His signature look is full-on biker: black leather pants, boots, and cap, with a tight black T-shirt over bulging biceps, and often a pair of black shades. Architect and designer Peter Marino is a big motorcycle fan and a big New York personality. He got his start in the mid-’70s, renovating the Upper East Side townhouse of Andy Warhol and the third “Factory.” Today, Marino is one of the biggest names in buildings. He’s designed more high-fashion boutiques in high-fashion capitals than any other architect in the business. The 59-year-old Marino won an AIA Institute Honor Award in 2007 for his semi-transparent Louis Vuitton boutique in Hong Kong, but he has received just as much attention for his Chanel Tower in the Ginza district of Tokyo, for which he introduced a new form of LED embedded glass. One of the secrets behind the man in black is his rare approach of treating design as an all-inclusive, one-stop shop: inside, outside, and everything in between gets the full Marino treatment. Lately he’s been working in the Middle East, where an influx of money and progressive aesthetics have allowed him to press his ideas into new shapes and heights.
One of his artistic collaborators and good friends is Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. Muniz recently visited Marino in his midtown Manhattan office and, sitting high up over the city at sunset, the two got down to discussing the failures of art museums, why there isn’t enough talent to go around, and why Marino feels most at home on his motorcycle.
VIK MUNIZ: I had to do a bit of a crash course on you today because you’re so prolific. You collect my work and come to my studio and we talk about art, but we seldom talk about architecture.
PETER MARINO: You also made a portrait of my daughter out of chocolate.
MUNIZ: See. That has nothing to do with architecture . . . And you never hear people talk about architecture. It seems to be a social taboo.
MARINO: No, because it’s a profession. Do you really want to sit next to a kidney expert and hear him talk about kidneys the whole time?
MUNIZ: Well, now you have to. Let’s start from the beginning. You were a product of the cultural environment in New York during the ’60s and ’70s. Is there a pop influence to your work?
MARINO: Well, I simply loathe the crude 1960s distinctions between commerce and art. For me, Warhol and pop obliterated all of those separations—that was the whole point of the Brillo Boxes and Campbell’s Soup Cans. And believe it or not, in 2009, moronic journalists are still saying to me, “Your work is so commercial.” Didn’t we cover that 50 years ago? Where have you been? It’s so pathetic. If you do a museum, that’s sacred, and if you do a store, that’s profane. I just say, “Oh, please, get over it. I don’t know what rock you’ve been living under, but you have to crawl out.” So, in a sense, I do have a Warholian thing going on. I loathe when architects only analyze architecture in intellectual, nonvisual ways. I really love direct response, and that’s very pop. I don’t want to discuss abstract transparencies with a bunch of kooks. [laughs]
MUNIZ: What was the difference between Warhol the artist and Warhol the client?
MARINO: As a client, Andy’s taste was so Catholic. I mean, only he could collect early American furniture, French art deco, modern -paintings . . . [sighs] His taste was so varied, which is great because so many artists and architects have such narrow fields of vision. I find it embarrassing for them. Working for Andy opened up a lot of doors and allowed me to like a lot of things that they tell you in architecture school you aren’t supposed to like.
MUNIZ: Beyond Warhol, you have an impressive list of high-profile clients—huge personalities. Is it different to design for these people?
MARINO: One of my first fashion clients was Calvin Klein. We did his first freestanding stores. He was very exact and precise. But talk about high-fashion people who brand themselves! I remember showing him a chair for the boutique that I was designing—which is the hardest thing in the world to design, by the way, a chair. Calvin always had an entourage around him, and I was there alone. So I presented the chair, and Calvin immediately said, “Well, what would Calvin think about this chair?” I got all weirded out and went, “Last time I checked, you were Calvin.” But he was considering Calvin Klein as a brand beyond him. [laughs] So, yes, these people do have very large-scale personas outside of their human flesh and blood.
MUNIZ: And how does Peter Marino feel about that? [laughs]
MARINO: I don’t talk about myself in the third person. When I start doing that, you’ll know I’m having an out-of-body experience.
MUNIZ: But you also work more intimately with some of these personalities.
