'My love affair with Dubai has just begun'

THREE YEARS ago, she went to Brad Pitt's house and was astounded. The Hollywood heartthrob has been one of her clients. So when she went to Los Angeles and called him, he invited her over. As she stepped inside a large room in his Hollywood home...

By Vijay Dandige (Contributor)

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Published: Tue 29 May 2007, 10:54 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:47 PM

loveshe couldn't believe her eyes. The room was filled with piles and piles of books — glossy tomes, hardcovers, paperbacks, — all on architecture and design.

"I couldn't believe it. I was impressed that he was so fascinated by architecture and design. He was really sincere and humble," recalled Cristina Grajales, hailed as one of the most respected experts in the design field. "And it's important for me that my clients are passionate, because I'm passionate about design."

That passion has taken Grajales from being an employee of a gallery to owning one of her own in Manhattan, New York. A Colombian by birth, she started working in Galleria Doors, a gallery in Manhattan that housed the 20th century designers, where she fell in love with designs. "Twenty years later, I'm doing the same thing," she said.

From 1990 to 2000, she served as director of 1950 Gallery in New York. Under Grajales's tenure, 1950 Gallery developed into the premiere resource for French post-war furniture, lighting and design objects.

Grajales's passion for many of the twentieth century's greatest masters propelled the gallery towards worldwide recognition, and to its attainment of its superior collection of furniture and distinguished clientele. In 2001, she founded Cristina Grajales, Inc to address the ever expanding needs of her clients. Now she works as a curator and consultant, manages collections, helps her clients buy and sell design, lends pieces to museums and advises clients about anything and everything relating to design.

In addition to numerous residential projects worldwide, Grajales has several commercial projects underway in New York City including the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea, the fashion and home collection showroom Seedhouse, the sales office and suites in a new residential development for Tamarkin and Co at 91st and Madison, as well as the lobby space of Philip Johnson's new building on 91st and Lexington where she has facilitated an important artistic commission.

"Basically I like to create environments," she said. "It's a very interesting field because design right now is exciting. People are fascinated by designs."

Art comes to Dubai

Grajales showcased a small part of her incomparable design collection in Dubai recently, as part of the 2007 Rosy Blue Masters exhibition at the One and Only Royal Mirage hotel. The 2007 Masters mainly exhibited contemporary artworks by prominent UAE artists, along with those from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Taiwan, Korea and Latin America.

When asked how come furniture pieces were being exhibited in an art show, Grajales said, "That's the trend now, to exhibit art and design pieces at the same time. And some of my pieces are like art pieces."

Grajales pointed out that in the past few years, the market for design has moved very fast in the collecting field. In particular, the pieces of 20th century designers, primarily European, have become expensive. "They're now selling from $100,000 to $4 or 5 million," she explained. "So new markets are opening up because not everybody can afford millions."

love2She credits the media for creating awareness about design, plus the easy accessibility though the Internet has created a hunger for more information and expansion in the design world. "And I think now you have people doing great work in different countries."

She said Larry Gagosian, probably the most famous art dealer in the world, had a design gallery and the pieces were sold out in a few days. "So, now you have art collectors collecting designs," she pointed out. "So finally, art and design are reaching the same balance, though their prices differ. Art pieces of course command more prices, but design pieces are quite high now."

In the design world, Grajales is famous for her open-minded approach to design of different periods. "As an immigrant in the US, I've been fascinated by different cultures and movements in design," she said. "So I'm one of the few dealers who not only works with 20th century masters but also with textiles, glass and other materials. So, my gallery is a little different than the usual."

The greatest challenge, she stated, is to have the 'vision to experiment with design.' She feels that clients who are not afraid to go beyond the 'accepted' boundaries are destined to build the most exciting collections.

So, in working with a client, Grajales said she sets out to determine what the client's true interests and phobias might be, and how this meshes with a long-term goal. "It is critical to determine whether the client's objective is to build a museum collection or simply to find key pieces that will invigorate a particular environment."

And this, as she pointed out, is her vision, for her gallery and for her clients: when they start collecting, they should have a diverse portfolio. "You can have some pieces from 20th century and some contemporary. So, it is important to create a balance in the collection," she said. "'When the pieces are exquisite, they work well. It doesn't matter which century they belong to. It's the quality that makes the difference."

At the same time, Grajales said she takes care to ensure that whatever advice she gives or whatever design pieces she buys for a client reflect the owner's personality. "Lots of consultants or interior decorators don't pay attention to the client, who he or she is as a person, their desires, their needs. Some of these consultants end up projecting their own personalities," she explained. "I'm respectful of my clients, their desires and tastes. That is the only way you can hopefully do something special for your client."

The most important aspect of her business is the appreciation value of pieces. "When a client is spending 20,000 or 100,000 dollars for a furniture piece, it's an investment," she said. "So I want to make sure that I'm advising the client properly. In the collecting world, the pieces of French, Italian and Scandinavian designers have appreciated the most. Now the Brazilian market has also become important. So, I'm interested only in famous names."

For her clients, Grajales hunts for design pieces at Christie's and Sotheby auction houses. She also follows 20 smaller auction houses in Paris, London, New York, Vienna and in Germany. She said, apart from her knowledge and expertise, her instincts play a large part in helping her select the right pieces for her customers.

Another crucial part of her work is restoration and conservation of furniture pieces. And she has a team of experts who restore the pieces that she works with. "In restoration, there's always a balance," she said. "You have to be careful not to over-restore and make them look like new, because that's not our interest. If you buy a piece from the 20th century, it should show a patina, it should show age and history."

Speaking about her view of the local market, Grajales said the design field is new for the Dubai market. "As far as architecture is concerned, Dubai is much ahead because it is building all these incredible new structures," she said. "But the design market will catch up soon, because there are going to be incredible buildings and spaces here and they should have equally incredible pieces of furniture. That's my feeling."

Summing up her visit to Dubai, Cristina Grajales said it was a wonderful experience for her. "I want to be a part of Dubai's development in my own way. It'd be wonderful if I could contribute to Dubai in some way," she said. "I look forward to hopefully working with some clients in Dubai. My love affair with Dubai has just begun."

lovew1A table worth half a million dollars

Grajales' design exhibition in Dubai featured a modernist table made in 1960 by Joaquim Tenreiro, considered as the greatest Brazilian furniture maker of the 20th century. Only a few pieces were made. The table's current value: US$ 500,000.

Record price paid for a design piece

Grajales holds the record for the most expensive piece of 20th century design. When she bought a piece at Christie's in New York in 2005 for a client, it created shockwave in the design world, because it had never been done before. It was a glass table made in 1949 by Carlo Mollino, the renowned Italian designer. Mollino made only four of them. In a fierce auction bid, Grajales bagged the table, at the whopping price of US$ 3.8 million - the highest till date paid for a 20th century furniture piece.

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