Designer Nestor Santa-Cruz’s Cathedral Heights apartment perfectly reflects his sensibilities in art and life
Nestor Santa-Cruz does not like to move. After many years in a 1960s-era apartment near Washington National Cathedral, it was finding another unit in the same building about four years ago that finally persuaded him. “It’s on the fifth floor, so the view is great,” he says. “I can see the Cathedral from my bedroom and in the winter, the Washington Monument is visible in the distance.”
The compact one-bedroom, one-bath abode admits quantities of light through sliding-glass doors leading out to a 30-foot-long balcony. The small kitchen is an afterthought for the designer, who doesn’t cook. The living area offers plenty of space for his pride and joy: an extensive library of books on architecture, design, gardening, fashion and more. “I travel a lot so my place in DC is about cocooning, being with my books,” observes the designer. “My home is a personal choice.”
How does your living space reflect your design aesthetic?
It shows the dichotomies in my taste. There are layers of minimalism and maximalism, of modernism and traditionalism, of seriousness and casualness. And layers of my travel and experiences. When I design for clients, I channel whichever of these layers I think will work for them.
How did decorating your apartment differ from the way you work on client projects?
When I work with a client, my process is thoughtful and disciplined, responding to particular needs. For myself, the process was free and natural. I barely had a floor plan—just to make sure the sofa would fit.
What changes did you make when you moved in?
I polished the existing wood floors and painted the walls Benjamin Moore’s Antique White. I like this hue because it’s creamy and warm; there’s no yellow or pink undercast, which many off-whites have. The drapes match the wall color.
Why did you opt to go with a neutral backdrop?
When you have disparate collections spanning different periods, something has to give. I thought, “Let’s create some calm and breathing space.” Also, it’s a classic design technique to make a small space feel larger.
How would you characterize the style of your home?
It’s eclectic, reflecting the myriad things I’m interested in. I carefully blend periods and styles in furniture, accessories and art.
How do you make eclecticism work?
You have to find a connecting language. For me, the rule of thumb is proportion, scale and a balance of light and heaviness. I think architecturally; though I’m a designer, I was trained as an architect so it comes naturally.
How much of your furniture was purchased for this apartment?
About 60 percent, including anything mid-century Scandinavian. I already had a lot of Bauhaus and French antiques, but many modern pieces are based on classics, so they all connect. My sofa, the Mayor sofa by Arne Jacobsen, is a modern abstraction of a French settee. It’s not very deep so it works well in my small apartment.
How do you enliven a mundane building envelope?
If you don’t have strong architecture, good decoration can make the transformation. But decoration will not help truly ugly architectural features. I like my 1960s building better than a new loft. It’s plain—easier to work with.
You incorporated a lot of art into a small space. What was your method?
My art is hung salon-style, which means freeform—so my walls accommodate many pieces. The term comes from a 19th-century way of adding to your collections over time. With clients, I tend to be more disciplined.
Talk about your art collection.
I collect the art I like; I don’t buy pieces with a spot in mind for them. Most are works on paper from the 1920s to 1940s, mainly design-related. The two walls in the dining room are about space and interiors. The bedroom is about fashion. When you group thematically, art makes sense.
How are your books organized?
By theme, which makes them easy to find. In the living area, they are stacked; I find it easier to read the titles that way and they look beautiful. Also, to get to one book I have to remove others—and that allows me to reconnect with those books as well. There is a sense of discovering old friends who represent my life in design.
Share your thoughts on your book collection. How does it enhance your work?
I feel I basically live in a library. I have one of the best collections of design books in the city; many are inscribed to me, and I have as many in storage as in my apartment. My design work is referential and my books help me educate my clients. I am lucky: My hobby is also my vocation.
How do you maintain an uncluttered look?
It’s about editing. As Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Less is more.
What is your current favorite furniture period?
Art furniture is my latest thing: unique pieces by contemporary artists that create precedent. It’s a new layer I’m bringing to my work.
What trends do you avoid?
All of them. I think DC is too much a trend-following place. Having said that, trends can work for a special moment if you can change them out easily. The trend should not be the whole narrative.
Favorite local haunts for furniture?
Furniture from Scandinavia for mid-century; David Bell Antiques for eclectic; Marston Luce for continental; DWR, Maxalto, B&B Italia for modern. CB2 does a good job with modernism at affordable prices.
Interior Design: Nestor Santa-Cruz, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED AP, Nestor Santa-Cruz Decoration, Washington, DC.