The Back Room
Cristina Grajales Gallery

PHOTOS BY MIKE VORRASI

At the Armory Show this past November, Cristina Grajales had an original Jean Royère Polar Bear sofa in her booth, which sold for “half a million in minutes,” she recalls. Grajales has had plenty of experience dealing in 20th-century masterpieces like these — both in her decade-long stint directing 1950 for Delorenzo and at the helm of her 12-year-old eponymous gallery in Soho — and yet her own most cherished piece isn’t some icon of modernism at all. It’s not even a design object, but a 19th-century Naga warrior costume she bought at the Tribal Art Fair, and as a mainstay of the large office and presentation room she keeps behind her gallery, only her clients and artists ever get to see it. Of course it’s they, if any, who understand Grajales’s working methods best; they come to her precisely because she looks at objects “as sculptures, for what they are,” and says she’s “not afraid to put together, say, an 18th-century Portuguese table with a contemporary silver tray.” Which is why we figured a privileged peek inside her back room, captured earlier this year by our trusty photographer Mike Vorrasi, might be the ideal way for our readers to get to know her, too.

A quick background check is also key, since like so many latent creatives, finding her true calling turned out to be a full-circle affair. “My mother was always doing things we used to laugh about, like commissioning artists to paint murals in our house, or taking a tree trunk that fell down and carving it into a bench. I thought she was being crazy,” recalls Grajales, who grew up in Colombia in the ’60s, studied communications in Maine, and went on to work in advertising. After she took a job on a whim at a New York gallery, though, inadvertently joining the nascent design-dealing scene of the late ’80s, she was quickly confronted with the folly of her youth: “The first time I walked into a design store and saw the rough wood benches and all these things I’d grown up with, it hit me how talented and brilliant my mother was, and how much she actually influenced me.” These days, Grajales is one of the foremost champions for the kind of craft-based, time-intensive design her mother once espoused, whether it be George Nakashima or textile icon Shiela Hicks or New York newcomer Sebastian Errazuriz, who once made a sprawling desk out of — you guessed it — a felled tree. It’s the thread that ties her pieces together, regardless of period or provenance. Check out the slideshow at right to see what we mean.

 

newopenerCJ

Grajales in the back office of her eponymous Soho design gallery, surrounded by her favorite personal pieces. While she did collect a few works by local artists growing up, she didn’t get into the design business until the ’80s, when a friend got her a job at a gallery run by two fellow Colombians. She moved on to run 1950 for Delorenzo for a decade before a fateful job putting together a collection for a California vintner inspired her to start her own gallery in 2000. “I always say she discovered me,” Grajales says of that client. “She knew I had very different taste — that's why she hired me — and she allowed me to buy from the 18th century all the way through the 20th.”

_MG_8131_sm

“When I started working at 1950, I started buying myself Prouvés and other pieces,” she says. “Now I buy what I love.” Her favorite piece isn’t a modernist icon at all, but a museum-quality 19th-century Naga costume made from boar’s hair. “I bought it at the tribal fair at the Armory; I had never seen anything quite like it. It’s extraordinary because it’s not often you find the hat and the sheild together.” Other favorites include a Chinese wall relief from the 18th century, a Nigerian tribal tunic filled with amulets, and a small Chinese rosewood box she scored at Christie’s. “I got very lucky because the day of the auction was very rainy, thank god.”

_MG_7925_sm

Against the room’s red wall is a montage that includes two Missoni vases atop a red Ikea locker cabinet, plus a bulbous ceramic chair by Satyendra Pakhale. Above it is a photograph of two people at an exhibition of Ayala Sarfaty, the whimsical Israeli furniture designer Grajales represents; when I looked closer during my visit I realized one of the women in the picture just so happens to be Yael Mer from Raw Edges.

_MG_8147_CROP_sm

The painting in the middle is a 1963 work by Jay Milder, “from his subway series,” says Grajales. But among her most exciting treasures, in my estimation, is the more unassuming piece in the upper right corner, an image of a grassy rift: It’s a single-print photograph by Olafur Eliasson, taken in Iceland. And then there’s the C-shaped collage below it which, like so many of the objects back here, is more about sentimental value: “A daughter of a friend of mine made it for me from found objects,” she says.

_MG_8123_sm_NEW1

The back office’s showpiece is the large plywood-covered wall pictured here, which Grajales put up a decade ago when she first moved in, and which forms the backdrop for the bulk of her art collection — from the Nan Golden photo in the center to works by Ross Bleckner, Pierre Molinier, and Tom Sachs. “It’s a funny story,” she says. “I wanted to use the cheapest wood I could find, but the lumber guy sent me beautiful plywood sheets, to do something nice for me. I returned them and said I don’t want your perfect plywood! I wanted the ones with character. I wanted to see the knots, and the grain of the wood.”

_MG_7882_sm

She bookended the wall in strips of original, hand-painted Leleu wallpaper from the ’20s, which she’d acquired while working at Delorenzo. The dollhouse was a MoMA item released in the early 2000s, which Grajales says is now extremely collectible. “On top is an Aleiutian sculpture from the 19th century that depicts hunters in a boat,” she notes. “Unfortuantely it’s falling apart because it’s made of walrus skin.”

_MG_8022_sm

Many of the artworks hanging on the wall, in fact, were gifts. “The most personal is my photograph of myself dressed as a man, taken by Michael O’Brien in 1992,” Grajales says. “It’s included in his book about drag, and it’s been exhibited around the world.”

_MG_8027_sm_NEW

A better view of the Nan Goldin photo, in the upper left corner, with a Mario Testino shot of Nadja Auermann hanging directly to its right.

