Rafael de Cárdenas is a busy man. The other day, when I rang him at his New York office, our call (rescheduled from the previous week) needed to be cut from thirty minutes to fifteen. Because this was the third time I’ve interviewed him, I know to take his charming-yet-erratic disposition as less personal and more par for the course. De Cárdenas, a native New Yorker who studied fashion at the Rhode Island School of Design before his stint as a menswear designer at Calvin Klein, founded his firm Rafael de Cárdenas/Architecture at Large in 2006, and has since completed more than 100 projects that range from museum installations to house extensions to Glossier’s SoHo headquarters. If there’s a de Cárdenas signature, it’s not an aesthetic but a style: one that manages to deliver exactly what a client wants while referencing some out-there cult classic.
If anyone knows what the role architecture and design plays in retail today, it’s him. I wondered how de Cárdenas maintains his authenticity while working for increasingly sizable commercial clients, and how he convinces big brands to break the rules. Turns out it’s a learning process, and to him, he’s nowhere near done yet.
I couldn’t find a lot about your upbringing, except that it was in New York and you were really invested in the downtown scene. Tell me about your childhood—was there a particular experience, or person, who got you turned on to art and design?
I don’t know if there’s a specific person, but there’s the Philippe Starck juicer. Actually, I’d say Philippe Starck in general. I remember when his boutique hotels opened in New York when I was a kid, and reading about them in, like, Metropolis, and in Gotham magazine—Gotham magazine!—and thinking they were so awesome. I didn’t know of anything that looked like that.
You founded your firm in 2006. What were your goals when you started out, and how do they measure up with what you’ve accomplished so far?
I quit my job in 2006 to do a couple of projects on my own, and figured I’d look for a job again after that. I didn’t think it would become a career. I never thought I’d have my own business.
I don’t have a big business plan or anything, and certainly if I did, I’d hope [that business plan] would be better than what [running a business] actually feels like! But I think my [practice] exceeded my expectations. I didn’t envision this. In that, I am acknowledging that we have done quite a bit: we’ve done more than 100 projects in 13 years. But it also does not feel like I am done. There’s an evolution that’s taken place, and takes place in almost every project, every client. The client has changed, too.
It seems hard to do what you do, especially as you work for bigger clients, because there are so many people you have to please. Which is why so many things, in many creative industries, play it safe and look the same. I read an interview where you described your approach as “pleasing a lot of people while referencing the film ‘Paris is Burning.’” How do you achieve that?
I believe in doing the best and most appropriate thing for the client and for the budget. Obviously for residential work there’s a bit more wiggle room, but for commercial projects, my aim is to do what is best for the project. That may not be my style or what I would want for myself, but I’m not the client.
But you still have to put your name on it. Don’t you have to stand behind everything you do?
I’m not going to lie: there are projects we’ve done that you’ve never heard of. And there are others that I am not one hundred percent happy with, but I always learn from them. They brought me here. I think we are authentic in the sense that, if someone asks for something that’s overtly commercial, and we think it’s a little hokey, we’ll tell them, and show them how to make it a little more aspirational.
Right. A lot of your references are from pop culture.
I’m not only interested in pop culture. I’m interested in all culture. Pop [culture] is just more niche than ever. It’s pretty elevated now, right? I don’t watch TV for the Kardashians, but I am keeping up with the Kardashians. I think we are living in the golden age of TV. I’m happy to say there is a golden age of anything right now, in all this craziness.
You’ve told me before that you don’t look at work by other designers, and that your influences primarily come from film, fashion, tv, music, and art. Is that because you want to keep your vision pure, or because you really aren’t interested in what other people are doing?
I don’t think that’s how I put it. I think what I said was that as a practice, I am interested in the effects of design, its atmospheric effects. I happen to be an architect focused on interior design, which I think is a very specific thing. The things that interest me are rarely other designers.
Well, that’s not totally true. There’s probably three or four [design] books in heavy rotation in the studio. And just this morning, I was populating a mood board with images for a project, and, you know the spam you get every day in your inbox, about exhibition openings and news? I put together 20 images from all those emails for the [mood board.] I am very quick to make connections and references. We always begin with references, then kind of take the next leap.
Storytelling is a word I kept running into when I read about your work and approach—that it’s about storytelling, and human behavior, and not necessarily about architecture or design. Talk about the importance of storytelling in your work and how it plays out in a project.
I’m interested in interior design as a discourse of behavior management. That’s basically what it is: it’s a script that tells people to do something, what to focus on, what to feel, what happens where.
You’ve “scripted” spaces for Baccarat, Nike, Kenzo, and the design gallery Demisch Danant, among many others. How do you think the role of architecture and interior design in retail has changed?
I think it’s changed because a lot of brands have taken interior design in-house. We work with a lot of those brands on ideation, and it’s interesting because they work within these strict parameters of what they can and cannot do. So every once in a while they need to hire someone to make sure they’re breaking the rules.
What’s your take on the contemporary design world today?
I don’t think I’m an authority on the matter. I don’t care about the design world per se. But I do care about contemporaneity a great deal. I have always thought there are plenty of people who work on the timeless and I am less interested in that; it seems like a very difficult thing to diagnose. So I would rather focus on the contemporary and stay a couple of steps ahead—even if that’s at the risk of being a total embarrassment in a decade.
Rafael de Cardenas is a judge for the 2019 GRAY Awards. To get your tickets to the event, taking place on November 20 at Seattle’s Nordic Museum, visit grayawards.com. To enter your project before the August 16 deadline, and learn about entry categories, go to grayawards.com/submit.