A visit to Cristina Grajales’s clever new gallery

Onward & Upward

By Chris Chafin

Wander into Cristina Grajales’s new design gallery in Manhattan’s Flower District, and you’ll find your eye immediately drawn left. While most of the space is more or less like a traditional gallery—6,000 airy and bright square feet—Grajales has turned one section into a charmingly warm and inviting sitting room. The walls are trimmed with hundreds of books packed neatly (but tightly!) into shelves. Framed photos abound. Her personal collection of design objects—including a 19th-century Naga sculpture and an abstract bee made from tomato cans and wire that she purchased from a drama school in Havana, among other pieces from around the world—hang from the walls and ceiling, or balance neatly near a pair of tall windows. A couch and rug dominate the center of the room, bookended by simple desks. If you’re not careful, you’ll trip over the water bowl she keeps for her two dogs, Stevie and Nicky, who come to work with her almost every day. “Stevie Nicks!” she says to me, laughing as she explains their names. “Very creative,” she adds in a self-mocking tone. You may just want to plop down and not move for hours. And that’s exactly the idea, Grajales tells me. “This is where we sit with our clients, where we have tea,” she says. “They love it!”

But stay too long in this cozy nook, and you’ll miss the big idea behind Grajales’s big new space. The design impresario has been working in the field since the 1980s, and leading the curation of spaces since 1990, when she began serving as director of the 1950 Gallery, a position she held for ten years. As director, she helped turn 1950 into a renowned source of European mid-century furniture, lighting, and design objects. Since 2001, she’s run a gallery of her own—based, until this past month, in SoHo—which, over the years, has become a much-beloved fixture in the New York design scene.

Steven and William Ladd’s Say Yes or No (2015) hangs above Stefan Bishop’s Puddle Side Table (2014). Steven and William Ladd’s Say Yes or No (2015) hangs above Stefan Bishop’s Puddle Side Table (2014). Photo © Giada Paoloni for Pamono
For much of her career, however, one issue has consistently nagged at Grajales: the division of art and design. It’s a commonly discussed problem, but one she still feels keenly. “When you go to the fairs, you have this design fair and that art fair,” she tells me, folded comfortably into a chair in her new sitting room-slash-office.  “There’s still very much a separation, even though the disciplines are getting closer and closer. 

A move to a new space, she thought, was a perfect chance to do something about it. The gallery makes its new home in a former print shop; it was initially full of heavy equipment and more or less needed to be totally redone. Grajales seized on this chance to start fresh, to build a place where art and design complement each other and work together in a unique way.

She decided to team up with Leon Tovar, a seasoned Latin American art specialist and gallerist. Tovar will show work in one part of the space, Grajales in another. Their two galleries will show sometimes independently and sometimes together. “It’s almost like two subway trains,” she said. “You have your car and we can come together, but we can also continue and we can also have our own businesses,” like two trains briefly locking pace underground, before shooting apart again.

In between their respective gallery spaces stands an area Grajales and Tovar call The Third Room, which is the real heart of their collaboration. “The Third Room is a magical place,” Grajales tells me in an amused whisper. “It’s where the two of us are going to start experimenting! And we can do anything we want in that space.”

The piece that stands there now perfectly embodies this fluid idea. It’s a large chair, upon which sits a small obelisk. Its upper half has been roughly sculpted into the head of a bald man, his expression hovering somewhere between stern and prankish, a likeness of Picasso. Two pairs of perfectly formed hands rest on the chair’s arm and on the front of its seat.

“It’s a chair, but it’s Picasso, and it’s all bronze,” Grajales tells me, growing excited. “I mean, this is a museum piece. It’s art and design!”

The piece, by Venezuelan artist Marisol, is called, simply, Picasso, and anchors the space’s debut show, opening September 24th. Also on display will be new works by designers Stefan Bishop and William and Steven Ladd. Tovar will present works by Edgar Negret, a Colombian sculptor widely considered to be the first to bring modern sculptural practices to his home country. 

While Grajales loved her old space in SoHo, and still reminisces a bit, she knew it was time to move on. “Cities evolve,” she says. In the case of SoHo, it “mostly became a shopping center.” She’s excited about the energy of her new neighborhood. “It feels very real. When you walk down the street, you see all sorts of people. Everybody’s going to work. You don’t have that shopping mentality, or that tourism. It’s real, working New Yorkers, doing their thing.” 

Still, she tells me, her clients were a little nervous about the move. They thought the new space might simply be “a white box, very serious,” she says. “This is why it was very important to bring soul to the new place. We’re still creative and fun, and also nurturing.” Her clients can relax. Despite moving a few blocks uptown, Grajales still has soul in spades. 


Cristina Grajales Gallery is located at 152 W 25th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001. For more info, check out Cristina Grajales Gallery.


  • Images by

    • Giada Paoloni

      Giada Paoloni

      Giada is an Italian-born photographer and stylist with a passion for travel, food, and art.
  • Text by

    • Chris Chafin

      Chris Chafin

      Chris is a Brooklyn-based writer who's contributed to publications like Rolling StoneWiredFast Company, and The Awl. He'd be flattered if you'd consider following him on Twitter