Photo courtesy of Art + Commerce / Raven & SnowImage.
The dream weaver
When architect Peter Marino—a vision in black leather—sat down to talk to Vogue Italia, the venerated style bible must have thought they’d struck gold. He told tales of clean lines and daring façades, of risk taking and no-brainer beauty. Here was the embodiment of their world: an ‘on the money’ obsessive with the highest regard for the well crafted. “I feel my style is something that defines the time in which we live,” he said with characteristic zeal, “in that it combines many things: art, textiles, furniture, and a very definite modernity in architecture. I call myself an interior architect, but for me interior, exterior and landscape architecture, they’re all the same. It’s all about style.”
Marino—let’s call a spade a spade and anoint him with the mantle of ‘starchitect’—is a man obsessed with style. For almost fifty years this striking character has applied architectural nous to a dazzling array of commissions, including private homes for the superannuated, grand, conceptual interiors, and all manner of radical side projects. But he is perhaps most famous for the raft of stores he has imagined and executed for the world’s most prestigious fashion houses. If you’ve entered a Chanel, Dior or Louis Vuitton store in the past decade, Marino’s aesthetic could well have been the trigger for that ‘investment’ purchase. He is the go-to figure for conspicuous consumption, a dream weaver in marble and gold.
For almost fifty years this striking character has applied architectural nous to a dazzling array of commissions, including private homes for the superannuated, grand, conceptual interiors, and all manner of radical side projects.
Combining an arrogant flair with obvious talent, Marino’s design contributions have helped redefine modern luxury worldwide. Although his oeuvre varies widely—from sharp Modernist angles to a plusher Regency grandeur—he is known for maintaining a constant dialogue between exterior and interior, emphasising materiality, texture, scale, and light. There is no one quite like him in the business. No one straddling art, architecture and visual merchandising with such graceful aplomb.
“In his milieu, Peter Marino stands like a giant,” says architectural author Jonathan Chadwick. “The work is thought through and beautifully accomplished, there is nothing perfunctory or slapdash in its execution. He has done remarkable things that will stand the test of time, and that’s primarily because there is real innovation taking place. Yes, there are gimmicky touches, and I dare say some of his work will date, but nothing can take away from the artistry he continually mocks his competitors with.”
Marino studied painting at Cornell University at a time when America was waking up to a new and radical movement. “I used to come to New York a lot and visit the artist’s studios—people like Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella. I saw what the Pop Artists were doing, pushing things twenty years into the future, and I just didn’t know if I could do that myself. Architecture came easily to me, so self interest made me decide to get into that instead. I thought, I’ve got a better chance of doing something gorgeous in architecture than pushing the fine art scene.”
Upon graduation, the wily student swiftly infiltrated New York society armed with swaggering confidence and razor sharp ideas in equal measure. A life changing introduction drew him into the orbit of Andy Warhol—never one to miss a beat—forging an enduring bond that would serve him well. “The entire world came through the doors of The Factory,” says James Anderson, a British journalist who has taken a keen interest in Marino’s career, “it was the perfect start”.
Warhol may have been the ultimate contact, but he also introduced the fledgling architect to a new way of thinking. In 1974 Warhol “Purchased an extremely upscale and beautiful Georgian town house on E66 Street,” explains Marino. “He loved the idea of restoring the place to its original New York polish and filled it with early American antiques, which I never expected to see. I learnt a lot of that from him. It was a very beautiful, very masculine look, and one that formed the backbone of my own personal aesthetic.”
If it was ok for Warhol, it was certainly ok for the legion of those who followed. “I ended up redoing the last installation of The Factory, and The Factory was everything,” he has admitted. “I met the Getty family and the Rothschild’s there, who I both worked for, and that’s where I met Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, who were also my early patrons. I started to do residential projects because that’s the work that came my way, those were the people I was mixing with.”
With the residential came the commercial, and Fred Pressman of Barneys New York, Manhattan’s pre-eminent fashion outlet, was first to make the call. “I’d only done private residential work at the time, but Fred read WWD and knew that the private residential work was Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol. He said, listen, I need talent. I know everything there is to know about making a store work.”
