Aug 6, 2019

Episode 23

Lauren Rottet, Rottet Studio


Growing up, Lauren Rotett always wanted to do something creative and set her sights on architecture school. The Texas native first cut her teeth in corporate design with SOM, eventually going out on her own and landing her first hotel job, the Surrey, on the Upper East Side of New York. With three offices across the U.S., today, Rottet’s firm is heralded for melding residentially inspired interiors with dynamic, architecturally driven solutions.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I am here with Lauren Rottet of Rottet Studio. Lauren, thank you so much for joining us.

Lauren Rottet: Absolutely Stacy. Happy to be here.

SSR: It’s a nice Friday in New York. So, let’s start at the beginning. You grew up in Texas, right?

LR: I did.

SSR: And in growing up did you always know you wanted to be an interior designer or architect or were there any early influences that kind of guided you to this career?

LR: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I mean, I think that, especially growing up in Waco, I probably didn’t think about interior design. My father was a doctor. I kind of assumed I would do that, but I realized I was kind of always a builder. I was always outside building. I built a little lake, dug a lake, and stuck the Barbie dolls in it. I would build a booby traps and see if I could catch someone in them, which was kind of wicked for a child. But it was a lot of fun. And I would build houses for the little horn toed frogs that sort of populated Waco. And I was super excited if I could build a house that was secure enough to keep the little guy in overnight, then of course I would let him out in the morning.

So I realized later I was always building. But I went to college thinking I would do medicine so I could always paint and I could draw and I loved to draw. So I was actually a dual major of art and medicine. And then I thought, gosh, it’s going to be a billion years worth of school and all I do is paint buildings and maybe I should switch to architecture.

SSR: And so did you go back to school for that?

LR: No, I just continued. Because I could draw actually I placed out of the first couple of years of school and then I caught up really fast taking like 21, 23 hours a semester. Nuts. As you know, architecture school, sleeping under the desk. It was true. I was sleeping under the desk at architecture school to finish in the four years, which is actually a five year degree. So I finished it in four years, even switching late. So it was that a lot of school, a lot of, lot of school, lots of time.

SSR: But did it cement your love for it?

LR: You know, it did. It was absolutely the thing to do because not only did I paint buildings, I always painted the negative space in between buildings. So I think I had always seen things like that, and they call it figure ground. I was giving someone in my office that lesson the other day. She was asking me why I liked contrast in one part of the project and why I didn’t like it and another. So I said it’s about figure ground. And she looked at me like I was crazy. Because I guess I don’t teach that anymore, but they do in art school. Right? So it’s about what the eye perceives quickly, the absence of space and then the reality of space and what’s in between it.

SSR: So you left Texas and you went to San Francisco, right, for your first job out of school.

LR: I did, yes. How did you, Mr Research that I did, they had am internship program and it had always been an, I went to University of Texas. The internship program had always been within Texas, but I thought, I really want to get out of Texas for awhile. I want to go somewhere else. So I asked if I could do it in San Francisco. And they said, of course, if you can sign it up, go for it. So I went to work for an amazing firm called Fisher Friedman, who was doing beautiful, beautiful apartments and condos, really all over the nation. And I’d seen one in Houston and thought, oh my God, this contemporary architecture is just something I have to be all about.

So I went to work for them and they were amazing. Anything that I’ve lacked in that, you know, cramming the five-year architectural program into three and a half years, they taught me, I’ll never forget it, Steve Haynes, he sat over my shoulder and said, that’s terrible. I thought you were an artist. Or he would say, that’s amazing. That’s perfect. How did you pick that up so quickly? So it was like constant, amazing feedback. So I spent about two years there. I kept swinging back home. So after two years I came back home.

SSR: And you went to work for SOM, right?

LR: I did. So the two after I came home, I worked for a nanosecond Houston because I was getting married and I knew we were moving to Chicago, so I just took a little kind of fill-in job and then I thought, well I either want to have my own firm or work for SOM. And I thought, well, I’m certainly not ready for my own firm. So yes, I interviewed with them, but I got the position and started at SOM and never saw the light of day. But I learned a lot.

SSR: Were there any early projects there that you remember as being something that you walked away from, some sort of lesson that you still take in today?

LR: You know, there were a lot of lessons at SOM. I mean it was an amazing training ground and we did work very, very hard. There were almost maybe 1,400 people I think in the office at the time. So huge office, beautiful though, you know, obviously very clean and modernist and even just being around that you learn. But also I was wearing, I had the privilege of working with four partners at one time on the Neiman Marcus building. There was a Gordon Bunshaft, Bruce Graham, Adrian Smith, and Diane Leg, who was a brand new partner and they all had different ideas about it. So I learned a lot. I learned from Gordon the beautiful, minimal sort of modernist and then from Bruce, who was a little bit starting to do postmodern a bit. And then Adrian who was definitely more into postmodern and Diane was young at the time, so she was kind of following what Adrian Smith thought, but her work ethic and her ability on how to accomplish and how to get what you want was what I learned from her.

She was really amazing. So all sorts of lessons. I actually at the time, believe it or not, it was years ago. You still did those Ink rapidograph pin drawings on trace and they liked yellow trace. So my job, because they knew I could draw, I was this art major, right. My portfolio was full of drawings. They asked me to do, it was like 9 feet tall elevation of this building with rapidograph and colored pencil. It took me forever. But it is actually in the permanent collection at the art institute.

