There is a hushed, serene feeling to Federico de Vera’s downtown apartment. The space, which Federico shares with his partner, Randy Saunders and his pet Chihuahua, Diego, is filled with intriguing and beautiful objects that have been almost obsessively selected and placed by Federico, owner of De Vera on Howard Street.
Much like the environments he creates, Federico is a thoughtful, slightly elusive man who only gradually opens up to reveal a great curiosity for the world around him. My sense was that he would have much preferred interviewing me.
He grew up in the Philippines in a close, Catholic family — which may help explain his penchant for collecting deities and religious objects. After a brief stint as an architect and photographer he moved to San Francisco to open up his first and now-legendary store, which now, happily for us, has found its home in New York.
What I really wanted to talk about with you is having an amazing eye – I really am in awe of your eye. You have this ability to pick out really beautiful objects and furniture and mix them in an appropriate way. How have you developed this?
I think people are born with some things, but some people don’t develop them. I am very serious about learning about a lot of things, especially history. And I’m curious, always asking questions.
A lot of people seem to get to a point in their lives where they stop being curious.
Well when you stop being curious you stop having fun – you start getting old.
I rented a DVD called “An Examined Life” – it was basically a movie where they interviewed about ten different philosophers. There was section that made me think about you because it was about what being cosmopolitan really means, which isn’t being trendy, but means being “a person of the world,” an openness to it … sorry that was a heavy duty speech there …
The way I look at objects and things is the same way I look at people. You don’t just judge people right away. You get to know them. You don’t have friends because they’re rich, or famous, or good-looking but because you care about them and they’re beautiful inside. And that’s the same way I look at objects—they don’t have to have provenance or be expensive. They just have to be interesting.
You’re not a snob.
I try not to be a snob! But I’m very picky with what I like.
Do you find that you’re able to be friends with people who, in your mind, have awful taste?
Yes, definitely, definitely. Because our friendship is not based on status … it’s based on … friendship.
Let’s get back to objects … what do you feel when you see something you like?
Let’s look for an example … this sculpture. I wanted it for so long. I was looking at the work and how long it took them to make it. And it’s serious but funny … it’s just an incredible piece
I have interviewed people, like antique dealers, and they sell furniture worth millions, and then you go to their apartment and it’s an empty box. Their interest is academic rather than something personal. For me that’s odd.
Well it’s the way they make their living. It’s a business for them. I was just at TEFAF (Maastricht) and there were so many expensive, exquisite things and then you see the people working there and they’re not having fun. It’s just exchange. I don’t want my life to be like that.
So many of your objects are very spiritual and religious. You were brought up Catholic, were you?
Yes I was, from a very devout Catholic family. We went to church every Sunday.
Do you still go to church?
No [laughs] … I grew up.
I wanted to also talk about how hard it is to find these objects and that you find things that other people wouldn’t be able to find.
Right. You have to travel, pay the airfares, and use your time and sometimes I go to a city and find only one object or maybe none. It is mostly a matter of really looking closely at everything … it could be just around the corner. And education: if you know what you’re looking at.
Do you think of yourself as a good businessman?
Only in the way I run my business because of the way I run my business: when I start to sell a lot of [one type] of thing, I decide not to sell any [of those] more. Once you’re pigeonholed, then it becomes predictable. I don’t want to be predictable.
So I guess you’re not going to be on QVC.
I have to say I find your store mesmerizing and I want to own everything in it but I can’t really afford anything in it …
That’s not true!
What do you suggest for people who come into your store and who can’t spend a lot of money?
Well, we have things from $38 to the hundreds of thousands. If you actually really look, we have like bargains!
So when you’re not looking for things for your store, what else do you have fun doing?
I like watching movies. I like foreign films … there’s something about sub-titles that makes it more interesting because everything is not given away. You have to pay attention. And I like watching in a movie theater rather than watching at home.
Do you like to cook?
What do you like to cook?
Anything that’s left over in the fridge really … I just wing it.
I think all these portraits on the wall are a riot. Do you talk to them?
Do you talk to your dog?
All the time. He listens.