Pressman’s faith paid off. After a series of minor projects the work grew incrementally until Marino was redesigning the entire building and in essence the brand’s identity. “Then they started taking me to all the shows, so I met a lot of designers, like Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld. That’s how I met Calvin Klein and did his stores, and that’s how I met Donna Karan. It all happened through Barneys. I suddenly became part of the world, and my identity became key.”
You cannot miss Peter Marino. The 67-year-old cuts a dissolute figure, even amongst the fashion crowd of New York. In every picture—and Marino likes to be documented—he is decked out in the kind of leather biker gear last seen on Freddie Mercury, comprising straps, buckles and all manner of fetish like accoutrements. The hair is Mohican jet black, while his fingers are covered in gnarls of silver rings. “Peter knows the power of identity,” once opined Marc Jacobs. Think Judas Priest as imagined by Tom of Finland and photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe.
He certainly owns those references. Mapplethorpe prints take pride of place in offices that have become a virtual gallery of priceless modern artefacts. Flooded by natural light and bathed in taste, there are books everywhere, a pleasing reminder that not everything looks good on a screen. Then there’s the art—Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, an Anselm Kiefer canvas—and priceless animal skeletons, all shown off against neutral tones, offset with a splash of pop colour. “I love to mix really contemporary art with antiques and what I consider to be, and call, pure architecture. I don’t like conglomeration, and I loathe the term eclecticism. Eclectic just means you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What is modern anyway?” asks Chadwick. “We’re living in a post-postmodern world where everything, from Memphis furniture, to Brutalist architecture to Steampunk creates an amazingly diverse aesthetic landscape. I think Marino’s strength is that he is able to cross-pollinate styles and eras so effectively, and with such braveur. He was early to adapt to changing times and people’s tastes. He tapped into modernity in a way that has been incredibly influential to generations of creatives from multiple fields. There is serious intent at work, but he manages to puncture formality in favour of fun, and isn’t afraid to add quirky touches. There really is nobody to touch him.”
When pushed on architecture Marino is winningly blunt. For a man who has practiced professionally for half a century, the ethos is as well honed as you might expect. “Architecture is the three-dimensional rationalisation of your physical surroundings,” he says, as if there were any doubt. “It’s the materialistic walls that shape your life and the environment in which you work. It’s like music, it can be inspirational, it can be a real downer, or it can be too loud. I’m a little old school in that I learnt to draft by hand, by pencil, but computers in the 1990s enabled people to do the kind of visual imaging that created an explosion of architecture. It came about with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—and good for him—because it brought to people’s attention what was being created that could never have been created before.”
Fifteen years ago, the idea of an architect creating interiors for retail outlets, however grand, was dismissed as somewhat naff. But it made sense to Marino. After Warhol and The Factory, stores made sense—shopping being the ultimate pop art—and many of his residential clients, now friends and contemporaries knew what he was capable of. They return year after year for new stores, extensions, expansion, and the overriding knowledge that a customer can be coerced into purchase by the environment that surrounds them.
“The ultimate store should have light, space, comfort and humour,” he always maintains. “It should be an environment you want to spend time in, not one where you can’t wait to get out the moment you walk through the doors. It’s important to me as an architect that you make everybody’s life better. I like to present my ideas very quickly, very directly, very upfront. When we do focus groups for some of the high end stores, very wealthy customers—the most important part of the equation—tell me they want to see a selection of bags in one place. I can’t be too out there and spread them all over a space they can’t get around. Even in this world of luxury, people only have a certain amount of time.”
Before taking on a client, Marino makes a mental checklist. “I always inspect the product the client is making. If I feel it’s not of a high enough calibre, I’m not interested. It says to me that they’re not into really good architecture. I say what I think, it’s better to just be direct, I need to be as polished as I find others, so I’m pretty fucking blunt. It’s difficult sometimes. The difference between commercial and residential of course is time and budget. There’s enormous pressure on a commercial project—any delays can cost millions—but wealthy people put a lot of pressure on you to finish their homes too.”
