Lauren Rottet and Richard Riveire
LAUREN ROTTET, FAIA, Founding Principal
RICHARD RIVEIRE, AIA, Principal
The ding of the elevator signaled my arrival to somewhere special. The downtown Los Angeles offices of Rottet Studios reflect the brand part and parcel. White extended through the space— stark and minimal—and onto anything nonbreathing. A stylish, fit Lauren Rottet welcomed me with southern hospitality.
Partners Richard Riveire and Lauren Rottet seem like old friends. They finish each other’s sentences and warmly recount the past twenty-five years they’ve been in business together. Rottet does most of the talking, but Riveire adds details and opinions throughout our conversation.
Wanting to do genetic research, Rottet started college in pre-med and art. She kept painting buildings and spaces between buildings, and someone suggested she consider architecture. With a general contractor for a father, Riveire practically grew up as an architect, starting with a preoccupation for building blocks. For a while, he wavered between doing exteriors and interiors, enjoying both before finally settling on interiors. “I’ve found that one complements the other, and I think we are better building architects because we also focus on what will go inside,” he says. “And our interiors tend to be better because we focus on volume instead of just flat walls. The two sides inform each other.”
Initially, both worked for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Riveire was in the Houston office and Rottet in Chicago. Finding winters unbearably cold, Rottet returned home to the Houston office to work on high-rise buildings for two years. Their paths crossed when they worked on their first interiors project together. Rottet says, “Richard could do everything from draw, to design, to paint.”
Mirroring the U.S. economy, the market in Texas eventually slowed, causing building to virtually stop. Strategically, in 1982, they transitioned to interiors full-time. After two very successful projects and four years designing interiors, SOM asked Rottet to move to Los Angeles and start their interiors group.
SOM eventually decided to reposition, so Rottet and Riveire broke off with several other partners to start their own firm. They remember the simple offices and modest beginnings as they funded the new venture with their own money. Offering architecture and interiors, the firm grew to seventy people in just four years.
The worldwide firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM) had been hinting at an acquisition, which seemed fortuitous as the economy was once again wavering. Additionally, the partners saw the opportunities to work abroad as more possible if they were under the umbrella of a larger firm with more muscle (a theory they have since disproved). They sold to DMJM, and Rottet signed a one-year agreement to stay on board. Riveire joined DMJM as well.
The company became DMJM Rottet, as she ran their interiors group and built the brand over the next fourteen years. They opened offices in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Houston. Rottet returned to Houston to be near family, a move that turned out to be good for the business as well. Riveire explains that architectural interiors are an extremely personal business in that people like to work with locals. Rottet and Riveire have always struggled with how to work in smaller markets, which offer fewer resources. Their solution has been to expand into numerous regional markets, which run on alternating economic cycles, thereby allowing them to move resources where they are needed.
After eight years as DMJM Rottet, the parent company went public. Rottet and Riveire decided it was not the best position for a design practice, so they bought their company in 2008. Now, Rottet Studios boasts offices in Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with satellites in Phoenix and New York in the works. Even though the U.S. economy is once again in a recession, Rottet says she’s still glad they broke away and feels relieved to not be indebted to a shareholder.
During their time at DMJM, a public company, Rottet and Riveire largely worked with American companies abroad. As Chinese companies approached them for projects, they felt pressured to turn them away. “Many quality companies can’t necessarily get a Dunn & Bradstreet rating to appease the shareholders, but as a private firm, we can work with whomever,” says Rottet. “The world is very small, and if you want to practice good design, you should not just operate in your own backyard.” Currently, the duo is working in Asia, Korea, the Middle East, Frankfurt, Milan, Paris, Shanghai, and Singapore, as well as the United States. Owning the company lets them maneuver easily and make different decisions in light of the market. Says Rottet: “We felt we could keep our head low, focus on our clients, and produce good design.”
When asked how they market the firm, they say clients largely find out about them through publications or online news. They also get work from clients who have seen their built projects, and they sit on the boards of nonprofit organizations and look for opportunities that are likely to lead to clients of interest. One example is CoreNet Global, an association of real estate professionals.
Rottet points out that interiors are uniquely tied into fashion, so they attract some clients who are drawn to them by their exposure in magazines or their parallels to current fashion trends. Both Rottet and Riveire consider themselves designers more than businesspeople. They have a third partner, David Davis, a managing principal who focuses more on the financial aspects, though Rottet recounts the early days of the business, which included late-night check runs and the business minutia.
Asked if they accept modest-budget projects, they reply simultaneously, “Yes, absolutely.” They acknowledge it’s both a blessing and curse that they have a reputation for doing the cream of the crop projects, because it’s difficult to make money on those projects alone. However, “If people don’t care about design and just want the cheapest architect, we are not the right fit,” says Rottet. “If they have a decent budget and care about design, then we’ll work with them.”
A dream Rottet mentions is to design an assisted-living home, as she’s recently been visiting several with her mother. She sees their limitations and has a vision about what they could be—if they were more functional and had natural light, they could feel so much more inviting to the occupants.
The project Rottet cites as the one she’s most proud of to date is the Paul Hastings law firm because it was a breaking point for her personal design. Rottet is claustrophobic and likes space to feel kinetic, alive. The building was inexpensive but boxed in on all sides, so Rottet used every trick in the book to manipulate the interior environment to feel light and open. Riveire also cites a law firm as his favorite project. He had another client take a lease on space he had previously designed for someone else. While they liked much of what existed, Riveire had to create a new look and feel. “It’s challenging to come back and edit yourself, to rethink about why it’s beautiful,” he says. “We kept what they fell in love with but brought it up-to-date to suit the new client’s needs.” Rottet advises:
“Don’t underestimate anybody. Don’t assume that because a client has terrible existing space that they won’t commit to good design going forward. You have to be intuitive and open. Interview your client when they are interviewing you to see what they really want, and see if you can work well together from both a design and philosophical standpoint.”
In Rottet’s experience, qualities that make a good architect include being a good listener, well read, and willing to explore. “You have to see the detail of how something is built,” she says. “Touch it, feel it, and understand it.” Riveire cites both perseverance and a willingness to change as indicators of success. “Many young people today have been trained on a computer and they think design exists there,” he says. “You have to experience space off the Internet. While you can create beautiful images on your computer, it’s not true space, not a building or environment. You have to break out of that two-dimensional thing in front of you, think more about the spatial characteristics.” Growing up in the digital age, many new architects type and draw on the computer but there aren’t a lot doing freehand or model making. When considering prospective employees, Rottet and Riveire want someone who has experience beyond the screen.
Both Rottet and Riveire agree new and aspiring architects should work for a great firm and see as many built designs as possible. Riveire explains that young architects “need to learn the rigor before trying to run their own company” and suggests seeking a well-rounded, practical education in several areas of architecture. “Make sure what you put out there is worth the waste you create, culturally makes people happy, looks good, progresses design, advances history, and has integrity,” says Rottet. “Efficiency is good for the environment, it looks good, and it will last forever, so you won’t have to tear it down. Cheap multiplexes are so temporary and wasteful. It’s important to teach what makes something valuable. Perhaps that will be my mission in retirement—instituting architectural education to the public.” Somehow, I doubt she’ll ever retire.