Design Leader Rottet on what it takes to make a Great Design: Focus on Leadership - Feb 2017

Interview by Kemp Harr

Lauren Rottet is one of most influential interior designers working today. In 2008, she stepped out on her own to launch Rottet Studio, and, in spite of the major economic downturn that followed, the firm has grown over the last nine years to include offices in Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; and Shanghai, China. 

Today, Rottet Studios serves hospitality and corporate clients worldwide, including Four Seasons, Marriott, GE, Samsung and Mattel. No doubt, part of the firm’s success can be chalked up to the fact that Lauren and the designers in her employ are committed to design for the sake of itself-not the business of design. Lauren and her practice hold many distinguished awards. In 1997, Lauren Rottet was honored with one of the industry’s most prestigious awards-Interior Design’s Hall of Fame. 

Q: Tell us a little about what drove you to pursue architecture and interior design as your career focus.
A:
 I was always constructing and inventing things. When I was a child in Waco, Texas, I used to build little rock houses for the toads that would hang out in our driveway. I’d construct these little houses, then put the toads in there, and I considered it a huge accomplishment if the toads were still inside the next morning because it meant I had built something special and secure. 

During high school in Houston, I watched the skyline of high-rise buildings go up, and my father let me skip school one day-which was a very big deal-to explore what I thought would be amazing interiors way up in the sky. I was so disappointed that these lovely buildings had such lifeless interiors. In college, at the University of Texas at Austin, I originally started as a pre-med and art student but realized rather quickly that it was not my passion, and that I instead wanted to influence people’s lives and emotions through the built environment. I wanted to design buildings and the spaces inside them-which I considered to be the ultimate art form.

Q: Do you prefer hospitality design projects over corporate? 
A:
 I do not prefer any particular sector of design over another. As long as a client has an open mind and is willing to explore possibilities, I love to help them achieve their design goals. I must admit, however, that designing a hotel is like being able to dream of anything you want and actually make it happen. As hotels are not one’s permanent residence, they are not as restricted and do not have to last a lifetime, though, if they are good, they should and do. They can be expressive, unpredictable, playful and even experimental.

Q: Tell me more about your design philosophy.
A:
 I don’t know how anyone can stop design at the perimeter of an interior. I used to say, “We design what does not get wet,” rather than, “interior design”-meaning, our design is about the shaping, securing, nourishing and pleasing of people within the built environment. This notion shapes all that I do. My work evolves around manipulating a space to feel light-filled, open, energetic, entertaining, never boring and to pleasantly surprise upon entry-and, more importantly, to contain detail elements that continue to surprise and delight the more time one spends in the space.

Q: Name some of the mentors who helped drive you to become the designer you are.
A:
 Andreé Putman is a fabulous designer and an elegant, gracious woman. When I was a young architect, I got to pick her up in Los Angeles and drive her to an America Institute of Architects function. She told me a beautiful story about her favorite time in her life, when she had been away from Paris, moved back and had a small apartment full of everything her parents and everyone had given her. One day, she took it all out and had only her bed. She said it was the most inspirational time in her life, as she learned to see life, design and objects in a more pure way, without the influence of clutter. Looking at each of her creations as they stood on their own, she began to formulate her unique style and passion, which she pursued beautifully. 

Two of the architects who have influenced my appreciation of design, Renzo Piano and Herzog de Mueron, I have now had the pleasure of collaborating with on projects-an amazing and fulfilling experience. And then Harry Cobb-a wonderful man. He’s such a fabulous architect and has been so good to so many people in the architecture and design field. His care for every detail on every project he designs as well as his care for our precious industry is inspiring.

Q: Talk about your perception of flooring. Why is it such a critical component in how a space performs in the end? 
A:
 Rottet Studio thinks very comprehensively about its designs and considers how the flooring ties into the overall design of the walls and ceiling. Even a small accent line on the floor can be powerfully moving and can create or ruin the space. The James Royal Palm is the perfect example of this. Down the long lobby corridor, which houses the James Club, bar and media center, a custom-designed terrazzo flooring with jagged path lines guides guests to their destinations and supports the playful environment of this area of the hotel. Passing through this lively portal to the grand sweeping staircase and closer toward the ocean, the lines on the terrazzo become calmer and, through the use of shapes and colors, are intended to represent the serenity of the ocean tide.

