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Desert Companion

Interior monologue: Robert Leyva's Living Penthouse

One of the valley's hottest design stores isn't a store. It's the colorful Roberto Leyva's seductive Living Penthouse

With all the seriousness in the world, Roberto Leyva says he could absolutely die the next time he walks into a $10 million house where the owners have spent only $50,000 on furnishings.

"It's completely unacceptable for a $10 million home to have a print from West Elm," says Leyva.

You might think Leyva is a tad extreme in his views, but then again, he's explaining this to me inside a drop-dead gorgeous loft with enormous views of downtown Las Vegas. So when it comes to interior furnishings, I'm prepared to believe him. Leyva owns a novel furniture store, the Living Penthouse, which is novel because, well, it is a penthouse - a swank, 5,000 square-foot, two-level extravaganza at Soho Lofts.

He likens his business to the "private home of a stylish art collector." To say Leyva takes high design seriously is to understate the matter rather severely. For Leyva, luxury means going the distance, "not halfway." It means you don't buy a Rolls Royce and deck it out with seats from Kia.

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"Las Vegas has an incredible amount of wealth, but we still have so much to learn when it comes to design," he says. "For a city that (where) 60 years ago there was nothing, we've come a long way. But it's gonna take some time for the culture and design process to take place." Leyva is here to kick-start that process, to remind style-conscious Vegas, a city driven on flash and cash and slick visions of the good life, that design is more than skin deep - and that our homes are more than just places to sleep and eat.

He's got high standards. CityCenter? A "monumental statement of architecture & but they fell short delivering on the interiors," he says.

The Cosmopolitan? It "could have been something very great," he says. But instead, to him it resembles an overly busy Ed Hardy T-shirt. "They tried to create too much..."

Who is he to say so?

Leyva grew up in a "very large colonial home" in Michoacán, a state on the Pacific coast of Mexico. He was always interested in art and design, and he eventually moved to Los Angeles to study fashion design. He later manned boutiques for Armani and Dolce & Gabbana in Orange County as he tried to make a go of being a fashion designer. Seven years ago he gave it up. He wanted his work "to be treated more like art than clothes, and that's really not the right idea. I knew I wasn't going to be happy with it and I gave it up."

He turned to another longstanding passion, interior design. He relocated to Las Vegas and launched an interior design business, ELITE Interior Design Studio. He opened a modern furniture store in Commercial Center, but too many people were drifting through without buying anything.

So he went back to square one and in 2010 launched Living Penthouse. He calls it "a furniture store like every furniture store, except it's completely different."

It is. Retail stores, no matter how much they resemble lofts, are still stores - with cash registers and logos and brochures, annoying sales people, price tags, other customers. Instead, Leyva operates out of an actual working condominium, a space filled not only with all variety of sleek, high-end tables, sofas, chairs and lights, but also rugs, art, books and music. Even the kitchen faucets work.

"This space was conceived with the idea of getting to seduce people to want to live this way," he says. "Everybody wants to stay here, hang out here."

He's right. Walk into the penthouse and all you want to do is put down your reporter's notebook and go mix yourself a highball, crank up some propulsive Flamenco by Paco de Lucía, lounge around on furniture that costs more than your car, soak in the views & and then call some friends over. The view of sumptuous sky and mountains, foregrounded by a lot of fabulous furniture, is subtly intoxicating.

Seduction connection

He says clients - around one a day - have been finding him, despite little marketing and no website. Clients come by appointment only. "It's a one-on-one experience," he says, "where we can talk about product at length."

You can spend a little - glasses for $20, for instance, but really, why would you? - or you can spend a lot. Like that batch of sofas that you can position together to make one big sofa unit, with seating on four sides for a few dozen friends. That'll run you around $74,000. That's more like it.

There are many sublime selections. Like the $3,750 UP5 chair, a Gaetano Pesce piece of art-design-politics that's shaped like a woman's body. Sit down and the chair envelops you - the ottoman is shaped like a ball, with a "chain" (actually a cord) attached to the chair, which is supposed to symbolize the continuing subjugation of women. Then there's the Great JJ Lamp, an outsized fixture based on an architect's lamp crafted in the '30s by Norwegian designer Jac Jacobsen. Think of a 10-foot high Pixar Studios logo lamp, and you get the idea. ($6,500.) Or the circular 1907 Fortuny Lamp, designed by Mariano Fortuny, which looks like it belongs in a photographer's studio. ($5,000.)

But the prize piece? The piece Leyva retreats to at the end of the day in his own home? Antonio Cittero's Mart Chair, a sort of large sculpted saddle, stitched with buttery-smooth leather, mounted on a chrome frame.

Don't flip it, live it

Hang around Leyva for more than a few minutes, and he'll drop the names of top designers like Cittero, Piero Lissoni or Patricia Urquiola as though they're family. He says his store is the only one that stocks elite Italian brands such as B&B Italia and Maxalto.

For him, folks scrimp on interiors when they think of their houses as investments, properties to flip rather than homes to raise their family in. A $15,000 sofa might cure that. A $15,000 sofa, he says, is "made to last you your whole life, number one. Number two, you can change the covers and switch the covers on them every two years if you want to. Not because they're torn apart and they need to be changed, but because you want to freshen them up, and it's not going to cost you another $15,000 to do it anymore."

What about those of us in the real world? Leyva says we just have to put ourselves in the right frame of mind.

"They should treat themselves to indulge themselves into this type of luxury for their home. Enjoy it. It will change their life. It will help them enjoy their home more than they ever could imagine."

For Leyva himself, work is his way of enjoying life. He never really takes time off - relaxing is poring through his MacBook on his own Mart Chair in his own high-rise home, where he lives with his wife and newborn son.

"I want to be around it. I want to be around design."

Leyva's got dreams as well. His own fantasy home, which he plans to build someday, will be both classical and "way ahead of our time," perhaps bringing his colonial Mexico upbringing together with his sense of sleek Vegas modern.

But whatever it looks like, you can bet that the furniture will be amazing.

The well-designed life

Roberto Levya isn't just an aesthete. He's something of a philosopher too. Here are some of Lyva's tips on living well -- even if you're not in the market for a pricey Gaetano Pesce chair.

Live well -- and pass it on. "We should all begin our own family traditions of living well. Just like a good watch, a sofa can be handed down to our next generation.

Make a statement. "There are items to furnish your home -- and then there are items that define it ... There are always great items to buy that will define the look of your home, for instance, in the Living Penthouse, the Great JJ Lamp. Guests remember that lamp. They talk about it. It defines the living room.

Spend now -- or spend later. "Quality is unmistakable. A quality product is created to last you for many years. Fabrics can be removed and replace if (you) need to, materials used are of the highest quality possible, the finished details are obvious in the way the items are stitched and put together. Cynical, vulgar, mass-produced merchandise has poor finished details altogether."
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