Rafael de Cardenas

Luxury Home Quarterly

Susan Lahey

At 36 and slim, with killer credentials, handsome Rafael de Cárdenas has every opportunity to be pretentious and snooty.
But he’s not.

Nor does he project false modesty. He is listed among Elle Décor’s top five “designers to watch” and dubbed by the New York Times as “the hippest thing going in interior design.” And he is quick to explain that as a designer and architect, rather than a decorator, “my role is to give clients something far greater than they could have done on their own.”

De Cárdenas just seems a lot more interested in the process of design than in being a celebrity designer.

De Cárdenas is a trawler. While he has a “bag of tricks,” skills, tools, and insights he has accumulated over the years, he also scours books, movies, history, conversations, and experiences for inspiration.

“I usually need to react to something, whether visual or conceptual,” he says.

Since he learned about the razzle-dazzle patterns used by British war ships to confound German U2 submarines in World War II, he has used the idea repeatedly. He once told a writer friend who profiled him in Sight Unseen Magazine that everything he does references Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

When he designed model Jessica Stam’s apartment that appeared in Elle Décor, he had just seen The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The movie unfolds in one room that perpetually changes. Stam’s one-bedroom apartment struck de Cárdenas as a parallel. “It was like a backdrop where she could unlimitedly move things around,” he said. “It was a room that could be joyful and tragic…like in the movie, there is this one space that enhances every emotion. When she’s happy, she’s happiest in this room.” The result was an elegant Hollywood-circa-1935 room of dusky purples, golds, and silver.

“I could have seen Muppets Take Manhattan that night,” he mused. “Maybe it was lucky for her 
that I didn’t.”
De Cárdenas started his career as a clothing designer for Calvin Klein after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. But in 1999, he started working on his master’s in architecture at Columbia University. He transferred to UCLA, where he completed the master’s in 2002. Three years later, he opened his own firm, Architecture at Large, and has done interiors for businesses and private residences in cities including London, Rome, Athens, New York, and Miami.
In May 2011, he debuted his first furniture collection at New York City’s Johnson Trading Gallery.

He is constantly challenging himself to grow and does the same for his clients. A consummate mixer of styles, de Cárdenas will combine a Venetian gilt seashell chair with a hairy white rug in a room painted in pale empire hues; or juxtapose space-age dining chairs that resemble invisible men in yellow vests against vintage yellow-iris wallpaper. He’s fond of fuchsia. He’s not creating a nice room, he’s creating an experience and he is fine knowing that the experience may be a little jarring at first.

“Sometimes,” he says, “liking things isn’t important. The first time I tasted mushrooms, I didn’t like them. The first time I had wine, I didn’t like it. Now I love it. Sometimes things need time to grow on you.”

“The demographic of my clients is that they are personalities,” he says. “They have an identity, and they are often creative people themselves. I want them to be pleased and I want to stretch their imaginations a little bit.”

He’s big on stretching. His own apartment has been sorely neglected while he is busy designing others’ and is mostly a repository for the art, books and artifacts—purchased, traded for, and hauled off the street—that he constantly moves around. But now it’s all about to change, because he’s planning to get a new sofa. An armless sofa. And he knows a new sofa is the slippery slope to changing everything.

“An armless sofa,” he said, “that’s a new territory. There’s a little bit of a learning curve. What is the good and the bad of an armless sofa?”

With his living room, as with any living room, he believes its purpose should be “to put you in a good mood every time you walk into it. If you had a bad day and lots of things were going wrong, you would feel better just walking into this room.”
So again, it’s about creating an experience.

“I like space,” he says “the way space works in relation to how it affects people. Whatever I design, I just hope it feels exciting and suggests something more to come.”


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