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Local Designer’s Furniture Makes Splashy Debut at New York Show

When Lorena Gaxiola got the call to showcase a new line of furniture at the prestigious Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York, she had two months to design, manufacture and ship her wares to the March event.

She made it, and Kuatro Living was on its way.

Just another coup for the young woman behind Kuatro Design, the San Diego business she started in 2003, specializing in model home interior design. Now, the time is right for Gaxiola, 32, to pursue another passion.

“I’ve always been inspired with furniture,” she said. “There was a lull in the real estate market, and this opened up for me the chance to be creative and do a line of furniture. The response has been unbelievable, beyond my imagination.”

Gaxiola is using her savings, along with revenue generated by Kuatro Design, to finance Kuatro Living.

“Opening in New York was a big challenge, but very expensive,” said Gaxiola. “We had to ship to New York and then come back. It cost as much as it did to make all of the furniture.”

Not that she’s complaining. But, at the time, Gaxiola had some doubts that she could pull it off.

“I thought, ‘What is the worst that can happen?’ ”

Then she thought about all the ritzy design publications and industry VIPs that would be attending the event.

“We were so scared,” said Gaxiola. “I thought, ‘What if everybody hates it?’ But, everyone had incredible comments about the furniture. The feeling I got is that designers actually love it. In New York, they want unique. They have a very high level of sophistication.”

The design show featured 300 exhibitors. Most of them were from North America, but the event also included brands from Italy, France and other foreign countries, according to Troy Hanson, director of leasing for the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in New York. All of the wares were geared to the high-end market, from kitchen and bath, to floor coverings and lighting, he added.

Gaxiola’s debut “was a very big hit,” said Hanson.

“It was very well-received by the audience, judging by the crowds in her space,” he said. “We were happy to have her involved.”

The show’s organizers were especially impressed by Gaxiola’s singular take on furniture design, said Hanson.

“She married contemporary and classic very well, with such a beautiful design , very unique for that category,” he observed.

With the opportunity to meet “thousands of potential clients , both trade and consumer,” Gaxiola could be on her way to carving out a whole new niche, said Hanson.

“We hope that designers would begin to source her line for projects in New York and beyond,” he said. “We’d like to see her expanded presence in the New York area. With a New York retailer carrying her line, the possibilities are endless. She is a great talent and a lovely woman to deal with.”

In April, Gaxiola snared another coup, partnering with Daily Variety Magazine to design the celebrity hospitality lounge at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

“I designed all of the furniture based on my first collection, but in white,” she said. “I push myself always to be creative. It’s very California. I wanted to do glitz and glamour, and be fresh and clean.”


Refreshing Change

It’s all a natural progression that suits Gaxiola’s creative nature.

“I change everything,” she said. “If I buy a dress, I will change the buttons and belt. In all my interior design creations there is always a chair I change.”

But creating a new line of furniture took some thought.

“I didn’t want to create a line that was so trendy that it would be out of style in the next couple of years,” she said. “I wanted to mix in contemporary, but with a strong traditional feel to it.”

Gaxiola’s line, which combines acrylic and wood materials, consists of what she calls eight “foundation” pieces , two chairs, three tables, a TV/media shelf, a bed and a lounge , ranging from $600 to $7,000. The clean, uncluttered lines also work well in smaller spaces, she said.

While Gaxiola hopes to eventually make her furniture more affordable, for the moment, it’s at the high end. But, she learned in New York that she shouldn’t apologize for that. Gaxiola recalled the response she received when she was quoting her prices to an admirer, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

“He said, ‘Why make that face? Some people like things to be expensive,’ ” she recalled.

Indeed, Gaxiola points out that, “Acrylic is expensive. It’s not mass-produced. It’s like asking an artist to design a piece of art that is very exclusive.”

And, she added, consumers these days seem to appreciate that design is more than a mere assembly of parts.

“People are starting to put value in design as a creative force,” said Gaxiola. “People are saying, ‘I will pay you that and more, as long as nobody else has it.’ ”


Early Influences

An early influence was Gaxiola’s father, Max, an architect, who took her along on jobs he did for the hotel industry.

“His strength is more in the field, as a project manager,” she said. “He loves being on site and the construction aspect.”

He also taught her the importance of being independent.

“I am not afraid to be my own boss,” said Gaxiola, who was born in Mexico. “He went out on his own, and was able to pay for everybody’s college education. I am a hard worker and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, because of my father.”

A more recent mentor has been Gaxiola’s boyfriend, Lewis Yazbek, construction director of the Australia-based Constellation Property Group, which is building a mixed-use development in National City. He also is chairman of the development company Southern Cross, also based down under.

“I have learned a lot from him, including how to understand financing,” said Gaxiola.

Yazbek, who has long admired her artistic talents, wanted to make sure that she understood the hard realities of the industry.

“The construction industry is driven by cash flow,” he said. “She is such a talented young lady in terms of design and architectural flair. What she has is amazing. But, like all good artistic people, they tend to be focused on what they are good at and don’t worry about business, and let that run by itself.”

Yazbek said that he has mentored Gaxiola in the art of running a business, from handling the cash flow to budgeting and quality control.