SSR: Oh wow.

LR: Yeah,

SSR: Who would have thunk?

LR: I know. I don’t think they display it very often, but it is there.

SSR: And it was with the SOM that you got to transition from architecture to interiors?

LR: Yes, exactly. So SOM late ’80s Texas was on fire. I did three high-rise buildings, one after another. I was a kid. I was  right out of college and we put them up just like you’d put up toys or something and then the bottom fell out and so there was absolutely no more buildings and so they said, well Lauren, we’d like you to do Trammell Crow’s office. I had just done two buildings for them, said, no I don’t, I don’t do interiors. I’m an architect.

Oh well, there’s not another thing for you to do. So I think you might want to think twice about that. Happy to do it. What was interesting about it was having done two buildings with Trammell Crow’s office, no one ever questioned a thing I did. Maybe a material or two, but as long as we were on schedule, we met the budget and met their program. It looked pretty good. Smooth sailing. Interiors? What about my office? And what about my desk And what about the chair? And what about that light? And I thought, oh my God, this is hard.

I had no idea. I thought the interiors thing was easy. So I found it quite fascinating and I actually liked that, that you got to know the people that you were designing for because I had done two buildings for these people and really didn’t get to know them, what they were like or what their personalities or, but when you do someone’s office, you get to know everything about their culture, their beliefs, why they wanted to be like this. So I found it kind of this interesting mix of psychology and design, much more so than the buildings were for me. But I still love doing buildings and we’re starting to do more now, which is exciting. So going full circle.

SSR: But so you decided to stay interiors.

LR: Well I did, you know, because SOM, they enjoyed my talent in it and I was good at it and I was a good leader and I was also a very architectural interiors person. So it wasn’t as if I were decorating the space. I could create the space, I could think of it, I can conceive of the lobbies. I kind of started out doing a lot of the building lobbies and that’s how they knew I would be good at the interior side of it.

The other thing I found fascinating about interiors is that it challenges your brain because when you do a building, you can take a picture of it and put it in the skyline. You can do a model or a rendering and put it in the skyline and you know exactly what you’re getting. But interiors you have to really educate yourself of what is that going to feel like as I go into it, as it surrounds me? It’s like being inside of a sculpture and having to imagine what it’s going to be like. So I think it actually takes a lot of education before you truly know what something’s going to feel like.

SSR: So going off of that, you decided then to kind of spin off with a couple SOM partners, right?

LR: So because there was nothing going on in Texas at the time. They asked me to move to Los Angeles. And of course that second time I said, no, I’m a native Houston and I keep coming back here. But of course there were absolutely no jobs to be had by an architect in Houston at the time. So I thought, well, it’d be fun for two years. So I committed for two years to go out and start their interiors department in Los Angeles for SOM. And it was absolutely stunningly beautiful. The California sunshine and the beaches. And we ended up with a quite a lovely home. So of course I loved it, and I stayed 14 years out in California before I finally came back to Texas. But, shortly after we got out there and made the office quite successful, they asked if I would move to Chicago to really head that up and we’d just moved the family. All of us had just moved our families, so we decided to just stay right there and do it on our own.

SSR: And so you had started a family while doing all this?

LR: Yeah, actually my son was 18 months when we moved to California.

SSR: Got it.

LR: Yeah. But my daughter was still in my stomach when we started that second firm. I’m sure you know the drill. So it was quite interesting to go home and tell your husband that no, you’re leaving an absolutely good job to go to one where you’re starting it. No, there’s no income, there are no clients yet. We’ll be fine.

SSR: Nothing to worry about.

LR: Nothing to worry about.

SSR: But you did it. You were really successful. I remember you told me you went from four to 60 in like four years.

LR: We were very successful, and I think the reason for our success, we started with really no overhead. We each put a little bit of money into it. And the thing that got around very quickly is it’s like, you know, it’s like the big boys, it’s like SOM but without the overhead. So it’s like you can get SOM on a budget.

Well we didn’t really cut our fees too much, but that was kind of what got around. So it was great PR for us. And really some of our first work was back in Texas. It was for BMC Software and the owner, the CEO had said, ‘Well, what about that firm that moved from Houston to San Francisco? They’d be an interesting choice. Right?’

And their real estate broker said ‘Oh, you don’t need that kind of horsepower for a suburban building out here in Houston.’ He goes, ‘What? I want that kind of horsepower.’ So that was our very first project actually. And we did a huge campus plan, all the buildings, all the interiors, and then just kept on going from there.

SSR: Looking back is there something you wish you had known then about starting a firm?

LR: It’s interesting because of course I’ve started my own firm 11 years ago. You would’ve thought I would’ve learned all the lessons the first time. And I did. I had learned quite a few of them. I think what I had learned as you know, and what a life lesson in general, is that at the end of the day it’s up to you. You know you can’t think, well they didn’t do that or blame it on someone else or wait for someone else to do it or think it’s going to be done by someone else. If you really want what you want and you want the success you want, you need to really do it yourself.

