He became famous with Andy Warhol, Gisele Bündchen wanted a house from him, he built the new porcelain wing in the Dresden Zwinger: Peter Marino is one of the most famous architects in the world. He told Sven Michaelsen about his childhood, his influence by Warhol and his love of art.
„My work is anti-elitist“
He comes into the room with the dynamism of a man who has no time but wants to achieve a lot in that time. If he had spurs, they would jingle. On this morning, Peter Marino is leading a group of visitors through his art museum in Southampton on Long Island. He stops in front of a human skeleton that has been draped in a rocker jacket. „Do you notice anything?“ he asks. „Yes,“ a visitor replies, „you’re wearing the same rocker jacket as the skeleton.“ Marino smiles with satisfaction. „It’s my jacket. I have several of them. You’re standing in front of a sculpture by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, its name is ‚Peter Marino in 100 Years.’“ As to why there is a hand broom and a bottle of spray cleaner next to the skeleton, the visitor asks. „Erwin was at my house once,“ Marino replies. „Since then, he’s known I have a cleaning bug.“
Mr. Marino, you could only move your legs in pain until you were seven years old. Did this disability shape your sense of the world?
It shaped my eyes, at least. If you have to spend many hours in bed during the day, you develop a hyper-focused perception of the objects that surround you. This intensity of vision is the basis for what I do. My wife Jane is a costume designer. When we come home from a dinner invitation, she asks me, „Did you notice the hostess’s dress? Did you notice her earrings?“ My answer every time is, „No.“ In turn, I ask her, „Did you see that the corner cabinet is a one-of-a-kind piece by Italian Art Nouveau designer Carlo Bugatti?“ Needless to say, she missed it. If you have an overly accurate eye for one thing, you’re almost blind to everything else.
How do you notice this in everyday life?
I came down with corona in March. The doctor asked me, „Are you losing your sense of smell or taste?“ I replied, „Doctor, how would I know? You’ve known me for 30 years now – I’ve never had a sense of smell or taste.“ My daughter Isabelle could be a sommelier. She can tell from the taste and smell of a wine what part of the world it comes from and what grape it was made from. My talent, on the other hand, begins and ends with the visual.
What was the name of the disease you had as a child?
Do you really want to know? The details are very unpleasant. The disease is called Perthes‘ disease. Because of circulatory problems, the bone tissue in the femoral head dies. To be able to bear the pain in your legs and hips, you develop schoonkinesis. Your brain keeps saying, „It’s best not to move at all!“
Were you an unhappy child?
There was a feeling that was often stronger than my unhappiness: being singled out. When you have a rare disease, it can make you think you’re special. Having so many doctors and nurses taking care of me reinforced that feeling. On the other hand, my mind kept circling around the same question: why me? What have I done to be the one sick person among 20,000 healthy people? Why can’t I be an average person instead of having Perthes disease? My early childhood was played out between these two poles.
You wanted to make a career as a painter. What made you become an architect?
Because of my disease, my eyes were my life. I started drawing when I was three years old, and my art teachers at Cornell University in New York certified that I had a good eye for painting. But then in the late sixties I visited artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol in their studios. The creativity of these people was just exploding, and I suspected that as a painter I would always be second choice. But mediocrity was not my goal.
Unlike in art, there was a paralyzing boredom in architecture at the moment. I saw my chance in this stagnation. So I became an architect.
When Andy Warhol moved his Factory, he was looking for an architect to design the new space. How did a nobody like you get this job?
I had spent many weekends at the Factory because it was a laboratory for the new. I was introduced to it by a young lady named Pat Hackett. She transcribed the tapes on which Warhol recorded his daily life, and later became the ghostwriter of his infamous diaries. Warhol had heard I was an architect, and since he had stingy sides, I got the job. He knew newbies came cheap. If you were my biographer, of course, I’d have to tell the story in such a way that Warhol’s genius foresight made him realize what a huge talent and career hunger I had.
How much did he pay you?
He instructed an assistant to hand me $150 for expenses and out-of-pocket costs. Instead of an honorarium, he gave me paintings that he had done. The dedication on the canvases read „for Peter.“ A Warhol was not an unaffordable treasure then as it is today. An established architect would have cost many times as much.
Were you a Warholian back then?
