His dad gave him an appreciation for well-meaning postwar British architecture—Kozerski’s eyes light up at the mention of the Abbey Road estates, a bleak yet invitingly futuristic concrete public-housing megastructure in London. “He spent his entire career telling me, ‘Don’t become an architect because you’ll be poor and unhappy,’ ” he says, with his little grin. “Still poor but not unhappy.”
Despite their success, “the business part is still tough,” says Bonetti. They do some projects for the attention—loss leaders to get more work. “We definitely do a lot of things which aren’t very profitable for us—a few too many,” he says. And that’s when you get paid at all. “You would never try not to pay an engineer. You think it’s sacred, what they do,” he says. “People tend to want to screw us. This big Korean company asked for us to come up with ideas for a new store concept. And then they said they were going with another architect. They open the store with completely our design. Our lawyers said, ‘It’s going to cost too much to fight this thing.’ It sucks.”
More providentially, the shrubbery of Ian Schrager’s penthouse is visible through their office window. They’ve talked to him about projects, and even done the offices of the Gap’s ad agency, Laird & Partners, with its Bakelite wall, in the same office building as his. More important, Schrager introduced them to Barton.
Bonetti says that “we don’t devote much time” to drumming up clients. “We’ve been lucky for now,” he says. “We don’t go to benefits” to troll. Karan had them do her Collections boutique in Tokyo, and they’re working on a “concept” for more DKNY stores. At a party at her beach house, they met gambling mogul Steve Wynn, who asked them to do a nightclub inside his mammoth new Wynn Vegas casino. It’s not going to be built, though. Neither is the restaurant they worked on for Brian McNally, but he recommended them to Diane von Furstenberg when she wanted an instant nightclub built for her and Barry Diller’s wedding fête.
They met Schrager’s lodging nemesis, Andre Balazs, at a party Karan threw for avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid, and are finishing up a vast, Uma-friendly Soho loft for him, with backlit linen walls and “a lot of polyester matte finishes.” They’re doing a second gym for Barton in Chicago, another “retail and showroom concept” for Tod’s, and an apartment in the Time Warner Center.
Headstrong clients like these appreciate their flexibility. “Some people try to sell some conceptual ideas,” says Bonetti. But Peter Marino, from whom they learned so much, “gets right to the heart of it—the small details.” He imitates Marino’s voice: “ ‘When you close the door it’s going to sound like this, it’s going to sound nice.’ All these little things.”
Barton, who interviewed “a hundred firms” for the Chelsea job, was sold on them partly because of the rough-hewn wooden stair rail in their otherwise cool and precise Collections store. “It’s hand-cut and just the right size,” he says. “You just want to put your hand on it; it feels so good coming down those stairs. You’re so elevated walking up the staircase there.”
His posh fantasy YMCA has to be all about those tactile details. The tile. The superfancy showerhead that sends out a “blade” of water (while “the shower body you could probably find in a prison,” says Bonetti). “There are some firms that you talk to—their ideas were intellectually interesting,” says Barton. “But I don’t come into a gym and have to wrap my brain around a concept. So I get it mentally. Seeing some kind of representational, artistic, high-concept design. I want somebody to come in here and feel really good and not know why. There should be a beauty that everyone gets.”
Barton lives across the street from the Y, at the Chelsea Hotel, with his family. He was never a member, though. We’re standing in the first floor of the building, which is soon to be home to a herd of cardio machines. “I’m trying to create here the fantasy of what I imagine it was like a hundred years ago, and what they probably had in mind.”
The architect’s job is to interpret what he thinks he means by that, to get into his psyche. They recount how, when they talk to Barton, the metaphors are all in movies. The room with the boxing ring will have unfinished walls and a faux-leather floor. Think Fight Club. The dual-level basement with the weights, where the hundred-year-old girders meet the concrete foundation: Aliens. The Turkish bath, Steam. The VIP entrance, GoodFellas.
A marble stairway curves up to what will be the locker rooms and his-and-hers Turkish baths and steam rooms. Bonetti and Kozerski wanted to make the baths coed, but Barton nixed that idea. Barton knows his demographic. They want a “two-pronged experience,” he says. “There’s the part where you work out, which should be as comfortable as a living room, and then where you bathe and change, which should be like the bathroom everybody wishes they had in New York.”
The men’s zone is larger than the women’s. Because of an optical trick with the angle of the walls, the wall-size supergraphics identifying the same-sex entrance, when you get to the top of the stairs, seem to say “men” and “men” when you look at it straight on. They know their demo, too.