When legendary designer Philippe Starck met Spanish investment banker Pedro Gómez de Baeza 30 years ago in Madrid, they bonded over their lively and boisterous sense of humour. The occasion was the opening of Starck’s transformation of a dilapidated former theater into Teatriz, a restaurant with dramatic decor and an experimental menu.

“Madrid hadn’t seen anything like it before. It helped turn the city into a destination,” says the vivacious Gómez de Baeza, who befriended Starck and later vacationed with him in Mexico .

“I remember we were near the coast with these huge pterodactyl-like birds flying overhead. We never exchanged a single serious word and made endless good and bad jokes,” says the 73-year-old Frenchman, who became a household name in the 1980s, a design fanatic. “We now follow each other wherever we are.” Starck’s prolific output ranges from the Louis Ghost chair (Kartell, 2000) to electric bicycles, the interiors of yachts and countless hotels around the world, as well as household items such as his Juicy Salif lemon squeezer. (Alessi, 1988), office accessories and toothbrush holders. .

Philippe Starck (right) and Pedro Gómez de Baeza at the LA Organic Experience olive oil farm in Ronda, Andalusia © Alvaro Medina

This double act shares another obsession, even a veneration: for the olive. “I like the center of everything: the basics, the bone at the heart of the relationship between humans and the world,” says Starck, of the creamy golden liquid that we devour in myriad forms. “Oxygen, salt and olive oil – these are the foundations of civilization. Salt and oil were a means of preserving food and therefore of survival, and that is why olive oil olive is so noble.

For his part, Gómez de Baeza, then living and working in New York, fell in love with Andalusia and invested in a 200-year-old olive grove and press called LA Amarilla, located near the historic town of Ronda, in the summit of a mountain, which is bisected by a canyon. At LA Amarilla, harvesting and small-batch production was handled by a small brotherhood of cloistered nuns. Gómez de Baeza saw an opportunity to create a premium olive oil brand and agritourism site that would champion the quality and tradition of Spanish olive oil. He approached Starck with an offer to be shareholder, board of directors and artistic director of the fledgling company. “I offered honors because I couldn’t afford his fees!” says Gómez de Baeza, president of investment bank GBS Finance established in 1991. The designer immediately answered “Yes,” with the caveat that the olive oil must come from organic farming methods without pesticides.

A sculpture by Starck echoes the design of Starck's LA Almazara, a monument and museum on the Ronda site due for completion in 2023

A sculpture by Starck echoes the design of Starck’s LA Almazara, a monument and museum on the Ronda site due for completion in 2023 © Alvaro Medina

“In the 90s, organic products were relatively unknown,” explains Gómez de Baeza. “Starck insisted, even though eventually the oil would be more expensive.” Rather than giving the brand a traditional “estate” or family name, Starck came up with the LA Organic name and its distinctive metal bottle and dark UV-blocking glass packaging adorned with bold graphics. The olive oil has won numerous awards and is decidedly suitable for the table. The top of the range is the Oro version, which is packaged in a container reminiscent of an inkwell.

La Bio Original Extra Virgin Olive Oil, €7.95 for 500ml

La Bio Original Extra Virgin Olive Oil, €7.95 for 500ml

Today, 100,000 liters of LA Organic olive oil are produced annually at LA Amarilla and are sold in 25 countries. You’ll also find it on the first class menus of British Airways and Iberia. But the production of LA Organic remains premium and niche. Comparative brands include Castillo de Canena (also from Andalusia), Marqués de Griñón (Toledo) and Dauro (Catalonia).

Gómez de Baeza is on a mission to wave the Spanish oil flag. Global olive oil consumption is expanding: it is expected to reach $16.64 billion by 2027, and this consumption is largely attributed to a growing demand for healthy foods. While most people think of Italy as the top producer of olive oil, Spanish production is equivalent to almost half of the world’s olive oil and it is largely exported for origin products. mixed.

