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Rodman Primack on Scouring Auctions—Plus the Atlas Mountains, Guatemala, and Japan—For Design Worth a Story

As a former art specialist at Christie's and once-chairman of London's Phillips de Pury Auction House, Rodman Primack has traversed the globe unearthing and appraising the world's finest in furniture and contemporary art. Now? Well, it's much of the same, but but with a lot more off-road adventure: bumping across back roads in the Atlas Mountains, scouring Japan for impossible-to-find bamboo blinds, snatching up brilliant pieces by the likes of George Nakashima and Charlotte Perriand—it's all a part of his day-to-day. He's crafted a career and a design firm, RP Miller Design, out of commissioning up-and-coming contemporary artists, finding one-of-a-kind pieces in places like South American garages, and discovering beautiful, war-torn furnishings with a story to tell. It's a process that can take years, not to mention millions, but, to him and the clientele he attracts, the chase is exactly what makes each piece luxurious. Here, he talks to Curbed about the remote places he's been, the most opulent room he's ever designed, and the missteps he's still paying for.

What is the wildest trek you've been on to find a piece?
I was obsessed with finding someone in Japan to make Sudare blinds for us, which are these really delicate split Japanese bamboo blinds. The antique ones are really, really beautiful, but it's hard to find ones that are in good condition. So it sent us off on this trek for months and months and months. I'm calling people in Japan and going on this whole venture to try and find someone that not only makes new Sudares, but makes ones that we could specify finishes. I had this memory of these ones that I had seen in my grandparents' house and I really wanted something like that. It was almost impossible to find.

For my house here in Miami, I had this very specific idea of what tiles I wanted, so I went to Guatemala, to all these, not even factories, I had to go to these kind of funny garages to find people to make these cement and caustic tiles for me in a way that I wanted them to be done. That's not so unusual for the work that we do. It's always sort of an adventure, but then it always ends up being the thing that's like the most beautiful or the most exciting about the project. It can be such a small detail but it really changes it or makes it special.

Where is the most remote place you've gone in search of a piece?
Into the Atlas mountains looking for, you know, an interesting Moroccan rug.

What artwork and furniture are in the most opulent room you've ever worked on?
I would say that the most opulent room I've done is probably the most simple-looking. [The flooring and walls of the room] were from the woods that he built the building out of, sourced from an old warehouse on the west coast. And we, uh, kind of bought the warehouse to get access to these huge fir planks. The furniture we collected for five years were pieces by [master woodworker George] Nakashima, [French midcentury avant garde designer Jean] Royére, [French architect and designer] Charlotte Perriand—you know, all of these amazing, incredible furniture makers and designers from the midcentury.

There are Nakashima cabinets that have been in Nakashima's house. Then there's this extremely big sofa from Brazil from the '50s and [American fashion designer] Rick Owens made another sofa for that room. None of it really—that's the best part about it—it's not like it's gilded or anything. It's all these kind of basic materials: beautiful simple woods and simple things, but it's the execution of those pieces and the history of them. Then there's this Perriand table (below) that's huge, it's one of the biggest tables that she ever made and it's this beautiful, beautiful black, rich finish. We were buying from auction and dealers and all these different things just to create this room, which in the end is rather spare and open.

I really think that real luxury is time in a way, having the time to eke out these really incredible things and having the time to really work with an architect that you're excited about and find the right architect without having this idea of getting it done tomorrow.

Can you put a monetary value on that room?
Oh my gosh. There's probably over a million dollars worth of furniture and the building itself was a $20M, $30M building, so just boiling down to that room, it's a couple million dollars, I guess. But it really looks like a simple beach shack, that's the craziest part. It's not a shack, but it is a beach house in Hawaii.

What's the most ridiculous request, price-wise, you've ever received from a client?
Honestly? None of my clients have been so crazy. I've never had that experience of somebody looking at a [French designer Jean] Prouvé table and being like, "OK, great, let's get it. Offer them $5,000." They have more experience with that and are not so shocked. Even though sometimes I'm like, "Oh my God, that's a $300,000 table? Whoa." I'm more shocked half the time then they are.

When I was younger and I worked for [architect] Peter Marino, I remember being entirely shocked by the cost of these linen sheets. It seemed to me like we could have bought a jet for the cost of, you know, outfitting this house in sheets. But I've subsequently gotten over those kinds of sticker shocks.

What's the most expensive mistake you've made?
The most expensive mistakes I'm still paying for and I can't even quantify them. When you're doing the kind of work that I do, it's not always formulaic, we don't always know it will work. [...] Custom fixtures are sort of experimental. All the development work that goes into doing them—and then there's like casting and production—all those things add together and sometimes they just don't work, sadly. I'd like to say that every time it's like a homerun, but when it's not a homerun, then it's on my shoulders to fix it and that can be super expensive.

What are some of your favorite pieces in your own home?
I have this pair of big wall sculptures by this artist called Florian Baudrexel. They're basically made out of cardboard and boxes and found material, but they look sort of [sculptor Louise] Nevelson-like. I love them. [...] The fact that they're cardboard and will eventually disintegrate and be sort of like dust is also part of the attraction. They're very graphic and rigid and strong, but there's something ephemeral in them, knowing that they are basically just cardboard and tape.

Probably my favorite thing in New York is this really beautiful antique piece of taxidermy that's actually a quetzal. The quetzal is ... one of the most difficult animals to taxidermy in the world, and they're very, very, very super rare to find. They're completely endangered, so they are no longer taxidermied, so you only find them if they're antique. And even then, they're very difficult to find because they don't lend themselves to taxidermy.

What's your favorite story behind a piece you've discovered?
One of the things I love a lot is a piece that was given to me by the artist David Wiseman. He's an artist I have been working with for over nine years. Beyond discovering something far away, working with David has been more like I discovered him as an artist, because he was not really represented. He had just graduated from college and was just starting to do work, and I gave him this commission in Los Angeles, which has created an entire body of work. I don't even know if I'm answering the question, but that's the thing that, to me, has been the most work but also the most gratifying, because it's been this really long-term collaboration and he's gone on to do lots of work with other people.

Real luxury ... [goes] beyond trying to get a room together that looks great. If you're going to spend the money anyway, [ask yourself] how can you spend the money so that it can add to an artist's body of work or progress someone's career in an interesting way? I think that's the really exciting thing about being able to spend excess money on environments—not just to achieve my vision of what something should look like, but being able to collaborate and advance an idea with someone.

· All Whale Week posts [Curbed National]
· RP Miller Design [Official Site]