From cutting her teeth as an architect at SOM to flexing her interior design muscles on hospitality projects and launching her own line of furniture, Lauren Rottet, FAIA, has explored numerous creative paths throughout her decades-long career. Here, the founding principal and president of Rottet Studio weighs in on her work and the artists who inspire her most.
What led to the founding of your firm?
In May of 2008, I founded Rottet Studio. The formation was long in coming and based on many years of experience. I began my career with SOM first in Chicago, then Houston, and then Los Angeles. In 1990, I left SOM and started an architecture and interior design firm with one of the SOM partners and three other architects all from SOM. We were working all over the world and “on fire,” as they say, but the senior partner wanted to sell. So, we sold to what is now AECOM (a multi-billion-dollar A&E practice with offices around the world). Being a single mom raising my children, I stayed with AECOM for 14 years—they were good to me, and life was stable. When AECOM decided to become a public company, I felt that our goals might not be aligned. My goal was to have one of the finest design practices in the world, not necessarily the largest. I wanted to explore interior architecture to its fullest like an artist explores their craft. I had an inkling of what might be around the corner in 2008, but I had started my first firm in a down economy, so I was not afraid. At the time, AECOM Interiors (my group) had offices in Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. We were designing mostly office space. I quickly realized office would slow and, as luck would have it, fortune brought us an amazing hotel project in New York—The Surrey. This launched our hospitality career—now 50 hotels later!
What’s the best way to describe the personality of your practice?
Design first and “Design everything and anything.” We feel thoroughly well-designed projects make a difference in people’s lives. We like to say we think holistically—I call this “syntheses” thinking, as it is all about researching, understanding the goals, determining the priorities and what is most important from a design and success standpoint, and working as a team player to achieve this overall “best.” This means we do not always stay in our “box” of interior design and often offer helpful, well-researched advice on the big picture including master planning, architecture, and landscape design. That said, we have a great deal of respect for the amazing practitioners in these fields and offer our advice in a constructive, collaborative way. Considering we often work with the best architects in the world (SOM, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Renzo Piano, and Herzog & de Meuron, to name a few) we are very open to their advice and consider the design process collaborative. We like it when one cannot tell where outside and building stop and interiors begin. Our firm researches deeply and then designs spaces appropriate for the context, purpose, venue, and building. We do not have a house style, per se. We do have architectural and design explorations that we pursue in effort to perfect.
How would you describe your approach to architecture and design?
Holistically and with a purpose. The aesthetic is the result of research, process, and gut feeling about design. Sometimes we say it is conceptually correct, but do not think it is right. I think this comes when we realize we need spontaneity. I do not have a preconceived idea about any space or design. I am most intrigued when the design parti is sparked by the parameters (context, purpose, site, and influences) and then my own attitudes and feelings toward those influences. I do have design tools/explorations, as noted, that I explore in every project. These include ways to make an interior feel more alive and less static (kinetic), how to make an interior space feel larger and like it has no physical boundaries, and how to create visual comfort yet stimulation in an interior. I start with a thorough understanding of the context physically and stylistically (is it a new building/home or vintage, and if vintage from what period). We then begin to look at plan and volume simultaneously. We consider views natural or those we need to create, we look at indoor and outdoor inseparably; we consider the influence of view and we think about all times of day, reflections on the glass, how to make the exterior come alive at night and still be a part of the interior. I have been told that our interiors are like musical scores—the entry intrigues/captures, then there are moments of visual calm leading to moments of visual intensity that crescendo to the inspirational moments.
Which projects of yours best illustrates that approach?
