Lauren Rottet (Photograph by Delise Ward courtesy of Rottet Studio)
Lauren Rottet is the Founding Principal and President of Rottet Studio in Houston, Texas. She is one of the most-celebrated interior architects in the world today with an extraordinary record of awards, publications, lectures, juries and honors. She is the only woman in history to be elevated to Fellow status by both the American Institute of Architects and International Interior Design Association. She also holds the coveted titles of Interior Design Hall of Fame and Interiors (now Contract) Designer of the Year and Lifetime Appointee to the U.S. General Services Administration’s National Register of Peer Professionals for Design Excellence.
In 2006, Lauren was inducted as an Inaugural Member of the Women in Design Hall of Fame. In 2012, she was named Boutique Design Designer of the Year. Most recently, in 2014, Lauren was inducted into Hospitality Design magazine’s legendary Platinum Circle, the magazine’s highest honor for design professionals. Lauren's furniture and product designs have earned her four gold medals for Best of NeoCon and a Chicago Athenaeum Award. Modelo spent some time learning about how Lauren founded her firm and discovered her voice as an architectural designer.
On becoming an interior architect
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 these lovely 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 great buildings had such uninspiring 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 instead wanted to influence people’s lives and emotions through the built environment. I wanted to design buildings and the spaces inside them – what I considered to be the ultimate art form.
Paul Hastings' New York City Office (Images courtesy of Rottet Studio)
On discovering her voice as an architectural designer
A few years out of school, I found myself the senior designer on two major high-rise buildings in Dallas. I quickly gained respect from my peers and bosses as I could sketch my vision, I was fanatic about the research of building materials, and I was willing to do what it took to see the vision realized – pulling numerous “all-nighters,” for example. It was the period of “Post Modern” architecture, but my firm and I were strong advocates of the modernist approach of simplicity and truth to materials. I started to combine the modernist approach with an aesthetic that allowed the use of a broader range of materials and also addressed more sculptural forms. These projects were highly successful, both in exterior and interior projects, and led to my being asked to head a team of people in the Los Angeles office of SOM. My mentors there taught me to develop for each project a strong parti and carry that parti through to every detail. I brought this approach and my own vision to my projects and developed an architectural style that was unique to me.
I have several professional heroes actually – Andreé Putman, a fabulous designer and elegant, gracious woman. When I was a young architect I got to pick her up in Los Angeles and drive her to an AIA 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 working/collaborating with on projects - a wonderful and fulfilling experience.
And then Harry Cobb, wonderful man, he’s been such a fabulous architect and has been so good to so many people in the architectural and design field. His care for every detail on every project he designs as well as his care for our precious industry is inspiring.
Personally - my mother and my grandmothers. My grandmother on my father’s side was an amazing Southern woman who played violin in the Waco and Dallas symphony. She had a true Victorian home in Waco that was carefully curated with Victorian antiques. She loved antiques and would take me antique shopping relentlessly. And she taught me, as she taught my father, that you can do and be anything that you want to be – as long as you believe in it and work at it. That anything – anything you ever want in life – will come to you. My grandmother on my mother’s side has a simple, but elegant, pared down and almost Shaker-like home where many of the objects and furnishings had been made by hand by family or local craftsmen. The dichotomy of the ornate Victorian and the Shaker-like simplicity is an influence that directs my work today. I have a huge appreciation and love for historic ornamentation and a love for minimalist contemporary, but little in between.
Target Marketing and PR Offices (Images courtesy of Rottet Studio)
On founding Rottet Studio
I began my career as an architect, and later with partners started our own firm at Keating Mann Jernigan Rottet, then DMJM Rottet (an AECOM company), before starting Rottet Studio in 2008. My style and design approach have not so much changed as they have progressed and developed. I am inherently minimalist and I love exploring the applications of light and space across all types of projects. Yet, I also love materials, fabrics, and the strategic use of ornamentation.
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 and never boring, to pleasantly surprise upon entry, but more importantly to contain detail elements that continue to surprise and delight the more time one spends in the space. These explorations are primarily influenced by the California “Light and Space” artists of the early 1980’s and tend to deal with the use of light, shapes, planes, mirrors and surface materials to create a dynamic environment. Other influences stem from the years as an art major - color theory and the effects of shape and form on the visualization of space. We always say – “views are free” and we incorporate the exterior garden and view experience into our interiors – it does not stop at the perimeter glass.
