Home Big Apple Alternative

WHEN FRIENDS ASK COLOMBIAN-BORN MAKEUP ARTIST JORGE VARGAS WHERE he lives, he often responds, "Darling, I live in a papaya." Vargas' L-shaped studio, located in a high-rise building on Manhattan's Upper Westside, sports bright orange walls the color of the tropical fruit. "When I come home, I feel like in I'm in the middle of some tropical creative explosion," says the artist, whose work revolves around color.

When Vargas landed the job as makeup supervisor for the Tony Award-winning musical "Aida," now playing on Broadway, he had to move from Miami to New York City. So he called in an old friend, West Coast interior designer Matthew White, to help with his studio apartment. The designer, who once owned an eponymous antique shop in Pasadena and is known for his classic-traditional style, thought it would be fun to do something "zany, colorful and modern."

"Jorge has lived all over the world . . . he's a complete gypsy. He throws down a mattress and that's his home decor," says White. "He literally came to New York with two suitcases, some old photos and his makeup kit. I had to furnish the whole place down to the silverware and bath towels." The main challenge for White: Vargas' Lilliputian 300-square-foot space--small even by New York standards--and an even smaller budget. "Let's just say I have clients who have paid more for a chair," says White with a laugh. With those challenges in mind, plus a wish from Vargas for "something, somewhere animal," the designer began to haunt out-of-the-way thrift stores in Pomona, Pasadena and West Hollywood. One early find was a black-and-white trunk peppered with '70s slogans: "Less cement, more grass," "Save on gas, hitchhike." It cost $20 and now serves as a sofa end table. An egg-shaped chair, a knockoff of the Eero Aarnio '63 Ball classic, was a steal at a Pomona junk store for $300. White replaced the chair's yellowing shell with new vinyl and the blue fake-fur interior with green velvet that was off-the-roll material from Diamond Foam & Fabric. "There wasn't one piece of pedigree furniture in the whole place," says the designer.

To elevate the thrift-ware fare, White's next stop was a visit to Clare Graham, a Los Angeles artist who works with recycled materials ranging from pop-top caps and tin can lids to paint-by-the-number canvases. "I thought his pieces would give the apartment some integrity yet be quirky enough to work."

White commissioned three pieces. A 3-foot convex security mirror frame that Graham wired with 17,000 pop-tops now hangs above the designer's custom-made "inverted camelback" sleep sofa. A frame of tin can lids camouflages the large white radiator under his window. A playful sculpture made from plastic bowls and plates purchased at Crate & Barrel hangs from the foyer's ceiling like "a big dangling earring." To add a semblance of architecture to Vargas' seamless white box, the designer took a 3-inch-tall Corinthian column from clip art, blew up two copies to a height of 10 feet at a blueprint shop and mounted them on Sintra, a compressed plastic material. Another blow-up--a 6-foot-tall engraving that White calls his "Fornasetti on steroids"--and his custom-made wood capital that serves as a TV stand and DVD holder continue his Pop Art-meets-neoclassical theme.

Anchoring it all together, and granting Vargas' wish "for something animal," is a nylon faux-tiger rug that White bordered in a reddish orange carpet to match pre-painted walls. When all the goods were assembled in Los Angeles, White sent them off to New York via truck, following a week later with a handyman. "We assembled and hung everything in the apartment in six hours," he says. By the time Vargas returned from the Wednesday matinee of "Aida," everything was in place. They spent the rest of the evening sipping martinis in the "papaya."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World