Q: What type of flooring do you prefer to work with and why?
A:
 There have been some incredible advancements with regard to carpet design over the last few years. Virtually anything you can imagine can be done with the use of new technologies, and it can really help expand the space beyond the structural walls. We designed an office for a financial investment firm, whose facilities sat alongside the San Francisco Bay with floor to ceiling windows. In order to really expand the space, we used a combination of stone and a custom carpet to make it appear as if the water from the bay were lapping up onto the shore of the office. 

Q: When it comes to sustainable practices, which sectors are more eager to embrace green practices and products, and in which sectors are the barriers greater?
A:
 Corporate projects, especially building architecture, has been trending toward green design and efficiency for decades, and we are beginning to see this more in multifamily and mixed-use projects.

Q: I’ve heard you say that great design needs to be unique. Where do you turn for inspiration when you start on a new project?
A:
 Personally, I always start by sketching my ideas by hand. For each project, I consider the context intently-What city? What specific neighborhood in that city? What is the architecture of the building? Is it historic or new, curved or planar? I look at what the client is trying to achieve with the project. If it is a headquarter office, what is the company’s culture, and what are its goals for its employees? If it is a hotel, who is the potential guest, and what is the experience that the hotel might want to create in that particular location in that particular building? We create a story and a memorable experience. If it is a residential project, we consider the immediate aesthetic, yet give more attention to a long-lasting approach to design, where the owner can make it their own and live with it for many years. Context is critical. If we love the building, we tend to perpetuate its design so it appears as a whole. In buildings we consider challenging design-wise, we make a clean break and have a transition zone to separate the space from the building. Every project is unique, and I strive to design according to the context, the surrounding neighborhood and the needs of the people within the space.

Q: What do you do to sharpen your saw, to become better informed, so that you can offer your client the best solution available? 
A:
 I am always seeking the new and never stop advancing our design approach through education, careful thought and technology. Educating yourself and doing your research while staying abreast of current industry trends, materials and technologies is immensely important. I think the education of both our staff and our clients is really important-formal and informal. I love nothing more than getting a student straight out of school-very smart, very talented-and then, you know, hovering over them and helping them learn. And then, they’re twice as good-they’re better than I am-because they have a fresh view and skillset we can use to our advantage. Overall, I seek to ensure that all of our work advances the design profession and results in inspiring, pleasant and artful spaces.

Q: Who made you believe that a design studio bearing your name could successfully support enough work to cover the overhead for offices in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Shanghai? 
A:
 Admittedly, in hindsight, launching a new business in 2008 was not the best timing; however, we have been immensely successful from the beginning. Having practiced architecture and design for over 20 years, I had developed a strong client base, a fabulous and loyal team of architects and designers, and a history of award-winning projects and publications. 

As I began to look forward into the state of the economy and the firm I was employed by, I realized that the firm was beginning to focus more strongly on infrastructure and engineering projects versus design and architecture, and that the leadership intended to take the company public. I also saw the focus of my everyday work life go from creating architecture and design to management meetings, filling out forms and reports, and constantly analyzing risk. I felt it was time to look for a solution that I knew could support my team, encourage our design goals and set a strong foundation to keep the team intact and grow the business I had been nurturing for so many years. 

Architecture and design is a successful business for me, but it is based on a passion for creating outstanding projects, not paperwork. When the company I was with started to limit the clients I could design for and turn away from supporting the process it takes to produce good design, I knew it was time to act quickly. The time was right to embrace good design as the driver of the business. I knew we would be successful, as my background and experience were exceptional, our following was strong, and we are all very hard working.

Q: Where is your favorite place to work? Why?
A:
 I am always on the move, so I have adapted to life on the run and can work from virtually anywhere. However, I find great peace and inspiration at my home in Montauk, New York, which was originally designed by George Nelson, the former head of design for Herman Miller. Every room in the house is hexagonal, which offers incredible sightlines, views and reflections throughout the day, and provides a great connection with the outdoors. It is a wonderful place to escape to, reset and get connected with my inner creative self. It also helps to be surrounded by so much architectural, interior and furniture design inspiration. 

Q: What advice do you have for recent graduates who have a desire to follow in your footsteps?
A:
 Well, you know, as designers, we always want to come up with a solution or an idea, or instantly report back to a client. But I think we should really sit back and listen to the parameters-what the client wants, what the surroundings are telling you about a project. I think that’s probably the most helpful professional advice. 

Another thing I would tell younger designers is never take “no” for an answer. 

Q: Of all the awards you’ve received, which one has meant the most to you and why?

A:
 Probably the Interior Design Hall of Fame induction, as it had always been a dream of mine to be included among such an incredible list of talented individuals. And it signified that not only did all of my hard work and dedication pay off, but that I had made it.

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