Interior architect Lauren Rottet got a lot of ribbing when she did a commercial for Buick a few years back. After all, the soft-spoken 42-year-old former Texan drives a Jaguar and knows more about furniture than cars. The reason she did the ad was simple: image. It helped raise her profile and attracted attention to her sleek portfolio of commercial interiors and to the new Rottet line of office furniture and carpet.
"Design is very much about image," Rottet said, as she sipped chamomile tea behind her cluttered but minimalist desk in a Mid-Wilshire office. "Clients are looking at you to be their taste moderator."
During the last few years, Rottet's firm, now a unit of architectural giant DMJM, has helped such companies as Walt Disney Co., Tokai Bank of California and Capital Group Cos. express their corporate style through lobby furnishings, workstations and lighting.
These jobs have garnered Rottet's firm such industry accolades as Designer of the Year and a place in the Design Hall of Fame. She was voted a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. She has posed against the background of some her most spectacular interiors for the covers of design magazines.
Her largest competitor, Ed Friedrichs, president of Santa Monica-based Gensler, says: "She does very high-quality, high-end interior design. She's got a reputation that precedes her, and a lot of that is peer recognition."
But all of this attention leaves some of her rivals cold. They characterize her as a slick operator with a strong ego and a knack for self-promotion.
"They play up the whole working mom angle in the trade press," one of her critics said. "Look, she's young and beautiful and a mother. What I wonder is how much time she actually spends on a project."
Time enough to produce a signature look that is pure modernism, from the chrome and glass staircases she created for a finance office to the big cubes and work pods she designed in Disney's feature animation headquarters in Burbank.
It's a style she's honed since she joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill a few years after graduating from the University of Texas. While working there as an architect, she was often thrown into interiors work, choosing colors and materials for the building projects her colleagues were working on. After tackling a few interiors jobs herself, she decided she liked designing a building's interior better than designing its frame.
"It's more personal," she said. "You look at every single department and see how well they work together; or if they don't work together, you hear their growth plans, what they are buying, what they're not buying. I find that education interesting."
Still, for most architects, interior design is viewed as kind of a second-tier business, with a lower public profile and much lower fees. Even with a stable of prestigious clients in the Los Angeles area, Rottet's business does only about $5 million a year in revenue, a fraction of DMJM's total billings. Her former architectural firm, Keating Mann Jernigan Rottet, joined the Goliath in 1994, four years after the four partners left Skidmore.
Design work is labor intensive. To create an office for a client, Rottet and her partner, Richard Riveire, often spend weeks or months talking to executives and their employees, a process called "programming."
Using this information about corporate functions, preferences and habits, they draft a plan that specifies everything from the furniture selection to the configuration of each floor.
For a financial services firm, that might mean plush surroundings and plenty of space for catered lunches and impromptu employee gatherings. For accounting giant E & Y Kenneth Leventhal, it means efficient, no-frills space for workers to use briefly, before heading out to their clients' offices.
Unlike the 1980s, when she first started tackling interiors, office design today is more about function than flash, Rottet says.
"Nobody will admit they are trying to impress anyone anymore," she laughed. "You hear, 'I want them to think I have the money, but I'm managing it well.' "
So, instead of sinking money into polished marble, solid oak and pricey Picassos, companies are investing their profits in ergonomic furniture and new technology.
"I'm interested in style, not image," said client Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation. "Image is other people's perception of whether something is cool or not, but style is having a point of view in one's designs."
Rottet and her team tackled the challenge of creating a practical but stylish design for a gutted, 250,000-square-foot "standard square building" for Disney, Schneider said. "Anybody could make it practical, but she made it practical with style."
Disney and other employers also are using design to achieve such goals as improved employee communication.
For example, at one firm, her plan led to a unit being moved to the hub of the office so workers would rub shoulders and behave more like a team.