Cristina Grajales Gallery

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.