“I come from a very tough industry,” said Yazbek, whose Constellation Property Group has been struggling to navigate the ebbs and flows of San Diego’s softening market, while trying to get its project off the ground. “I’ve had no choice but to learn it. When the market is tough, you have to look at all the angles.”

Gaxiola isn’t afraid to take creative risks, he said.

“I think she is a lot more adventurous in her skills than I’ve seen from other designers,” said Yazbek. “She goes out there a little more than the others. It’s good for this market, and she has that talent and drive, and determination. When she hits a roadblock, she finds a way to get around it.”

Being cutting edge is especially important in the restaurant and hotel industries, where she is marketing her wares, said Gaxiola.

“They are always looking for the latest and greatest products,” she said. “They don’t want to be like everyone else. They have to be cutting edge, because the competition is enormous.”

Among her clients, Gaxiola said that she has been especially inspired by Graeme Gabriel, chief operating officer and co-president of ColRich, a San Diego-based residential and commercial builder.

“When I work with him I think, “He is the next-generation builder and designer,’ & #8201;” she said. “He has an incredible energy.”

For his part, Gabriel described Gaxiola as “a breath of fresh air.”

“She is very creative,” he said. “A lot of interior designers say, ‘This is my vision,’ but Lorena really listens, understanding what the builder wants and who the customer is.”

A current project involves the renovation of a 1950s-era apartment tower in Portland, Ore., for which Gaxiola will be working on the interiors, as well as working with the architect on the exterior fa & #231;ade and common areas. Gabriel also will be working with Gaxiola on a condo-conversion project in Pasadena that will involve 20 different floor plans.

“She will help us redesign some of the floor plans, and also do the interior decoration,” he said.

Gabriel is especially impressed with her ability to combine both style and substance in her designs.

“With apartments, you want high design, but something that is truly functional,” he said. “She was great about not being so fixated on, ‘This is the look I am going after,’ but understood that you have to have stuff that wears well.”


Branching Out

Gabriel recalls giving Gaxiola some career advice as the real estate market was softening.

“I said, ‘Lorena, you know the industry is going through some changes. You are really talented. Why pigeonhole yourself? You should think about getting into other product lines, not just residential, but retail and hotels.’ She took that to heart.”

Gaxiola also credits Fallbrook-based Beucler Signature Homes, and owner Chris Beucler, for her growth in the business, and her big break , being invited to work with his in-house designer, Lisa Jill, on Malabar Ranch, a custom-built residential development in Fallbrook that was completed earlier this year.

“It was the first company I ever worked for,” she said. “He was developing a master-planned community, and he invited me to design the model he was building. This had to be the most important project in his career and he chose me to be the designer. It was an incredible honor for me. His attention to detail is unbelievable. He is a perfectionist.”

Beucler also was demanding.

“He wanted me to go out there and look at what everybody has done, and he said, ‘Don’t give me any of that.’ It was a pleasure to work with Chris and Lisa. It was such a team effort. He pushed me and everybody else on the team.”

Beucler shares her admiration.

“She understands what a client is looking for, and comes up with fresh ideas,” he said. “She’s not afraid to interject her own opinions on what she thinks is right.”

But, Beucler added, “She is good about listening to the client’s needs.”

Not that it’s always easy.

“I am very hands-on with my business,” said Gaxiola. “The clients I work with are pretty much like friends. They tell me their style. I get to know their personality. Interior design is very psychological. You need to listen to the client and not force anything down their throats. You need to make their opinion work with what is more tasteful.”

But Gaxiola said that she works much better with clients who know what they want, and can communicate that to her.

“Some clients don’t know what they want,” she said. “I also have clients who know exactly what they want. They are so opinionated. But, it turns out beautiful. People should know what they are looking for and push the designer to the limit and they will be happy with the end product. I am more creative if somebody gives me a list.”


The Next Chapter

Gaxiola hopes to open either a showroom or store for her new furniture line by year’s end or early in 2008, possibly in La Jolla. She also is looking for a “great factory” to manufacture the product and is receiving bids.

Now, she uses different vendors.

“I have upholstery, wood, acrylics in different places, so nobody could copy the pieces,” she explained. “It’s hard to patent furniture. I haven’t really established a brand.”

Gaxiola also has no intention of starting small.

“I want to start big,” she said. “I want to make a mark in the design industry. With furniture, this will be my road to making a mark.”

Gaxiola is ready to take the plunge, and has some advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs.

“Don’t be afraid and follow your guts,” she said. “I am a person who can jump off a cliff just because I feel like it. I am not afraid. I take chances, and don’t regret it. I have cried myself to sleep many times, and stumbled, but I rise from my mistakes and grow.”

Ultimately, Gaxiola would like to launch a Kuatro brand that would also include linens, dinnerware and wallpaper.

“I would like to conquer the world,” she said. “Why not?”


Resume

Name: Lorena Gaxiola.

Titles: President and owner.

Company: Kuatro LLC.

Revenue: Not disclosed.

Age: 32.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in interior design from the Design Institute of San Diego.

Family: Lewis Yazbek, boyfriend; her pet, Fabulous, a miniature poodle.

Residence: Little Italy.

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