In retail, or “dress shops” as he likes to call them, he is keenly aware that a store presents a designer’s idea, and that you have to see the designer’s vision for it to make sense. “You can’t see that on a computer,” he says, “you don’t understand it. But in the store you can see and smell and touch, and, let’s not forget, you can try clothes on. I think e-commerce is for seriously overweight people. People are shocked that none of my shops—Dior, Chanel, Vuitton—look the same. But why are they shocked? None of my homes look the same either, they’re different. Clients have different requirements too. The brands have different values. Some could be more sporty, some could be more formal, more glamorous. Fashion brands are like people, they have their own personalities.”
Through his connection with these brands Marino funds enormous sums of money to a range of artists, effectively acting as a conduit for corporate patronage on a grand scale. Rising stars such as the abstract painter Robert Greene and conceptualist Allan McCollum have work on display at a number of Chanel’s flagship stores, ultimately purchased with the aim to impress and invest. As a formative painter and serious art buff, commissioning site specific pieces that are more than disposable props is undoubtedly the highlight of his professional life. A handsome book, Peter Marino: Art Architecture (2016), illustrates the best examples of this cross-pollination, and is breathtaking in its scope and vision.
Take the humble staircase. In Marino’s world this narrow, dead space, wasted in terms of display, becomes a tall, often ceiling height backdrop on which artistic expression can run riot. Chanel, perhaps his most serious benefactor, has embraced a number of the architect’s protégés, including Jean-Michel Othoniel, whose vast installations and showpiece sculptures grace several stores. At London’s New Bond Street store, Collier Cascade, a towering 36 foot string of silver and black pearls, flanks white concertina stairs in tribute to Coco’s trademark style. By contrast, for Louis Vuitton’s Munich store, collage artist Guy Limone created Yellow, Orange, Ochre, and Black Tapestry, wherein the Frenchman, known for whimsical multimedia installations, papers the stairway in shimmering scales of light reflective texture.
Their work, often audacious and overblown, is a poignant form of contemporary Pop Art. It’s retail nightclubbing of the most sophisticated order—over the top, seductive and the icing on an already rich cake. Marino’s eye for modernity and visual intrigue is an established fact. He has the courage of his convictions, and this makes him a natural fit for those wanting just that little bit more. Already a design powerhouse with renowned visual flourish, this symbiotic relationship with cutting edge artists only lends him more credibility.
Marino’s eye for modernity and visual intrigue is an established fact. He has the courage of his convictions, and this makes him a natural fit for those wanting just that little bit more.
“Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Peter is his absolute dedication,” says Chadwick. This is a man who seriously collects the most tasteful objects in the world, in over ten fields—from 18th century furniture to Renaissance and Baroque bronzes—so he is able to eulogise on what or who he thinks is currently ‘genius’. That passion includes his great love of art, but also extends to his clients—the celebrities and the fashion designers he is obviously in thrall to.”
“I’m blown away by the artistry of some of the designers whose stores I’ve designed,” agrees Marino. “Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Stuart Vevers when he was at Loewe. I’m glad to see their fashion design recognised for the art form that it is. I believe in taking icons of their brand that help reinforce that personality. Look at the reigning painters during the Renaissance. The biggest piece of propaganda I ever saw was Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It’s great. It makes you believe in God. It did its job. I mean, he was selling God, but he was selling. So I take the brand’s identities and help clarify who they are.”
These words of wisdom come with their own identity too. Marino is profoundly bidialectic, speaking in a slightly disarming accent that hovers somewhere between strained English camp and his native Queens, New York. It’s a most curious blend of cultures—Rocky meets Carry On Doctor—but one that seems entirely fitting.
“It’s Marino’s persona, which balances noise and speed with the art of couture, that makes him one of the most fascinating characters in fashion,” say fashion journalist Dean Mayo-Davies. “Next time you see a catwalk look or a gleaming handbag step out of a boutique, hitting the reality of the pavement, think of him—he’s probably sweetened the deal.”
This chink of insight isn’t lost on Marino, but he isn’t one to dwell on past glories. “You’re not doing a successful job if you’re doing a job that could have been done ten years ago. If you can’t look at it and say, no one could’ve done this but ME, I think it’s GORGEOUS, then you’ve failed.”
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