Rafael de Cárdenas’ storefront designs ohwow


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The Ultimate Retail Surface

Friday, February 1st, 2013

By Murrye Bernard
Photos by Eric Luc

Dressed casually in a pink and green plaid shirt, shorts, and slip-on sneakers, with his clip-on sunglasses flipped up, Rafael de Cardenas is a firm believer in looking good over feeling comfortable. His theory seems to extend to his retail design work, as he’s responsible for over-the-top designs for stores like Nike, Cynthia Rowley, and Barneys in his role as thefounder of New York-based Architecture at Large.

Unsurprisingly, de Cardenas is a lover of fashion and, by his own admission, the ultimate consumer. He shares how he plans to recreate the retail experience and his belief that comfort should be sacrificed in shoes and sofas.

Murrye Bernard: You started your career as a fashion designer at Calvin Klein, and now you work completely in architecture. What parallels between fashion and architecture do you see in your current work?

Rafael de Cardenas: Fashion is really my first love: the ideas of styling, dressing and undressing, costuming, and robing. It translates into architecture and interiors and furniture. If you think about this idea of ‘surfacing’—which I hate using the word because it’s a ridiculously overused word in architecture—but that’s actually what fashion is, right? A surfacing of yourself to create a series of meanings. I have a similar approach in our practice, maintaining a dialogue with popular culture, fashion, and art. They’re all things that move fast. That’s my gripe with architecture, is that it tends to work on a slower pace.

MB: It seems like, as a child of the ’80s, you’ve also been heavily influenced by that decade.

RDC: Some of it is nostalgia—it’s easy to look back to the time in which you were breast-fed on culture, so to speak. The early ’80s was that for me. They were a significant time in American culture, when design risks were taken across the board. Music, fashion, and design. There was this kind of frivolity; it was the age of gratuitous nudity in films.

MB: Do you look to films for inspiration?

RDC: Movies are a big inspiration. Right now we’re working on a project where all of the visual language is inspired by the film The Hunger from 1983, specifically Catherine Deneuve’s clothes.

MB: You love to incorporate bright colors and strong geometries into your retail designs, which can make those spaces feel disorienting. Does being a little uncomfortable make people want to shop?

RDC: Most interesting things come out of insecurity and discomfort because you are hyper-aware of yourself and how you fit into the world. Comfort is boring. If a sofa is comfortable, it’s ugly. Shoes that look comfortable are ugly. When designing interior projects, there’s always someone who says, ‘Well, it’s got to be comfortable.’ And I’m like, ‘Are your 500 pairs of Balenciaga shoes about comfort?’

MB: Which brands are doing it right, in your opinion?

RDC: Jil Sander exhibits perfect, impeccable branding. None of that is comfortable. There’s nothing comfortable about walking into the original Gabellini Sheppard-designed stores. The giant, cavernous spaces don’t give you code for how to behave; there’s no furniture, so you don’t even know what you’re supposed to do. You don’t have a clear path. That’s interesting to me.


Nota Design is known for its bold, experimental, and sometimes risky wall finishes. “We did a downtown New York loft bathroom inspired by Moorish design,” says Nota’s owner Peggy Bates of a particularly memorable project. Appropriating a technique called tadelakt, the team painted and plastered the walls to feel as if they were covered in intricate handmade tiles. Architecture at Large took notice of Nota’s interesting portfolio and tapped the firm for two upcoming projects. Bates immediately said yes. “We felt we could design surfaces on walls, ceilings, and furniture that create the unexpected,” she says. We’ll just have to wait and see to find out.

Aaron Somers fabricated the reveal between the shelving at the OHWOW Bookstore. The trompe l’oeil makes the slim ledges visually lighter. “We do all kinds of different finishes and play around with abstract painting and burning effects,” says Somers of his design process. “Working with Rafael has introduced me to so many artists that my work has been moving more towards art production.”

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