Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Grant Cornett
Peter Marino is happy to admit he doesn’t know a thing about marketing research. Nor does he want to. What he does know a thing about is taste—and how to translate that through art and design into profits. Since founding his eponymous New York–based firm in 1978, the 63-year-old architect has designed hundreds of retail stores for luxury brands including Chanel, Christian Dior, Donna Karan, Ermenegildo Zegna, Fendi, Giorgio Armani, Graff, Hublot, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino. In addition, he has masterminded a penthouse and presidential suites at the Four Seasons New York; resorts in Morocco, Anguilla, and Sardinia; and private residences in locations ranging from Paris to Palm Beach. His project list even includes the New Jersey headquarters of Datascope, a company that makes heart monitors. Now, with the real-estate developer Michael Shvo, Marino is gearing up for one of his most ambitious buildings yet: a 10-unit, 12-story residential development in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, to finish construction in late 2015. The site, a former Getty gas station at 10th Avenue and 24th Street, cost Shvo $23.5 million, or about $850 per buildable square foot—a record price, he claims, for a development in the city. Surface sat down for a conversation with Marino in New York at his 36th-floor office on the Upper East Side.
Let’s start with your time at Cornell University. You graduated from there with an architecture degree in 1971. Dreadful place, Ithaca, New York. Second-most cloudy city in the United States. You don’t want to go there.
Do you think Cornell laid the foundation for your work?
You don’t know what everything contributes to. But calling Cornell the foundation is, I think, giving it a little too much credit. I went to the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and it’s where I figured out I would be an architect and not a fine artist. It was a funny period when I went to architecture school. It was the late ’60s, and I think it was the architectural low point of the 20th century. Painting was so vibrant. It was just leaving Abstract Expressionism, and Warhol had hit the scene. Everything was painting, painting, painting, painting. About the most exciting building produced at that time was Ulrich Franzen’s science hall at Cornell. I thought, If that’s all I have to look forward to, then I’m going to take the big pill now.
After Cornell, you came to New York to work for several big-name firms—Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; George Nelson; I.M. Pei. What was that like?
You can imagine I fit in really great—not. I said to myself, “Maybe I chose the wrong profession.” I wanted to go to architecture via art. I wanted to be artistic, and the actual profession of architecture is drudge. Maybe it’s the same with journalism: You go in, it’s kinda glamorous in school, and then the actual profession is a lot of drudge. Working for other people is the bottom of the drudge pot. I was a square peg in a round hole.
Big firms are great because they’re so professional, and American firms at that time really knew how to build buildings. I say that because I go around the world and realize half the world doesn’t know what they’re doing. American firms in the ’70s and ’80s were professional and they knew it. It was great to learn what I did, but not to be a very little cog in a 300- to 500-man firm.
I just went there to learn my profession, and I was really lucky to do that. But I’m the opposite of someone who wants to climb the corporate ladder, so I really didn’t belong there. It was like working for Colgate-Palmolive. I suppose somebody at the top got to design something, but certainly not me, just out of college.
You got your big break in 1978, when Andy Warhol hired you as the architect of his Upper East Side townhouse.
Yeah, he’d bought it and we had to renovate it. It was a good chance, because I was just a Factory kid. I think the real reason he hired me was that I was willing to take artwork and some pay. Andy loved that.
So he mostly gave you pieces of his work instead of money? Yeah, I have pieces signed. Not everybody has Warhol originals that say “For Peter.” I’ve kept this one here in my office to remind me. Back then, I was like, “Ah, man, you are so scamming me, giving me this shit instead of money.” [Laughs]
In a way, it was the connections through the Factory—Warhol’s friends—who then became your clients.
Yeah. It’s interesting you mention that. People have been focusing on that period recently. I discussed it at a talk at the Tate Modern last week. I was only the fifth architect to be in the [John Edwards Lecture Series] program—they’ve had Rem Koolhaas, Thom Mayne, Winy Maas, and Liz Diller do it. I was very honored to be there. It turns out the public is very interested in Warhol and whether or not he had an influence on my life. Doesn’t everything? Doesn’t your sixth-grade teacher have an influence on your life? Of course Andy had an influence on my life.
In the late ’80s, you got your first big retail client: Barneys. Was this commission the moment you felt like you had found a focus?
No, it was just a welcome job. I had just been doing private work. I was very lucky: I went from Warhol, to Yves Saint Laurent, to the owner of Fiat, to the owner of Chanel. Via Andy I had a stellar rise. It’s the old story of an actor and actress: You can sleep with someone to get the role, but if you’re no good, you can’t get another one. You have to have been good to get the next role. And I was. And I am. And that’s the difference. I took it very, very far. I was kind of a little darling. People were like, “Oh, that’s Peter Marino, the hot young architect!”
WWD did an interview with me, and that’s how Fred Pressman at Barneys heard about me. He called up, because they were looking for a designer. They were only a men’s store then, and they were going into women’s, so it was a major construction program. I said, “Let me save you some time. I’ve never done a store in my life. If I show you my portfolio, you’re going to see Saint Laurent’s bathroom and Mrs. Agnelli’s living room and the Chanel owner’s library. How is that going to help you in designing a Barneys?” He was great, Fred, because he said, “Look, I know everything there is to know about retail. I’m just looking for somebody with talent.” So I went for the interview.
Barneys was essentially a “dress shop,” as those kinds of stores were called back then. Dress shops weren’t considered cool projects for architects.
It was shit. It was the bottom of the smelly pickle barrel. No self-respecting architect at the time would do a dress shop. It was so pooh-poohed. And I never gave a fuck. I was like, “Why not?” I loved Andy’s Pop sensibility. The same kind of people who said, “You can’t paint Heinz ketchup bottles,” would go, “If you’re a serious architect, you really can’t do dress shops.” I went, “Really? What happens if I take it seriously and make it into architecture?” They said, “You can’t. It’s impossible.” So I did, I took it seriously, and thank you to the journalist Cathy Horyn for having said that I was the first one to take it seriously and the one who created the trend of modern shops.