Profile: Rafael de Cárdenas on designing spaces
Aug 23, 2017
Architect and designer Rafael de Cárdenas is a master of colour and geometry in his projects. He covered the walls of Delfina Delettrez’s London boutique with incandescent, ultra-green malachite, and revealed hand-painted frescoes of birds at the Ford Models' New York office penthouse. It is this element of surprise and curiosity that has made him a particularly interesting choice for fashion and hospitality clients, and commissions from big hitters such as Nike and Cartier have kept him and his team busy since the foundation of his studio, Architecture at Large, eleven years ago.

Bringing in cinematic references and citing 1980s nightclub culture as a point of inspiration for his work, de Cárdenas takes an expressive approach to design. This makes sense, as he had stints working in fashion before taking up architectural studies at Columbia University and UCLA. His has been an especially unconventional career path, but one that has worked nonetheless. Undaunted by the scale of specific projects, or their longevity – he often works with impressive, albeit temporary installations – de Cárdenas produces interiors that are polished and glamorous, yet possess depth and a profound understanding of the harmony between different materials, textures, forms and colours. Here, de Cárdenas talks about how a bygone New York has impacted his approach to spaces, and why looking at the past is so important for predicting the future of design.

Alex Tieghi-Walker: Do you think an architect ought to make things that might be unseen, more visible through their work?

Rafael de Cárdenas: I think architecture and space are both experienced more in a state of distraction. When you look at a piece of art, like a painting or a film, you’re studying it, paying attention and contemplating it. Architecture is more like the radio, in that it’s always there and you tune in to specific moments.

ATW: How do you think people’s perceptions of the world are affected by experiencing your work?

RdC: When I engender a particular mood or feeling in a work, I leave it to the viewer to take what they want from that and translate it in their own way. I might suggest a feeling, but the inhabitant or occupier will complete the sentence.

ATW: You engage a complex use of colour in your designs. Can you say a bit about that?

RdC: The choice to use warm or cool colours creates different associations. Specifically, the combinations of colours I use, or the way in which I use them, can affect inhabitants or viewers differently.

ATW: The use of contrast, for example?

RdC: The eye receives high contrast in a different way than simply looking at similar tones; it creates a jarring effect – in a positive way – a sort of optical buzz. Contrast is effective in envelopment and immersion, which are useful tools to make people consider a space in new ways. Of course, not all my works employs these mechanisms. My projects that make use of the beige spectrum, for example, can have just as much impact, using softer, more whispered details to create a story.

ATW: It’s important that the story of the brand you’re working with also comes through.

RdC: Right. Though we try to avoid any overt or obvious motifs that are already part of the brand codes. We may use them to generate design language, but generally the goal is to make the space feel like the brand as opposed to look like the brand.

ATW: So for instance your use of crystal-cutting patterns in French crystal maker Baccarat's New York store?

RdC: Baccarat is distinguished from other crystal brands for its legendary ability in the precise cutting of crystal. We decided to express this precision across the various materials and joinery in the space. The main entryway is lined with walnut cut and joined panelling in a saw-tooth configuration, expanding on Baccarat’s iconic cutting. The overall effect is contemporary, but using the codes of precise craftsmanship.

""Generally the goal is to make the space feel like the brand as opposed to look like the brand.""

ATW: What does New York mean to you?

RdC: Most of my inspiration comes from living in New York. That said, my work reflects a heavily romanticised version of the city, which I have developed over the 30-odd years I’ve been living here. I’m nostalgic for a New York that perhaps existed fleetingly in the 1980s or 1990s – this city trod a delicate tightrope between a very tough, gritty reality and flashes – bursts – of high cultural output and impact. Overall, my way of reaching visual and aesthetic targets is looking to the things that I thought were avant-garde when I was younger, and giving them another chance.

ATW: It’s also interesting to see how other cities are developing.

RdC: I’m currently in São Paulo, which is a city that resonates a sort of latent kinetic energy. There’s always something going on, or something about to happen – a certain promise of that lost New York still very much exists here. 

ATW: Are you trying to predict the future by looking to the past?

RdC: Completely. There’s something Möbius strip-like and romantic about that. I’m interested in the idea of endlessness, or looking at the past to diagnose the future. I collect Details from the mid-1980s, and writers like Stephen Saben and Michael Musto would frequent the legendary nightclubs of New York around that time – Area, Limelight, Studio 54 – and review them for the magazine. The world that they capture in those essays has been a huge inspiration to me. 

ATW: There was a great deal of fluidity between different pop culture disciplines at that time – clubbing, fashion, music…

RdC: Divine, the muse of cult film director John Waters, released several hits with Bobby Orlando around then, before Bobby O headed off to work with the Pet Shop Boys, and these videos have given me enough inspiration to last a couple of years. They’re very important elements in my visual archive. In terms of fashion, Versace during the Miami years certainly impacted my aesthetics, though my preference for beige definitely comes from Armani. Elsewhere, the vernacular created by Lina Bo Bardi and Paulo Mendes da Rocha – both significant influences on the urban landscape of São Paulo –represent something I try to reach with my work. They were problem solvers, but they were also very delicate with their designs. It’s the philosophies rather than the practice of architecture that attracted me first, I like the thinking behind it. My early projects were my apartment, or houses that belonged to friends, where I could create my vision of architecture through individual spaces or rooms.

ATW: What kind of projects did you do at that time?

RdC: I created a clandestine nightclub in a bakery building in Manhattan with Aaron Bondaroff – who went on to part-found skate label Supreme – and so many smaller pop-up shops, all tied to New York and working with friends or people doing interesting things. It was these smaller projects that allowed me to even start considering opening my own practice. It was important to see how people behaved in these spaces, which has greatly affected how I design now. 

ATW: As a designer, do you see yourself as a scribe for a brand or a person to express themselves through space?

RdC: I try to reference the identity of a client as much as possible, but looking more at the authentic elements that define their brand or personality. My process with clients involves a lot less involvement than you would think - there needs to be an element of magic or surprise when unveiling the space to someone.