_MG_8010_sm_NEW

Another gift: the red fan propped up in the window behind Grajales’s desk, which the famed textile designer (and gallery staple) Sheila Hicks brought back from Japan for her for good luck. “All these little things, they mean something, you know?” says Grajales. The rocks that surround it are also talismans, in a way. “I have my little rocks that I found in Colombia when Jorge, the owner of Hechizoo, took me on a trip to Santander, where he buys his raw materials. They’re also famous for their fossils, because the climate is so dry, and I had to bring some back with me. All these weird things I like; I’m weird,” she laughs.

_MG_7920_sm

Three little metal heads by artist Gabriel Silva Rubio.

_MG_7987_sm

“One of the things that’s most beautiful about my office is this: the shutters,” says Grajales. “These are original, and they’re disappearing. A dear friend of mine is the sister-in-law of Tom Waits, and when Tom came to visit me, he was standing here just saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ It’s a rare image of New York that doesn’t exist anymore. I look back and I have this moment of New York history right in front of me. I have them on my side, too.”

_MG_7990_sm

Grajales holding up a piece of African currency from the early 20th century. “This is very rare, because sometimes when you look at African money, it has an image on it, but this one is just a bunch of copper wires. Imagine that! The fact that copper wires could be so valuable. I had to buy it.”

_MG_7978_sm

Grajales points out the small wooden table tucked away in the corner that holds her Naga sculpture. “It’s by the famous Adirondack furniture-maker Barney Bellinger,” she says. “He also became a great painter, and this is the first furniture piece that he not only made, but also painted. I introduced him to the work of Nakashima, so for the first time on this table, he did a little bit of a free edge. It’s a very important little table, actually a museum piece. I bought it from him a long time ago, but now it’s worth god only knows. The Adirondack and the Naga sculpture look really good together.”

_MG_8154_sm

Grajales showed us her collection of pens, but we liked this little blue ink bottle, sitting atop an invitation for the Damien Hirst opening that was happening that night at Gagosian.

_MG_7942_sm

Her biggest collection, though, is the one sitting on her antique bookshelves — scores of auction catalogs and rare design books, which are probably the main element of the back office. Standing in front of them is a wooden chair by Pedro Barrail that’s been “tattooed” by a remote Amazonian tribe calling itself “the guards of the center of the world.” A British artist named Susie MacMurray made the balloon weaving: “From what I understand she was a musician before, and you see that repetition, that rhythm, in the piece,” says Grajales.

_MG_8032_sm_NEW

Another chair, this one glass-backed and designed by the Chilean-born, New York–based designer/provocateur Sebastian Errazuriz. He’s been one of Grajales’s flagship designers for several years now. “It’s very emotional, who to take on,” she explains of her curation process. “I was recommended to Sebastian, and when he first came to show me his work, it felt a little too clever for me, a little too whimsical. But then when I saw an image of the Piano Shelf, I knew I was dead meat. I hadn’t seen a more challenging, intelligent shelving system in a long time. After just seeing a Polaroid, I said that’s it, we’re going to Basel — I only saw it for the first time once we arrived. It was incredible; people were lined up to see it, and they were crazy about it. Even the installers were taking pictures in front of that bookcase.”

_MG_8042_sm

One of the first thing anyone sees when they walk into the back room of the gallery are these two totems — the one on the left by Paul Evans, a signed and dated single commission from 1972, and the one on the right by Alexandre Noll, from 1945. The building has a freight elevator, thankfully, though when I joke about it, gallery manager Lindsay Johnson pipes up that “we do have some interesting adventures on the stairs with things that don’t fit inside it.”

_MG_8082_sm

This constructivist looking graphic was a gift from the Chinese artist David Diao, but the 10-foot metal gate whose corner is captured beside it is rather interesting: Grajales found it in the basement. “It’s original to the building, so I took it upstairs and put it up,” she says. “We had a client in Seattle who wanted to buy it from us, and I was like ‘No, I can’t sell my gate!’ It belongs to this building. I think a lot of these cast-iron buildings were done by John Butler Snook. If you walk around Soho you notice a lot of them have this kind of gate in the front. When I saw it in the basement I thought, that will create a nice little divider. It really works.”

_MG_8013_sm

In addition to weaving icon Sheila Hicks (whose pieces were all out at exhibitions the day we visited), the gallery also works with artist and textile designer Suzanne Tick; this was the first piece she ever sent Grajales, to entice her into a studio visit (it worked). Grajales has a particular soft spot for the genre, anyway. “Textiles have always been a big passion in my life,” she says. “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for other people to see the beauty behind textiles. We’ve been successful so far in showing their relevance, but it’s not easy. We love the complexity, though, and the historial aspect, that’s why we keep working with them.”

_MG_8111_sm

One distinct arm of the business, actually, is devoted to representing the Colombian custom-textile brand Hechizoo. It’s known for its hybrid materials, made from indigenous natural fibres woven through with nylon or metal, like the metallic ombre swatch Grajales holds up here. One of the back room’s most important functions is as a presentation space, particularly when it comes to the Hechizoo sample library.

_MG_7892_sm

Large, handmade ceramic bullets by James Salaiz, introduced last October at the gallery’s Armory booth. Elias is one of the newest members of Grajales’s stable. “James was recommended to us by Paul Morris, head of the Armory show,” she says. “We were in London and he was doing a show at Dover Street Market; I was told to go see it, that I would fall madly in love with his ceramics, and that’s exactly what happened.”

_MG_7867_sm

Last but not least, Grajales’s favorite office staple — her dog Billy, who has free reign of the room and makes almost as big an impression as the treasures it holds. Should you find yourself back there someday soon, give him some love for us.