NEW YORK — Standing in front of artist Andrei Molodkin’s “Oil Revolution,” an installation featuring skulls encased in acrylic blocks and connected to long tubes filled with a dark liquid, Peter Marino cuts an eye-popping figure in head-to-toe black leather. It’s hard to top such a macabre work of art, but Marino manages to upstage “Oil” with his 360-degree biker duds that include a black muscle shirt, dark sunglasses, leather biker’s hat, tattoos and Goth jewelry.
The architect of choice for fashion and luxury retailers, Marino, 61, is a study in contrasts. Known for the collection of Renaissance and Baroque bronze sculpture that fills his Manhattan home, he also has an array of edgy art by Vik Muniz and Anselm Reyle rotating through his office. Marino speaks knowledgeably on such subjects as art history and Middle Eastern politics, but mixes in words like “dude” and “ginormous” in a raspy mash-up of a proper British accent and the street-smart patois of his native Bayside, N.Y. Peter from the block is also Pedro from Milan, as in his third-person remark, “A lot of what Pedro does isn’t very glamorous.”
In an industry with the collective attention span of a fruit fly, Marino has enjoyed an improbably long run. Known for creating modern retail spaces with varying degrees of glamour, from understated to full-frontal, Marino has become the keeper of brand identities, reserving shades of gray for Dior, golden chain mail for Louis Vuitton, and glass and blackened steel for Chanel. It goes a long way toward explaining his decades-long relationships with the kingpins of fashion — Chanel’s Wertheimer family, with whom he began working in 1982, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief Bernard Arnault, who he linked up with in 1995 — plus the likes of Americana Manhasset owner Frank Castagna, the Zegna family and the Hublot family.
“When they hire me,” Marino says, “I wrap my arms around their legs and never let go.”
“Peter has something that very few interior designers have,” says Sidney Toledano, president and chief executive officer of Christian Dior. “He understands that, in the end, this is a boutique. He gives [a store] the feeling of an apartment through the materials, lighting and furnishings, but at the same time, we need drawers and shelves to do business. Peter is excellent at that. The way you work with an architect is a lot like working with a designer. You have the same sort of connivance. When we meet with Peter, it’s not just what is written on a piece of paper. We explain the expectation and objectives in a given city and he grasps it. This is what happens with Peter. He gets it.”
Marino seems to have a genuine affinity for designers. “They are in the realm of artists,” he says. “A lot of people call it craft. But there’s a huge amount of artistic talent. The Metropolitan [Museum of Art] has given fashion its quasi-mark of approval with the Costume Institute in the basement of the museum. Dude, get over it. Not only painting is art.”
Marino knows the art versus commerce debate well. “As a kid I always drew,” he says. “I graduated from high school with a ginormous art medal given to me by then-New York Mayor [John] Lindsay. I wasn’t sure if I’d go into fine art or architecture. My father was an engineer. You need two sides of the brain to be an architect. I was always hyperaware of a room.
“My wife and I would go to a dinner party and I’d describe the rooms, from the colors of the walls to the furniture. Jane would remember what everyone was wearing,” says Marino of his wife, costume designer Jane Trapnell, with whom he has a daughter. “You have certain antennae. I had a somewhat unusual childhood with a disease that was pretty disabling. I didn’t walk until I was seven. You stare at the walls for seven years and you develop strong powers of observation.”
Marino’s career started out conventionally enough, toeing the line as one of several hundred architects at a prestigious firm. Then, about a decade ago, he exchanged a traditional wardrobe of cashmere and tweeds for the black leather uniform he now wears daily. Marino acknowledges that his appearance may explain in part why he’s risen above many of his peers.
“When I was a young architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, I had to dress like a little architect mouse in little suits,” he recalls. “When I turned 50, I went back to riding a motorcycle, which I’d done in college. It’s helped my work big time. People started talking about ‘the crazy guy who wears leather.’ All I was trying to do was reconnect with my youth. I was so creative and nuts when I was 18. It made me feel younger.”
It doesn’t seem to have hurt his business. Marino says 2010 was off the charts with 100 projects compared with a typical year’s 50 or 60. “Last year was extraordinary,” he says. “The reason is that in order to get through the recession I changed a couple of rules I’d made for myself. I decided I would work in China, something I’d said I would never do.” More than 50 percent of Peter Marino Architect’s fees last year came from China, while the Middle East accounted for 30 percent, and the rest of the world, including Europe and the U.S., 20 percent.
