James Swan

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Episode 530: Weekend with Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz


Delighted to have Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz back with us today, sharing what his life is like “away from the office”.  Listen and read over his interview here.


James:                           But right now, join me as we chat with Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz and discover what his life is like when the weekend comes. Benjamin, great to have you back on the show. Welcome.


Benjamin:                    Thank you. Thank you. Nice to be with you again.


James:                          It’s so good to have you with us. Benjamin, give us the 411. Talk to us about you and the work that you do.


Benjamin:                    Well, I studied architecture. So but what I do now is interior design. My office started in 1992. I used to work for John Salvino first and then I went on my own. Since 1992, I’ve been doing residential, hotel, and sometimes contract work. But really my passion is residential work. Our office is located in New York City, actually, I’m looking right now at the Calatrava Building that is spectacular right in front of me on a beautiful sunny day and we work all over the world, wherever the clients take us.


James:                          Wow. So you’re traveling a lot then?


Benjamin:                    Well, as it turned out this year, it’s the first year in many that I’m not traveling as much. It’s kind of a unique situation. For the last two years, I just got kind of burned out because I was doing projects in – I was doing a project in Australia and I was doing a project in Spain at the same time there’s New York. So I ended up working 24 hours a day. So the last hotel project that we did, I decided I think I’m just gonna stop this and start to get back into residential in New York which has been fantastic. Back into business, calming, I meet up with my clients; I’ve been in New York. It’s so much better. I mean I still have to travel for a few things but not as much.


James:                          And not as intensely as when you were working –


Benjamin:                    No, not as intensely. Yeah.


James:                          Well, it’s all about finding that balance, isn’t it?


Benjamin:                    It is. It is. And I think that I always said that I work for a living, I don’t live for work.


James:                          That’s a healthy way to look at it. Yeah.


Benjamin:                    Absolutely. I mean I try to transfer that to my staff. I don’t like people staying late to work. I like people to leave. We work from 9:30 to 5:30 so I want them to leave and experience life because then they can bring all that experience to us, to the office.


James:                          Yeah, because you end up benefitting if they’ve enriched their lives by culture, travel, all of those great things that make up a beautiful life.


Benjamin:                    Absolutely. Absolutely.


James:                          When you think about your staff, Benjamin, how do you think they view you?


Benjamin:                    I think energetic.


James:                          Energetic?


Benjamin:                    Energetic. I’m in the office designing and then my wonderful staff produces a work and we co-design it and then they produce a work. And one of the things that I always hear is like, “Well, don’t you have to go now?” So, that I’m not in the way because they actually produce more when I’m not in the office.


James:                          Oh, interesting.


Benjamin:                    Because the thing is when you’re in the office and you’re looking at the production, you start looking then you start to improve on the design. That’s the way I use is improve in the design. So something that could have been done quickly and produced, because of me being on top of it, I might delay it. So I think energetic would be the word.


James:                          It’s a good word. I like that. How would your clients?


Benjamin:                    Well, they seem to think I’m creative so they always every now and then call me for, “Oh, listen. Since you’re so creative, can we do this one and that?” So I think they do think that of me –


James:                          In profession that’s a good thing, right?


Benjamin:                    It is. It is a good thing and what happens is that through knowing them for so many years, they end up calling me for anything like, “My daughter’s getting married. Can you take a look at the wedding dress?” And it’s like, “Oh. Okay.”


James:                          It’s nice to be needed.


Benjamin:                    That’s right.


James:                          What about your husband and your family members that are close to you. How do you think they view you?


Benjamin:                    Well, maybe a little crazy. I think I can go in many directions. My family always thought I was special, like strange, us growing up because we never had anybody in the arts growing up. My father was an accountant, my mother a nutritionist, uncles were engineers. The first time I learned a word architecture I said, “Oh, wait a second. That’s what I want to do.” And I took it from there. I was very little like I don’t know 8 or 7 or 8 years old.


James:                          Even from that early age you knew what you wanted to do?


Benjamin:                    Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve always wanted to do – but the funny thing is that I studied architecture but then I’m doing interiors and I also studied urban design and then I’m doing interiors again. Because I think interior is actually surmises everything. You can actually study architecture as a background but interiors puts everything together because that’s where you live.


James:                          It’s true. It’s where the rubber meets the road.


Benjamin:                    That’s right. That’s right. Everybody needs a sofa to sit on. A chair.


James:                          A bed to sleep in.


Benjamin:                    Yes, a bed to sleep in.


James:                          So you’re right where you need to be then, right?

Benjamin:                    I love it. Yeah.