You need to gather around you people that can help you, but you need to have the drive and you need to never say that it was somebody else’s fault or that something held you behind. So, our first one was quite a success. I never think about the male/female thing, but you know, I was the only woman and a five male partner firms, so it was a little bit interesting. I was the only one there on a Friday night still signing payroll checks and accounts payable. I’m like, what is wrong with this picture? Why am I the only one here?

SSR: Yeah. Especially as a mother of two children.

LR: Exactly, right.

SSR: And you guys joined forces once again with Daniel Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall, right?

LR: The senior partner, Rick Keating of our firm, Keating, Mann, Jernigan, and Rottet, decided he wanted to sell. None of us could figure out why because we were literally on fire. We were making amazing money doing amazing architecture and having a great time. But we kind of realized later looking back that he changed things about every five years. So this was about five years and time to change. So, but we all agreed that if he really wanted to sell that bad, then maybe it would be hard to do it without him because he was kind of a senior name. Although, fortunately, I had developed a name in interiors, so as fate would have it that was really wonderful. So when we sold, I actually had a big backlog of the business. So that was actually helpful in being able to transition over and the negotiations and things like that.

SSR: So this is another new firm.

LR: So he wanted to sell. I didn’t want to sell so I actually said that I was going to not go and that I was going to start my own thing. Remember I was going to either have my own thing or work for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. And one of the reasons I had said that was because I had such a great deal of respect for SOM, and I still do. I either needed to have that much respect for another firm or be on my own. So I thought I would just go on my own. But because of the backlog and because of the bulk of work that I had, they pretty much insisted that I go along with this sale. So I said, fine, I’ll do it for a year. I’ll get you guys over there and then I’ll, I’ll go back out on my own. But AECOM, which is what it is now, DMJM at the time was very, very good to me and they were actually great and I stayed with him for 14 years after signing a one year deal.

SSR: What kind of projects were you doing? Were you still doing mostly commercial?

LR: Well, the funny thing was because they did not know what an interiors firm, at the time, they do now. Very much so. But at the time they really didn’t know what an interiors from did. So definitely they just thought I picked the fabrics, that all I did was pick the fabrics. I’m like, you guys, that is probably the one thousands thing that I do. But yes we do pick fabrics, but we do all these other things. So we worked on a lot of strange things from these kinds of engineering plants to these, you know, huge sort of industrial things to all of our normal stuff that we had been doing along the way. So it was a hugely varied practice, which actually was fun because it introduced me to a lot of different environments. We had done almost only office really with SOM.

SSR: Right. So this opened up all new doors.

LR: It did, right.

SSR: Was there a type of project that you really kind of latched onto that you loved at that time?

LR: It’s always the client in the particular project, not necessarily the project type, but this may lead into your next questions, but I had been dying to do hotels and they just wouldn’t come to us. We were too big. We were too big of a firm and everybody in hotel world at the time, kind of still does, want a boutique or a name or someone who would really understand hotels. And as much as I tried and as no one would ever talk to us about a hotel until really like the day we started Rottet Studio, the phone started to ring about hotels and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing. This is one of the best perks of going out on your own.’ I could imagine.

SSR: But you picked 2008 to go out on your own, which isn’t a very good year to do that.

LR: Yes, well you know, it was a very interesting time. It was may of 2008 was when we officially launched and we had a lot of work. And the agreement with AECOM was a very congenial one that I took my clients, took my firm. It was kind of the agreement we had always had. And so it was very easy like that in a sense. So we had big clients and a lot of work. We were doing Donald Bren’s office, and so he called to tell me personally that he was putting the project on hold. He said, ‘It’s not you or the fact that you’ve changed firms or that you’ve moved to Texas or any of that.’ He said I’m putting it on hold. I’m not going to use anyone. I don’t like the way the economy looks. I’m like, oh dear, we’re in trouble. So that was maybe June of ’08, a month into it.

So, I said to David and Richard, I said, ‘We’re in for a really roller coaster, rough ride. Fasten your seat belt. We need to do something other than office or we are going to not make it.’ So David’s like, well, great, I love hotels anyway. I’m like, great. I do too. I’ve been wanting to do them. So, thank God, the phone rang about a hotel, the Surrey, and what turned out to be very interesting in that negative time was it was a great time to renovate hotels because occupancy was down, cost of construction was low. And so that’s really how we made it. Through the downturn, doing we did, we went from Surrey to St. Regis to the James to many others, and then developed a reputation around hotels. And here we are.

SSR: Talk a little bit about the Surrey because it’s such a special project that really has all of the ethos that you put into it. They haven’t changed much of it, which speaks so much to you as a designer and your firm.

LR: Yeah, that’s really true. The Surrey was obviously, it was a very pet project for me. Well, I had done one other hotel with Ricardo Legorreta while I was with SOM, and it was an amazing collaboration between he and I, but that was 20-some odd years ago and it was just a fluke because they went to SOM, and I was the interiors person. So I did it. And so I had stored up hotel ideas for 20 years. They all unleashed on Surrey. Here’s everything I’ve been storing for 20 years.

SSR: But then you have to curate it.

