Please Touch the Art

Please Touch the Art

When the door opens to the Miami home of Catalina Diez, a graphic designer and app developer, and Juan Carlos Ortiz, an advertising executive, a story unfolds.

Art by emerging artists from Colombia tells of the couple’s native country. Midcentury modern furniture recalls foraging trips to Chicago, where the couple lived for a year. And folk art objects speak of family time spent in Africa. Reflecting their extensive travels, their passion for collecting, and their creative temperaments, their nature-enveloped home, which they share with their two children and a dog, has a story around every corner.

Tell us about the background of your home.
Catalina Diez: We bought this home in 2006 from the original owner, a Cuban artist. He added the Florida room [a sunroom], the master bedroom, and a larger outside entrance. Originally it was a very small, typical house from the 1950s; he wanted to make it much grander. But his taste was very different from ours – there were columns and arches everywhere, lots of marble, gold, and statues – so we did a lot of remodeling. We got rid of all the statues, except the one you can see through the master bath window. We thought it was kind of funky and fun to leave it there.

How would you describe the Coconut Grove neighborhood where you live?
Juan Carlos Ortiz: I think the best word to describe this neighborhood is tranquil –tranquil and green.
Diez: Yes, the lush vegetation – the trees, the flowers, the native plants – are part of the house. I think that’s the most valuable part of Coconut Grove – the big trees and the  peacocks walking around. [Escaped pets are thought to be the source of the exotic birds.] We have all types of birds, cats, raccoons, everything; it’s like a mini wildlife sanctuary in this area.

How did you start collecting?
Diez: I think we started doing it and we didn’t know we were doing it. [When we were still living in Colombia] we loved to go all over Argentina and Colombia and do road trips, for example, and we didn’t know we were collecting along the way.

We both come from creative backgrounds. He’s a copywriter; I’m a graphic designer. So it’s something that is in us. We share that passion for collecting and the love of art, travel,  and creativity in general.

The diversity of your collection is remarkable. You have this colorful crochet chair from New York-based Polish artist Olek, a hand-carved stool from the Amazon, and midcentury furnishings, including Eames chairs and this classic mushroom-shaped Nesso lamp from design house Artemide, to name just a few items.
Diez: We have things from all over. We like to travel a lot; we try to bring a little piece back from every trip – for example, this lamp made from coconut, nutshells, and banana fibers came from an arts and crafts fair in Colombia.

We don’t like the house to be absolutely modern. The house has an older feel, so we have to maintain that. If not, we will feel like we are living in a showroom. The house wasn’t done by a designer. All of the objects have been given, bought, found, or inherited – they have a story. And they’re 100 percent chosen by us.

We want the house to feel like a home. And to be filled with the different objects that we have brought from different places – for example, this wood table with marble inlays that we bought at a midcentury thrift store in Chicago.

Where have you traveled?
Diez: We’ve been to Africa three times – to Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa – and we always want to go back. We went there for our honeymoon, then we returned, and then we took the children. We want to show them places we’ve been ­– places we want them to experience. As a couple, we’ve been to London, Paris, and all over Europe many times, and now we are taking the children. We’ve been to China with our son, and we go to New York often. We have a place there, because Carlos has to go there for work every week.

What sort of artists do you gravitate to?
Ortiz: We don’t have famous artists here. We love to collect work from young, up-and-coming artists. For example, we have pieces by Colombian artists Miler Lagos, Federico Uribe, and Icaro Zorbar. And we love to meet the artists. We love to go to their studios and befriend them.

You mentioned some of your pieces were found objects – for example, the sign in the kitchen.
Diez: Yes, this is an authentic road sign from Colombia. It translates to “corn for 2,500 pesos.” A guy was selling corn on the road, and we just said, “Hey, we like your sign,” and he opened his eyes [in disbelief] like, “What? You want my sign?” And we were, like, “Yes!”

For him it was just an old distressed sign, but we see art there. The typography is beautiful. It’s a similar story with the sign hanging in the Florida room. We got it from this hippie in Miami Beach. He was just walking with his sign [which offers his services as a “spiritual healer”] and we said, “Stop!” Again, we appreciate the lettering. Graphic design – as in the case of this table where the artist used these graphics cut from a Design Within Reach catalogue on the top – is always a part of our house.

What do you enjoy more: collecting or making what you collect part of your home?
Diez: I think that’s the whole point of the collection: to use it. I think there is no point if you cannot use what you collect. Everything here could [simply] be a work of art, something  very special. But it’s in our home, so it’s a very special chair by Marcel Wanders, but you can still sit in it. You can flip the tree trunk made from paper [by Miler Lagos]; you can touch it. It’s not like a don’t-touch museum we have here; we have a dog – he’s chewing on the rug and all the cushions. That’s part of life – this is a home.

How do you decide what goes where in your house?
Ortiz: Sometimes we start putting something in one place, and then we move it somewhere else and then again. It’s a work in progress.
Diez: Yes, we never stop. We’re always changing. We’re always moving stuff around. Our home is always evolving.

Do you decide together what to bring into your home, or do you allow each other the freedom to choose?
Ortiz: Freedom, but Catalina is the boss.
Diez: Fortunately, we never argue. He never has a problem with the things I choose on my own because we share the same taste.

Has your style changed?
Diez: Believe it or not, earlier, we were into minimalism – like, 15 years ago. We look back and say, “What were we thinking?” The taste evolves.

And how do you describe your home today?
Diez: It has character. It reflects our personality.
Ortiz: We love stories. So every piece has a story. That’s why we like to collect stories. That’s why our home reflects who we are.

Joann Plocková is a freelance journalist covering design, art, craft, and travel.