Really, they all illustrate this approach. For almost all of our projects, we research the client, need, purpose of the project, venue, exact site conditions (smells, sounds, neighbors, habits, sunset and sunrise, etc.) then basically write a script, assign characters to it, and begin to create an environment for this script and characters— essentially, we set design. This can be seen in our projects as early as The Surrey on New York’s Upper East Side, circa 2009. Then in the St. Regis Aspen, the Presidential Bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Belmond Cap Juluca in Anguilla, and a few years ago, the Conrad Washington, D.C. For this hotel, the concept was a contemporary interpretation of early America (Williamsburg) and the grandeur of our nation’s capital with its grand limestone and white marble façades. The hotel’s main lobby is on level three, and we planned it like an early American village concentric around the various functions. All the bars and restaurants were clad in textured wood like early American taverns. The elevator cores and base building walls were clad in the same white marble as the grand monuments of Washington, D.C. The bar was focal from the atrium, which acted as the village center. It was rotund in shape and made of wood with bronze shelves supported by leather strapping as in the early American arsenals. The hotel is very contemporary and conceptual, but the story is told through the materials, patterns, lighting, and handmade tapestries hanging above fireplaces. In our high-rise residential [projects], we also write a small script and assign characters. This helps us see through [the buyer’s] eyes everything they might need in their home. For Central Park Tower, our characters were international; for 200 E 83rd, our characters were a young couple and an empty-nester couple both living in New York and wanting a change of venue. In 2021, 200 East 83rd was the number one highest selling property, selling out in mere months, and Central Park Tower was number two. We had designed both properties for different buyers and with very different aesthetics. The key is knowing your market and buyer and creating a sense of place and a point of view, but not so strong that it overwhelms or does not allow the buyer to have their own imagination.
What projects are you most drawn to?
Projects that have a strong parti and carry that concept through to the details. Examples are Herzog & de Meuron’s Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y.—a simple vernacular shed roof carried hundreds of feet diagonally across a prairie. Stunning. Mies Van Der Rohe’s addition to The Museum of Fine Arts Houston still inspires me: classic Modernism with exposed I beams, terrazzo flooring, and tall floor-to-ceiling windows uninterrupted on the perimeter. Harbin Grand Theater in China by MAD Architects and almost anything by Shigeru Ban, from his temporary housing to his museums to the Zen Wellness Seinei.
What was your most rewarding collaboration?
There are two. I have the greatest respect for Harry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. He and I designed three projects together for the same client. He respected our knowledge of interiors, and I greatly respected his knowledge of the sites and building architecture. The results were brilliant. I also truly enjoyed working with Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the Conrad Washington D.C. We collaborated on the Atrium space—the heart of the hotel.
What’s one building you wish you had done?
Perhaps the Farnsworth House—the siting and those impeccable drapes! Or the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center, as they defined New York. What a moment in time.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects and designers today?
Schedules for design are tight as schedules for construction seem to be getting longer. The time to research, think, and really design is compressed. For many people, it is all about the “image” and while [that] is very important, it is really more about the why and the long-lasting impact of the structure, not just the wow of an Instagrammable image.
What would you have been if not an architect and designer?
A landscape designer. I went to college to be a doctor and studied 2.5 years before switching to architecture. I would not have made a good doctor!
What does design misery mean?
Thinking you have the breakthrough idea only to lose it a few minutes later late in the night and start going in circles.
What does design happiness mean?
Finding the breakthrough idea and developing it into a finished product with all the supporting details, and it looks and feels as fresh and spontaneous as the idea was when it was first conceived.
Which artists do you most admire?
Andrée Putman (an interior designer who I consider an artist), Claes Oldenburg for his tenacity, Theaster Gates for his work and his commitment to his community in Chicago. The Light and Space Artists—James Turrell, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, and now Olafur Eliasson—are huge influences on my work. The ability to transform space and perception with light, reflection, color or an almost imperceptible string is brilliant.
What’s the last drawing you did?
I draw every day. Today it was a lamp design for one of our projects followed by a hallway of an over-the-top, lavish ballroom we are designing!
Which books are you currently reading?
I just finished Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water and am now reading Cover Story, by Susan Rigetti, and Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, by T. R. Fehrenbach.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
Known for architectural interiors that inspire. Creating environments that are pleasing to the eye and are recognizable in that they are noticeably relaxing and invigorating at the same time. I began my architectural career designing high-rise buildings and had designed three by the time I was 30. Then buildings stopped during the Texas recession, and I was asked to do interior design. As an architect, I thought it was beneath me, but then I realized it was far more difficult to learn how to sculpt from within and create environments that not only feel wonderful as they surround you but serve all the functions required of them. With building architecture, one can create models or renderings and see them as they will be seen in the skyline, but with interiors, not until they are finished and occupied can they actually be seen in their true form.
What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
What is most rewarding to you as an architect and designer? There are so many things about this profession that are pleasing, and that is good because it is a difficult, time-consuming profession that often causes sacrifices in your personal life. It is incredibly rewarding when you finish a successful project, which is measured in many ways. It makes people happy, inspires them, comforts them, and shelters them. It has broken some new ground in terms of design, it is long lasting physically and stylistically, it will be known as one of the best of its time, it was conscious of its use of natural resources, and it leaves the world a better place.
An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.