LR: Then you have to, right? Exactly. You have to edit yourself down. So of course also I had never worked in a traditional language. I had been with SOM:modernist, clean minimalist. As you know, my personal taste is very inspired by the light and space artists, so as minimal as you can get and just let the light reflect on certain things, and that’s architecture and design to me. So the Surrey was definitely a challenge. I grew up with one minimalist grandmother. She was Amish Shaker, minimal. Everything was handmade. If you didn’t need it, you didn’t have it. And then the other collected almost baroque antiques, and she had very good taste. So I grew up either an incredible minimal or ornateness.

So at the Surrey I just went back into that life, but then I edited down and decided to look at it through the lens of a black and white camera as if you had been seeing it back in 1925 when the building was built. What postcard would someone have sent? It would have been black and white, right? That was when I started storytelling and decided that Coco Chanel lived there and this was her pied-à-terre. And so what would Coco Chanel need? And I truly just designed it for her and whatever she might need, she would need.

At the time they hired us, it didn’t have a bar. It of course as Daniel Boulud’s restaurant next to it, but people would wait in the lobby and getting a little unhappy that their table wasn’t ready. That was not a good thing for a hotel lobby. So I went to the owner and I said, ‘We need a bar.’ And they’re like, “Why?’ And I said, ‘Because imagine Coco Chanel coming in and she throws her coat over the chair and says, Take it to my room. I’m going for a Martini,’ and she doesn’t have a place to go.'”

SSR: So obviously we need a bar.

LR: So obviously we need a bar. And so we created one, which turned out to be a huge success in many ways because also, it was hotel lessons 101. You’re not going to make a lot of money in a lobby, a large lobby at the time. Now lobbies are a different because they’re coworking, it’s a whole different game. But back then a lobby was just a lobby and not a money making effort and that lobby was going to be too big and I felt too big for what we wanted to make the hotel, which was like a small pied-à-terre. So then we turned half of it into the lobby and [the other half into] the bar and could then make money off of it.

SSR: Yeah, that’s smart. Well, tell us a little bit now about your firm. Eleven years later, what does it look like? Offices, talking about a little bit about your culture.

LR: Yeah, 11 years later, fortunately still doing a lot of hotels and boutique hotels and also for Marriott and Hyatt and Hilton and all of those. It’s a really wonderful fun thing. I never go tired of that. And then we’re doing a lot of high-rise residential, which is also very, very fun. Different, because it’s not as storytelling. It’s more about what’s the beautiful balance of having a point of view so that it’s not plain vanilla but still being able to appeal to enough people that your owners can sell it.

Then we’re actually doing several private residential, some of them ground-up houses, which is fun for me. And we’re doing these little boutique hotels that are very inexpensive to build. They’re stick construction, meaning wood frame. We do everything from the master planning to the landscape to the architecture to the graphics. Sometimes we paint our own art in them. They’re really fun. Sometimes we hire local people, sometimes we actually sew stuff ourselves. They’re these very one man band hotels. They’re a lot of fun.

The sales centers open now for the tallest residential building, all residential building in the world, for Gary Barnett for Extell, Nordstrom Tower, Central Park Tower as it will be called. So very high-end, high-rise residential and then these very economical, wonderful little hotels. So it remains a hugely diverse practice. We don’t divide into teams. So we don’t have a hotel team or an office team or an expensive team and a cheap team. We really cross-educate everyone. And certainly sometimes someone has more of an inclination toward either minimalism or modernism or someone loves to work with the more ornate millwork, so we do put people on those teams, and we’ll borrow from different offices depending on someone’s strength and also the project, which is fun.

We have New York, Los Angeles and Houston and then a sister company in Shanghai and we’re also doing all the Viking River and ocean business. So I think we’re on ship number 64. And we’re working on some really fun ones now for Alaska and a Mississippi ship.

SSR: So many questions. So first the high-rises, the residential, they’re almost becoming hotels in their own right, in terms of their amenities. Are you seeing that in some of the buildings that you’re doing?

LR: Well, it’s interesting, the amenities and apartments now are amazing. Some of the apartments we’re doing in Texas, I would live in them. They’re amazing and the amenities are as good as some of our very high end condominium projects. And I think it’s because, at at a certain level, people have a lot of homes, not a lot. They have several. Houston, in particular, is a place where sometimes in the oil business you go and you stay several months or you go there quite often, but you don’t necessarily want to have a house there. So the apartment business is really an interesting one. We’re doing them in Los Angeles as well. Very nice apartments. Beautiful amenities.

SSR: On the other spectrum, the Viking cruises. The cruise ship industry as a whole is seeing such a renaissance. How are you guys pushing that envelope and trying to help redefine it?

LR: Yeah, I think that that has been a very interesting story for us. Viking came to us knowing that we really had not done cruises before. I had been on one. Richard had never been on one, but I had just renovated a ship for a friend of mine. It was about maybe a 200-foot-ship done. He was selling it at the Miami show and he gave me about a week, maybe two weeks max, to renovate this whole ship in order to sell it. But I found that actually those crews know how to do that because you bring a boat into dock and they chain it, turn it out fast and off you go. So I found it so fun. And so I thought, Well, that’d be fun to be in the cruise business.

So we cobbled together a brochure from that one ship, took every single project we had that might have an ocean-looking view. Okay, well there’s an ocean out there somewhere and didn’t lie that we had done them because we had only done one. But the brochure was so compelling because it was our work, but with water in the background.