Not from the beginning. The story is very, very embarrassing, but I’ll tell it anyway: when I first saw pictures by Warhol at the Factory in the mid-sixties, I said to him, aghast, „Sorry Andy, but your pictures are inconsequential crap.“ He looked at me in his shy, leftist way and replied, „You think so? Well, I like them just fine.“ Today, I’m a not-so-insignificant Warhol collector. I hope that makes the story a little less embarrassing.
Did you resell the Warhols you got as an honorarium?
One, many years later.
I bought my first apartment in Manhattan for the proceeds.
In 1974, Warhol bought a four-story house built in 1902 in the heart of New York’s Upper East Side. Four years later, he commissioned you to redesign it. What was his brief?
Andy’s birth name was Andrew Warhola. His parents were immigrants from a poor village in the Carpathian Mountains who barely spoke English and lived in the working-class city of Pittsburgh in a two-room apartment with no hot water or toilet. Because of this background, Andy was fascinated by old American wealth and antiques. His shyness, however, forbade him from telling me he wanted to live like an upper middle-class person circa 1900. Instead, we went to Long Island on weekends and looked at the turn-of-the-century mansions of billionaires like William Francis du Pont Jr. At the end of the tour, Andy said, „This is the kind of place I want my home to look like.“
Was the Warhol house your ticket into the world of the glitterati and plutocrats?
No, because until Andy’s death in 1987, fewer than 15 people saw his house. He did go out every night, but he didn’t invite anyone over. So the publicity effect for me was zero. Still, Andy is the defining figure of my life. Through him and his manager Fred Hughes, I got to know the people who made me who I am today. The list goes from the Rothschilds and Gettys to the Agnellis. You don’t meet these people on the street.
What did you design for the Agnellis?
Gianni Agnelli was looking for an architect for a new house. Since my parents are from southern Italy, I speak Italian. My rival on the project was my famous colleague Richard Meier. He doesn’t speak Italian. Do I have to tell you who Gianni awarded the contract to?
What do you suppose Warhol would say about the year 2021?
He would paint huge canvases with covid viruses, in many different pop colors, each in editions of four. The paintings would be snatched out of his hands. Andy was the pope of pop. His descendants are named Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Tom Sachs. Each of them follows in Andy’s footsteps to this day.
Yes, Andy put an end to the hare-brained separation between art and commerce by painting Campbell’s soup cans. Today, when journalists accuse me of my buildings being commercial, I say, „What rock have you been living under for the past 50 years?“ My work is anti-elitist and neither abstract nor intellectual. That’s Andy’s pop heritage in me.
No other architect has designed as many flagship stores for fashion companies as you have. How did this affinity come about?
In the beginning, there was fear and rejection. I grew up in Queens in a family that was lower middle class. When I was ten, my mother started taking me shopping trips to the big department stores in Manhattan. In 1959, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman were gloomy cages overflowing with merchandise that made me claustrophobic. What was the eagerly anticipated highlight of the week for my mother triggered claustrophobic seizures for me every time. If the 42 flagship stores I’ve designed since 1986 share a common characteristic, it’s natural light and lavish space.
Fashion designers are often hypochondriacal prima donnas, oscillating between delusions of grandeur and inferiority complexes. How often are there arguments when designing a flagship store?
I have yet to meet a fashion designer who didn’t tell me during the first conversation, „I want you to build an empty, white gallery space for me. The clothes I design are art. I don’t want anything to distract from it.“ I then pretend to listen with interest. Inwardly, I glance at the clock. I attribute it to my advanced age that I often don’t listen when people tell me about their grandiose ideas. I’ve known most of these fabulous ideas for 30 years.
Your clients include Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Fendi, Dior and Bulgari. How…
…you left out Valentino, Marc Jacobs and many others. And what you may not know: When Bernard Arnault bought Tiffany & Co. on January 7 of this year, he called me at nine in the morning on January 8 and said, „Peter, you have an additional job.“
How can the same architect work for competing firms?
How can a piano virtuoso excel at Bach, Mozart and Beethoven at the same time? Simple, he changes the sheet music. I think of each fashion company as a person with a unique character. After studying this character, I decide what the cover should look like that suits him – from the design of the store front to the lighting mood in the dressing rooms. In this way, unique pieces are created.
How many people does your company employ?