On specific principles she strives to adhere to
For each project I look at 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 their culture and the goals for their employees? If it is a hotel, who is the potential guest, what is the experience they might want to have 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. I always say that if you start to recognize what you’re doing, you’re not designing.
On her role as Founding Principal and President at Rottet Studio
In a nutshell, my role as Founding Principal entails overseeing or influencing the design of every project. I’m also heavily involved in mentoring/shaping the seasoned and the young design staff for future growth; researching the markets, determining where our focus should lean; researching clients and which ones we should pursue; watching the balance of our expenditure of time on the projects versus the profitability of the firm – which is the hardest part, as we want the design to be perfect despite any challenges. I am always seeking the new and never stopping to advance our design through education, careful thought and technology. And overall, I seek to ensure that all of our work advances the design profession and results in inspiring, pleasant and artful spaces.
Four Seasons Casa Medina (Images courtesy of Rottet Studio)
On recent projects that represent the firm's unique approach
We are fortunate to have a nice variety to our practice. We design commercial office, hotels, multi-family residential, single family residential and now cruise ships!
On corporate design:
Our experience in the design of commercial office space goes back many years to our days before Rottet Studio. We never approached the design of offices like they were just offices. We always approached them as if they were more important than a home, as they are used constantly - at least 8 hours a day - by many people. The design of an office has a huge influence on the personnel, their loyalty to a firm, their productivity and their overall wellbeing. I began my career-long exploration of expanding the visual nature of space through the use of light (artificial and natural), form and materials. I wanted to make sure that when someone worked for 8+ long hours in the same space day after day that it had visual relief, that it was kinetic and not static. I have been told by our clients that they enjoy their spaces as much many years later as they initially did, and that they discover new details through the years. It is this delight we strive for. Our recent work for Kirkland & Ellis in Houston is a wonderful example of how an office is no longer just an office – the attorneys spend the bulk of their lives there dealing with intense issues for their clients. When finished, the space will rival a contemporary boutique hotel in its hospitality.
One of the first interiors projects I did when I moved to LA was for a law firm, and it broke so many new grounds. Paul Hastings’ office in New York turned the way people office upside down, catapulted a new way of thinking about office furniture, and went on to win Best of Year at NeoCon. They were moving out of a building with 360 degree views on Park Avenue to a space with no views whatsoever. That’s how I figured out little tricks – the use of materials to make them seem like they go on forever and make a space feel bigger, which was a precursor to what we do now. I had been influenced by Light and Space artists from LA like James Turrell, Larry Bell - and found it fascinating how light alone can manipulate and create the illusion of space. So with the Paul Hastings project, I really added in form and started to look at a space three-dimensionally. In modernist architecture, you look at the floor, wall, and ceiling like planes, whereas in PHNY I looked at the space like a volume that you sculpt into – planes, angles, forms, that tricked your eye.
Paul Hastings' Chicago Office (Images courtesy of Rottet Studio)
On hospitality design:
When designing a hotel, I think about it more as set design than traditional interior design because the hotel is for the guest and the experience. I want them to become completely immersed in the venue and leave satisfied that they experienced a unique part of the city they visited. So I think of my hospitality assignment much as one that a director would give to a set designer. We look very closely not just at the city, but the microclimate of the surrounding neighborhood: What are the sounds like? What are the smells like? Who’s coming and going? What are the trees like? When do the birds get up? Do they whistle at night? What is the sound of a truck backing up like? We pay very close attention to every sight and sound of that microclimate, and then we talk a lot about who the guest is, what the market is, what the brand of the hotel is…and then I write a story, assign characters to the story and view the design from their eyes. What do they see as they enter, what is stage left and stage right, what does the camera see as it moves through the space – all factors in immersing them completely into the experience.
