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Designer Rafael de Cárdenas Embraces Childlike Wonder in a New Curatorial Effort

Justin Kamp
Sep 28, 2022 9:38PM

Speaking with architect and designer Rafael de Cárdenas is an encyclopedic experience. Within the first five minutes of our conversation, he floats references to S,M,L,XL, a book by the influential architectural firm OMA; a Donna Summer cover of a Vangelis song featured in the HBO drama Industry; and the movie reviews written by the late downtown gossip columnist Stephen Saban.

While the topic of our conversation is, ostensibly, art collecting, these tangents are important indications of de Cárdenas’s aesthetic life. His approach to curating and collecting is similarly expansive, forgoing academic strictures and trendy marketability. Instead, de Cárdenas intuitively appreciates how disparate objects might connect. His own collection, for example, includes paintings by the little-known folk artist Ralph Redpath, pottery by New Mexico–based chef Johnny Santiago Adao Ortiz-Concha, and a tuft of hair by Yuji Agematsu.

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“I have a very short attention span. I get easily bored with things,” de Cárdenas said. “I don’t think I have an approach—there’s this idea that there’s a kind of tornado, and things are getting grabbed at along the way.”

De Cárdenas’s freewheeling, “just-move-it” approach also led to his latest art world endeavor: The designer has collaborated with the Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA) in New York to present “Hold Me,” a curated exhibition and benefit auction featuring works donated by artists from across the world, which opens October 3rd. (Bid on Artsy through October 6th.)

“I’ve seen Rafael move things around in this way, arrange things, find those moments,” said Seth Cameron, the CMA’s executive director. “As much as he deeply thinks about his work, there still is that intuitive aesthetic relationship where you have to make decisions based on phenomenological experience—does it feel right or not?”

“Hold Me” will present works by artists ranging from craft icon Anni Albers, to the architect Drew Seskunas, to the mother-daughter artist duo that comprises sculptor Linda Lopez and her five-year-old, Oona. As they demand to be held, examined, and embraced, the exhibited pieces nudge viewers back to the intimacy and curiosity of childhood. Cameron said that he aims to establish a whimsical, hermetic universe of objects—a “cabinet of curiosities”—and allow de Cárdenas to move those objects around with a sense of childlike wonder that’s integral to the museum’s ethos.

“Play is not something that is quarantined in childhood, but is part of how we navigate the world throughout our lives,” Cameron said, explaining his philosophy in directing the museum. The institution supports a number of programs such as artist-educators in residence, as well as the Look Make Show, a digital learning center that makes arts education accessible to children. “Our goal [at the CMA] is to bring children who often are segregated out from the creative space of the art world and let them influence us and be a part of how we think,” Cameron continued. “We learn from things children make; they learn from things adults make. That interchange is very much like a tornado.”

That ideal dovetails with de Cárdenas’s work. While there is a youthful playfulness to his freewheeling curation, his larger aesthetic and artistic life are also deeply linked to his own youth. “My childhood was spent imagining my future, and pretending to be that future, imitating that future at that time,” de Cárdenas said. “In my house, everything was up for grabs. When I was creating a mythical world, I was incorporating a chair from the living room, bringing in an ashtray, [or] a Penthouse magazine that I’d kept under my bed for five years.”

The self-described “gay kid in a straight household” could find power and self-definition in an intentional arrangement of objects, a certain Donna Summer song, or a gossip columnist’s movie reviews. “All of these things felt aspirational,” Cárdenas said, but they also felt fun. The alchemy between those feelings permeates his aesthetic philosophy to this day.

His plastic-spool façade for the Kenzo flagship store in Seoul and his kaleidoscopic Cartier Tokyo boutique, for example, use unconventional surfaces to evoke the history and materiality of the products sold within. In his advisory role at the art and design fair Object & Thing, he has eliminated traditional fair structures such as booths or even placards in favor of curated clusters of different artists’ works, which de Cárdenas organizes himself.

As de Cárdenas and Cameron discussed collecting and curation with me for this story, they kept returning to discussions of play, aspiration, and the permeable exchange between childhood and adulthood. For de Cárdenas, that exchange resembles an unbroken chain of inspiration, self-determination, and unstructured experimentation stretching back to his youth.

“I feel like I’m the same person I’ve been since I was seven years old, I just know more stuff,” de Cárdenas said. “My actions were trying to do heavy lifting on something that I didn’t have to do. I was always having a good time, I was just stressed out about it. I think only in the last seven to ten years have I realized I’m the same person, I’m still liking these things.”

For Cameron, who is a father, the exchange between child and parent, and indeed between object and viewer, is more of a tidal ebb and flow.

“The title of the show, ‘Hold Me,’ has grown in meaning as the project has been developing,” Cameron said. “That’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot—it’s a phrase that kind of makes me a father, it gives me that identity. I hear that all the time. As my kids get older, I’m hearing it less. And now maybe I’m the one who’s saying it more. It’s a command, it’s vulnerable. And I think works of art ask that of us—they ask to be seen or to be held, and they are vulnerable as much as they are commanding something of us.”

Justin Kamp
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019