160. In our offices in Manhattan, there is a separate war room for each customer. Otherwise, there would be confusion.
At Chanel, you had to deal with Karl Lagerfeld. How did „Emperor Karl“ and the „leather god of luxury,“ as you are known, get along?
Karl totally intimidated me. He was the most astute and educated couturier I’ve ever worked for. I also read a few books in my life, but he made me feel like I was sitting across from a library. When it came to books, he was voracious to the point of insatiability. The humbling part was: he could also remember what he had read! Until the day I die, I will never forget how I once presented him with designs for a new Chanel store. He looked at me through his sunglasses and said that my drawings reminded him of the Swedish architect who died 60 years ago – and then came a name I had never heard. On the one hand I was ashamed to the bone, on the other hand I thought, how could I know every Swedish architect from the turn of the century? To this day, I doubt that architecture professors have heard of the man. Do you know what Karl was called in France?
La Mitraillette, the machine gun. He spoke three times as fast as I did. That alone made you feel you weren’t quite as intelligent as he was. If he were sitting across from you in my place, this interview would have ended long ago, and you would have a lot more to print than with me. God had a good day when he unleashed a quick thinker like Karl on mankind. Today there are too many computers and too few characters like him.
Why do you describe yourself as an architect „who is paid out of a company’s advertising budget“?
When I started my firm, my ass was hanging in the wind for years. The cost of space and staff was huge, the income minimal. During my architecture studies, no one had taught me how to run a company and make a profit doing it. One day, a client took me aside and said, „Peter, you’re acting like a rank beginner. Even though you’re becoming more in demand, you’re taking fees like a woods-and-meadows architect who’s supposed to design a livestock shed in Minnesota. Get very, very expensive, and you’ll see people busting your chops.“ He was right. In 1984, the Wertheimer family became my client, the owners of Chanel. In 1994, Bernard Arnault and his LVMH group joined. Although we’re talking about billionaires, there was a problem: When the financial controllers saw my fee bills, they protested and demanded that I be replaced. Only when the money people realized that my flagship stores were attracting tens of thousands of new customers did they stop grumbling about my prices. To put it in the language of these suits, employing Peter Marino represents added financial value.
You design stores for cultural milieus as diverse as Shanghai, Moscow, Palm Springs and Paris. What influence do country-specific statistics and customer surveys have on your work?
Zero. I’m too experienced to listen to any bullshit from 32-year-old marketing pussies in cheap suits. When some pompous guy stands in front of me and starts babbling, I say, „So you know what the customers want. You of all people? Have you ever noticed what you’re wearing? You know as much about fashion as I know about astrophysics.“ That’s my way of saying „what the fuck“. There’s only one irrefutable law in my line of work: people don’t know what they want until they see it.
What is more important for the image of a fashion company: the fashion show or the look of the flagship store?
The show reaches more people through the Internet; on the other hand, the companies‘ shows are much more similar than most people think. Both serve the same purpose: to sell a brand’s Allure fragrances and beauty products. To enter a flagship store is to be whisked away from the gray ordinariness of everyday life into a dazzling world of desires and dreams. The same is true for a fashion show. Look at those impossibly beautiful models with their perfect bodies. Even after 40 years in the fashion world, I never tire of looking at them in awe and wondering where such people come from. Thank you, God, for creating women!
What do you say to people who shy away from visiting luxury boutiques because they find them intimidating?
Studies say that 70 out of 100 respondents have this feeling. That’s why marketing clowns are constantly asking me to please design stores that are more inviting. My response is, „You don’t want to intimidate people? Great idea, then lower the prices by 50 percent. You’ll be overrun.“
A famous belief of yours is, „Dark rooms are for sex, light rooms are for shopping.“ What else should you look for in boutique design?
When I see a sofa outside the dressing rooms, a voice inside me shouts, „Mistake!“ Men usually wait there for their wives, and men are known to prefer armchairs. A sofa makes them nervous because of the risk of getting involved in a conversation. Men are annoyed enough when shopping. Having to make conversation with strangers as well would be anathema to them. It’s good to know that 90 percent of all customers move to the right after coming in because they are right-handed. While men tend to move counterclockwise in the store, many women zigzag.
Will the Corona epidemic and the man-made climate crisis lead to a new consumer ethic?