James:                          I can hear it in your voice. That’s a good thing. Very, very good thing. But as with anything and you’ve already alluded to this, there has to be a balance. So how do you go about striking the balance between work and personal time in your life, Benjamin?


Benjamin:                    Well, I always find that work is really the summary of the life that I live outside of work. Like I like a different life outside of work that helps me produce what I do. So I try to live as much as possible, experience as much as possible. I’ve been very fortunate that I have friends that are in the arts, you know artists, painters, sculptors, musicians. And not as many designers but more in the art field which actually helps me in the design world. So I finish work and I go home 5:30 or 6:00. We might have an art show to go to or an invitation to go out. And I’m very adamant about leaving the office so that I can do all that.


There’s many things as designers we’re getting invited to many, many, many events. And we have to choose which ones to go to because you cannot go everywhere. And the ones that strike me the most that I go the most are the ones that there’s something interesting happening visually. So I’m very, very visual. Anything that has to do with museums or galleries or dams or theatre or opera, things that are very visual are important. Very important to me to experience. On the weekends is another thing.


James:                          Really? How so?


Benjamin:                    On the weekends I kind of like to relax. So my favorite things on weekends are to get up a little bit late, have my first breakfast. We have two breakfasts. I have what I call pre-breakfast so I can do a little bit of yoga, I can do a little stretching, and then when my husband gets up, then we kind of plan to have real breakfast. And so, depending on where we are, if we stayed in Chelsey in New York or if we go to our apartment in Rockaway which is on the beach, our day gets planned different ways. I love the city and I just – I moved to New York from Puerto Rico because I wanted to live in a city. So my favorite things on weekends if I’m in the city is to experience city things.


To go to see new buildings, to go to see new shows, to go shopping, to go – things that are city wise. Rockaway, on the other hand, I like to get on my bike and just go on the boardwalk and run for I don’t know. A couple of weekends ago we did 10 miles on the bike along the ocean. There are places to sit, have a drink or have a sandwich or something and then you lie down. So I like to really relax, no phone, no nothing. That’s one of my perfect things to do too. To get away from it and actually Rockaway as opposed to let’s say the Hamptons where I used to have a house, is very different because there’s really nothing to do in terms of there’s no appointments, there’s no clients, there’s no – it’s all relaxation and kind of take your mind away.


James:                          Was that the reason for selecting Rockaway?


Benjamin:                    It was actually an interesting thing because I didn’t know about Rockaway. I just went to visit one of my dearest friends, Patricia Field. She’s from Sex in the City, she did the costumes. So she is one of my best friends and she has an apartment there. And invited us to just for lunch one day and we went there and we discovered it like we discovered Rockaway. It’s like, “Oh, my God. This is Miami Beach on the A train.” So I had a house in Amagansett for many years and I had a house in Miami Beach also for many years. So at the time, we didn’t have anything and I thought, “Well, maybe this is something new to try and something to get us away from the city within 35 minutes. We can take an Uber or Lyft or a car service to go there. Or the train.”


James:                          Or the train. Yeah.


Benjamin:                    So it was kind of like a conscious thing to try this thing out and it’s worked out very well.


James:                          How long have you had the place?


Benjamin:                    We’ve had it before Sandy. You know there was a big storm that got rid of everything – so about six years. Six or seven years now. And of course, I became the president of the board of the condo –


James:                          Oh, the association.


Benjamin:                    Of the association because it’s a condo. It’s right on the ocean. So I’m totally connected to the entire building now. I couldn’t stop working but I tried.


James:                          You tried. You gave it your best. Well, it sounds then like you’re pretty well connected socially when you’re away from home or away from the office. So it’s not all about just quiet time for you or do you strike a balance between your social extrovert time and maybe the more introverted quiet time that you take for yourself?


Benjamin:                    I try to do both. I try to sometimes completely stay home and watch a movie or one of my favorite sins is to watch Star Trek. I would stay the entire day watching as many episodes as I can of Star Trek. And one time for my birthday that’s what I did. My husband said, “What do you want to do for your birthday?” And I said, “Well, can I stay home and just watch Star Trek all day?” He’s like, “Oh my God. You’re crazy.”


James:                          But that’s what you did.


Benjamin:                    That’s what I did and every now and then I like to stay home and do nothing, just vegetate.


James:                          There’s a certain luxury in that.


Benjamin:                    It’s very luxurious. I mean the days that I can do that it’s rare. So when I can do it, I totally love it.


James:                          Yeah. Absolutely. Jump on that one when you can. Fabulous. When you think about then a weekend coming up, if you could trade places just for that weekend with anyone, anywhere, and at any time, Benjamin, who would you pick and why?


