Rafael de Cárdenas followed a rather roundabout path to professional success. After studying painting and fashion design at RISD, he decided to further his creative education by pursuing an architecture degree at Columbia, and later UCLA. "To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be an architect in the future," he tells Co.Design. "I thought I’d somehow come back to fashion."
Fate had other plans, however, and the opportunities that emerged after graduation—including working with Greg Lynn on a submission for the redesign of the World Trade Center site and collaborating with special-effects production house Imaginary Forces—helped establish him in the field and encourage him to open his own New York-based studio in 2006. Now Architecture at Large is home to 10 creatives who collaborate on everything from residential and commercial interiors to furniture to, yes, architecture.
Though the firm’s name might elicit amusing visions of buildings on the lam, it was actually inspired by a concept from the world of print publishing. "I liked the idea of an editor-at-large position in fashion magazines—someone who lends an ethos or image to the publication without focusing on any one aspect of it," de Cárdenas explains. "So, I borrowed it."
Commissions from big names like Cappellini and Nike have kept de Cárdenas and his team busy. Each project offers an opportunity to blend in new concepts, and de Cárdenas often finds himself turning to cinematic references in his work. Furthering this theatrical spirit, he seeks to forgo a singular style for more evocative settings. "I’m more concerned that our spaces be immersive and moody and predispose the observer or occupant to some sort of mood and effect some emotional response," he says.
There are definitely staples to his style, however, including distinctive black-and-white contrasts, bold use of bright colors, and strategic geometric shapes and structures. And despite his field’s shifting landscape, de Cárdenas is optimistic about the future. "I’ve been in business for such a short time—six years—and the industry has changed so much," he says. "But new markets are generating exciting opportunities in design."