At Home With
Rafael de Cardenas, Interior Designer

PHOTOS BY MIKE VORRASI

If style is a sore subject for the up-and-coming interior designer Rafael de Cardenas, who bristles at the suggestion that he might have one, a therapist would likely lay the blame on his mother. A Polish-Swiss former fashion PR agent — who with his Cuban father moved the family to New York City when de Cardenas was six — she was constantly redecorating, stripping the house bare every time her tastes changed. “She’s into one thing carried throughout, she can’t mix and match,” says de Cardenas. “So once it’s something new, everything’s gotta go. There was an Armani Casa phase, and now it’s all Native American, with blankets and sand-covered vases from Taos. It scared me away from design to a degree.” After spending most of his childhood wanting to be a doctor, he eventually went to RISD to study fashion and painting, and ended up heading the menswear department at Calvin Klein for three years. But although he admits that interiors were something he never put any thought into back then, design began exerting its slow pull: He went to UCLA’s architecture school — more as a means to eventually stage fashion shows than to build houses  — found a mentor in Greg Lynn, and ultimately set up his own interiors studio in 2006. Which a therapist might also blame on his mother, but in good way.

If de Cardenas is known for a certain aesthetic now, it’s the ’80s vibe he’s employed in his best-known projects: the New York and Miami outposts of Al Moran and Aaron Bondaroff’s OHWOW alternative art spaces, which vibrate with crazy geometries and neon colors, part WWII dazzle painting and part Max Headroom. He had similar inspirations for his Nike Stadium store on the Bowery earlier this year and a pop-up shop currently residing inside Cappellini’s Soho flagship, but it’s not that he’s necessarily obsessed with the style of that era, he argues, like his mom once was with Roche Bobois or Memphis. What underlies his fascination with all the zig-zags and headache-inducing color schemes is his interest in creating spatial disorientation and a feeling of heterotopia, a tactic he’s employed in residential projects that look nothing like OHWOW. “We always say daydreaming, and how do you induce daydreaming,” he says, pointing to a more conservative interior he did for the makeup artist Jeanine Lobell, where subtly clashing patterns on her living room walls and upholstery create their own form of dazzle. “Every single thing in her bedroom is almost the same color, too, even though they’re in different materials,” he notes. “So the disorientation there has to do with being surrounded or enveloped by something, and separated from the outside world.”

At his own place in downtown Manhattan, which Sight Unseen visited back in September, de Cardenas has lined the entryway in diagonal black-and-white stripes. The rest of the interior, though, owes more to his own interests than to his design philosophies — there’s contemporary art all over the place and nostalgic items filched from his mother’s house, but less of the choreography of his interiors for Jessica Stam, say, or the new Ford Models headquarters uptown. We figured it was the perfect opportunity to gain some insight into the personality behind his designs. Here’s the grand tour.

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De Cardenas’s home base is a one-bedroom apartment on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy that he’s lived in for the past four years. The current setup is more a result of accumulation than decoration. It’s filled with artwork he’s bought or traded from friends, objects he inherited from his mother or stalked on eBay, and leftovers from past jobs. “This apartment’s great, I have no reason to leave,” he says. “Except that I hate the neighborhood. During the San Gennaro festival, the stage is right there, with Goumba Johnny DJing from across the street. It’s the worst.”

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Like many of the furniture items in the house, de Cardenas bought his sofa for $100 and had it recovered for free, a perk of consistently sending business to the same upholsterer. “I can’t say I’ve paid for much of anything in here,” he says. The ’80s sculptural piece behind it was something he found at his grandmother’s house, and as for how he keeps all his plants alive with his neverending travel schedule, “I dont know, I guess I just understand them,” he muses.

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A collage de Cardenas bought from a former assistant named Sam Friedman, who’s an artist. “The pebbles part is one of those signs in the window of supermarkets or bodegas that says ‘PEBBLES 79¢,’” he explains. At times it feels like the art in his apartment dictates the design, rather than the other way around. "I have to say, I don’t really spend money on furniture anymore. I just feel like art is more interesting."

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De Cardenas went through a huge ’80s Miami glam phase a few years back, exemplified by pieces like this desk and lamp. “I have loads of it, but I hate a lot of it now because I feel like it’s too metallic,” he says. “This lamp though is the coolest in the world. No one knows what it is — we think someone made it themselves. Because how do you change that bulb? Everything about it is wrong.” Also on the desk are a photograph of mirrored aluminum foil by Anthony Pearson, the influential L.A. social history book City of Quartz, and an LP single by Car Clutch, the band fronted by OHWOW co-founder Aaron Bondaroff.

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Regarding the butterfly: “I curated a show for Greg Lynn in 2003 at the MAK in Vienna,” he says. “We had models of Greg’s alongside decorative objects from the museum’s permanent collection and live animals. There were blue morpha butterflies, a tank of Costa Rican tree frogs, and a tank of cuttlefish, suggesting that Greg’s work was sampling from nature and contextualizing it with both nature and classicism. The butterflies would die because they only live for a day, so the museum put them in these boxes and sold them in the gift shop.”

