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Design Diplomats

How to win clients—like Donna Karan and David Barton—and influence them.

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David Barton recently saw what he calls “the most beautiful sink,” and can’t wait to talk about it. It’s damp and drafty in the formerly grand first floor of what was once the McBurney YMCA on West 23rd Street. Barton is there, in orange pants and a desert-camo overcoat, the arms of which are too long for him, with the young architects he’s hired, Dominic Kozerski and Enrico Bonetti, to turn the building that inspired the Village People’s catchy paean to low-cost male bonding into a lavish multilevel gym complex—a “fantasy of what the Y should’ve looked like.” And the right sink is an essential part of that fantasy.

“Just go see it. It’s on 20th Street,” he tells them. “It’s like cast concrete. The scale is big; it’s elegant, simple, beautiful. It’s warm, but it’s also like something you’d see in a Roman bath 1,000 years ago.”

His architects look the slightest bit troubled by this, so he adds, “I know it’s a different kind of thing than we were thinking about before.”

Bonetti ventures that “yes, we’re looking for something which is beautiful but not trying too hard.” But they agree they’ll check it out.

In the aesthetic diplomacy between an architect and a client, much is left unsaid that nonetheless has to be understood with draftable clarity. And it’s in this form of subtle, anticipatory customer service, as much as for their visual skills, that Bonetti and Kozerski excel—it’s one important reason why Barton hired them.

“They don’t have a lot of ego invested in it,” Barton says later in the sales office. “They’re not like, I have this idea, now I have to see it come to fruition. I know they don’t want to hear that I saw another sink. And we may not go with the sink, but there’s an idea with the sink. A sexy idea. And they’ll get that idea and incorporate that idea.”

Kozerski, who’s 34 and British, and Bonetti, who’s 40 and Italian, aren’t out to put any defiant, take-it-or-leave-it Howard Roark–like imprint on the world, at least not now. Instead, they solve problems—elegance crises for the sorts of high-caste clients who find solace in their style of bespoke luxury minimalism.

“They represent a next generation of the minimalism craze of the mid-to-late nineties,” says Mayer Rus, design editor of House & Garden. “And they take that aesthetic of gorgeous white planes and take out the more clinical aspects of it, pumping in a little soulful Zen sensitivity, with rough-hewn wood, more texture, sometimes more luxurious materials.” That craze found its fullest realization in quasi-religious retail environments, like Jil Sander’s and Calvin Klein’s stores. And so it’s appropriate that Bonetti and Kozerski design both boutiques and homes. They provide good, clean space—an Americanized East—for their solace-seeking clientele. Go to their Barton gym to escape into a more elevated world. And then go to a home they’ve designed and your immersion into their world of artfully arranged peace and quiet will be complete.

But their success as a young firm—Bonetti/Kozerski Studio was founded only in 2000—has less to do with their aesthetic than how they’ve met the challenge of client-architect relations. It’s about their get-along charm. Compromise. And good social skills.

“In our position, at our age, we can’t dictate to a client,” says Bonetti, the more droll and free-speaking of the two even through his accent. “You have to do that, you’re going to live like that. So it’s more of a collaboration.”

Bonetti’s old friend Paola Antonelli, a curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, concurs. “Some people have the patience and talent to interpret other people’s desires, even if you disagree with them,” she says. “That’s Enrico and Dominic. Others can’t—that’s me.”

They learned how to do that working for Peter Marino, the antic court architect for the home, office, and retail biospheres of the international fashion elite and the ridiculously wealthy. He’s a meticulous and talented designer, true—but his genius is in pleasing his clients. “I think they really had a good master there,” says Antonelli.

Bonetti moved to New York from Venice, where he was designing luxury shelter for people like a former Italian prime minister, and got hired by Marino to mostly fly back to Europe and work on projects there. Kozerski got a job with Marino in New York fresh out of architecture school in 1994, and was also given international commuter duties. He was put in charge of minding Donna Karan, for whom the company was building a store in London.


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