The tastemaker: Rafael de Cárdenas

The New York designer discusses his favourite pieces from The Collector  sales of European furniture, sculpture, works of art, silver, ceramics, carpets and more on 10 April, and offers his take on how to weave centuries-old objets into a modern interior

‘In our own work, where we do use a lot of historical objects, the aim is always to bring everything into a contemporary context,’ says architect and interior designer Rafael de Cárdenas. Putting together a number of vignettes using pieces from The Collector, a series of sales taking place in April in New York, his aim, he says, is ‘to suggest that these things can be readily used, and not necessarily cordoned off like they would be in a museum.’

Having graduated in fashion from the Rhode Island School of Design, de Cárdenas worked as a designer for Calvin Klein and in special effects before studying architecture at UCLA under Greg Lynn.

After returning to his native New York, de Cárdenas founded Architecture at Large, a full-service design practice, in 2006. The firm has subsequently completed some 100 projects, from museum installations to residential and retail spaces — the latter including high-profile commissions from Baccarat, the New York restaurant Asia de Cuba and Au Pont Rouge, one of Russia’s first department stores.

His work, which also includes furniture design, has a highly graphic and sculptural quality, and is influenced by everything from 17th-century literature to movies from the 1980s. We caught up with de Cárdenas as he was ‘teasing out the lighting’ for his Christie’s vignettes of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century European decorative arts.

What pieces from The Collector  sales immediately struck you, and why?

Rafael de Cárdenas: ‘The lots that particularly attracted me tended to be the smaller, more Mannerist pieces that had a bit more romance to them.

‘My favourite piece is the [Luigi Cervone parcel-gilt silver model of a] centaur with a gilt cherub on its back. The whole thing is pretty Rococo, yet it feels oddly contemporary. I immediately liked it.

‘The cameo glass vase by Thomas Webb was another instant favourite. Its colour, the way that it has been worked, is really beautiful.’

What advice do you have for the neophyte collector?

RDC: ‘I think that when you’re starting out, you should just collect everything you want. If you’re genuinely authentic and your tastes are real, themes will naturally emerge because you’re going to organically gravitate toward certain things. Then you’ll begin to see the patterns.’

How would you advise presenting 17th- to 19th-century objects in contemporary settings?

RDC: ‘I think it’s nice to have historical things in a contemporary environment, or vice versa; I’m not a designer who recreates period rooms. I don’t know how to do that and I’m not interested in doing that. But contemporaneity can come in many different forms. Something that’s 300 years old might feel very appropriate now, which is a concept I find very interesting.

‘When working with 17th- to 19th-century pieces, balance is key. I’m not big on tchotchkes; I like surfaces to be pretty minimal. Isolating period objects and letting them have breathing room, interacting with the space as opposed to putting it with like things, helps make an older object feel more contemporary.

A late Louis XVI ormolu-mounted mahogany bureau plat, by Guillaume Benneman, late 18thearly 19th century, the putto uprights possibly modelled by Louis-Simon Boizot, cast by Etienne-Jean or Pierre-Auguste Forestier and chased by Pierre-Philipe Thomire, probably converted from a cylinder bureau. 30½  in (77.5  cm) high; 73¾  in (192.5  cm) wide; 40  in (101.5  cm) deep. Estimate

A late Louis XVI ormolu-mounted mahogany bureau plat, by Guillaume Benneman, late 18th/early 19th century, the putto uprights possibly modelled by Louis-Simon Boizot, cast by Etienne-Jean or Pierre-Auguste Forestier and chased by Pierre-Philipe Thomire, probably converted from a cylinder bureau. 30½ in (77.5 cm) high; 73¾ in (192.5 cm) wide; 40 in (101.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $50,000-100,000. This lot is offered in The Collector: English & European Furniture, Fine Art, Ceramics & Silver on 10 April 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘When you group together pieces from a certain time you risk creating a space that feels “themed”. Even if you’re collecting mid-century modern, if that’s all you have your space will just wind up looking like Charles Eames’s house. It’s about how you juxtapose things. Take the Louis XVI ormolu-mounted mahogany bureau [offered in The Collector  sales], for example, which has such incredible depth. I would probably put a Shiro Kuramata chair with it to add a stark contrast, so you notice it right away.’

Do you think people are intimidated by the idea of acquiring 17th- to 19th-century pieces?

RDC: ‘Interestingly, those pieces are actually incredibly inexpensive compared to contemporary pieces. Perhaps there may be some concern as to whether they would be too fragile, or harder to preserve. But I think these objects are becoming current again, though even now not enough people are looking in that direction. That’s what made the chance to explore The Collector  sales such an intriguing opportunity.’

What new projects do you have in the pipeline?

RDC: ‘With my company, Architecture at Large, I am working on a yacht, which is particularly exciting. Most of the freestanding furniture is vintage, but it feels very contemporary. I’m also designing a few residential projects — one in the Pacific Northwest and another in Paris — and working on several retail projects, all while advising and aiding clients in curating their art collections. There’s lots going on, always.’