Onetime senior vice president and senior specialist in Old Master paintings at Christie’s, Richard Rabel’s “last reincarnation professionally” as he puts it, is as an interior designer who reallyknows how to make art work in a room. Despite having spent much of his career working with antiques and artwork from other eras, his own style is elegantly modern with a rigorously select eye for just the right antique element. He first trained as an engineer, which he says also helped him think meticulously and methodically through what could go wrong before it goes wrong and a few years working for JP Morgan didn’t hurt when it comes to the business side of running his own practice, which he began just over ten years ago. He lives in Castle Village located in Hudson Heights, apartments that pretty much everyone wonders about when they drive past them on the Henry Hudson Parkway—the views and the light are both as spectacular as you would imagine.
So why did you think to look in Washington Heights or Hudson Heights as a place to live?
My partner, Todd and I … we looked at over a hundred apartments and we looked on the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Hoboken, Brooklyn … and I’ll never forget, Todd was the one who said we should come up here. We took the 1 train, and it was the summer. So we come out of the subway and it was very festive and colorful and there was noise and people. And I said, “Todd, I’m not moving up here. It’s too colorful for me.”
And what happened?
Then we started walking this way and it changed. It’s quiet here—it’s super quiet and we saw these buildings but we couldn’t afford it. I made an offer and the owner said, “I’m kind of waiting for Wall Street people to get their bonuses” and I’m thinking, “No Wall Street guy is going to come up here if they have money.” A month later I said, “Did the Wall Street people show up?” and he said, “No.”
What do you like about living up here?
I like the fact that there’s light and you don’t feel claustrophobic. And you can see downtown so you still feel like you’re in New York. And you know the neighborhood has some nice things. On 181st Street there’s a Thai restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and it’s got a pretty good Italian restaurant and two bars.
And I noticed a café for dogs called Café Bark.
That’s brand new. It was this well-known wine store that people came to especially to get fancy wines.
So who lives in these buildings?
The person who sold me the apartment worked at the Philharmonic—he was a musician. I have a doctor next door and someone who works for the New York Times is a neighbor and an architect who works for Rafael Viñoly down the hall. And Lin Manuel [Miranda] lives in this building—on the 10th or 11th floor.
Well there are people who don’t like spending all their money on their living accommodation.
Why did they build these rather posh apartments so far uptown?
What happened was that—I haven’t really researched it—is that the guy who owned all this piece of land and the land on the other side of the street [where there are Tudor-style buildings] died and left this to one son and the other piece to another son. The sons got in a fight and the one son said, “I’m going to build these buildings that are taller than yours.” The [Tudor] buildings had a view of the Hudson and the brother, to spite him, put up these. The [Tudor] buildings are called Hudson View, but they don’t have the view.
When were they built?
These were built in 1939 and based on this Corbusier plan that was never executed in Paris. He designed this plan of having these buildings where every apartment would have a view. And all this was happening at a time when people were kind of moving out of the city. They wanted to offer people something that was like, in the country. For example Hudson View had a bowling alley and it had a restaurant and it had a dance hall. It was sold as, “you can have everything you can have in the city but in a high-rise outside of the city with all this fresh air and trees.”
Which still works. I’ve looked at so many designers’ websites but I’m not sure if I’ve seen these reviews the way you have on yours. And they read a bit like book reviews. Why did you include those?
So, I started in this business as what I think of as my last reincarnation professionally and when you’re going into a field and you’re kind of a newcomer, you have to find ways of being different. But also I found that including the reviews was a way of being transparent. I would tell clients to leave a review on Houzz. I would just pray they would be good ones and there would be referrals.
Yes, word of mouth is everything in this business.
The thing about referrals … we talk about how it’s all word of mouth, which is just the way it is and it kind of sucks, but then you know word of mouth sometimes doesn’t get out. I was at a Christmas party of a client and we had just finished a project and he had all sorts of people there and the friends were asking the client, “Oh gosh, who did this?” And the client never once gave me credit!
Oh! Although I’m not that surprised. They like to seem as if they did it themselves.
Yes. I was certainly naïve. So then I asked people to write, and that’s why I have the reviews there.
What about the show house you did for Sotheby’s—did that help bring in business?
With show houses it kind of depends on where you are in your career and how much money you’re willing to put into it and I was delighted that they asked me. It’s a way of meeting people. You know, my grandfather said to me, “You need to be in the soup.” And by that he meant, you have to be part of it because otherwise people forget that you exist. And he’s so right.
Yes, I think so many people want to withdraw—and I don’t blame them. It takes such effort to “be in the soup”.
There’s a lot of effort. Some people can afford having a publicist. I looked into it some time ago and I thought it’s like everything, if you hire a publicist for two, three four, five years, something will happen—they help you be in the eye.
“In the eye” … yes, that’s where you have to be. Let’s talk about your route into this career. You started off working in auction houses.
My first interest in interior design and in architecture was during the summer between my junior and senior year, I worked for an architect in Mexico. And I remember going to his office and he had this pile of Architectural Digestsand I was just really consumed with that. Then it was time to go to university and I thought about interior design and my dad, who was an engineer, said, “I’m not paying for interior design. I’m paying for engineering, so that’s what you’re doing.”
Oh … and you did that then?
You know at eighteen, some people have more bravado—but … in the end I did engineering. It was hard for me because I didn’t have the numbers.
That must have been terrible.
