At the desk of:
Rafael de Cárdenas

The architect and interior designer — who’s worked on hotels, restaurants and stores on three continents — on the Belnord conversion, his men’s fashion roots and pastries as art

Sep.September 01, 2019 01:00 PM

Rafael de Cárdenas (Photos by Emily Assiran)

Architect Rafael de Cárdenas’ Noho office is carefully curated and seems more spacious than its 2,000 square feet.

A selection of plants and art populate the chic three-room studio space occupied by his 10-person firm Architecture at Large at the iconic Cable Building, which sits at 611 Broadway and was designed by McKim, Mead & White.

De Cárdenas, who founded the firm in 2006, started his career in fashion, designing men’s clothing for Calvin Klein, before going to UCLA’s architecture school.

After graduating, he hopped around to several jobs and landed at a production house called Imaginary Forces. During that time, he also helped produce commercials for such companies as BMW and L’Oréal. All the while, he was taking on architecture and interior design jobs until he had enough business to strike out on his own.

Now 45, de Cárdenas found quick success after his first two solo projects. They were model Jessica Stam’s East Village apartment, which was featured in publications like Elle Decor and Architectural Digest, and the design of a boutique pharmacy on the Lower East Side.

Today, the firm handles interior design for Cartier, Nike, beauty brand Glossier and additional clients. It’s designed hotels, restaurants and homes across three continents.

In New York, Architecture at Large has done interiors for the Baccarat store on Madison Avenue, Asia de Cuba on Lafayette Street and others. Its current projects include HFZ Capital’s high-profile rent-to-condo conversion of the Belnord on the Upper West Side, where the firm designed the public spaces and one model unit. It also designed the retail space OHWOW at Andre Balazs’ Standard Spa in Miami Beach.

De Cárdenas, who grew up in New York and still lives here, also has a home in northern France and frequently travels abroad to work on projects in Seoul, Copenhagen and Tuscany.

Belnord renderings
These renderings of the Belnord lay on de Cárdenas’ desk. Robert A.M. Stern handled the layouts and finishes for the condos, but de Cárdenas was among several others tapped by HFZ to help with the repositioning of the full-block building. “It just needed some dusting off to reveal its beauty,” de Cárdenas said, calling it “a treat” to spend so much time on the site.

Soap lips
This bright lip-shaped soap is an early prototype for a brand de Cárdenas launched with three other designers. The smorgasbord of vintage objects, dubbed Double Macchiato, debuted at a Paris gallery last Christmas. The oversized lips were inspired by a photograph of Australian-born artist Leigh Bowery, who wore bright red lipstick and was known as a gay icon in London in the 1980s.

De Cárdenas, whose sophisticated sense of fashion is punctuated by signature wire-frame glasses, often fiddles with this old-fashioned wooden ruler while talking to clients on the phone. He bought it in the early 1990s from an antiques store on Hudson Street when he was just starting to collect items to “customize” his home. “You’re kind of buying lots of things that speak to you, but you don’t know why,” he explained. But he held onto the ruler because of its “ingenious” design.

These spiky bookends are from his friend Tino Seubert, a London-based product designer. “I asked for them. I was like, ‘I like those bookends that you have on Instagram. Can I have a pair?’” De Cárdenas collects rare books. He has one on hand by Japanese art director Eiko Ishioka with Post-it notes poking out of its pages. De Cárdenas also edited and curated his own book, which was published in 2017, and includes glossy photos with essays by several of his contemporaries.

Ceramic cruller
This glazed ceramic cruller was designed by San Francisco artist Larry Randolph, who’s represented by a nonprofit called Creative Growth, which provides gallery space to artists with disabilities. “We buy a lot of their artists’ items, because we like them, and Larry Randolph makes the food he likes.” De Cárdenas also has a ceramic slice of pie and hot dog designed by the artist.

Facade detail
This green conical object is a final prototype of a facade detail Architecture at Large designed for clothing brand Kenzo’s flagship in Seoul. Hundreds of them are affixed to the storefront. Finalizing the color, shape and material took many iterations. The end result was one that was “so nicely fabricated that … it hangs around.”

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