Molto Mario

Mario Villa’s distinctive jewelry designs.

If you’ve ever had an interest in art or furniture design in New Orleans, you’ve probably heard of Mario Villa. A man who says he’s not “not hung up on titles,” Villa is an artist who works in whatever medium suits his interest at that moment: jewelry, architecture, and watercolors—even welding.

Upon meeting Villa, his work—in particular his furniture and interior design—seems to match his personality perfectly. Villa appears as the epitome of the cosmopolitan, man-of-the-world; he exudes a classic elegance that’s never stuffy thanks to his ready smile and twinkling eyes, which immediately put you at ease.

Villa grew up in Managua, Nicaragua, and still retains vestiges of the accent. From an early age he experimented with paint and with welding scraps of metal. He was educated in Europe and the U.S. In 1979, Villa’s family was exiled from their native Nicaragua amidst the Sandinista Revolution. This impelled Villa to settle in New Orleans, where he earned degrees from the University of New Orleans in anthropology and from Tulane University in architecture.

Mario Villa’s distinctive jewelry designs.

Not wanting to enter a traditional corporate environment, Villa opened his first gallery soon after. In this small, converted garage in the French Quarter, he began showing his own watercolors and oil paintings. Barely two years later, Villa opened a larger gallery and began designing furniture.

Though Villa prefers creating and selling his own work rather than someone else’s, you don’t have to look very far to find a large group of artists who credit Villa and his gallery with their popularity. In fact, in the January 2007 issue of Country Roads magazine, designer Angèle Parlange credits Villa’s gallery as the beginning of her career, “‘Nobody had seen anything like this,’ she says. ‘I got so many orders that I eventually had my silk-screening teacher do the printing.’”

Villa describes his style as “classical, with an M.V. twist” and believes that it’s this classical style to which he adds an historical reference that sets him apart. “After 30 years, you develop your own styles and techniques,” he adds.

Mario Villa at work.
Cheryl Gerber Photographs

It is this style that prompted The New York Times in February 1991 to describe Villa as “an exuberant fellow who with a few dollars and some gold swags could probably transform a 7-Eleven into a nightclub.” And encouraged the Washington Post in December 1997 to urge readers, “Art-furniture lovers head for the showroom of Mario Villa … it was Villa who made the sconces for the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center, which gives you an idea of how highly his peers regard his work.”

Admiration of Villa’s work is not limited to New Orleanians. Some of his clientele include Ivana Trump, Kevin Costner, Carol Burnett, Joanne Woodward, Princess Diane de Bourbon of Paris, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Karl Lagerfield of Chanel. Villa is non-pulsed by the recitation of some of his most famous clients. “My favorite and most challenging client was the late Sunny Norman,” he says, “a beloved patron of the arts. I love to work with clients who present a challenge and an opportunity for me outdo myself.”

“Victory Palm” bed, steel with brass details
Photographs courtesy of Mario Villa

Since Hurricane Katrina Villa’s gallery is closed. He is, however, showing his own work by appointment and is working out of his large Garden District apartment and his house on Bayou St. John. For a few hours each day, Villa draws and paints with watercolors, adding, “My belief is that if you cannot draw, you cannot create anything.” He also reads history books for research and reference and says that his inspirations are, “the City of New Orleans, ancient Rome and Greece.” He is presently working on jewelry, furniture design and historical renovations. Perhaps the most telling statement on Villa in print occurs in “New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence” by Richard Sexton and Randolph Delehanty, “… Mario Villa is a fervent believer in the ability of New Orleans to enrich one’s life.”

As for what’s next for this artist-of-all-mediums? In his own words, “God only knows.”
Mario Villa, 523-8731, by appointment.

“Sun” chair, steel, brass and copper with foam cushion; “Nefertiti” lamp, copper pyramid shade, bronze sculptural head and brass braiding; “Column” chair, steel and brass with foam cushion.
Photographs courtesy of Mario Villa

Categories: Masters of their Craft