I had a fun time in college but I didn’t want to be flunked out of engineering school so I studied allthe time … allthe time. After university I was hired by JP Morgan in finance—they were hiring engineers at the time because of all these weird financial instruments.
You were a quant? I thought you hated numbers?
I know but first of all it was a job. Second of all I didn’t know what I was doing. I went to Hong Kong to do investment banking—somehow I avoided being pushed in with the brainy people!
Oh my God … how did you get out of it?
I realized that although the money was really, really good, I just couldn’t do something even for the money where I was going to be caught at some point. You know the further up you go, there are other responsibilities and if you’re not really good at numbers, I mean it sure as hell falls through. You can’t fake it. Anyway, I was hired by a client of the bank called Fernando Flores who was the former finance minister for Chile to do consulting—if one is lucky, there are certain people in one’s life that kind of help you make that step to do something else and Fernando said to me, “You know Richard, you really like the arts—I see that. Christie’s and Sotheby’s have this course in London. Apply and see what happens.” I applied and I got into Christie’s. Fernando said, “Here’s a bonus.” It was a very, very generous bonus and with that I paid for the course.
It’s sort of fascinating that Christie’s took you on with an engineering degree and a finance background, no art history or anything.
It was a fantastic course at the time. They’ve completely changed it now. It used to be where you would take your lecture with experts in the field and then you would go to the auction house and actually talk with a specialist about what you had been learning—very pragmatic things. There were eighty people on the course—two people got a job and I was the lucky one of them.
And did you just take to it?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense I loved the arts. What I learned after being at Christie’s for a long time is that a) I’m not a political animal and b) I had risen to senior vice president, which was the top of the top and in order to get there, you have to be political. A client from Brazil who was an architect pointed out that when I came to look at the art, I was very much interested in the houses. He said, “Why don’t you come and work for me?” I thought, “It’s now or never.” This was ten years ago.
And you found that this was what you wanted to do all along.
Yes, this is what I really love. I can put the whole package together. Not only do I know about the art and its condition—I can suggest a piece of art for a reasonable amount of money—but I can put the whole room together.
Did you just trust your instincts when it came to that part of it?
I started taking night classes at Parsons for the more technical things—like CAD drawing, space planning—things that I was a bit self-conscious about.
But having studied engineering—it must play into interior design in some way.
It plays in fantastically. Talking to other interior designers who have become friends, I find that their brains … they’re everywhere. They’re very creative—they’re like hummingbirds. I think that studying engineering taught me how to think. My dad said to me, “You have this gift of being able to think many steps before the problem and so you’re able to resolve it.” Being several steps in front of the problem comes from my engineering background, I’m convinced of it.
Buying art and showing it off in rooms is so huge now – it’s almost like tulip mania. What’s your take on all of this, especially considering that you were an Old Masters specialist?
Well I mean, I can tell you that when I was at Christie’s I remember selling a Boucher, a lovely nude and it sold for, let’s say ten million dollars. A few years later, the same people wanted to re-consign it and the estimate we gave was about half because it was out of style. It’s not necessarily an investment. The trend right now is that antiques are out—old stuff is out, whether it’s furniture or fine art and it’s all about contemporary. On the one hand, I completely appreciate that because I do think if you have money and you’re building a house, you should have things from living artists.
And you said your own style is modern.
Yes, much more modern.
Not many designers are as specific on their websites. You say you design with a masculine edge, you like neutral grays and unfussy rooms. A lot of designers want to be all things to all clients—did you have no qualms about saying, “Well this is what I do.”
There are two schools of thought. One is trying to design for anybody and the other one is having a niche. I still have my questions about being so “niche-y” in the sense that I’ve seen many designers that are not practicing anymore because they were very much in a niche and fashions came and went and they went with them. Even though I like colder rooms and I don’t like rooms full of tchotchkes and stuff, maybe that’s a niche, but it’s not so much of a niche. I don’t know how to explain it.
Was your taste once more traditional?
It was never period rooms. Living with everything antique—I just find it a bit suffocating. Living with no antiques is sterile.
Do you find your clients want a mix?
Kind of my niche is clients that want to show their antiques in a different light. One of the ways I do that is by re-framing art. One of the things that really makes an Old Master stuffy is the very ornate frame.
Do you find that is the first thing a client zooms in on when they’re interviewing you—this Christie’s background?
Yes. There are two things. There are people who really want to build a collection, who understand that there’s a lot more to it than buying art like in a supermarket. So they’ll come to me because not only do I have the sources, but I also view art in a different way. A piece of art has to work in the room—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a yellow painting with a yellow sofa but from my perspective, before you get to that point of buying that art or displaying that art, you need to know if what you’re buying is actually worth what they’re asking for—in a purely financial sense. I think that’s where my finance, my engineering and my experience at Christie’s all helps.
So would you say, buy the paintings first then work the room around them?
I would say yes, because it’s easier to work around art in general than it is to work art around a room.
What sorts of things can be tricky when it comes to this approach?
I find it very difficult to work with 19thcentury paintings—I just don’t really like them. I should be more specific—I mean the ones with little kittens and little dogs and the maids talking around a well.
What other advice do you give people in terms of building a collection?
Number one is what the condition of the piece is because if it’s been repaired and you can’t see it with the naked eye, you should not be paying top money for it. Also, how long has this piece been in the market? Because if it’s a piece that no one wants, it should raise a red flag. And provenance—there are so many lies—there’s always been lies.