So, strangely, I’d sent that to Richard and then about three weeks later, a project manager who we’d done offices with calls and says, ‘Would you be interested in cruise ships?’ And we’re like, ‘Sure.’ She said, “Well, I have a client, Viking. They’re headquartered in Woodland Hills, even though of course they build the ships everywhere else. They want to come see you.’ And so they came and the rest is history on that.

SSR: That’s wonderful. And then hotels, you mentioned all the different levels of hotels. Are you talking about the Valencia properties?

LR: We are, the Valencia properties. Right.

SSR: So talk a little bit about them because it’s just such an inventive way to look at lower budget properties and construction.

LR: Absolutely. When I talk about stick construction, some of them are metal front, metal studs, simply because of code, but the others are wood stud. So they go up very quickly and they’re typically two or three stories and they’re like the motels of old, although they’re almost four and a half star because the sheets are amazing. The bedding is amazing. The cocktails and the food are amazing, but they’re like these wonderful little motels.

We really developed a formula where you enter on the inside, the court side, the courtyard side, but you have windows out the back, really through your bathroom, but the bathrooms are separated, so you’re looking over the pretty vanity. And so you have windows on both sides. So if you want to be more private you can shut the court side and still be able to see out the back. It makes the rooms feel quite big and they are a little bit bigger.

And then of course we put SMEG refrigerators in them and we have little tables. It’s almost like your little mini home and it’s really designed around that old feeling — you’re probably too young Stacy — but your father puts you in a car and then you stop in wherever Texas or Nebraska, wherever on earth you are, and you all get out of the car because you’re so tired of being in a car and you go into this little motel room and there’s a court with a swimming pool so you get to know the neighbors. The lights go on, the lights go off. It’s a very congenial thing. We always laugh in the Texas one that someone checks in, they go to the room, they switch on the light, you can see it and it’s like within a minute they’re out again and down into the courtyard.

So they’re there based on just having a lot of fun and they’re orchestrated like that. But when you talk about the budget, we actually really liked them because our client are very openminded. So sometimes we say, ‘But all you can afford is hay barrels with glass over them.’ We get what we want by being able to say, ‘But that’s all you can afford for this budget.’ So you have to be openminded when you’re working on the lower budgets. But, they are a lot of fun.

SSR: Yeah. And they can keep you on your toes.

LR: Definitely. Yeah, definitely.

SSR: For our family vacations, my dad put us in the car for 16 hours and nonstop.

LR: We have the same father.

SSR: That was difference with them. And then on the luxury side, you’re doing work for the Four Seasons and Lowes and a bunch of different brands. I think you’re helping to push them in a direction that that’s where luxury is going today. Can you speak a little bit on how you guys are approaching luxury?

LR: I think that’s a good question. You mentioned the Surrey, and at the time the Surrey was done in 2009, so 10 years ago it was really a reinvention of luxury. It was to some people contemporary. To me it was traditional. It wasn’t opulent. It was very muted in color, and in some ways it was quiet and subtle and a different luxury.

Luxury today is, I wouldn’t say a challenge, but you have to look deeply because people have access to so much and they can get so many places so quickly that what they’re really looking for, of course, is an experience. And so luxury, they already know it’s going to be a beautiful bathroom and it’s going to have amazing water pressure and the bedding is going to be wonderful and all of that.

So what’s different? Well, sometimes it’s amazing art or sometimes it’s just the way you’ve seen it versus the way someone else sees it. But one thing that I think that we always do and that we do very well is make sure that it is completely tuned to its exact venue. If it’s Aspen, not just Aspen. Okay. Does it look out on the mountain or does it look over to the valley? What part of Aspen is this? What is this hotel? Because we think that part of real luxury is giving someone the experience of they went to Aspen or New York or Miami or wherever it was and they got the best of the best experience there that was very, very specific to that locale, including the food, the music, and the sense.We like to figure out, well what should it smell like? Like in Houston I did a scent for the high rise condo we did and it’s a mix of magnolias and some other things like that. I wouldn’t do that here in Manhattan. It would be a very different scent.

So I think that luxury is also about the tiny little things you see by the bed. It’s about the linens. I always encourage my clients to do that hand embroidered linens or French linens, just at least hanging on the vanity. At least start your hotel with them. Right? Please, and just for me, humor me when I can come back. Can you have one? Just pretend like they’re still in my room so I don’t have to call you and tell you that they were missing.

And it’s a lot about the lighting. That’s another thing that it seems so simple, but we really know how to light a bathroom so no one’s ever going to complain that they couldn’t see in their bathroom. And they’ll also look really beautiful. And that’s luxury too. You have to look very pretty.

SSR: No, there’s nothing worse than going into a bathroom and not being able to see how you put your makeup on or what you did look like.

LR: Exactly.

SSR: And you mentioned art. You’ve always been such a great curator of art and a lover of art and even when you did the Langham in Chicago, you were specifically just the art curator.

LR: Exactly.

SSR: Can you talk a little bit about how you weave that through?

