August 22 2014

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Rafael de Cardenas Won’t Reveal His Secret Wallpaper Source


You may not know the name Rafael de Cárdenas, but if you’ve visited Miami lately, chances are you’ve seen his handiwork. (Or if you’re model-obsessed and pored over the gorgeous spreads of Jessica Stam’s apartment in the October issue of Elle Decor.) De Cárdenas is the architect behind new exhibition space O.H.W.O.W. (short for Our House West of Wynwood). Conceived by Aaron Bondaroff and Miami collector Al Moran, O.H.W.O.W. put itself on the Miami Art Basel flock’s map of must-sees when it played host to It Ain’t Fair, a group show staged by Bondaroff in conjunction with Deitch Projects’ Kathy Grayson and Nicola Vassell, Javier Peres, Terence Koh, and a handful of other art world nabobs. But even Miami locals who wouldn’t know a Dearraindrop from a Dash Snow have taken note of O.H.W.O.W., thanks to the Op Art-inspired design de Cárdenas dreamed up for the venue (interior pictured here). “Cabbies have started calling it ‘The Black and White Building,’ ” de Cárdenas remarks. “It’s funny that they’ve already come up with a nickname.” Instant landmark aside, de Cárdenas made his reputation on intimate spaces—his firm, Architecture at Large, was responsible for the interior of Charlotte Ronson’s Nolita boutique and Waverly-esque West Village restaurant Charles, for example, and helmed the renovations of Jessica Stam’s Manhattan and East Hampton abodes. Here, de Cárdenas talks to about model homes (pun intended), Our House West of Wynwood, and why style is overrated when it comes to design.

How did you get involved with O.H.W.O.W.?

I grew up in New York, and Aaron Bondaroff and I have been friends for a long time. We’ve collaborated quite a bit. I designed his Wreck Center pop-up last year, for instance, so it was kind of natural that I work on O.H.W.O.W., too.

On the one hand, that seems like kind of a dream project—a huge space, an open-minded client, and a building that was, in essence, a blank slate. But on the other hand, it must be hard to know where to start on a project with so few built-in constraints. Was that a challenge?

When you’ve been designing for a while, you come to each new project with a bag of tricks. There are ideas you like, that you know tend to work for you. O.H.W.O.W. was kind of like a playground. I got to take my favorite ideas out for a run—like, the whole black and white motif, for example. I love that contrast. But in a way, my approach to design operates as its own control. I’m very invested in the way spaces are experienced. So that leads to things like the pattern on the O.H.W.O.W. floors suggesting pathways through the galleries.

The exterior of the building is so striking. Was the inspiration for that design really as simple as, you like black and white?

I did have one outside inspiration lurking in the background. I’m sure you heard of U-boats, the first submarines? Back in World War I, the Germans had them, and no one else did, and because they were sinking everything in sight, they were winning the war. In response, the Brits came up with these “Dazzle Ships”—boats painted, on the underside, in black and white patterns that made it impossible for someone underwater to determine their size or scale.

And that worked?

OK, theoretically impossible. I actually have no idea whether the Dazzle Ships were effective in battle. But I like the idea. And for O.H.W.O.W., I thought it would be interesting to create a building that seemed, in the same way, somehow immaterial. Can you reduce a structure to a huge, buzzing, black and white field?

I know you studied fashion at RISD and worked at Calvin Klein after graduation. Was it that background that got you a fashion clientele?

No, that was all very roundabout. I realized pretty quickly that fashion wasn’t for me and then went to UCLA to study architecture, which I thought for a while wasn’t for me, either. I’m not obsessed with buildings, per se. What’s always interested me is this idea of creating a mood. I was lucky to have Greg Lynn as a professor and then as a mentor, because he’s one of the few architects around who could put the boring engineering part of architecture into the context of what I like, which is atmosphere. I worked with him for a while and then started my own business, and my clients have come to me the way clients come to pretty much anyone who’s not a name brand—they see a space they like, and they ask who designed it. Jessica Stam, for example, liked the work I did on Parker Posey’s apartment.

She responded to your style, in other words.

I don’t think of myself as having a style. Style leaves fingerprints. You can always look at a space with a certain style and date it to some very particular cultural moment. And once the culture drops that style, you’re gone. The moment’s over. Whereas mood is timeless.

I have to admit, if I were in the market for a gut reno, I wouldn’t think that way at all. I’d think—can he make my apartment look like Stam’s? I mean, I like the combination of antique-y stuff and sleek eighties lines, which is pretty simplistic.

And that’s fine—it’s my job to be conceptual.

Speaking of Jessica Stam’s apartment, I love the wallpaper. Where’s that from?

It’s vintage French paper from the ’50s.

You didn’t answer my question.

Yeah, that was on purpose. I’ve spent a long time cultivating my sources for stuff like that. I’m not about to divulge one in an interview. I mean, there’s a certain amount of my job that I’m happy to talk about, like its theoretical framework, and then there’s another part of what I do that involves standing in flatbed trucks, looking at antique sofas. That part is secret.



Photo: top, Terry Richardson; bottom, Courtesy of O.H.W.O.W.