Designer Interview

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It Starts With Fantasy

By Shelley M. Black

“Design can only take you so far…It’s your job hf-rafael1 to do the rest,” says award-winning designer Rafael de Cárdenas from his NYC studio, where he’s cooking up another top-secret reveal for an international brand. Here’s what he had to say about his recent accolades, and the unexpected twists and turns his successful career has taken over the past few decades.

Q) We heard recently that Maison & Objet Americas has named  you as its “2016 Designer of the Year.” That must be quite an honour.

Rafael: Any sort of recognition is incredibly humbling and always a pleasant surprise to me. That said, I greatly appreciate the generosity of the M&O committee. More than anything, it seems to be a vote of confidence in the hard work we’ve done and that seems to be paying off. It’s a great motivator!

Q) You have travelled a circuitous route. First you studied fashion design and painting at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). Then you worked for Calvin Klein as a men’s collection designer and as a creative director for the special effects production house Imaginary Forces, before receiving your Master of Architecture degree from UCLA. How do your previous incarnations and learnings affect your practice today?

Rafael: Past experience in fashion—specifically the design of menswear, and the vision and experiential style that I cultivated along the way in the other disciplines—has definitely influenced “the mix” of what we do.

hf-rafael4The way I tend to look at things now percolates into my studio’s ability to take on such a variety of projects. Certainly, some of the work we do on temporary installations, such as pop-up shops and custom parties, allows us to be more facile and in-touch with an assignment’s intricate details. We also have an innate ability as a team to turn things around quickly and create special effects that support and drive the mood of a space or an event.

Q) Is it fair to assume that the eye-popping look you’re known for has been influenced by your fashion sensibilities?

Rafael: The idea of dressing is key to the way space is approached. Everything is “dressed” in one way or another.

Q) Did it really all start in 2006 with a tiny office in New York’s Chinatown?

Rafael: Well, my first independent project, the Pharma Spa Store, was completed in 2003 and it sort of took off from there. The year 2006 was the point at which I had multiple projects, retail, residential and hospitality, to justify the founding of the studio. The studio was officially launched in 2006 in Chinatown in a co-op type of space shared with friends who were also launching creative businesses.

Now my practice has grown to having studios in both New York and London. But Paris has always been my second home. I’ve been looking west to LA lately, as boring as that may sound, so we’ll see what happens next.

Q) Your design firm is called Architecture at Large. How did that come to be?

Rafael: “Architecture at Large” implies a consideration of architecture and design without a specific platform for execution. The “Architect at Large” seeks to maintain relevancy and innovation via a constant and evolving eye on culture and society.

Q) Let’s talk about the skill set within your group. Some members have quite unusual backgrounds. Can you explain?

Rafael: Architecture at Large’s in-house team and our collaboratorshf-rafael2 are quite seasoned and talented in a variety of areas. There’s an amazing collection of “different” resumes—fashion designers, dancers, recognized artists, skilled artisans, fabricators and master craftsmen—which makes our approach unique. There has even been a research scientist!

Q) Major brands such as Nike, Kartell, Baccarat and Cappelli have hired you. Rumour has it you’re quite adventurous and it takes a leap of faith to put you “on the job,” so to speak. Tell us about your approach to a new project.

Rafael: The process, or a lack of a definitive one, is typical to the way I start a project. I build on fantasy. Our clients are quite diverse. I can’t say my design concerns have ever been particularly commercial. However, I try to do the best work possible for myself and for my clients when that is a factor. I’m interested in trying new things as often as possible. But I’m interested in looking to new territory (for myself primarily) and that will also hopefully attract like-minded people.

Q) Who’s your muse and where do you look for inspiration?

Rafael: I often reference films (ones from the ’80s, yes!), usually something I happened to have seen the night before…right now I’m going through a Gena Rowlands run. But films successfully create atmospheric effects. We similarly try to script the way someone might walk through and experience a space. We try to script spaces and frame views and lighting in order to more closely hone moodiness. I don’t think that we are necessarily striving for any specific mood (e.g. joy, sadness). Often, suggesting a contemplative atmosphere is difficult enough. The specificity of joy, for example, might come with whatever is happening in the space…Design takes you so far, and then it’s your job to do the rest.

hf-rafael5Q) What’s been on your mind lately?

Rafael: We’re currently working on projects all over the world, from a store façade in Seoul to a house in the English countryside. We also just kicked off a multi-unit residential project in Coconut Grove, Florida. It’s a great project. The scale of the project and the bohemian legacy of the neighbourhood are a nice change of pace from the typical developments in Miami.

Q) What do your dreams look like, and what’s on your bucket list?

Rafael: I’d say that I’m living out my dreams on a daily basis. I feel quite lucky being able to do what I do and have the support for it. I actually have a lengthy to-do list—too long, and perhaps a bit too private, to share.

Q) What do you value most in your own home?

Rafael: My windows. They frame my beautiful view of this city, which still inspires.

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Shelley Black’s career has spanned a unique range of editorial and corporate roles with Flare, Maclean’s and BMO Financial Group. She enjoys writing about all forms of design, travel and food.