Federico de Vera’s life revolves around three-dimensional objects: a set of cut-steel Georgian shoe buckles, a polychrome santo figure, an array of Victorian mourning pins crafted in garnet, jet, seed pearls, and human hair. A jewelry designer and proprietor of two ethereal, eponymous Manhattan shops that are favorites with decorators and collectors, de Vera travels the world to find things that, he says, “have absolutely nothing wrong with them,” a task that “is far more difficult than finding something that’s simply beautiful.”
De Vera’s original store in San Francisco, which has since closed, was widely credited with inaugurating the boom in cabinets de curiosités in the 1990s. Today, he tends to confine his more avant-garde finds to his two-story store in SoHo, while his newer Upper East Side location is a feminine place, where, he says, “Marie Antoinette might have shopped if she had an open mind.” In 2010, two lavish books celebrated his twin obsessions: the jewelry he fashions from found gems and tiny curios, and the precious objects he has bought and sold over the years.
While his stores have always been temples of display—as much galleries as retail environments—his 1,200-square-foot apartment is perhaps the ultimate expression of his unique eye, a living and lived-in testament to how arranging objects is as important as the things themselves. With its hundreds of rare finds often quite closely arrayed, the apartment still, almost impossibly, conveys a Zenlike sense of airiness. “The space things live in is part of them, it sets them off and completes them,” says de Vera, who was raised in the Philippines and started his career at Japonesque, the legendary San Francisco emporium of Japanese high design.
It is no accident that the condo where he lives with his Chihuahua, Diego, is in a 1920s-era building in Manhattan’s financial district, a neighborhood that is nearly deserted at night. Despite its recent growth in residential development, the area, with its rambling streets and historic buildings, retains a certain spookiness after hours that dovetails with de Vera’s love of off-kilter antiquity. Originally, the draw for him was the building’s amenities, including a pool and Armani/Casa kitchens, but now he can’t imagine living elsewhere. His schedule can seem frantic—when he is not searching the world for new pieces, he’s conferring with clients—so it’s not surprising that de Vera craves silence. “I need the isolation for my thoughts to flourish,” he says.
Inside, in addition to a sort of “best of” collection from his shops, including cabinets stocked with Venetian glass, Asian cloisonné, and enough religious artifacts to open his own monastery, he nurtures a taste for portraiture. His love of faces is vividly expressed on the dramatic, black-painted wall that dominates his living area. Not for him groovy abstracts: “I always like things that are very realistic, figurative.” He considers his passion for portraits a natural evolution of his interest in body parts—his stores are known for their collections of wood and ivory limbs and appendages. “I like all those sides of humanness,” he explains.
Nevertheless, de Vera insists that his aesthetic has inanimate origins. As a child, he collected shells and driftwood on the beach near his parents’ weekend house. Later, he added rocks. “I would spend hours trying to find the absolutely most perfect rock,” he recalls, a habit he indulges even today whenever he is near an ocean. He glued the shells onto driftwood to create key chains, an early indication, he says, of his interest in jewelry design. Today, his own pieces, made of antique elements and often simultaneously organic and baroque, account for about half his sales.
In his home, symmetry, a religion to many decorators, is virtually nonexistent. “To me, relying on that artificial balance—one sconce there, and another on the other side of the fireplace—is very simpleminded,” he says. “If you understand each object’s essential nature and how it ‘speaks’ to the things around it, you will know how to create balance without needing everything to be a pair.”
For de Vera, chairs, those building blocks of decor, provide a perfect example of this ethos. In his dining area, a steel-top table is surrounded by mismatched seating, including a Rietveld-style chair and a Louis XVI covered in mohair. In his office, a chair he designed out of aluminum and nylon recalls the textiles of Anni Albers. As a shopkeeper searching high-end sources, he often has no choice but to buy chairs in pairs, but such sets bore him: “I find them uncreative and very mechanical.”
While most of his objects are at least a century old, he throws in plenty of contemporary work too, such as a rug of woven silver-plated copper wire by Colombian design firm Hechizoo. Such pieces speak to his unwillingness to be confined to a single period, price, or milieu. “To me, being alive means being able to transcend all that,” he explains.
De Vera isn’t much for moving pieces around. Other designers may rearrange their possessions to keep the tableaux fresh, but aside from occasionally bringing in a new item, he mostly lets things stay put. “When they find their proper place, their perfect place, the place where there is nothing at all wrong,” he says, “I never tire of seeing them there.”