A place to get away from it all—without the need for a passport and hopscotching continents—seems more elusive than ever these days. Montana may be the exception. Few regions in the country remain as preserved as this western frontier, whose raw landscape of high, windswept plains, dense pine and hemlock forests, and twisting rivers is framed by snowcapped mountain ranges and see-forever blue skies. With the unofficial moniker of “The Last Best Place” (along with “Big Sky Country” and “The Treasure State”), Montana is one of the largest and least populated, yet totally accessible, states to escape to.
A California couple wanted to build a vacation retreat outside Billings that embraced all the wonders and wildness of its remote natural setting without being hampered by fussy interiors or faded clichés of the Wild West. “They have cattle, they go hunting, and they have rodeos on the ranch, so this place had to look and feel like Montana,” says designer Juan Montoya, who has conceived interiors for a California residence and a Paris apartment, among some 20 commissions for the family over the past two decades. “They wanted to create a sense of relaxation and a certain casualness, but at the same time be elegant,” Montoya says. “Like pairing jeans with a lovely cashmere scarf.”
The New York–based designer happens to be uniquely qualified for this particular project. The son of a Colombian diplomat, he grew up on his family’s rice farm in the countryside, and he moves easily between the urban and natural worlds—as adept at living among antiques in an 18th-century apartment in Paris as he is hunched on his knees pulling weeds from his garden in New York’s Hudson Valley. Yet rather than deploying his personal aesthetic for someone else’s house, Montoya prefers his clients to take the lead. “I wouldn’t say I have a signature style. Every project is different, and I try to make each one distinctive,” he says. “Where is it, what is it, how many children, how many dogs, cats, and even chickens—all this plays a very important role in a project. I think of myself as a tailor, where everything functions to perfection, like a gorgeous suit or dress.”
The architecture for the new house was handled by Peter Bohlin of the powerhouse firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. The firm’s commissions include Apple stores, such as the elegant glass-box outlet on New York’s Fifth Avenue, as well as residences for Silicon Valley luminaries like Bill Gates, whose Washington State mansion has a similar rough-hewn-yet-refined vernacular as this soaring, timber-framed house. Bohlin, an award-winning architect who has been described as a “romantic modernist,” conceived floor-to-ceiling windows for wraparound views of the undulating hills and a stream that twists through the landscape; lined the walls with cherry panels that give a crisp, shipshape feeling; and installed metal-wrapped beams and 25-foot-high lodge-poles that recall trees in a forest. He also used a mountain’s worth of weathered sandstone, which was sourced from northwestern Montana, for the courtyard, fireplace surrounds, and retaining walls.
“We started with the spirit and attitude of Western lodges and the Great Camps of the Adirondacks,” Bohlin recalls. “Before the building was even a building, many of our early discussions happened at picnic tables set up on the site, thinking through how to make this extraordinary gathering place for our clients’ family and friends. Architecture is often like choreographing a dance—it’s how you discover things and move through them, and we do that often in our world.”
Montoya’s job entailed crafting inviting interiors using elements that amplified warmth amid the hard-edged materials.The clients “were very clear that they didn’t want anything willowy or delicate,” Montoya remembers. “They wanted to be able to come in with boots and put their feet on the couch.”
That sounds simple, but it’s no easy task to tame a spanking-new, 15,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom house that features a double-height living room so massive that furniture risked looking like puny chess pieces. Montoya created sprawling tufted-suede sofas, twisted-iron floor lamps with a weathered look, and a central rug whose colorfully patterned border serves to envelop the sitting areas. High-backed leather chairs around a table overlooking the plateau on which the house sits were designed to convey coziness, “like a cocoon,” Montoya explains. The walls of the upstairs bar and the master bedroom, meanwhile, are upholstered in sumptuous leather. It’s a signature touch of Montoya’s, one that led the clients to discover him in the first place after they saw photographs of the designer’s leather-wrapped Manhattan bedroom in a magazine. “Comfort is tied to everything for them,” says Montoya. “They always feel that I am going to create a unique place, that it’s going to be beautiful, and it’s going to be comfortable. You can design the most beautiful rooms, but if they’re not comfortable, nobody wants to live in them.”
Montoya likes to infuse personality into guest bedrooms, conceiving each with a distinct spirit, much like the hotel rooms he prefers when traveling abroad. “I used to spend a lot of time in Morocco,” he recalls, “and all the rooms at La Mamounia were different, and the experience was different in each one.” Here, one bedroom features a sleigh bed upholstered in a red buffalo check; blue twin beds in another room are trimmed with leather fringe and have tepee silhouettes on the headboards— exuberant decorative reminders of the look and feel of Montana that his clients requested.
Montoya has his own reminder of “the last best place”—a memory he probably won’t soon forget. During one November visit to the site, he and an assistant left the house late at night and encountered a blizzard on the icy, 45-minute drive back to Billings. “All of a sudden the car went ballistic”—Montoya makes a schussing sound as he retells the story—“and ended up balancing on top of the center divider. It’s so isolated that we waited hours there before the police showed up.”
It was not, however, a deal breaker for the debonair designer: “I’m fortunate that I’ve done many projects for them. They keep calling me because they are comfortable. By now I’m like a nice old pair of shoes.”