THE PATRON SAINT OF BADASSERY
The 2020 season of IIDA and AIA Chicago’s Designers and Architects Talk Series kicked off on Feb. 11 at IIDA Headquarters with a fireside chat between IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl Durst, Hon. FIIDA, and celebrated interior designer Lauren Rottet, or as Durst introduced her, “the Patron Saint of Badassery.”
Rottet is the first and only woman to be elevated to the College of Fellows for both the American Institute of Architects and the International Interior Design Association. Her furniture and product designs have won four gold medals for Best of NeoCon and three Good Design Awards from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design. As Durst put it, Rottet just has, “all the things.”
"So, how did a nice girl from Waco, Texas, end up with an architecture degree?" Durst asked.
“Now Chip and Joanna have put Waco on the map, but when I grew up all you could do was go to church and play outside.” said Rottet, “So, while I did a little bit of the church thing, I basically played outside in the rock driveway and mud, building houses for the horned toads and frogs I’d catch.”
From there, her family moved to Houston, where frogs and mud were limited and she eventually turned to art.
Rottet ended up enrolling in the University of Texas at Austin to be a doctor, where “thank God I didn’t do that,” she said with a laugh, but found herself strongly drawn to art and architecture.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1980, Rottet began her career in San Francisco, where she practiced with the accomplished residential design firm, Fisher Friedman Associates. Rottet relocated to Chicago to join Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and focused on high-rise office design. Her work with SOM took her back to Houston, where she was the senior designer on several significant high-rise buildings, museums, and planning projects.
When the building boom stopped, Rottet focused her creative energies on interiors and was asked by SOM to start an interiors practice in Los Angeles. After successfully building that practice, Rottet and several SOM partners joined forces to create the architecture and interiors firm, Keating Mann Jernigan Rottet. Soon, the partners joined Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM) to expand their practice further. Rottet was principal-in-charge of the interiors practice, DMJM Rottet, for 14 years. In 2008, she left to form the privately held, WBE-certified, Rottet Studio.
With a team of architects and designers she has worked with for as many as 25 years, Rottet Studio has grown into an international architecture and design firm with an extensive portfolio of corporate and hospitality projects for the world’s leading companies and brands. With offices in Houston, Los Angeles, and New York, Rottet Studio is not just Rottet’s body of work, but a reflection of the woman herself.
“Home,” she told Durst, “is where the dogs are, so Houston — and they don’t like to travel. Houston is where I was raised, and my family is there, so I moved back."
However, Rottet had always wanted to work in New York, so when she started Rottet Studio she opened a New York office. After purchasing a George Nelson-designed home in Montauk, NY, she now calls New York home, too.
So, did Rottet have a plan? “Yes,” she said, “but not in the traditional sense.”
“I am a dreamer,” she said. “I don’t specifically think okay, I’m going to be here, and I’m going to do this.”
Was there a moment she knew she wanted to have her own firm?
“Out of college, I knew I either wanted to work for SOM or have my own firm,” she said, “so I’d say my process has been less entrepreneurial and more evolutionary.”
The term good design is bandied about often, but what does it mean to Rottet?
“That’s a good question because not everyone has the same taste,” she said. “I remember working on a hotel surrounded by all of these beautiful museums, with all of these fabulous architects, and, while they were all unique, the common thread was that they would take one beautiful move and distill it to absolute perfection. They would take that point of view and take it all the way down to the tiniest detail.”
“When we did our book a couple of years ago, we ended up calling it Authentic Design,” she said, “because when design is authentic to and right for the space, that is good design. Also, good design is always fundamentally rooted in good business. It’s the why. Why should you expend all the world’s resources, time, and money? I think if we thought more about that, a lot of design would be better.”
With design studio offices across the country, a portfolio that leaves no sector untouched, and an award-winning line of furnishings including case goods, seating, tables, and lighting, how does Rottet measure success these days?
“Hotels measure success every day, instantaneously,” she said, “and their ROI is directly related to the design and how well the hotel works.”
Rottet sites her work on The Surrey Hotel in New York City’s Upper East Side, her second hotel project ever, as a standard-bearer for success in her mind.
“It was ranked the number one hotel in New York for every year the first ten years it was around, so I think that constitutes success,” she says with a smile.
Durst asked Rottet how, in a very disciplined practice, with a studio that spans so many sectors — which are blurring more and more each year, she embraces the blur?
“I never separated office design, hotels, this or that,” she says. “The world separates us, wants to categorize us….In fact, when we go to interview for office space, I show them as much of our hotel work as I do our office work,” she added. “Offices are becoming a lot of fun.
“I will say though that while everything is blurring together, everyone also wants their individualism, so it’s a very weird time,” she says. “Right now, social hubs thrive, and food and beverage rules. They are the two things driving everything today. When Ace Hotel did their Social Hub, it was where everyone hung out, and hotels became the social hub of the city, it went viral,” she says.
Durst agreed, “It was the moment when hotels became not for guests only, but the neighborhood, becoming the neighborhood’s living room. We’re looking at that in Chicago’s Fulton Market now, where everyone feels they have access to those public spaces.”
“It’s about the connectivity,” says Rottet, bringing up the Hoxton in Chicago, which has become well known for its coworking environment. “It’s become part of the guest and visitors experience. A guest traveling by themselves to Chicago, for work, is busy. They don’t have time, but still want to feel the vibe of Chicago. The beauty of a coworking space in a hotel is the locals there. Guests get that local experience infused in their stay.”
So how has Rottet managed to do all the things so gracefully over the years?
“Is it a myth?” asked Durst.
“It is really hard,” Rottet said. “You look back and think, wow, I should probably have spent more time doing this or that, but I truly believe failure is not the opposite of success. Failure is a part of it. The beauty of what we do is that if we are not learning every day, that’s a problem. We have to learn from our mistakes and our failures. That’s the only way to enjoy the success.”
People always talk about what’s going to change, what something or someplace will look like in 10, 20, 50 years, but Durst asked Rottet what will endure about design and that way its practiced.
“A professor once told me if I recognized what I was doing, I’m not designing,” she says. “At the time, I thought that was such a strange statement, but what he meant was that we can’t open a magazine and draw what we see. That is not designing. The true definition of design is that you create a solution; you create a design that has not existed before. Design is pushing the edges to better society with the tools you are making.”