‘I’ve always been a creative risk-taker…’
Top interior designer Tony Torres shares some insights from over two decades of transforming people’s homes.
By Mark Cox
Unlike the other fledgling contestants, ‘the designer within’ caught you 20 years into a successful career. What was your motivation for applying?
It was kind of a fluke, really. An architect friend told me about the show, and I was really intrigued by the idea. At that point, I had already done around a dozen designer show homes in Denver – and I really enjoyed doing projects without a client, since you get to express yourself more fully. Generally, of course, you have a husband, a wife, maybe some kids, and everyone has an opinion. And that’s fine: my role is to help put together my client’s vision for what they want their home to be, so my work absolutely should reflect their tastes and personality. But this was an opportunity to indulge my own vision.
How was your business going at the time?
Remember, this show was made at the height of the economic recession in 2009, which was pretty devastating. I had weathered previous recessions fairly comfortably because my higher-end clients still tended to have ready money to spend, but this time was different. My business income dropped 75 percent in 2009, and only picked up a little in 2010. So when the show came along, I thought it was both an interesting idea and a good marketing opportunity.
You seem to be completely enthralled by design. Where does that come from?
It always fascinated me, and I was lucky to have a good education. During my college years in Chicago, for example, I was exposed to a whole world of design I hadn’t known existed. And for years now, I’ve been visiting my New York apartment twice a year because things out there are right at the forefront of what will be happening in the design world in years to come. It’s always on my mind: I literally take a photograph with my brain of everything I see, and am always searching for new ideas and approaches. So it’s more than just a job to me: Design is my vocation.
Your finished apartment didn’t look at all like a typical Denver home. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. I love Denver – my father’s family has lived in Colorado for over 500 years – but until recently the city had a reputation for being a bit of a cow town and not very sophisticated, and I was determined to show it could be much more than that. I wanted my apartment to be atypical of this region, so I created the persona of a fictitious fashion designer, then tried to capture and harness the creative elements that such a person might have in their lived environment. I imagined the space as both a home and a workspace – which is ironic because now so many of us are working from home.
Speaking of homes, what is Casa Torres like?
I live in one of the oldest homes in Denver and my living room is an actual ballroom, beautifully decorated in an ornate style. It looks like Versailles come to life, which can make for some interesting Zoom conversations now that I’m working from home. I still enjoy the open-mouthed look on people’s faces when I answer video calls.
You’re unquestionably a creative risk-taker and seem unafraid to make bold decisions. Has that always been core to your approach?
Yes, I’ve always been that way – even though sometimes it inevitably means getting negative feedback! I instinctively know what something will look like before it even gets started, and I’m always determined to follow through on my original vision. With every design show home I’ve done, I’ve always strived to introduce some random element – a statement piece, of sorts – which creates an unexpected drama that people will react to on a human level. And in ‘the designer within’, that statement was the large mural in the bedroom. It was inspired by a trip to London, where the builders of a new Burberry store had covered the scaffolding with a giant canvas featuring an architectural drawing of the finished building. It was outstanding.
What single aspect feature of the apartment were you most proud of?
I loved the little sitting area, where I carefully backlit the shelves to create a beautiful ambience around the perimeter. When you first walked in the apartment, that was what you saw. Since then, I’ve designed a few other apartments for people in that building and have always recreated that look.
I also adored the corner window with a view towards Pikes Peak, which is special to me since my family lives near there. During the project, there was a power outage one evening and my car got stuck in the garage, so I spent the night at the apartment. And the following sunrise, the view of the purple mountains from that window was absolutely glorious. So, I knew I had to make a real feature of that whole corner area, to capture the special view.
You always seemed steady and calm while dealing with other people, even when things didn’t run smoothly. Is that just experience?
Yes, and that’s also key to my job when working with clients. When you’ve torn someone’s house apart and they’re writing checks and its costing more than everyone originally thought, I’ve learned to stay cool and become disengaged. You don’t want to add to the flames in those stressful situations.
You sound quite philosophical about it…
Well, people are complicated creatures. And working with contractors, especially, I’ve learned that managing other human beings is like herding cats: There is always something going on, and people’s own affairs will inevitably interfere with your project schedule – so you just have to take that into account by creating enough cushion and wriggle room that you’ll not be left hanging at the end. You’ll have noticed on the show that I was finished way ahead of the deadline. I was literally re-ironing bed sheets and just tinkering around while others were still painting their walls. And that has been a constant throughout my career. I prepare well because I simply don’t think I could handle the stress of doing everything at the last minute.
Finally, should you have won?
Honestly, it was a bit of a shock not to win because I’d never really lost anything related to my work before. I can’t tell you how many design awards I’ve won for my show homes, or how many magazine features or newspaper articles have been written about my work. So, it was a humbling dose of reality and I learned a lot about myself. But from that point onwards, I have done really well in my career, so it was clearly a positive experience.
Besides, appearing on the show almost immediately started to show benefits. Once the competition was over, I took my mom to see the apartment – and while we were there, the building’s developer asked if he could keep my apartment open for an extra month to use as a model for showing the place. And that felt like a victory of sorts. Then I was also hired several times to design similar apartments in that building, which felt like a vote of confidence in my earlier work. Looking back, I really enjoyed the project and I definitely would do it again!