For example, for The Surrey, I spent a lot of time on the Upper East Side and read the book, Here Is New York by E.B. White. I looked at our competition, which was The Lowell, The Carlyle, and The Mark, and decided that The Surrey needed to be a cut above – it needed to be Coco Chanel and it needed to have a compelling art collection. So basically, Coco was the main character and I wrote a little story that she lived at The Surrey – it was her pied-à-terre. In the evenings, she’d walk in, throw her mink jacket over the chair, and say, “Take this to my room, I’m going to the bar!” But the problem was, we didn’t have a bar – so I realized that of course we needed to create a little petit bar for Coco. We designed the Bar Pleiades after her makeup compacts using black lacquered “boxes” with inlaid white lines that enclose seating areas inside. As you view the box from the front, the shape emulates a stage where the curtains have been pulled back to reveal the excitement onstage, represented by the warm beige suede tufted walls, white shark skin seating and friendly patrons enjoying themselves within. It was intended in the design process of these banquettes to be open and inviting from the outside yet private and personal within, while capturing the beauty and excitement of the surroundings at the same time. We have seen these spaces become the quiet, intimate stage for Vera Wang, Sharon Stone, Tom Ford, Oprah Winfrey and many others enjoying an evening on the Upper East Side.
Surrey Hotel NYC (Images courtesy of Rottet Studio)
On her design toolkit
On the creative process: I am not always creative, but I am always absorbing or intentionally blocking out what I see. The creative part comes when you start molding something out of all of these subliminal influences. You know, people say, “Oh gosh, are you creative all the time?” And the answer is absolutely no. So I think you really have to walk away from what you’re doing, you have to walk away from the project, walk away from being tense or being stuck or whatever it is, and you just have to get out. Take a walk on the beach, go to dinner, have fun, go to a movie…but completely get your mind out of it. And then, almost everything you see is like an inspiration. Sometimes I can look at rocks on the beach or an old pipe and think, “Gosh, that’s a beautiful color of brown next to that shiny color of silver” – and then all of a sudden I’m inspired again. So I would just say – walk away, and let the world inspire you.
Personally, I always start by sketching my ideas by hand. The design software that we use simply expands upon the initial concepts and brings these sketches to life. The designers in our studio then turn my 3D sketches into formal 3D spaces or objects. We use Sketch-Up to get a basic idea of the preliminary design. We typically use 3D modeling software in the schematic design process in order to show the client various iterations of the ideas that we’re proposing. Rendering is the best format to illustrate to our clients how the finished space will look and feel, and is the closest and most compelling method to convey the design intent in real time. However, we use 3D modeling software as a design and technical study tool – not just for the finished image.
On the state of design software today
I feel that as technology improves with rendering software, the onus falls – and will continue to fall – on the architects and designers to keep up, because it allows us to define and communicate our design solutions more precisely. One limitation to software that we can never really anticipate is the client’s ability to understand the render and accurately perceive the architectural nuances of the space. It is sometimes difficult to translate a three-dimensional space on a flat image. I think design software is headed in the right direction but I do wish the various programs were more interconnected so we didn’t have to rely solely on one over the other. We/I spend a lot of time getting the rendering to look perfect with all the details 3D Max allows. Then we start all over in Revit. We are working on trying to make the two more fluid and interchangeable.
The River Oaks (Images courtesy of Rottet Studio)
On the future of architecture
It is a wonderful time for exploration in Architecture and design. In my hometown of Houston, which is a city that continues to grow exponentially with scores of mass developments, people are starting to recognize the importance of architecture and its impact on our daily lives and commutes. I’m happy to be at the forefront of this growth, helping the city realize its potential to compete amongst the likes of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Dallas.
Houston is known for its world-renowned healthcare and cancer treatment centers, which I feel could benefit most from thoughtful design with an overall goal of being less sterile and more hospitable and comfortable, for doctors and both patients and their families. This idea also holds true for senior housing, where not much thought is dedicated to the design and planning of amenities, common areas, and overall comfort and conveniences for the residents.
I believe the future of the design industry will bring a stronger focus on LEED/self-sustaining buildings that are essentially their own communities, providing everything that you need in one location – retail, office, apartments, entertainment.
On the future of the office
I enjoy interior architecture and furniture design, but I’ve been missing working on the planning and design of building exteriors. With the recent completion of a private residence, a high-rise residential project and the façade design for one in Manhattan, I’m excited to have the firm back into building design and architecture and am looking forward to a more holistic approach, from branding and concept design to the buildings and grounds to the interiors.
On advice she would give herself
I’ve been given quite a bit of wonderful professional advice, but I think probably one of the best ones is just to listen. Listen very, very well. You know, you always want to come up with a solution or an idea, or instantly retort back, but I think if you 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 my younger self is never take “no” for an answer.