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.

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.