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Two years ago, de Cardenas developed a concept for a line of painted, shifted-perspective furniture based on similar principles as the WWII dazzle ship painting that’s inspired much of his recent work. “I like spatial distortion,” he says. “So these are a 3-D version of what we often try to do with 2-D patterning. We came up with these forms and then we thought painting them with camouflage was a further way of making them formally illegible.” He made seven prototypes and installed a few of them in clients’ homes, but never got around to turning them into a commercial project. “We don’t have a deadline for it, so as a result it becomes less and less important,” he admits. “If we have paying clients, that takes priority.”

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The purple upholstered chair de Cardenas originally bought on eBay for a client. “I think it looks like a hamburger,” he says. “Or like Chairy from Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s smiling at you.” Behind it is another painting by Sam Friedman, of sailboats, and one of two lamps in the apartment by Eileen Gray.

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A long bookshelf stretched across one wall of the living room reveals de Cardenas’s varied interests: It’s filled with shelter magazines like the now-defunct cult publication Nest, the Domus anthology, old National Geographics, and — spanning the entire middle shelf — a collection of trashy sci-fi novels that once were the designer’s guilty pleasure. “They're the kind of thing I get in airports, because they’re poorly written and easy to read,” he says. “It’s not Ray Bradbury; I buy them for like 99 cents and steal them from bed and breakfasts. They're a form of escapism, but I don’t read them anymore, to be honest, because now I read the New Yorker and the Economist.” Treasures atop the shelf include Massimo Vignelli’s 1971 subway map and a poster from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, which de Cardenas put there for color.

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“The most important thing in my life is this little book,” de Cardenas declares. “It’s a first edition from the 1700s of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and everything I do references it in some way. Unlike Kant who talks about the sublime in abstract terms, Burke, who was a political columnist, wrote about it like an academic. He parses out the things that are sublime — intricacy, a very large or small scale, things that are otherness, things that are indeterminable or unquantifiable — and describes the sublime as this directly affective response to a visual thing, defining the mechanisms that produce and process it.” The Post-It, which de Cardenas found inside the book, says ‘To do list: Emails.’ And the panoramic photo he took at Bryce Canyon in Utah, a good example of the sublime.

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De Cardenas bought these three drawings by the illustrator and artist Grant Shaffer from the downtown dealer Bill Powers, who runs Half Gallery and who was a judge on Bravo’s Work of Art reality show. “Did you see The Gates?” one panel reads. “I heard it was bullshit. I heard it was a bunch of orange bullshit.” Every time he gets a new piece, the art — and sometimes the furniture — often needs to be rearranged. Incoming at the moment are a Rob Pruitt that may go in the bedroom, plus a diptych by photographer Dan Holdsworth shot on the road that Crash was filmed on, part of a show at the Gagosian in London that was themed around the movie. The show’s curator handles Richard Wright for the gallery, and Wright is painting a mural inside one of de Cardenas's current residential projects.

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One of the star furniture items in the apartment is the Vilbert chair Verner Panton designed for Ikea in 1993, which references the geometries de Cardenas plays with in projects like his OHWOW spaces. “That chair is evocative to me,” he says. “It’s four planes that come together in this star configuration, and it’s painfully simple, but it doesn’t look like any other chair I’ve seen before. That’s hard to do. Ryan in my office wanted to take it apart to see how it’s put together, and I was too scared.” De Cardenas hunted for the chairs for awhile, first seeing them in Sweden for 2000 Euros each and eventually purchasing two — complete with Ikea stickers on the bottom — from an eBay dealer for $600 total. He tried to contact Ikea to research the design, but no one he reached at the company seemed to know anything about it. “The chairs were a commercial failure at the time they were made. I have no idea if they’re actually valuable, but I feel like they will be one day.”

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De Cardenas holding up a Murano glass ashtray he originally acquired for a client from the home of Archimede Seguso, the legendary former creative director for Murano.

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De Cardenas’s connections in the art and fashion worlds are thanks in part to his having lived in New York for most of his life, and much of the work in his apartment comes from friends of his, including this mashup of two pages torn from vintage books by Leo Fitzpatrick. “They’re really clever collages,” he says. “I have three.”

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Other items are just strange bits of ephemera with no real provenance, like the aforementioned anonymous Lucite lamp and this box full of newspaper clippings. “When I lived in L.A. I was obsessed with the weather, so I cut the weather out of the newspaper every day,” de Cardenas explains.

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De Cardenas assumes that the lamp in the corner of his bedroom is by the 1950s designer Mathieu Mategot, but he’s not positive. “I can’t find it in any books, but I can’t imagine it’s anyone else,” he says. “The walls are same color I’ve used for a million projects: Mexicali Turquoise by Benjamin Moore. There’s no intellectual consideration behind it, I’m just really into it. But people don’t like turquoise, and I think it’s weird that they don’t; in general for residential projects they never let me use it.” Which isn't to say he doesn't appreciate neutrals: “One of my new obsessions is that I want to buy a house upstate and fill it with old crap that’s brown,” he says.

