Richard Rabel's Inside Knowledge

Richard Rabel's Inside Knowledge

From engineering to banking to art expert and now – definitely settled – interior design, Richard Rabel finally has the vocation he always wanted
From engineering to banking to art expert and now – definitely settled – interior design, Richard Rabel finally has the vocation he always wanted

F rom his late teens Richard Rabel knew what he wanted to do; he just took a circuitous route to get there. A summer internship with the architect who was building a house for Rabel’s family, introduced him to Architectural Digest, and young Richard would take home a couple of copies to read every night. But his father thwarted his dream of being an interior designer, “no doubt for good reasons”, Rabel now dutifully adds, and insisted on him doing a degree in engineering.

Richard Rabel. Photo: Richard Phibbs

There followed a job in banking with JP Morgan, and more disappointment when he was not assigned to head office, the centre of power, but sent to Hong Kong. Good came of that move, through the introduction to classical Chinese furniture, the simple lines of which have been a lifelong inspiration – though some of the jade he bought turned out to be fake.

Rabel was in his late 20s when he read an article on Fernando Flores – a former Chilean finance minister who was imprisoned and exiled by the Pinochet regime but went on to become a leading entrepreneurial cognitive scientist – and wrote to him. Following an interview in an airport lounge, he became Flores’s personal right hand man. It was an exciting 24/7 job. “I was living between Santiago and Mexico City, meeting influential people, but also going to every gallery opening, talking to collectors, and keeping in touch with the art world through a subscription to Sotheby’s magazine,” he says.

After two years, Flores, who had noticed his passion for art, suggested Rabel should take the Sotheby’s or Christie’s art course, and gave him a generous bonus to make it possible. He applied to the latter and was accepted. At the end of his year-long London course Rabel spent a wonderful summer working at the Guggenheim in Venice. He went on to spend 10 years at Christie’s, including as a senior director and head of sales of Old Master paintings.

“This is the time for you to jump, Ugo di Pace said to me – and he was right”
Richard Rabel

Then came another jump, which saw him working for the modernist Brazilian architect Ugo di Pace. ‘‘This is the time for you to jump, if you’re interested, you’ll learn, is what Ugo said – and he was right,’’ says Rabel. This was a complete swivel to modern art and architecture and the influence of such Brazilian architects as Oscar Niemeyer and Isay Weinfeld.

Inside Rabel’s Renaissance foyer at Sotheby’s Designer Showhouse in 2016. Photo: Joshua McHugh

Rabel was based at the New York office of Ugo di Pace’s practice, though working on residential interiors in Brazil. He also took night classes in interior design, both practical and
aesthetic, at the New York School of Interior Design and the Parsons School of Design. With this thorough grounding and his hands-on experience, Rabel felt ready for his final leap.

Interiors from the New York pied-à-terre. Photo: Joshua McHugh

In 2009 he set up as an interior designer and art advisor in New York. His style, which he describes as “smart, unfussy and masculine”, projects walls in restrained grey-blues and chestnut browns, with classic modern upholstery in the same tones. Nothing detracts from the works of art, yet there is nothing of the sterility of a gallery setting. It is a clever balance.

A similar aesthetic prevails in a tiny New York pied-à-terre, where works of art, from 18th century Watteau to the contemporary art of David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin, sit happily together in the chic modern interior. Who can say whether it is these understated interiors, his spectacular “Peacock Feather” entrance hall for the 2019 Kips Bay Decorator Show House, or his sumptuous Renaissance foyer at Sotheby’s Designer Showhouse in 2016 that has garnered him clients worldwide. Looking back, Rabel sees that all his stages, from engineering, through finance, fine art and modernist architecture, have provided the ideal training for his final, and happiest, incarnation.

Cover photo: Rabel’s “Peacock Feather” entrance hall for the 2019 Kips Bay Decorator Show House. Photo: Nickolas Sargent

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