In the world of interiors, Cristina Grajales has created a unique position for herself. Neither a decorator nor a high-end furniture dealer (make that gallerist), she prefers the term decorative arts advisor. Grajales educates and counsels clients on the best of mid-20th-century design. She not only procures pieces through an international net-work, she also, if needed, arranges them just so. Whether it's curating a museumworthy collection of furniture for a Santa Ynez ranch, buying a record-shattering Alexandre Noll chair for Stephanie Seymour at auction, or simply helping a frustrated interior designer choose colors for her own apartment, Grajales has made her taste as sought after as the objects that she trades in.
It's her style that strikes you as soon as you step into her private showroom-cum-gallery. A hand-loomed textile by Jean Prouvé's daughter Simone drapes a 1948 Charlotte Perriand table set with chairs recently made by George Nakashima's daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. A giant brass shrimp (which turns out to be a Chervet lamp, ca.1978) perches on a 1950 Prouvé round oak table. And that's just one corner of the SoHo loft. This elegant yet playful space is a testament to why Grajales has become the first name in midcentury modern: She's managed to make it sexy, fun, and eminently livable—not to mention a great investment.
When the Colombian-born Grajales, 46, left a job in advertising to run New York's Delorenzo 1950 gallery of furniture and decorative arts in the early '90s, few people had heard of Prouvé or Perriand. "You could find a Prouvé chair for $200," she says, brows raised in disbelief as she looks at a table ringed with originals (now valued at $3,500 each). Through her work with galleries, antiques dealers, auction houses, and private sellers around the world, she brought the style of the '30s through the '50s back into vogue, drawing celebrities and serious collectors alike. "From the beginning, I had a strong affinity with these designs," she says of her chosen period. "And I knew the quality was unbelievable"—even if only a select few also shared her opinion.
Grajales began working independently in 2000, buying and selling privately, as well as advising individuals on their auction purchases. Her first client, Sandy Hill, gave her carte blanche to build a collection for her Santa Ynez home. Since then, she's worked with Brad Pitt, Narciso Rodriguez, Coach designer Reed Krakoff, and others. Soon, people were asking her to put together the whole package. "I realized that it really makes sense: You buy these beautiful things and then you create the stage," she says.
The artful tableaux that she assembles mix centuries and sensibilities: In her downtown Manhattan gallery you'll find a carved 18th-century Portuguese table topped with Michelle Oka Doner's exquisitely naturalistic 70-pound silver tray arranged on a simple piece of fabric from Colombia. On the wall above, a tiny monitor plays a video art piece.
And the warm, gregarious Grajales is not afraid to let her heart decide. She often talks of "falling absolutely, madly in love" with an object, for instance, an original Isamu Noguchi table from 1948. Exuberance is also a key element of her style, as reflected in a collection of '50s ceramics painted to look like wood, or in a sculpture made of tomato cans that she found while on a trip to Cuba with Robert Wilson. "It's important to have a combination of high and low," she says, "to buy pieces and create areas that are not only visually beautiful but are comfortable, accessible, human."
She now commissions exclusive designs, among them a bedroom set by the director David Lynch and another—for New York art dealer Perry Rubenstein—by Nakashima-Yarnall. These days she's particularly excited about Graham Jackson. A furniture maker she discovered in her building, he made a cashmere-covered walnut headboard for her client. She also collaborates on projects with architects, including a country house and gallery that she's designing with Jean Prouvé's grandson Serge Drouin (who is currently working with Renzo Piano on the New York Times building).
But Grajales offers more than one-stop collection building: Beginning in September, along with her associate, Barbara Wilhelm, she will organize group trips that capitalize on their access to art, architecture, and design throughout the world. They plan to start with a visit centered around the São Paulo Biennial. Grajales is also putting together the fourth season of her lecture series for the prestigious 92nd Street Y in New York. Titled "Dialogues with Design Legends," it was inspired by her friendships with Perriand and the potter Eva Zeisel.
Recently, her interest in photography led her to curate a show of photographs taken by a Le Corbusiertrained architect who was invited to Afghanistan to create a master plan for Kabul in 1962. She spent three years convincing the owner to take them out of the attic.
"Her passion is really contagious," says Coach's Reed Krakoff. "She cares about people getting great things, not just making money. And she understands interiors, not just objects. It's not the way a museum would put these pieces together: She lives with them."
Furniture from $3,500 to $500,000; consultations, $250 per hour. At 10 Greene Street, 4th floor, 212-219-9941.