Benjamin:                    Well, a funny thing I’ve always liked to see how a designer works. Not me. How somebody else produces their work. So I would have to say that I would like to be in Philip Stark’s shoes and when he was designing Steve Job’s yacht. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen his yacht, but it’s a spectacular, spectacular boat and I love boats. And I accidentally saw it. I was on a sailboat in St. Bards, a really crappy sailboat. And all of a sudden at night this thing shows up in the middle of the night with no sound. And this white and shiny apparition and then I looked at it and I said, “Wait a second. This is Steve Job’s yacht.” And Steve Jobs has passed already but the yacht was spectacular.


And then in the morning, it opens up. It’s kind of like a fortress and in the morning the whole thing opens up and you have this wonderful expensive glass like 100 feet long by like 90 feet tall in a boat. So I would have loved to be Felix Star with Johnny Ives and that team of designers. To me, that would be relaxation to see how that gets produced. It would be magic. It’s kind of like being where Michelangelo was painting Sistine Chapel. Same thing.


James:                          Yeah. Same idea of creating a piece of art.


Benjamin:                    Yeah, like see how they do it.


James:                          Interesting. So you weren’t able to finagle an invitation on the boat?


Benjamin:                    Yeah, I know. I tried.


James:                          Not that you –


Benjamin:                    I tried. Now the next thing is an invitation to Apple headquarters.


James:                          Oh, yeah. And now is the new building complete at this time?


Benjamin:                    Oh, it is completed. Yeah.


James:                          It is. Okay.


Benjamin:                    But as I understand, only people that work there can go. So you should go.


James:                          A part-time job. Yeah, maybe I’ll get a part-time job.


Benjamin:                    I think you should go. Yeah.


James:                          It does sound pretty amazing. It really does. Any hobbies that you pursue in your down time, Benjamin? Quiet things that you like to do to nurture yourself.


Benjamin:                    Well, I do like yoga. I do that on my own. I do love going to museums and I don’t know if that’s considered a hobby.


James:                          Sure.


Benjamin:                    But I love just anytime I can just go and sometimes I visit the same areas over and over and over again, especially here in New York. We’re very lucky to have the Met and now the Whitney which is spectacular. So we have a lot of choices. My husband says that he’s my hobby so I don’t know.


James:                          That’s sweet.


Benjamin:                    You think I’m your hobby? It’s like, “No, I don’t know.” Because I’m always like, “Okay, what do you like to do today?” He’s like, “Well, I’m not your hobby.”


James:                          That’s funny. So not to not talk about your husband for a moment because we do adore him, but talk about museums for a minute because I’m fascinated by how people experience museums. I know the way I do it. I have a certain system that I use to experience a museum. How do you go in and experience a museum? Do you just take it all in? Do you break it up in sections? Do you study one piece deeply? What’s the –


Benjamin:                    Well, I usually just have a purpose to go so I study ahead what’s new and being shown. And I go for that. However, once I get to the museum, I might just veer off and go somewhere else. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum, they have cocktails in the afternoon on the mezzanine. Now that’s nice. So you try to be – so okay, before they open the cocktail area, let’s say let’s go to the galleries that are around that area. So that you can get a good seat and you can overlook the mezzanine so that’s good. But other times I’m doing research for a project. I could be doing research on color so I decide to go to the Rothgoss for instance. Or I could be doing research on furniture design.


We design all of our furniture in our projects. So I go to the period rooms and even though my furniture is not period, I study that furniture to do our own design. So it all depends on what I’m working on that day. But I usually have a purpose. I don’t go just whatever just to go.


James:                          Just to go. Do you have notebook in hand? Do you sketch?


Benjamin:                    Oh, yeah. I sketch.


James:                          You sketch.


Benjamin:                    I have a notebook. I sketch. My camera has about 9,000 pictures. Every now and then I have to delete pictures.


James:                          I’m at that point too. I think I’m at 8700 right now and it’s time to purge.


Benjamin:                    Yeah, you have to purge. You go back and you go, “What was this about?” But yeah.


James:                          Describe for us then what your perfect weekend looks like?


Benjamin:                    Well, perfect weekend is to me leaving the office early like at 5:00, getting home, getting the cat which by the way, he passed away a couple of weeks ago but it was after 20 years. But went and get the cat, we get in an Uber and go to Rockaway. And arrive there, we prepare a couple of martinis, sit by the ocean and just talk and chat and chat and then we’ll just when we’re ready we’ll just go out to dinner, one of the local places. Come back, 9:00 early, then watch a movie and go to bed. Next morning, get up early and make coffee and go for a run or for a walk on the beach. Come back and Steven then would be awake.