LR: I actually loved that job. We had so much fun with that. I loved being actually just doing the art. I came in very late and everything was really already designed and even down to the walls with a lot of divisions in them. So it was very difficult in some ways because it wasn’t like a museum. There were not a lot of white blank walls. But are most of the artists in the galleries knew me and I think if they didn’t know me and know the passion that I have for art and understanding of it, they would’ve said, “No, our artists aren’t going to fit their dimensions into your paneled walls? This is what they do.” But they understood the vision and where I was going to go with it. So every time I go there and I stay there when I’m in Chicago, I’m shocked at how amazing the art fits right into all of those panels as if they had been designed for them and slightly the artists did vary them to make them work.

But my father was very conservative and yet he took us, like I say, all over the nation. I saw every single art museum there is to see pretty much from the time I was little. It was just part of my life. And in Houston, one of the most influential ones when shortly after we moved there was the, and I’m on the board now, the Contemporary Arts Museum. It was an all stainless steel Gunnar Burkitt very odd building. And the show was chickens molting in cages.

SSR: Of course.

LR: This was Sunday after church, and we went through it and I was just fascinated and I thought, ‘Well, I get it. Okay, this one’s a little pink and the feathers are that way. This one has those kinds of feathers.’ I just thought this is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. He came out and said, ‘Well, that was not art, but at least I think it opened your mind to other things.’ And I thought it really did. How amazing.

So I like art because I think that if you’re really understanding it enough and an artist is really a good, valid artist, that’s what they’re doing. They’re opening your mind to see things that you never would have even thought about. And I think it’s very influential in our work. A lot of the people in my office say, ‘Just when we thought we knew you were what you wanted, you change it all up.’

So we have a style and we have a method but I don’t like anything to feel too preplanned or too matched. And sometimes I’ll come in and they’ve worked on those palettes so much that they completely match. I’m like, ‘Start all over. Come back at 6 a.m. and just throw it together and it will be much better.’ A little bit of spontaneity. You have to have the contrast with the things that go together or you don’t have that friction and beautiful visual tension that it needs.

SSR: Right. How involved are you still in each project as you grow and have three offices? I feel like there’s always a balance for any principal of a firm as you grow to still do what you love.

LR: It’s a good question. The West Coast, Richard really is very involved in that. So he really handles most of the Viking. And so I’m not as involved in those. Certain clients ask me to be involved, so Paul Hastings, I’m very involved in those. But when a client asks me to be involved or when I am involved in it, I’m very, very involved. I still like to space plan. I’m a workaholic so I’ll get involved in the space plan because to me that’s where the design starts and I certainly am very involved in the concept in the beginning. Then I get very involved in some of the tiny details. How does a reveal go into the ceiling? Where’s the light hidden? Is it a flat drywall or is it gloss or how do those two come together?

Super details of the projects down to the furniture. So I’m very involved in it, but I also give my team, and they’re great, we hire very good people, so I give them a lot of room because I figure I’m as good as I am and they came with their things. I come with mine and if we take advantage of both, one, I make them better, but two, they make me better and they make our work better. So I’m very open to what people bring to the table. Sometimes I have to say, ‘Well, that’s amazing, but it’s not right for this project. But store the idea, let’s think about it. Let’s pull it out on the next one because it’s a beautiful idea,’ but it may not work in this project at this time.

SSR: One of the cool concepts I think that you helped create was the Renaissance in Atlanta at the airport. I just love that concept because it brought a lot of fun to an airport hotel that you don’t usually typically see at airports, more so now today.

LR: Well, with TWA. Right?

SSR: Exactly. Yes, they say that. But can we talk a little bit about what you guys did there and how you really infused art throughout that entire concept?

LR: Yeah, we loved that project. When they first asked us about it, I thought, ‘I don’t know, an airport hotel, gosh, I don’t know what this will do, because we obviously have a strong design reputation that we want to keep.’ But I met the owners and they definitely had their Atlanta accents and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, am I going to be in trouble?’ But I showed them a lot of quirky things, ‘I love that, I like that, that’s interesting.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be a good client.’ And it was really fun. I’m doing several more projects with the owner, who actually the owner came on a little bit late, the money behind the project, and he loved it too. He’s very experienced developer.

So, the concept of the airport hotel, Atlanta, of course, it’s the south. And we thought, ‘Okay, well if someone is stuck in Atlanta,’ which I’ve been, we’ve all been stuck in Atlanta, right? We want to give them experience. One, they’ll probably never get out of the hotel, so they’ll never see Atlanta, so we do want to give them an Atlanta experience. But, two, we want to make it fun for them so that they might call their husband or wife or whatever, as opposed to, ‘Oh my God, I’m stuck in Atlanta,’ to ‘Hey, I’m stuck in Atlanta, want to come join me?’ Or ‘Maybe I’ll stay two days stuck in Atlanta.’

We actually did pull out a lot of the southern, almost cliche, but we have swings, we have porch swings inside the lobby, and we have where the white wood blends with the natural wood, that comes directly from my grandmother’s house in Waco, because she would have to paint that natural wood all the time. And it drove her crazy when the natural woods showed, but we always liked it. We thought it was was cute, where you walk off the paint and it turns into natural. So that was right out of my grandmother’s house, as were the porch swings. So they let us do interesting things like that.

