tables and giant, hand-cut and mounted photographs of butterflies and moths. "But I think it's more fun to design something than to look for it."
The designer's 1,000-square-foot New Orleans abode serves as a laboratory for his artistry. The coffee table, mantel, nightstand, built-ins, bamboo wall sculptures, bed and mirrored vases will be introduced in his next collection. "You can't experiment on a client's apartment, but if it's your own space, you can take risks and try new things," he says. A self-described "essentialist" ("having what is needed but not having a lot of excess"), he keeps the apartment sleek and spare. Gonzalez lives, works and entertains there, so to avoid clutter he stores current projects on his laptop or in a binder, both of which are hidden inside a rectangular wall-mounted unit.
He pays close attention to details of scale, proportion, color and geometry, customizing pieces to fit the rooms' dimensions, working with a palette of complementary cool and warm tones (cool, violet-based blues and warm orange-yellow-based browns and beiges) and balancing simple shapes and solid colors. "I love pure geometry," Gonzalez says. "Almost everything was about circles and squares and the balance between the two."
He chose versatile, durable materials; every surface in the living room (paint, nylon, leather, Ultrasuede, granite and even the art made of molded bamboo pulp tiles) is washable. Trademark touches include cut-out, scallop-edges mirrors and butterflies in shadow boxes to add color and pattern much like throw pillows.
Reactions to the interior have been positive, and business is better than ever. With a growing client base at home, Gonzalez looks forward to maintaining a strong presence in both New Orleans and New York and is continuing to grow his line. "Designers get better with time," he says. "When you're visual, you're always examining and evaluating your surroundings. I think I'm becoming better at the craft every year."