I could argue now that we’re heading toward a new simplicity, but you’re on thin ice there. In my experience, there is a turnaround every five to seven years, but anyone who has predicted what it will look like has made a terrible fool of themselves every time. I remember journalists asking me in the early nineties if Jil Sander’s minimalism was the final answer to all fashion questions. I said, „Yes, her fashion is final, because it leads nowhere. There is no such thing as less than nothing.“ Minimalists face the same problem over and over: at some point, you can’t leave anything out – except yourself.
Are there any figures you use as a guide?
If I want to know where the journey is going, I watch fashion shows. The good couturiers sense the spirit of a time like heat-guided missiles. But they can’t express their scents in words. They design clothes as metaphors for what they prophesy. Couturiers are the sleuths I willingly and gratefully follow in my architectural designs.
Part of the logic of fashion is that everything and everyone goes out of style sooner or later. Are you afraid that at some point you will no longer be in vogue?
No. Who do you go to when your knee needs surgery: a nervous newcomer or an experienced doctor with an excellent reputation who has already successfully operated on a few hundred knees?
Part of your signature as an architect is that you don’t buy up existing artwork for the décor of your flagship stores, but commission work from artists. How do you go about doing that?
If you want to build the Sistine Chapel, you’d be well advised to think about who’s going to paint the ceiling beforehand, because one is nothing without the other. As soon as I know what I want a building to look like, I think about which artist has a suitable aesthetic. I benefit from knowing many artists personally since the Factory days. They trust me, I trust them. The list of people who have created works for me ranges from James Turrell and Ólafur Elíasson to Sol LeWitt, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. My learning from collaborating is that I never get from artists what I expected. Hopefully, the same is true for me. I want my ideas to surprise myself.
Which artist has provided the best publicity for a building?
Michelangelo. His mission in painting the Sistine Chapel was to sell faith in God. He did that job with enviable perfection.
Do you secretly see yourself as an artist?
No, art serves only itself and is its own end. I, on the other hand, have clients who expect from my buildings even such profanities as toilets and emergency exits. I know I am not a genius. But I also know I am exceptionally good at what I do – and that has become rare in today’s world. When ideas shrink to deeds, you can see who’s ambition is greater than talent. My pride is being able to do what I do.
You’ve been collecting art since the late sixties. Three months ago, you fulfilled the wet dream of many collectors: opening your own museum bearing your name.
My second home is Southampton on Long Island. A few years ago, I noticed a building in town from 1895 that was being used as a library. I bought it and converted it into a museum. If you take a tour on Fridays or Saturdays for $20, I may be your guide.
In your museum, you show work by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Georg Baselitz, Candida Höfer, Richard Deacon, Lucio Fontana, Diane Arbus, Andreas Gursky, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Richard Serra, Thomas Struth and Andy Warhol. Is it true that this is only a fraction of your collection?
Yes, I can only show 25 percent. That’s why we change the exhibits every few months. Since you’re a journalist, you might be interested to know that the museum’s co-director is Bob Colacello, the former editor-in-chief of Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview.
Every art collection is also a self-portrait of the collector. What did the Peter Marino Foundation say about Peter Marino?
That the man knows a lot about art history, is interested in a wide variety of cultures, and has a Catholic taste driven by beauty addiction. The director of a museum of modern art wouldn’t recognize a bronze bust from the Renaissance even if it banged him on the head. Why do museums have to be so uniform? I’m bored to death by it. Thematically narrow collections are evidence of narrow minds.
With me, you see Egyptian art from 5,000 B.C. to works from last year. The objects enter into a dialogue with each other and comment on each other. This is the only way to transform a museum from a house of the dead into a source of inspiration and pleasure.
How does your wife characterize the collector Peter Marino?
I collect old ceramics obsessively. The other day my wife discovered a few boxes under the bed and asked if I knew what they were all about. When I meekly replied that there were ceramics in there that I no longer had room for, she said, „You’re not a collector, you’re a hoarder, you hoard!“
Suppose your museum is on fire. Which work do you save?
The 17th century bronzes by Ferdinando Tacca. To save the works of Anselm Kiefer would be superfluous. He would love the traces left by the fire on his works in lead and say, „Please keep it that way!“
Is a museum bearing one’s own name the ultimate ego trophy?
