The Aesthete

Patternal Instinct

Alejandro Cardenas, graphic designer for Proenza Schouler and visual artist, talks about his life as a loner and his cats

by Jesse Ashlock Photography Poppy de Villeneuve

Every morning, Alejandro Cardenas wakes up in his small sleeping nook and heads to work a few yards away, in the studio at the other end of his high-ceilinged, wood-floored Brooklyn loft in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. The 34-year-old artist and designer is best known as the graphic designer for Proenza Schouler, for whom he’s spent the last decade creating energetic, colorful, often whimsical prints and textiles that have helped make the New York womenswear label a cult powerhouse (founders Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez design the clothes themselves). But a row of lush, abstract canvases neatly lining one long wall attests to his other creative interests. In person, Cardenas, who was born in Chile but moved to Florida when he was 8, is friendly and voluble, with a light, easy laugh, although he can get strident in a hurry if you ask him about, say, Hollywood or the art world, places he finds profoundly alienating. “I’m a very opinionated person,” he admits cheerfully.

“I just sit here by myself and figure all this stuff out....It's very nerdy.”

But most days he keeps his opinions to himself, because there’s no one to share them with except two aggressively affectionate cats, which are sometimes responsible for accidents around the carefully organized workspace. There can be lengthy stretches of time, especially when there’s a deadline looming for fabric for a new Proenza collection, when Cardenas is pulling 16-hour days seven days a week and never leaves his DUMBO neighborhood. “I just sit here by myself and figure all this stuff out,” he says as he shows off the custom brushes and countless Photoshop layers that went into Proenza’s playful, ’50s-tiki-inspired Spring/Summer 12 show invitation. “It’s very nerdy.”

He creates the design, as he does all his prints for the label, through a process of endless building up and refining — sometimes beginning with shapes he’s created in the analog world, at his drafting table, then scanned to the computer — that’s like the digital equivalent of a traditional painting technique. “It’s like glazing,” Cardenas explains. “It’s like underpainting, underpainting, underpainting, then low lights, low lights, medium lights, high lights, low lights again, high lights again. It’s the same thing. Except Photoshop is so forgiving. With painting and drawing, there are no mistakes.” This iterative approach makes it easier for him to tweak and fine-tune patterns when McCollough and Hernandez request changes, though it also demands a ton of disk space (80 GB for a typical season) and means that even the fastest Mac in the world will often flash that spinning rainbow of death when he tries to open a particularly complicated file.

"If I don’t know how to do something, if you Google enough stuff, someone, somewhere, has tried it.”

Much of what Cardenas does for Proenza Schouler involves solving design problems that McCollough and Hernandez propose at the beginning of each season when they explain their vision for the next collection. “Like one time, the guys were like, ‘Oh, you know those T-shirts with, like, the wolf howling at the moon? We want to do a print like that.’ I’ve never looked at that stuff, I have no idea how to do it. But with enough grinding, enough watching YouTube videos of dudes drawing werewolves, I figured it out. If I don’t know how to do something, if you Google enough stuff, someone, somewhere, has tried it.”

Cardenas never planned on getting into fashion. As a kid, he wanted to make animated films, and still does today. But in high school, he became obsessed with Prada — “not in a fashion way, just in terms of design” — after visiting their store in Bal Harbour for the first time. “Everything else was dark and brass and old, and it was bright green and all glass, and so modern, and the shoes and bags looked like nothing else,” he recalls. His fascination eventually led to a three-month internship with Prada in Milan after college. When he got back, a friend introduced him to McCollough and Hernandez who were still in college at Parsons. When their senior collection sold, they asked him to design the Proenza Schouler logo. That was 2002. The rest is history.

But Cardenas uses his live-work space for a lot more than just his main gig. Take the paintings, sumptuous mélanges of ink, watercolor and gouache. The big ones he does flat on the floor, sometimes playing with the paint by tipping them, sometimes scanning them into his computer so he can experiment with shapes in the digital space. When they’re done they can take days to dry, so he moves them to a friend’s studio to keep the cats from walking on them. “I would draw and paint even if I had nowhere to show,” he says. (He does, at James Fuentes Gallery, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.) “For me, art isn’t the painting you put in the gallery. Art is the process.”

The paintings aren’t the only sideline either. Cardenas is the restless, perpetually curious sort who is always looking for a new problem to solve. “I’m hugely ambitious,” he says. “If you gave me a hundred million dollars to make something, I’ll spend it, and I’ll make it awesome.” Short that, he’s making super-low-budget music videos for New York indie bands like Violens and Chairlift and hopes to shoot a feature film in Miami next year. His biggest dream is still to make an animated feature—but on his own terms, he says, not Hollywood’s. Or better yet, a series of animated films that connect in unexpected ways, like Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle. “I weirdly have every detail figured out,” he says. “But at the same time...” He’s interrupted by a crash at the other end of the loft, the sound of some feline malfeasance. “At the same time, I have no problem with absolute chaos.”

***

A Few of Cardenas’ Biggest Creative Inspirations 

Matthew Barney

“There are artists who are just about doing the same thing over and over again, and then there are artists like him, who have this much broader scope of vision. He uses the language of contemporary cinema and entertainment in a selfish way, not selfish in a bad way, but in the way that making art is just an exploration of the self. I mean, The Cremaster Cycle literally follows his trajectory from being a football player. It’s his story; it’s a self-portrait! I think the hard part in art is creating a sense of continuity and a larger narrative.”


Akira

“I always liked animation. And then I saw Akira. I had my dad take me. I think I was 14. One of the first scenes is that motorcycle chase that has the traditional Japanese music, it’s like duk-do-do-duk, and these dudes are riding those motorcycles and everything has those light trails, and I was like born again when I saw that. It completely destroyed my brain. From that moment, I was like, ‘This is what I need to be doing, I need to be making animated films.’”


The Dead Milkmen

“The first time I heard them, I was in fourth grade, and I was obsessed because all the lyrics are really funny, even though I didn’t understand half of them. Like, there’s this one song where he’s talking about Charles Nelson Reilly [of Match Game fame]. I don’t know who that is and I can’t Google him, so I guess I’m shit out of luck. What’s crazy, I can listen to that first album, Big Lizard in My Backyard, today and it’s fucking amazing. It’s brilliant lyrically, it’s really smart, it’s really funny. I think they were like 18 when they made it. And musically, it’s also really good.”


My Bloody Valentine and the Swirlies

“I still remember where I was sitting and what I was wearing the first time I heard those bands. It completely changed my life. The Swirlies are by far the most underrated band of the whole alternative movement. The reason I love My Bloody Valentine is it’s the pinnacle of noise and melody. And aesthetically, it’s so beautiful — it’s not dark, and it’s not fully metal and it’s not fully Goth. You can’t pin down what it is, and I think that’s the quality the best art shares.”


David Hamilton

“This is a weird one. My dad was a photographer and one of my earliest memories was looking through a David Hamilton book and just being mesmerized by it. It looks so alien, but I couldn’t even comprehend the fact that it’s underaged girls and they’re being sexualized. I didn’t get that. To me it was just pure beauty.”


Jorge Luis Borges

“Everyone loves Borges, but why do I love Borges? Because nothing is knowable in his work except what is happening, and he makes no excuses for when things don’t make sense. He doesn’t give a fuck if you don’t understand. It’s almost like music.”


Hayao Miyazaki

“My understanding is that the way he works is he’ll write a movie, draw it by hand and the studio makes it. That’s what I feel I should be doing. I would love to be able to design an entire world, an entire narrative, all the characters, every aspect of it and just make it.”