MARINO: I started off residential, and now only about 30 percent of my work is residential, but I still do residences for the high-profile people. Residential work is extremely difficult, because it is much easier for Karl Lagerfeld to say, “The image of Chanel is x, y, and z.” That’s clear in his head. When you design someone’s house, it’s actually painful. I never say, “This house will be a total reflection of you and any defects in it will make you look defective.” [laughs] But people do expect their homes to be reflections of themselves. So what I say is, “Just pretend this is your eighth home. By then you won’t care.” People start loosening up around number five. It’s no longer a reflection of them—they can just have fun with it. But the first one is excruciating.
MUNIZ: It’s a lot of negotiation?
MARINO: The older I get, the less I negotiate. [laughs] When you first start out, it’s 90 percent negotiation and 10 percent suggestion. When you get to a certain point, those figures reverse.
MUNIZ: Do you make a point of not designing first homes?
MARINO: It’s generally to be avoided, and that’s no joke. People’s first homes are always disasters. It’s like the first time you have sex. It’s never as good as later on. It always gets better. Virgin clients are going to experience some pain, you know?
MUNIZ: But there must be some difference between designing residences and designing stores. For a store like Chanel, you’re dealing in desires.
MARINO: Yes, we’re trying to create desire from the very first moment a person walks in. You’re trying to make them buy everything in the store.
MUNIZ: I remember going to your house and seeing Galli da Bibiena drawings of opera settings, and I was completely taken aback. I wondered if you design thinking in terms of stage settings.
MARINO: I don’t think of my work that way. What we do is permanent and so expensive. I’ve done stage sets in the past, and it’s about being temporary and being seen from very far away. The difference is crucial. In stores, the public is one inch from everything. I never use fake stuff. What I do is real—you need to be able to touch it, to reach out and grab it. My reason for collecting Bibiena is that I loved the whole one-stop shopping aspect of former monarchs. Because they could hire a family and say, “I need an opera house for my 50th anniversary. We’re going to put on three operas and we need sets.” So the nephew would do the sets, the uncle would do the house, etc. I love that. You can’t do that today. You would have to go to 400 consultants to get it done—consultants, architects, theater designers, lighting specialists . . . Or you just hire the Bibiena family.
MUNIZ: But you’re—I don’t want to say a one-stop shop—but you’re an architect and a designer. How do you differentiate your roles as architect and interior designer?
MARINO: For me, there’s absolutely no difference. If I’m drawing a pool or a telephone or a chair or a building, it’s all the same.
MUNIZ: There’s no inside out, outside in?
MARINO: I don’t have a different approach. I know some people do, but I don’t. It’s supposed to be about which side of your brain your mind uses . . . Look at my office: If you go one way, it’s 100 architects. If you go the other, it’s 40 decorators. The whole point of this office is to use both sides. I never thought I was special, but I’ve been in business now for more than 30 years, and I can’t find too many other people who do what I do in that one-stop approach.
MUNIZ: We’ve collaborated together on a few projects, and you always give me flexibility.
MARINO: That’s the thing about flexibility. If someone has talent, you let them do it. If they have less talent, you have to hold them back. Listen, the longer I’m in this business, the more I realize how little talent is out there. When you’re 20, you think the whole world is talented, but whenyou get older, you realize the opposite is true.
MUNIZ: You also put a lot of contemporary art in your projects.
MARINO: Throughout history, from Abyssinians and Greeks onward, artists, sculptors, and architects have worked together. I find this post–World War II thing, this segmentation of the arts, so lame. It’s the laming of the arts.
MUNIZ: There’s such a divide between architects and artists now that there’s a museum in Rio that houses the largest collection of Brazilian paintings. The architect commissioned to build the museum, Oscar Niemeyer, made something that was round, with slanted walls that were made out of glass. Not only can you not hang a single painting on the outside wall, you can’t hang one on the inside either, because the sunlight through the windows would ruin it. Basically you can’t hang a single painting in this museum. The Guggenheim here in New York is another classic case . . .
MARINO: They’re both bad buildings—I’m sorry, but it’s true, because they don’t work. You can’t have sloped walls. You can havesome, but not for the art. It’s interesting what [Frank] Gehry tried at Bilbao. He tried to make what he called traditional galleries. He threw together rectangular boxes on the floor plan, and he said, “I know this will work for paintings.” Then I’ll do an unrelated edifice that wraps them, leaving all of this bizarre space in between. I don’t think that’s the solution either. Because there is all of this leftover space, just to give him the effect that he wanted on the outside. It’s like he’s saying, “Here, have your fucking galleries with straight walls, okay?” Which isn’t exactly what artists are asking for either.