Something else is more important to me: no one would dare paint over Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because they think the painting is unfashionable. It’s different in architecture. After 30 years, a building is torn down and replaced by a new one. Museums are treated with more respect. In this respect, they are a protest against forgetting and transience.
Architects like Frank Gehry, David Chipperfield or Rem Koolhaas, who worked for Prada, are world-famous, yet hardly anyone would notice if they walked into a place. With you, on the other hand, a murmur goes through the room, and people take pictures of you with their smartphones. When did you start dressing like a cross between a motorcycle rocker and a fetish club bouncer?
Isn’t „Clothes make the man“ a German proverb? If you sell original ideas, you shouldn’t be dressed like a bus driver. Karl Lagerfeld once said to me that he knew only three people in the world with an unmistakable look: Mao Tse-tung, him and me. I can think of Warhol with his platinum blond wig. My leather outfit is not a disguise, because I rode a motorcycle as a student. Because I still suffer from claustrophobia, I can’t breathe properly in cars. On a motorcycle, nothing blocks my view to the side or upwards. Riding around on my Triumph Speed Triple 1050 S is like a Zen exercise for me: the carousel of thoughts in my head finally comes to a halt.
Right, that you not only designed the tattoos on your body yourself, but also your leather clothing?
Yes, I’ve been approached by big companies about launching a fashion line under my name. But why would I want to do that? I have no desire to meet anyone who looks like me.
What do you wear when you watch Netflix series on the sofa with your wife?
Mostly workout clothes from Under Armour. I often do strength exercises at home and am too lazy to change.
A profitable specialty of yours is mansions for celebrities and the super-rich like David Geffen, Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen. How do you go about planning these multimillion-dollar projects?
I look at the client as if he were a fashion brand and analyze his personality. You have to know that many of my clients are highly insecure when it comes to architecture and design. But these people know one thing for sure: any visitor will immediately draw conclusions about the owner’s character from the house. That’s what makes it so tricky. Sometimes I find myself as a psychologist who has to talk people with XXL egos out of their complexes. I’m pretty good at that, too.
How do you reassure your customers?
People expect their first house to reflect them one hundred percent. They fear any design flaw will make the owner look flawed. That’s why I tell clients, „Just imagine this is your eighth house.“ In my experience, people don’t loosen up until their fourth or fifth house. It’s like sex: the first time is usually a disaster, but it gets better with time. To virgin clients, I warn, „Expect pain.“
How do you explore your clients‘ aesthetic preferences?
Not through conversation. Words don’t help because they are understood differently by everyone. If someone tells me they want a house with modern aesthetics, that doesn’t tell me anything, because everyone understands „modern“ differently. The same goes for terms like „warm“ or „cozy.“ I have clients who perceive concrete as warm and cozy. My method is visual: I ask clients to tear out pictures from magazines that attract or repel them. I’m ten times more likely to be shown photos of things someone doesn’t want. It may baffle laypeople, but you learn a lot more about a person by knowing what they don’t like than the other way around. By forcing clients to do their homework beforehand, I save myself and them precious time. The longer I have to talk, the higher my fee is in the end.
It is said that you have landed an order whose dimensions exceed anything you have ever done. What is it about?
Russian-born billionaire Dmitri Rybolovlev has bought the rights to use the private Greek island of Skorpios from Onassis heiress Athina Onassis. Rybolovlev came to Southampton and told me over lunch about his plans for the island: hotels, luxury villas, sports facilities, a marina and a heliport. For me, the man is a gift from God. At first, he just wanted me to design a villa for him to stand on the highest point of the island. When he saw my model, the order got bigger and bigger and bigger.
When do you expect the project to be completed?
Rybolovlev said that if everything was finished by my 75th birthday, he would throw me a birthday party the likes of which the world has never seen. Before you ask, we’re talking about 2024.
Your villa in Southampton is surrounded by a 49,000-square-meter park that is hard to beat for beauty and poetry, and you employ half a dozen gardeners to maintain it. Does your lifestyle leave you any time at all for contemplation, leisure, disinterested enjoyment?
You are addressing a problem of mine. My assistants know exactly what tasks I have to complete between 3 and 6 p.m. today. I myself don’t even know what’s on my agenda after this interview. But I’m not complaining. The greater the passion, the stronger the drive it creates in people.