Sometimes one model life isn’t enough. The Stanhope Hotel conversion at 995 Fifth Avenue has two. Apartment 5-S is all Roche Bobois furniture and Poul Henningsen lamps; 5-N has Louis XVI chairs, antique copper pots in the kitchen, and books about the manor homes of Normandy. You can imagine the neighbors, crossing the hall to chat, then privately savaging each other’s taste.
Swig Equities went even further at Sheffield 57, a project on West 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It’s in what designer Nancy Ruddy terms “an interstitial neighborhood,” meaning it has no real profile. So the team invented one—or rather, five of them. “One was a 60-year-old writer, widowed, on the board of the Met,” says Ruddy. “Another was a young Master of the Universe guy. We also had a 50-year-old real-estate lawyer; a jet-setting Brazilian family with a sophisticated 6-year-old; and a gay shoe-designer couple, so we could do fun things with colors.”
Does any of this work? Nobody knows for sure. Not one real-estate professional I spoke to could cite evidence showing that these maneuvers boost sales. Indeed, one wonders whether they put off buyers who don’t share the precise tastes they reflect.
“There’s conflicting lore out there,” says Justin Kruger, a professor of marketing at NYU. “The traditional lore says, take away all the individuating elements so buyers can imagine living there with their stuff. On the other hand, people’s ideal selves and their actual selves are often different. If Realtors are able to capture an identity that buyers do aspire to, who knows? There’s probably a cost-benefit analysis you could do that asks, ‘What proportion of our potential market are we alienating?’ versus ‘How much more attractive are we making this apartment to that subset?’ ” A huge hit within the 5 Percent Nation of Skateboarding Fund-Managers may be worth turning off the other 95 percent.
Consider all this from a different angle. Last year Sheena Iyengar, a professor of management at Columbia, conducted a study of consumer choice. “Let’s say I give you a menu with 50 different coffees on it—Yukon Blend, Black Satin, and so forth,” she says. “In one case, I just give you a list. In another, I organize the list into reasonable categories: spicy, tangy, nutty. In the third case, I organize them by the names of fictional coffee shops, such as the Living Room, Le Café, the Gathering. If I don’t organize the list at all, people are less likely to order a cup of coffee, and they’re less likely to like it, even if it’s free. It doesn’t matter whether I organize the list by content labels or by seemingly content-free labels. Knowing that they’ve chosen from a category makes a difference. They feel somehow that they understand the choice they made.”
Here’s the catch, though: They all got the same coffee. “Yet nobody could tell. Nobody was disappointed.” Many of them could cite distinctions where there were none. Amid uncertainty, a buyer will gravitate toward familiar “categorization” elements (a Vespa, a yoga mat) that say You belong here. Choose me.
Come on, You’re thinking. I’m going to shell out an extra $200,000 because a fictional dude and I like the same T-shirts? Surely people see this is bullshit. Yet, as Kruger points out, seeing through the bullshit does not always negate its effect.
“When you dress something up in a way that looks desirable, people make two-stage judgments,” he says. “Something looks good, then the mind thinks, Wait a minute, I only like this apartment because I like the furniture.” Yet research has shown that such decisions tend to be biased toward the initial stage. “For example,” says Kruger, “compare a well-decorated apartment against an identical one that’s poorly decorated. Even if people are fully aware of their bias, they end up liking it perhaps a little more than they should.”
They may also be susceptible to the power of what’s missing. In these idealized lives, there is none of the rumpled quality that even the most well-kept home inevitably takes on. There’s never a grime line at the edge of the grout, or a haze of water spots on the counter after it’s been wiped down. The experience is that of a visitor, less home than hotel. In fact, resort marketing has a lot in common with all this. “I wonder if nowadays people just want to be in a hotel all day,” muses architect Annabelle Selldorf, who’s built projects like the Urban Glass House in Soho. “But if you’re young and you’re not from New York and you have a lot of money and work really hard, maybe it appeals to have a life that’s catered-to and ready-made.” And if yours isn’t, you can go buy Stefan’s.