April 8, 2010 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Contemporary creations

Ernesto Santalla is being honored with a minority business leader award from Washington Business Journal this month. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Walking into the upstairs offices of Studio Santalla in Georgetown on a warm, sunny spring day this week, it’s clear that different people designed the exterior and interior. You climb an almost fire escape-like set of outside steps to get to the nondescript door but upon entering the spacious office a different vibe emerges. There’s one mammoth room with a day bed and coffee table in the entry way, a conference table nearby and a fleet of desks on one side of the room while large protruding bookcases built into the walls on the other side jut outwards in perfect synchronization.

Owner Ernesto Santalla emerges from a rear corner with a soft-spoken greeting. Over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, the unflappably calm gay architect and interior designer explains his philosophies, peppering his postulates with biographical rabbit trails and side projects that reveal a modern-day renaissance man.

Without a trace of ego, it emerges from the natural flow of conversation that he’s also a writer and photographer who speaks four languages. Even with piles of work paraphernalia around — backdrops he’s planning for the gay chamber of commerce dinner, mammoth enlargements of his photos propped against a desk — the office doesn’t look like a mess, though he apologizes for the slight disarray.

Santalla, whose work is contemporary, uses the office to illustrate one of his design principles: welcoming rooms should create a sense of calm. He points to blinds on the windows that form large white rectangles. They’re echoed on the floor in swatches of white carpet that divide the room. They appear again as doors on the ends of the bookshelves.

“It doesn’t hit you over the head, but your mind reads it and it’s unconscious and you say, ‘Oh, this is a well-organized space,’” Santalla, 49, says. “And so that’s part of how we use colors and materials to create a sense of calm. You’ve come in from the outside where you’re on information overload. In here is more of an oasis.”

One imagines — though it isn’t discussed — Santalla has been just as careful planning and arranging the intersections of lines and planes on his face. Impeccably manicured eyebrows peer above tiny but severe rectangular silver glasses. He’s a striking presence and much more soft-spoken than one might guess.

Santalla — who was profiled in the Washington Post in February and is getting a minority business leader award from Washington Business Journal this month — is a local entrepreneurial success. He and a former boyfriend moved here immediately after finishing college at Cornell in 1984. He worked for a local architectural firm for 10 years, then started Forma Design Company with his former colleague Andreas Charalambous in 1994. In 2001 he started Studio Santalla and has stayed busy with it ever since. He usually has between eight and 10 projects on the table at once. Spring and fall are his busiest seasons. He’s rebounded nicely from the recession, though there was a rough period.

“One fine day the phone just stopped ringing,” he says. “The summer had been slow, but it’s always slow. Or slower. But then people start calling in September. Well in 2008, they didn’t. And of course it kept going down, down, down, down, down until April of last year because the luxury business was affected immediately. It’s the first thing people give up. But we started to rebound last year.”

Santalla was born in Cuba but immigrated with his family to the U.S. 11 days before the missile crisis in 1962. He was 2. They lived in St. Louis where they had family until Santalla was 10 when they moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico where he stayed until college. It was a tough move, he says. He and his sister had been completely assimilated into U.S. culture and then had to radically switch gears. He found it a blessing in retrospect, though.

He knew he had an artistic drive early on but found few outlets for it in school. He was discouraged from taking an art elective course in junior high and opted for French instead.

“There was a stigma with it,” he says. “You either took one or the other, French or art, so it was kind of like, ‘Oh, well you can’t do French, then you do art.”

It came in handy years later though. Six years of French study proved advantageous for the biggest project of his career — renovating a 700-year-old, five-story second home of his clients Holly and Jan Grent in the south of France. He’d already done two houses for them in Gainesville, Va., where they live about half the year. He imagined a radical redesign that incorporated nearly all facets of his architectural and design skill, knocking down walls, taking out staircases, building new rooms, installing a swimming pool and a patio and terrace.

“He did a complete redesign and an architectural miracle on this place,” Holly Grent says. “Everyone who comes to the house in France, even just people selling magazines, the minute they walk in the door, they say, ‘Oh, I love the way your house is.’”

She describes his work as “simple yet elegant, straightforward and contemporary.”

He elicits similar raves from another former client who became a friend. Nancy Penczner was getting her nails done shortly after moving to Potomac, Md., from Nashville where she and her husband, Marius, directed country music videos. She knew she wanted some radical work done on her new house but didn’t know where to begin. She and Santalla clicked immediately.

“He said, ‘You know, Nancy, the most important thing in the room should be you,’” Penczner remembers with a laugh. “I said, ‘You’re hired.’”

She says the renovations, completed five years ago, haven’t aged at all and she still loves her home.

“I just admired his style and I wanted a clutter-free home,” she says. “I think you have to find somebody whose style you admire but he was also good at collaborating with me. My furniture was in a jumble. I had inherited a lot of stuff. He did a great job of understanding where I came from. It’s modern and sleek, but it also has charm.”

Grent says it’s amazing to watch Santalla at work.

“I’m not exaggerating — he can walk onto a room. He puts his hand on his chin. I know because I’ve seen him do this so many times. He pans the room and he starts seeing things and starts verbalizing and then Jan and I see it also once he describes it. And really, like 99 times out of 100, we agree with him.”

Santalla’s motto is “sustainable space for life.” He’s committed to moving toward sustainable living and work spaces and believes houses and offices should be designed so all their space is used. He loathes big McMansions in which certain rooms or spaces sit empty. He says his architectural training gives him an edge other designers don’t have.

“They’re one in the same in a way,” he says. “Architecture doesn’t end at one certain place where design picks up. It’s our unique selling point, this whole integrated approach.”

So how true is the stereotype that all interior designers are gay?

“The word on the street is yes,” Santalla says with a chuckle. But he quickly points to several famous architects who were straight. He says it’s not a big deal and most of his clients have been straight.

“I know a lot of artists, they might be straight or gay. I don’t really care one way or the other. It’s like there’s this big thing now, ‘Oh, Ricky Martin’s gay.’ So? It’s not like I stand a chance anyway or any of my female friends did, so what does it matter to me?”

One of Santalla’s gay clients ended up becoming his partner — local attorney Glen Ackerman, whose condo Santalla renovated when Ackerman relocated here from Florida in 2006. They’d both been in long-term previous relationships but were single and bonded during the project, which was featured in the Post in February. They live together now with their two dogs.

“We’re just a same-sex couple,” Santalla says. “We live together and we’re part of society in general. … I don’t segregate myself. I’ve been invited to join people of color groups and that’s fine, it’s my heritage. But it should really come down to am I good or not. Hire me because I’m good, not because you think it’s going to be cheap, because it’s not, or because you want to work with a Hispanic or a gay. Work with me because I’m good and you like me.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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