We actually raised the ceiling on the ground floor because then we realized that you could see more to the outside, because Atlanta is so green, and we really wanted people to understand how green and beautiful the vines and the vegetation of Atlanta are. So we did that. We even let them have some of that, I think they call it kudzu, that vine that people that live in Atlanta hate. But if you visit it, you think it’s beautiful because it’s so green and grows everywhere. So we have some of that there. So it’s very much of an Atlanta experience, but it’s very much, as you say, of an art experience.

And we do that because our budget, obviously, was not high, so what I typically do when we’re doing art in a hotel like that is I get to know the schools and the museums, and they know your background and what you’ve done at this point, and they know galleries who know you and know what you buy and that you’re a serious art collector. So they open you up to who are the best galleries showing young artists and who are the best professors that the schools. And so, you go in and talk to these people. And then the professors, of course, can introduce you to their best students. And it’s just a whole thing. We spend a lot of time in it, and we spend a lot of time in a car going around to countless galleries in Atlanta in major heat looking at art.

SSR: Awesome. And it was a collaboration, too, with SCAD, right?

LR: Yes. SCAD was very influential in it. And one of the younger artists, he was already out of SCAD but his father had been an animator at Disney.

SSR: Oh, cool.

LR: And when I first saw his work, I thought, ‘Gosh, this feels so familiar to me.’ But I had seen his father’s animation work, much more realistic. But his son’s big, huge, that’s the one you see in that shot at the end by the ballroom, his son’s work, I thought, ‘I’ve seen this somewhere.’ And when you really look at it side-by-side, it doesn’t look a thing alike, but it has a spirit that his father’s work had in those small animations.

SSR: So, what other projects have you recently completed that you are proud of or that was an interesting lesson along the way, if there is any more lessons that you can learn?

LR: No, we’re always learning lessons. That’s what makes it fun. Well, we’ve just completed the Conrad, as you know, in Washington DC, which is a fabulous project. So that was an amazing collaboration. Heinz was the developer, and Herzog de Meuronand our office collaborated on the atrium, and really a lot. We really supported what they wanted on the ground floor in the entry doors and the lighting, and they really supported what we wanted in the atrium and the story we were trying to tell, which was a story of really a contemporary reinterpretation of historic Williamsburg. So if you look at that project, at first glance you won’t see it. But the third floor is the lobby and reception area, and anything that’s food and beverage is actually clad in wood, and anything that is more governmental or like the elevators or the core is clad in stone. So it’s almost a literal interpretation, but in a very contemporary way. So, that one’s quite fun for me. We also just recently finished the Cap Juluca for Belmond, which is a beautiful hotel. I love to paddle board and I love to swim in the ocean, and that little bay is insanely gorgeous. So that was a lot of fun.

SSR: And you just mentioned you were working on a healthcare project. Is that new for you? Have you guys done many?

LR: We have done a few. It’s usually plastic surgery or dermatology. So we haven’t done a hospital, we haven’t done serious healthcare, although there’s a lot of development going on in Houston right now in the medical center. And, fortunately, we’ve had a lot of inquiries about doing major interiors, not just lobbies, but really helping to influence, because a lot of these people don’t get out of those interior spaces. They go from one to another to another for months. I love that people are starting to think that a good interior environment can be helpful in many situations. So we’re excited to do more. And the ones that we’ve done, the doctors have all said that it has absolutely changed their businesses. People are so much happier, their businesses have grown, they’re happier.

SSR: It just makes sense. Good interior creates wellness, creates happier people.

LR: Well, and if you really think about it, you’re going to a plastic surgeon and you look around and the office looks terrible, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, should I really have done this?’

SSR: I get it.

LR: Not that I would ever know.

SSR: No, never. You’ve had so many amazing repeat clients. What is the secret to successful collaboration?

LR: We do have a lot of repeat clients. I think that sometimes I care too much about the project, so I am best suited for someone who cares as much as I do. Sometimes a project actually doesn’t want you to care as much, and so those are never repeat clients, but fortunately that doesn’t happen very often. Most clients know our work, they’ve seen it and so they know that I’m going to do whatever it takes to make the project incredibly successful.

One thing I always do tell a client, and this is probably why they’re repeat, I will hit their budget, I will hit their schedule, I just need to know what it is up front so that we can talk about it. And if it’s unrealistic, we can talk about it right up front, that it might be unrealistic, so that there’s no misunderstandings through the project.

Our fees are really commencement with anyone else’s. But I think the difference is we go way, way, way the extra mile to get what we want within that budget. Like on the Surrey, for example, it has hand-hammered leather, it has hand-hammered metal. Those things would have been crazy expensive, except I found a belt guy in Montana who does that for a living and he does it for a lot of the country rock stars. So he was like, ‘Oh, this will be fun.’ And did it for a great deal. So if you want-

SSR: How did you even find him?

LR: Oh, I don’t even know. Probably went in some boot store or something and asked who did something. But so we really go the extra mile to get the design we want, because I can’t stand it when someone says, ‘Okay, well let’s just cut the finishes or cut this or that.’ You’re like, ‘But then it won’t be anything. We’ll find a way. Let’s figure out a way.’ I think it’s just working with them and really understanding and getting on their same page, and I think they understand how hard we work on their behalf. And at the end of the day it’s a huge value of what was brought to the project.