James:                          So he’s not an early riser then?


Benjamin:                    Not at all. Then we plan to get our bikes and go to Reece Park or – this is the summer. We’re in the summer because there’s a perfect in the winter, there’s a perfect in the summer. So the summer would be the beach. Now if it’s in the winter, the perfect weekend is get up, get to the airport and go to the beach in Miami.


James:                          I’m sensing a theme here.


Benjamin:                    Yes, I love the beach. I grew up on the beach and to me; the beach is really where I can relax. I’m scared of the country, of the woods and all of it’s really – I have always been.


James:                          How interesting.


Benjamin:                    I don’t know. There’s bears and tigers.


James:                          That’s such a scary thing, right?


Benjamin:                    Lions, tigers, and bears.


James:                          Oh, no.


Benjamin:                    Oh, no. Yeah, I’ve always been very uncomfortable and claustrophobic about the country.


James:                          Well, and then the beach is all yours, sir. Because I burn so badly at the beach, I can only spend a few minutes there. I mean I love walking on the beach at sunset or at sunrise when the sun isn’t a concern.


Benjamin:                    Well, not to say for anything, but you have to get a parasol. I have about a dozen parasols and I –

James:                          I was just gonna say. I know someone I could borrow one from.


Benjamin:                    I use them.


James:                          Do you?


Benjamin:                    Yeah, I use them. I have all different kinds. I’ve seen more and more people in New York City using them. I mean when you go to DC to Washington to the Washington Mall, you see people using.


James:                          Yes. Well, they make great sense. I mean if you’re trying to protect yourself from the sun, what better way?


Benjamin:                    I don’t have a problem. People can look at me funny but I say, “You know what?”


James:                          Yeah, they look stylish. And I can’t imagine you having an ugly parasol.


Benjamin:                    Oh, no. I have really nice ones.


James:                          See, I knew that. Okay. So you’re gonna have guests for the weekend, Benjamin. You get to have one guest from the past; you get to have one guest from the present, and one guest from the future. Who would these people be?


Benjamin:                    Well, from the past I would have loved to meet Caravaggio. I think that to me his work was the most fabulous thing. I mean I studied Baroque art and I lived in Italy for four months when I was a student. I went just specifically to study Baroque art and I fell in love with Caravaggio’s work.


James:                          So he would be in?


Benjamin:                    He would be. From the present, I think is Patricia Phyllouise, one of my favorites because she’s full of energy and craziness and color and so she would be the present one. For the future, I don’t know. I would like in the future to meet somebody that I don’t know the name but it would be somebody that is related to computer arts. Somebody that creates art through computers to see how their mind works as opposed to our designer, decorator mind that we’re kind of like hands on, touching things. These people touch nothing.


James:                          It’s all by technology.

Benjamin:                    It’s all technology. So it would be a great conversation.


James:                          It would. Yeah. Quite a combination. Quite a team.


Benjamin:                    Yeah, so you’ll have fashion which I love fashion. You’ll have technology and then you’ll have art.


James:                          The Trinity.


Benjamin:                    It sounds good to me.


James:                          It does. Yeah, it does. I’ll be a fly on the wall for that dinner party.


Benjamin:                    We’ll save you a plate.


James:                          Oh, that’s nice. I would be honored. You’re going to do something different for the weekend. You’re gonna break out of the box and have an adventure. What would that adventure be? Something that you and Steven have never done before but that you’ve talked about and thought about. What would that look like for you?


Benjamin:                    I love travel. Whatever it is, it has to be related to travel. And always wanted to go to Ankorbhat in Cambodia.


James:                          In Cambodia. Yeah.


Benjamin:                    And I’m very partial to temples. I love temples even though I’m personally not religious I’m more spiritual in my work. So to me, visiting temples – I mean, for instance, getting my passport which is always ready, going to the airport and go to the first place that the plane goes if there’s a temple, I would go and I would just stay there and then go to the next one. But Ankorbhat seems to me so spectacular and such a remote thing and such an amazing architectural accomplishment which is part of my living. I enjoy looking at architecture. So that would be my thing. And on the other hand, I think we’d go to the country, to the woods. Or to the desert or somewhere like that remote. I would have to have some sort of architecture.


James:                          Architecture it will be indeed. Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, as always, it’s a delight getting to speak with you.


Benjamin:                    Thank you.


James:                          Thank you so much for your time today.


Benjamin:                    Thank you so much


Visit Benjamin’s Website here

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