Orlando Diaz-Azcuy received California Home+Design's first-ever Design Icon award for lifetime achievement during this year's CH+D Awards ceremony. During his touching acceptance speech, Diaz-Azcuy told of being drawn to art and design from the time he was a toddler. "So, when people ask me how long I have been designing, I say 'always,'" he says. Here is his story, illustrated by photos from his illustrious career.
The year was 1962 in Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba, and Orlando Diaz-Azcuy wanted out. He had been studying what he loved—architecture—at Villanova Catholic University until the dictator closed it. So he began by helping others escape. Every afternoon, Diaz-Azcuy would meet a priest inside a confessional, where he would be handed a slip of paper inscribed with someone’s name. It was his job to find that person and get him or her ready to take one of the few available seats on Pan Am flights that were leaving the country. “And then one day, the Father handed me the folded paper, and my name was on it,” he says. “I was shocked—and I had 48 hours to prepare.” He literally left with only the clothes on his back; when he arrived at a United States military base, he was given a dime to make a phone call.
Robb Report named him one of the top ten designers in the world in 2011; his projects, from multi-million dollar residences to the Levi Strauss & Company headquarters to Ram’s Gate Winery, have been featured in dozens of books and magazines and this year he receives California Home+Design’s first-ever Design Icon Award for lifetime achievement.