Normally, Walz relates, the selection by jury is an arduous process, fraught with debate, and decisions can take up to a month to finalize. In his case, the jury announced its unanimous verdict after mere hours. The designer was told that it was a first in the Academy’s (then) 99-year history.
So Walz, with daughters Jersey (now 17) and Addie (now 14), went to Italy for a year as a Rome Prize Fellow in 1994. “When I went to Rome, it was to start a new life,” he says. “I left all of my design tools at home. I brought only art materials and created artwork for a whole year.” Walz, whose formal training was in fine art, is an accomplished painter as well as a distinguished designer and member of the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame.
Why the Designer stays in Rome?
As the fellowship drew to a close, he was hesitant to leave Rome. “I pulled out a piece of paper to list reasons why I should go to New York and why I should stay in Rome,” he recalls. “The New York side was blank. So I stayed.” Nevertheless, he had no definite plans for the next stage of his life.
By now, Walz realized he couldn’t negate 20 years of experience and commitment to design. He also knew that it was incumbent upon him to earn a living for his family. Fate intervened just as he was contemplating reentry to the design world. Licensing contacts he had made before leaving New York began to call, and he was soon in business with Baldinger, DesignTex, and Tufenkian. Then, a fortuitous reunion brought Walz into filmmaking. The designer’s friend Rob Cohen, a film director, arrived in Italy to shoot Daylight with Sylvester Stallone at the famed Cinecitta studios. The story centered on an explosion within the Holland Tunnel, but not one of the movie’s 200 crew members had ever lived in New York. Walz was hired as a visual consultant.
Soon after, Amy Napoleone called to introduce herself. An American businesswoman with ties to Italy, she had followed Walz’s work through the press for years and had contacts with cork suppliers in Sardinia. She wondered if Walz would be interested in exploring the material’s potential. KorQinc, the company they founded, now distributes Walz’s growing collection of cork furniture, which is available in the U.S. through Dennis Miller. Walz was back in business.
And the design business called for a bona fide studio.
Having come from a 4,000-sq.-ft. live/work loft in Chelsea, Walz found the Eternal City to hold no comparable loft or industrial spaces that were “light-filled and conducive to doing design and art,” he says. “After all, Rome predates industry by thousands of years.” In the grand tradition of networking, a friend of a friend knew of certain Vatican-owned buildings in Trastevere. Only four were available for lease, and they had been uninhabited for centuries. Occupancy rights were to be granted on the basis of a satisfactory renovation proposal. Walz’s submission centered on “retaining the purity of the spaces,” he recounts. Once again his application was immediately accepted.
The studio encompasses little more than 500 sq. ft. on two levels. Its ground-floor expanse Consists of two connected rooms divided by a central stone partition whose 34-in. thickness precluded practical demolition. When Walz first saw the building, the 17th-century, wood-paneled ceiling led him to suspect that this may have been an entry building or carriage house for the nearby villa. Yet, he continues, it was also full of “feeding troughs for animals, hundreds of glass containers for wine, and hundreds of apparently stolen purses, passports, drivers’ licenses, and credit cards, almost all American.” Supplementary space below grade was even more raw. Located at the end of a long passageway, it was essentially a cellar, albeit an ancient Roman vaulted one, below the water level of the nearby Tiber river. The cantina, as it’s called, was a humid mess with a dirt floor.
Waterproofing the cantina with a seven-in.-thick concrete floor and walls plus installing non-existent services throughout comprised the designer’s major efforts. He brought in electricity, concealing wiring within the ceiling’s beam configuration, and used barely perceptible, ceiling-mounted porcelain fixtures to light the place. He put in heating and plumbing systems, a bathroom, and a kitchen with basic cabinets, appliances and terra-cotta tiles. He also provided new framing for doors and windows, most of which overlook lush gardens. Walls in the street-level sector were surfaced with a material resembling Homosote to function as tack boards for paintings. Intense though his efforts were, they remain almost invisible. Walz never lost sight of his goal, which was to “keep the culture” of the place.
With so many of his counterparts in America telling construction horror tales, Walz says that “working in Rome was a joy. The Italians take pride in their work, and thinking, for them, is not an extra. They have great curiosity and skill. It’s not like the meshugganeh business in America where everyone has too much work and is overwhelmed.”
Walz is settled. He’s painting. He’s practicing industrial design. He’s experimenting with materials and technologies. He recently completed a project for the American Academy in Rome, converting its Villa Chiaraviglio to residential spaces for visiting artists and their families. He also has a thriving interior design practice with commissioned works on the boards in Rome and throughout the United States (these being handled through his New York office, Walzworkinc.). But he’s learned, he says, to accept only those projects that pique his interest. “It may be for any number of reasons; size is not an issue. I like doing things and I have curiosity to the extreme. Maybe my life is more simple now, giving me more time to explore. I’ve learned not to make plans that can’t be changed.”
Here is interior design – tips and tricks for decorating a small studio apartment