INTERVIEW: LAUREN ROTTET, FOUNDING PRINCIPAL & PRESIDENT, ROTTET STUDIO
Architect, interior designer, innovator, teacher: Lauren Rottet is the embodiment of design experience. Highly accomplished in her career, Lauren and her team have worked with some of the biggest names in hospitality to bring visions of luxury to life. Here she tells Sophie Harper how diversity has been the most important tool in her arsenal.
Lauren Rottet has built a career around learning and growing; developing her own skills and encouraging the people around her to do the same. It’s perhaps this that has made her such a success story in the world of design – and not just one arm of design, but the whole package: from architecture to interiors, landscape to graphics, Rottet Studio is a multi-faceted practice and is really a tribute to Lauren’s hard work and passion.
“When I was really young in my career, I think I was only about 32, I was given fellowship in the American Institute of Architects, so that was certainly a wonderful thing. I have the Fellow of Interior Design as well and at the time I was the only woman to have both of those.” Lauren says she’s proud to have been recognised for her work in this way but that titles were never really the sort of thing she aspired to have; it was the smaller things that made her realise she’d made it in her career. “This is going to sound silly,” she says, laughing, “but when I drove into the parking lot for the first time and saw that space with my name on it at my new office that made me feel really important! Or when your kids’ friends say, ‘oh wow I saw your mum on TV, she must be really important!’ – it’s the silly stuff, right?”
From early childhood it was clear that Lauren had a natural talent for design. Born in Waco, Texas, and raised in Houston, Lauren would make little outdoor communities with lakes and rivers for her dolls and build rock houses for horn toads in the garden. “If the toads stayed in them all night I knew I’d made a good house!” she says, reminiscing. “Looking back, I think I was always a designer or architect.” She tells me how Houston’s landscape was changing at the time and how she was influenced by the architecture she saw around her. “Houston was booming at the time and a lot of gorgeous high-rise buildings were going up. I was fascinated by the kind of Wizard of Oz type city surrounded by plain flatlands and then all of a sudden there were these super tall verticals.”
Surprisingly, Lauren went off to school to follow in her father’s footsteps to study as a doctor, not realising her true calling at the time. “I loved art, so I was kind of a dual pre-med art student. I kept painting buildings for pleasure while stressing over calculus and chemistry and it was my boyfriend, who later became my husband, who said to me ‘you should switch to architecture, all you ever do is draw and talk about buildings’.” It was a lightbulb moment for Lauren and so she switched to architecture in her second year and studied intensely to catch up with her peers.
After graduating, Lauren went to San Francisco to work for a small practice that specialised in housing. “I learnt a lot, but I kept coming back to Texas, then I went off to Chicago to work with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.” It was here that Lauren really found her feet in interior design and helped establish offices in Houston and Los Angeles with the company. “I had my own practice for a while that I started with one of the partners from Skidmore. I was one woman working with four men, I’d never really thought of any differences between men and women or women’s rights, but I sure learned the ‘differences’ when I’d be the only one staying behind on a Friday night to do all the office work and sign the cheques! It was a lot of fun though and I learned a lot.”
The practice quickly grew from five to a staff of 90 before the partners decided it was the right time to sell. “We sold to DMJM and for a while we were DMJM Rottet – and I thought well I won’t stay, I’m going to go out on my own but I ended up staying 14 years! They were very good to me, but they were going public, and I really just wanted a little more freedom and autonomy, so they were very good, and it was an amicable separation – my clients and my projects went with me and they were happy for me to do that, so off I went.”
Back to her roots, Lauren found herself returning to Texas and in 2008 decided to launch her own firm, Rottet Studio. “As you may recall, 2008 was a pretty strange time!” she says as she recalls the beginnings of Rottet Studio during what would become known as the worse global financial crisis since the Great Depression. “Funnily enough, living on the west coast I had tiny inclinations that something might be up. We were mostly doing offices at the time and we were just about to start on the headquarters, 500,000, feet for Donald Bren (Irvine Company), when he called me to tell me he was putting the project on hold – this was in June 2008 and we’d just started the new firm in May. He said he didn’t like what he saw in the economy and I thought ‘oh no, here we go’ so I called my partners – David in New York and Richard in LA – and I said this is going to be a rough ride. I said we have to diversify immediately, there will be no more office space for the foreseeable, and they were like, what, what? But I said trust me, we need to diversify.”
At the time, Rottet Studio Founding Partner, David Davis’s husband Brad Wilson, who’s now President of Ace, was working with the Denihan’s who had a hotel, The Surrey in New York, that was undergoing renovation. “They weren’t happy with the design – and it really wasn’t very good for this precious little hotel – so Patrick Denihan said, ‘why don’t we use your firm?’ – so that’s how the whole hotel thing started.” Lauren tells me how she had always wanted to do a hotel project and was so excited to really immerse herself in the schemes and plans for The Surrey. “It was my first hotel project, which I’d been dying to do, so every hotel idea I’d had over the last 20 years was let out on The Surrey!” she laughs. “It was a tremendous amount of fun.” The Surrey was recently acquired by the Reuben Brothers and will open in 2023 as a Corinthia Hotel. “It was a great start,” Lauren adds. “It was really the hotels that got us through a really hard time. Then we diversified into residential, ships, retail, and restaurants, so it was really about knowing that you had to be diverse.”
