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The Towers That Will Be

Architects Michael Graves and Robert A.M. Stern are selling name-brand design to the (Upper East Side) masses.


The refrigerator is Sub-Zero, the cooktop is Thermador, and the dishwasher tucked under the granite countertop is Miele. The dining-room table, with its homespun linen tablecloth from Bergdorf Goodman, is set with iridescent Calvin Klein glass bowls and white chargers. Smoky goblets glinting behind the glass-fronted cabinets are also by Klein. The votive candles on the Kohler sink in the marble-tiled bathroom are from Takashimaya. All this -- and a 10021 address -- can be yours for $600,000 to $6 million. (Did we mention the restaurant downstairs that will be manned by a star-spangled chef, the Equinox gym-spa that will have its own resident acupuncturist, and the valet bike service?)

But "all this" is currently a three-story-deep hole on the corner of 65th Street and Third Avenue, where the Related Companies is building a superluxe postwar building with prewar amenities like crown moldings, Juliet balconies, and multipane windows. The hole has a name: The Chatham. And a name architect: Robert A.M. Stern.

Such upscale product placement in the Chatham's showroom shouldn't come as a shock. The Related Companies' goal, in building this 94-unit condominium, was to burnish its superluxe new building with the added equity of superluxe appliances and the considerable skills of Stern. But Related didn't think it could sell million-dollar apartments without something for buyers to see and feel and touch -- hence the showroom's fully equipped bathroom and kitchen in a nondescript brownstone on East 66th. "People judge the quality of the building by the attention to detail," explains David Wine, president of Related's residential-development division, walking a visitor through the spec kitchen. "We didn't want to do a complete stainless-steel thing -- it would be too expensive -- so we decided to use top-of-the-line products instead. We're saying, 'This is important.' " Pointing to the Sepco faucet in the gray-and-white marble powder room, he notes, "Brushed nickel is in."

Call it a trend-in-progress: developers asking big-name architects better known for single-family homes or billion-dollar commercial complexes to work their sorcery on condos and rentals. The architects see it as an opportunity to grab part of the celebrated Manhattan skyline. The developers see it as a way to hitch their names to a glammy product and a serious architect. Stern's office is also designing two additional high-rises, which are shaping up as less-luxe rentals: the cast-iron-style Tribeca Park, a massive 400-unit rental building in Battery Park City, and the Seville, on 77th and Second, for rival developer RFR/ Davis. RFR/Davis, led by former architect Trevor Davis, also has the Impala, a rental at 76th and First that will be blueprinted into existence by fellow postmodernist Michael Graves. One person involved in the development quipped that you could call these buildings "the Disney Collection," given both architects' affiliation with the Magic Kingdom. (Stern co-planned the oldfangled town of Celebration, Florida; he also designed the cartoonish Feature Animation Building in Burbank, California, and the Casting Center in Lake Buena Vista, Florida; Graves executed the Fantasia-worthy Dolphin and Swan Hotel there.)

Suddenly, developers are growing a collective aesthetic conscience. It's a by-product of booming residential sales and the plethora of well-designed goods for the home. A few years ago, a rumor went around that Ralph Lauren was going to offer model-home plans -- the only surprise is that the idea never turned into reality. Postmodernists Stern (known for his gray-clapboard, white-columned mansions) and Graves (known for his overblown classical vocabulary and Tuscan palette) are stepping into the breach, trying to turn themselves into equally recognizable brands. Stern has been designing a line of "classically styled" original furniture for years, and Graves realizes he's better known for his Alessi teakettle than for, say, the Portland Building. The teakettle is considered the apogee of the eighties kitchen status symbol, and he's taken the concept into the nineties with his recent line for Target. The swoopy new kettle costs $29.99 instead of $112. And Graves, who earlier in this decade designed a pricey South Beach condo development, is back in populist mode with this competitively priced luxury rental building.

But will people actually pay more for the architect's name?

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