MUNIZ: There’s a schizophrenia between the outside and the inside of that building.
MARINO: Yeah, he tried. But the Guggenheim and the Niemeyer just aren’t good buildings! I mean, form follows function. I’m so old-fashioned that I still believe that. [laughs]
MUNIZ: Was the Guggenheim a good space for the motorcycle show [“The Art of the Motorcycle,” 1998]?
MARINO: The truth is, it’s a good space for a motorcycle show—much more than for paintings.
MUNIZ: Is there a connection for you between architecture and your love of motorcycles?
MARINO: When I go through Bryce Canyon in Utah, my field of vision is huge. After the motorcycle trips I take for one or two weeks, I have trouble getting back into a car, because I feel claustrophobic with all of that metal around me, and I can’t see anything. I feel seriously dangerous in a car after riding on a bike, because your field of vision is so closed in. And then I think about all these little bourgeois people driving around in their cars—it’s actually hideous. It cramps you on the head, it cramps you on the side, it puts you in a box on wheels . . . It’s a terrible experience. Motorcycles are about opening the field of vision.
MUNIZ: That’s why I like three-wheelers. Because you don’t even need to pay attention to the surface of the road. You can just watch the whole environment around you.
MARINO: But I love the boredom of staring at a straight line on a highway, too.
MUNIZ: I like to run on treadmills facing a wall. It feels so good because you can just empty yourself out . . . But I have to move from motorcycle riding to black leather. You wear a helmet and black leather on the road for protection. But you also dress like this when you’re not riding.
MARINO: I was wearing the leathers to ride the bike to work, and I’d come into the office and take my leathers off and put on what? Normal clothes? So I stopped putting on normal clothes. [Muniz laughs] It’s easier this way.
MUNIZ: What are you working on now?
MARINO: I’m working in Qatar for the government. We’re working on projects in the Middle East. We’re working on a big Chanel store in China. We’re working on Vuitton stores in London, Rome, and Las Vegas, which is fun. A Chanel in Singapore and Vietnam . . . It’s interesting to see where people are putting the emphasis, you know? We do a lot of work in Asia. We’re working with the Zegna brand. I’m going to Tokyo next week, and we’re opening that building. We’re going to do a much larger Zegna in Hong Kong. The brands of the moment are cooling it on the Western world and making investments in Asia.
MUNIZ: Did you see a surprising change in direction with the drop of the economy?
MARINO: A lot of projects that we had been working on stopped. A year ago, every country in the world was saying, “Want to do a hotel?” And I said, “Sure.” And we stopped doing a big hotel in Morocco and another in Croatia. We were doing a big hotel in the Caribbean—it stopped. We were doing a hotel in Abu Dhabi—it stopped. Hotels are finished, you know?
MUNIZ: You have always been quite an experimental designer. With the Ginza Chanel store, for instance, you used a lot of video.
MARINO: It’s totally experimental. We designed and developed a new triple-polarized glass that required financing 18 months of research in Austrian glass factories. I mean, no one’s gonna pay for that type of development at the moment. When the economy is down, there isn’t the opportunity to be as experimental.
MUNIZ: Do you see that affecting the amount of contemporary art that you put in your projects?
MARINO: I always want to encourage young artists. As the budgets get smaller, that might provide an opening for younger artists and more experimentation. Budgets had gotten quite large for art, as they had for architecture. I’m not going to cut back. The minute someone walks through my door, I go, “That’s my thing and you got to let me do it.”
MUNIZ: If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you have done?
MARINO: I wanted to be an artist, because it’s a much better scam than being an architect. [both laugh]
MUNIZ: I’m not gonna even respond to that.
MARINO: It’s such a good scam.
MUNIZ: So what project was most satisfying to work on?
MARINO: It’s really hard to come up with something new, because you do sketches all the time, then someone tells you, “This was done two years ago in a restaurant in Hong Kong.” It’s really hard in the design world to do anything new. I love that Chanel glass. You can see video on the outside of the building, but you can also see through it when standing on the inside. I’m so proud of that. Put that on my tombstone:
He discovered a new type of glass.
Vik Muniz is an artist known for using experimental materials and for large-scale installations. He lives and works in New York City.