I ask Lauren how transferable design skills are between each of the areas the studio works in and she tells me that there is a huge amount of crossover. “Designers design – so if you can do a wonderful office you can do a wonderful hotel, really you can do anything you put your mind to.” She tells me that when pitching for an office project, nowadays they actually show their hospitality portfolio as most companies want their office space to be more inviting and comfortable for their staff – like a hotel lobby.
Lauren points out how important it is to keep up with changing times and to always be ready to broaden your skillset. “I started out as an architect and then specialised mainly in interiors but now we’re really excited to be offering a new line of the business which is landscape architecture and design.” She tells me how she’s always loved landscape architecture, how she taught the subject while she herself was at college, and how obvious it was to include it as an area the studio would cover. “Landscaping’s always critical, and our hotel clients usually ask us to help brand or help with the entry space, even our residential clients – you have to take care of the parking, the front doors, everything somebody sees, which led me to always just sketch and plan in the landscape architecture. One of our hotel clients said ‘why don’t you be our landscape designer, you seem to love it’ so we did and now we’re on our second landscape design project and it’s really a lot of fun. It’s quite a lot like interior space planning – you asked me does design transfer over and it absolutely does – the only real difference is plant material versus drywall!”
Of course a lot of research goes into each and every project Lauren and her teams work on, and she tells me how she gathers ideas and inspiration for hotels. “We like to build a story, as most good boutique hotel designers do, but I like to create characters whose eyes I see the project through. For The Surrey it was Coco Chanel and it was her pied-à-terre. I could imagine her walking in and throwing her mink coat across the sofa and saying, ‘I’m going for a martini, send it up to my room’, but the hotel didn’t have a bar and so I said oh my god, we have to have a bar, Coco must have a bar!” She giggles as she recalls how she sold the idea to the owners. “I went back to the client the next day and I said we have to have a bar in the hotel, and they were like why? I said there are two reasons: one because it was next to Daniel Boullud’s restaurant and people would wait in the lobby for their table and they weren’t happy because they didn’t have a drink in their hand – so put in a bar get a drink in guests’ hands, keep them happy, keep them out of the lobby and make some more money from the drinks; and two because Coco needs her cocktail! They laughed and said ‘you’re right, she does’, so we did a little bitty bar that was so popular. You make up stories to help you create a sense of why – you make the ‘what’ after you figure out the ‘why’.”
Rottet designs aren’t all based on a single character though, and Lauren tells me how the main starting point is putting in a lot of research. “Sometimes in the beginning I’ll have a good idea, but it always comes from research,” she confirms. “We research the history of the venue, the people of the venue, the climate, the sights the smells, the local vernacular. Is there a chocolate factory nearby, is there a coffee factory around the corner, is there a bad smell that you need to figure out how to get rid of… we really like to get deep into that microclimate.”
Typically, Lauren and some of the team will go to site to stay for a few nights or stay in a hotel close to site, to get a feel for the neighbourhood. “It was funny when we stayed at Cap Juluca after the hurricane. The owners, the chairman of Belmond, and us – we had to stay in these tiny little places with barely any electricity and where the chickens woke us up at 4am, there wasn’t really anywhere to eat other than this one little place on the beach, but it was fun and we got to understand the culture of the island because we were basically camping! But we like to do that, just kind of hang out for a few days and really get a feel for the microclimate.”
As with most of the designers and hoteliers I’ve spoken to over the last year, the pandemic comes into discussion and I ask Lauren how the studio’s been affected. “In April last year everything kind of just stopped,” she says. “Everything was just put on hold except for one project. We got a call from a Texas developer who said ‘I’m sure you’re expecting this call to tell you that everything’s going on hold but it’s not, it’s to tell you we bought the land next door and so now we’re doing two projects’. It was good timing and they realised it would be the right time to have everyone’s attention, which was true because it was really the only project going ahead at the time.” It was a welcome call and a project to focus on until business picked up again, which luckily it did.
“We’re working on a Waldorf in Vegas and we’re working on two Ritz Carltons – one in Atlanta, and one in San Diego – they’re both beautiful and contemporary projects. Atlanta is a little more on the traditional side, but San Diego is really contemporary, almost minimal, but filled with light. We’re also working on a spa for Belmond Cap Juluca, and we have some amazing high-rise residential projects as well as the Rosewood residences here in Houston, and some new [Viking] ships that will be cruising the Nile, which I think is going to be really interesting. Most of our projects have come off of hold now and we’ve been pretty busy.”
Lastly, I want to know what’s on the horizon for the studio in how Lauren sees the future – both short-term and long-term – and she tells me how they have a development of their own to get excited about. “It’s nothing for our hotelier clients to be concerned about, we’re not competition, it’s not hospitality. But we plan to move the office to this little wooded area on the other side of town and develop the site to include residential. We’re going to have a little community there with an onsite chef and lots of things that you sort of dream of having. But mainly I’m looking forward to just being able to see people and travel again.”