SSR: And I think, too, especially in today’s day and age with shorter lead times, tighter budgets and everything, just to be very upfront and just be, like, ‘Need to know it all now, so we can have good communication moving forward.’

LR: That is one tricky thing right now because you can render so fast and you can put an image in front of someone so fast, but it still takes a ton of time to think out all of the details. And that’s the one thing that I think I caution everyone about right now is that you still have to think out those details. You can’t really turn it around as fast as you can turn around that beautiful image, that beautiful rendering. And I think most people know that.

SSR: As a design firm principal, what are some of the challenges of the industry, going off of what you just said, that are things that keep you up at night? Is it staffing? Is it hiring? Is it finding new business? What’s top of mind right now?

LR: Well, challenges of the industry, that’s a multilayered question. But I guess I would say that our business is probably not the easiest business in the world because you’re dealing with lots of materials, lots of schedules, lots of hands, things go through a lot of different people. So it’s major, major orchestration. Right? So I think that the more our sources expand, in some ways that’s easier, but it’s also harder because there’s just multiple different people to need to orchestrate and control. So I think although it’s more fun and more interesting, it also becomes more challenging just to need to source that many things from so many different people.

Of course, the people side of any business is always the hardest one. And I think the only thing that makes me a little sad right now is that whatever is in the schools or whatever is in the line of thinking, I think people aren’t as loyal to their firms as they used to be. And maybe the bosses aren’t as loyal to the people. We try very hard to be very good to our people, and some have been with us for just years and years. But we do find that people jump around more now and sometimes they jump from our firm, and then they come back in two years.

SSR: The grass is always greener.

LR: The grass is always greener. And then they stay for a while. But I think it’s just that the people part of the business is always challenging, and in some ways it’s one of the most fun parts. And I think we’re very lucky that we hire very good people. We have great recruiters and oftentimes it’s word of mouth and oftentimes it’s people at our office who find the people. So the good side of that is the kids right out of school right now are incredibly well-trained, very talented, tons of skills. And some of them, this recent batch, I’d say three to five years out is really excited. They’re really excited about working and they really want to learn, and that’s interesting. When you’ve done this long enough you see cycles go through, right?

So there’s maybe a cycle of people who don’t want to learn as much, and then there’s a cycle of people who do. So right now I think we’re on a really good cycle. But it is challenging. They know that we train our people well, so they want our people, so they work hard to get our people. And so, sometimes we do lose people after we’ve worked very hard to train them for three years. Very often, they do come back though after a couple of years. So that’s the good news. We’re getting one back right now as we speak. So that’s pretty exciting.

But I think the people side is challenging because when we went to school, life was still as hard, but it just moved a little slower because of the lack of technology. And so now the speed at which people want to move and you still have to make all the projects as detailed and as beautiful and as good, people want to move so fast, whether it’s your internal people or whether it’s your clients. And you always have to say, ‘We can meet those dates, but you have to give us enough time in these periods to get the right thing out or it won’t be what you build.’ So I think because it’s so speed and quick to the renderings and things at the image, it’s always a challenge now about the real time it takes to put the projects that we put together, together.

SSR: So, what’s next for you for Rottet Studio? Is there a type of project that you would love to do or things you want to do as you continue to grow and expand and try new niches?

LR: We’re excited about doing more buildings. The buildings have come about because, one, we all started as architects doing high-rise buildings. And, two, because a lot of times we inherit not so much a hotel, but often a high-rise residential project that the owner tells us is not selling, and that they need to have better interiors. And we look at the poor little building and think, ‘And you need a better building.’ So we get involved in the skins and the way they look, and we basically redesign them and help them rebrand and redesign. And then they have been selling incredibly well. This has been a trend of ours over the last five years or so. So we’re starting to gain respect from the developers who are saying, ‘We know you aren’t know for high-rise building, but you sure did a great job for us.’

And we’re very excited about that because I really feel if you can do both the inside and the outside, there’s a lot of economies. And that’s just the way we think, even if I’m not the design architect on it, I think about what the architect was thinking about when I do the interiors, and I put myself in their head so they work well together, so that they sync well together, you can build them better together. That’s not something that most interior designers do. They look at them just singularly. But we’re super excited about some of our newer commissions that we’ll be building. And I think we can bring some really beautiful projects that are actually brought more efficiently and more economically because of this holistic way of thinking about it.

We’re doing a lot of product. I’m doing it on my own, of course, with Rottet Collection. You saw some of them at HD, at the Social Hub, and the studio is starting to do more, because, as you know, every time we do a hotel, we design a lot of furniture, so we’re doing product, we’re doing lighting, lighting for Visual Comfort and really excited about that, and just lots more product. A lot of people in my office are dying to do products so they can’t wait to get the chance to work with me on product designs. Now I’m just saying, ‘You go for it. Bring me your ideas and I’ll bring you mine and we’ll have fun designing these things.’

SSR: Oh, wow. You’re really expanding.

LR: Yeah, we are.

SSR: That’s great. Thank you so much for stopping in. It was such a pleasure to catch up with you as always.

LR: You’re so welcome, Stacy. Thank you. We’ll see you soon.

SSR: Yeah, for sure.