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When de Cardenas mentions he found this black dresser on the street outside his apartment, my eyes widen, but it turns out that it, too, is the work of his refinisher, who lacquered it for free — a job that would typically cost upwards of $3,000. He might get rid of it soon though: “I need something bigger,” he says. “I have a lot of socks.” Next to the dresser is another street find, a black chair that de Cardenas doctored himself. “At one point I had pink tape on the living room walls, which started peeling so I took it off. I used the extra to wrap the chair. I always do little projects here and there.” The photo hanging on the wall is of an explosion, by Reuben Cox.

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De Cardenas’s work may have an ’80s influence, but his clothes don't — except when it comes to his watches and sunglasses. All of the Swatches in his collection are from the ’80s, but “the grey one second from the right, I had it as a kid, and it’s the only one that’s considered valuable,” he says. “People are like wow, you have that? It was the whole design inspiration for the OHWOW Waverly space.” Some of the sunglasses were originally his father’s: “The one with the green Croakies, and the Ray-Ban aviators with the leather rim. My parents kept plastic sunglasses, like tons of them.”

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“This is my mom’s Gucci watch from the ’80s,” he says. “I was wearing it for awhile, but now it’s broken, and I don’t know what to do with it. I’m obsessed with this watch.”

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Above de Cardenas’s bed is a Czech block set from the ’50s that he bought at the flea market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, then framed. “The blocks on the right came in that box — that’s the cover right next to them — and the other four images are examples of how you could configure them,” he explains. “I had a bigger idea for this. I originally wanted to make these four designs out of the blocks and photograph each one, then put the images underneath the instructions, but it didn’t happen. It was my homage to a client of mine’s parents, who are huge art collectors. They had a console table with Rembrandt prints hung above it, really low, and beneath each was the metal plate it was printed from. This is my version of that.”

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In the corner is another Mategot lamp, hanging above a Memphis light by Ettore Sottsass. “When I bought it five years ago it was cheap, and people were like, 'That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.' They still don’t like it,” he says. “It’s still not that expensive, but Sottsass died, so it’s worth a little bit more. I grew up in a Memphis household — I love it, and I don’t think there’s been enough of it. I’ve never been to someone’s house that had Memphis except for my own.”

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The flattened cube is another optical illusion from de Cardenas’s series of furniture prototypes. It’s meant to hang on the wall, with a plant or other item of interest set into the slim center opening.

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Hanging from the door of the bedroom is a strand of beads made by the Miami artist and fellow RISD grad Jim Drain, who de Cardenas has known since they met in school back in 1994. “We’ve really only been friends for four years, though,” he says. “I found this in his studio and I was like, I’m taking this. He has so much shit like this. He’s awesome.” The pair are currently working on their first project together, the interior of a restaurant set to open in Soho in early 2011. “I don’t have any of his art, interestingly. I have one of his pinwheels, but it’s in storage because I’m not sure what to do with it.” (Sight Unseen recently visited Drain’s studio, too; look for a story here in the coming weeks.)

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At the time of our shoot, the other end of de Cardenas’s living room held a dining table set beneath a giant Ben Jones painting. But the designer has since given the table away to a friend. “I do yoga there now,” he says, admitting that he never entertains in his apartment and has no plans to anytime soon. “I took some red sawhorses my friend Mel got at the flea market and I’ll probably put a black glass top on it. I don’t use tables, but it feels like it’s the right thing to do, right?” The Blu Dot Real Good chairs are one of the only contemporary items of furniture in the entire apartment. “Our interiors do have a contemporary effect, but we actually hardly use any new furniture, it’s all antique. So that says something about the state of design now.”

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This console, from CB2, is the other contemporary item, and de Cardenas is over it. “I’m a single guy in my 30s, and there’s nothing basic about my life,” he says. “I don’t need a basic table. The idea was that if I ever entertained, I could serve buffet style. But then where would I put all that shit?” The shit includes an odd floating clock he found in Miami, a sheep made by Dan Friedman, and an ’80s-style painting by his friend Jed Burke.

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On the wall in the hallway outside his kitchen is the most priceless item in the whole apartment: A professional portrait of de Cardenas as a kid, clutching a Donald Duck doll. “The photographer made me hold that fucking duck,” he says. “He was like, be dramatic, make it an important moment. I hung the photo there because I thought it was cool, but it kind of makes me sad, too. Time goes so fast. My childhood is so gone.”

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Another amazing tableau in the bathroom, where dated Chinatown kitsch (the swans) meets uptown chic (the monogrammed hand towel). As for the animal pictures, “I found them in a flea market,” de Cardenas says. “They’re by Steve — they’re signed ‘Steve.’ They’re angry mice. Or I guess one’s a bear.”

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When we visited, a set of mugs by the Japanese designer Arata Isozaki were hanging out in the kitchen dish drainer. “He designed the downtown MoCA in 1982, the original one, a pretty awesome building,” de Cardenas says. “It’s so funky, so weird. He’s kind of the Japanese Memphis guy. I got the mugs on eBay. I don’t shop on eBay so much anymore, though, partly because I feel like its all tapped out. All the good shit’s gone. It’s on 1stdibs or something.”