Gómez’s vision of Baeza and Starck goes far. In 2019, LA Organic introduced walking tours that lead through olive groves, vineyards, and an expansive vegetable garden along paths flanked by lavender, rosemary, and cypress trees. An outdoor photography exhibit and Starck’s symbolic metal sculptures add an artistic touch. The tour includes farm buildings, olive presses and spectacular views of the Ronda Valley. This “first steps” agritourism attraction is an introduction to the big event – ​​the construction of a Starck-designed monument and museum called LA Almazara by Starck (expected to open in 2023). In October, the first foundations were laid for the building, which required 20 years of negotiations and approvals.

Philippe Starck stands in front of an olive tree at the LA Organic Experience olive oil farm in Andalusia

Philippe Starck at the LA Organic Experience olive oil farm in Andalusia © Alvaro Medina

Starck’s vision for the building is bold, and both out of this world and out of it. He designed Starck’s LA Almazara as a gigantic three-story brutalist oblong block that towers over the steep mountainside. On one side is a huge bull’s horn element, which is made by specialist submarine makers, and on the other, a large Picasso-style eye billowing smoke. Naturally, a giant olive takes pride of place. Inside the museum includes a surreal mystery tour through a series of large-scale artifacts housed in treasure chests that aim to capture the soul and history of the area. Gustave Doré, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and Rainer Maria Rilke are just some of the many artists and writers who have fallen in love with the drama and charm of Ronda over the centuries.

“There is a portrait of Francisco Romero who supposedly invented the muleta [bullfighting cape] and sword; a wooden model of one of the very first planes built in Malaga; and many more unexpected pieces,” Starck says of the Willy Wonka-style journey into the depths of the factory. “At the center of the building, you’ll face two giant funnels dispensing oil into a long tube that disappears into a clay-lined reservoir.” The finale is a room with two fires where bread is baked, food is cooked and all is served with pitchers of oil. Artistic, gastronomic and cultural activities will be part of the innovative programming.

“Starck’s Almazara is a huge block [2,600sq m and rising to 25m] it’s totally out of scale,” adds Starck, who captured myth and reality from the dramatic region that gave birth to Picasso, bullfighting and olive oil. “But then nothing is average in Andalusia. Ronda spans both sides of a wide canyon. It is also home to one of the oldest bullfighting arenas in Spain, the Plaza de Toros de Ronda.

Pedro Gómez de Baeza and Philippe Starck met during Starck's transformation of a dilapidated old theater into a Teatriz restaurant in Madrid

Pedro Gómez de Baeza and Philippe Starck met during Starck’s transformation of a dilapidated old theater into a Teatriz restaurant in Madrid © Alvaro Medina

The development costs more than 20 million euros, which Gómez de Baeza raises through GBS Investments, a branch of GBS Finance. “Starck’s Almazara is breathtaking and will be an important monument for the region and for Spain,” he says. “I started in the olive oil business as a layman and learned everything from our team on the farm. The growing and harvesting of olives is complicated, complex and depends on the type of olive, the soil, the climate, the age of the tree. All these aspects have an impact on the taste. Then there are decisions about whether to make a mono variety or blend the olives. There is a lot of “magic” in the process, and so many variables. Arbequina, Hojiblanca, Picual, Picudo, Pajarera and Lechina are the main types of olives grown both on the estate and in 56 olive groves in five provinces for the LA Organic range.

With the growth of agricultural tourism, fascination with all forms of nature and agriculture, including olive oil and fishing, is on the rise. The Andalusian cellars are already well established on the circuit of excursions/visits – the Marqués de Riscal estate, whose hotel was designed by Frank Gehry, has set a precedent. LA Almazara by Starck will be a great tribute to Spain with a splendid gift shop. “It’s my job to make people look their best – more passionate, smarter, more sensitive,” Starck concludes. “I want people to go home and say ‘Woah!'”

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