Marino ticks off a list of new projects, one more “ginormous” than the next. “There’s a big, ginormous store in Rome for Louis Vuitton, a big one in Singapore, and a very big one in Shanghai, all opening in 2011.”
Celine, a new client, will unveil stores in Manhattan and Paris. Marino is designing a new concept store for Hublot here and there’s a “rather large” Chanel project planned for China. Chanel at year-end will move to a new home on Avenue Montaigne that’s double the size of its existing store. And with Loewe’s business starting to improve, retail locations are planned for Barcelona, Hong Kong and Singapore. Meanwhile, Zegna, at the end of May, will unveil a six-floor men’s store on Rue du Faubourg Saint- Honoré in Paris.
“Dude, these brands aren’t sleeping,” Marino says.
“It’s a lot of push and pull,” he says of creating retail spaces while keeping a brand’s various constituencies happy. “Most of the designers don’t have that much to do with the stores. They set the tone. I have to listen to them for that. I’m the one who gives a pretty strong physical look to the space. I became very sympathetic to designers because department stores are quite rough. Donna [Karan] and Calvin Klein would be devastated by how department stores treat their clothes.”
Marino got his start in New York through an introduction in the Seventies to Pat Hackett, the editor of “The Andy Warhol Diaries.” That led to a job designing Yves Saint Laurent’s apartment at the Pierre Hotel. He was also called upon to renovate the Upper East Side digs of the reclusive Warhol, as well as design his third Factory at 860 Broadway. Soon Marino was a fixture at the Factory, Warhol’s social experiment-cum-work-in-progress. “Warhol was doing portraits of the rich and famous,” Marino remembers. “The big Europeans — Valentino and Marella Agnelli — came to New York for the social season. They needed [places to live] and they needed architects.” Marino worked for them.
If he was self-conscious about his modest roots, he quickly got over it. “I’m basically a lower-middle-class kid with zero social connections,” says Marino. What he does have is good taste, which is always in fashion. It’s served him well enough to own houses in Southampton and Aspen.
“He used to give the most incredible parties for his [and Jane’s] wedding anniversary,” said Connie Uzzo, a former YSL executive and friend of Marino’s. “There were concerts and opera. I’ve seen him come a long way. He knows how to deal with commercial property and understands the needs of residential. He’s become a wonderful decorator. He’s got an incredible eye.”
Private residential work still represents 25 percent of Marino’s practice and he works for an array of international clients from India, Brazil, Switzerland and the Middle East, in addition to France and Italy. “It’s creepy,” he says. “They all know each other at that financial level. I always get giggly when the big royals say, ‘I had dinner with one of your clients.’ The residential circle is smaller than the commercial circle — it’s two degrees of separation. They talk. I don’t work for quiet millionaires in Arkansas.”
Nor are Marino’s retail clients shy, retiring types. “I was hired by Fred Pressman in 1985,” he says. “He taught me everything I know about retail. Barneys New York did a women’s store and then opened 17 stores all over the world.”
The Barneys gig gave Marino access to the fashion elite who would eventually become his company’s bread and butter. “I had to go to Italy to meet Giorgio Armani for the Armani boutique at Barneys,” he said. “I had to meet Carla Fendi. I had to please Fred and the designers. After we did the first women’s store at Barneys, Paul Hirshleifer [then ceo of Hirshleifer’s] spotted me. He was building a store at the Americana Manhasset. After I built it, Frank Castagna [the Americana’s owner] said, ‘Wow, we don’t have many fashion architects here,’ and hired me to create a master plan.”
Marino’s one regret may be not getting the important public works and museum commissions that architecture stars such as Zaha Hadid receive. “I was asked to work on the downtown memorial at Ground Zero,” he says. “It’s so political. We’ve done a lot of competitions. There are a lot of things I’d like to build. We won the commission to build the opera house in Palm Beach and then the Internet bubble burst.”
But with the collapse of Lebanon’s unity government in January, the project’s future is uncertain, although Marino visited Beirut after the Paris couture.
While he’s getting almost more work than he can handle, he complains about the lack of appreciation and understanding for retail projects. “People are still saying to me, ‘Your work is so commercial,’” Marino says. “Didn’t we go over that 50 years ago? It’s so pathetic. If you do a museum, that’s sacred, and if you do a store, that’s profane. I loathe when architects only analyze architecture in intellectual, nonvisual ways. I really love direct response, and that’s very Pop [Art]. So in a sense, I do have a Warholian thing going on. When my work is labeled commercial, I just say, ‘Oh, please, get over it. I don’t know what rock you’ve been living under, but you’ve got to crawl out, dude.’”