A Designer's Best Friend
In good times and bad, real-estate developer Veronica Hackett is the real deal
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 9/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Veronica Hackett had just returned to New York from Paris, where a visit to the Maison Baccarat gave her a Big Idea. Every building developed by her Clarett Group has one, a signature that elevates the design—take the artist-created bronze railings on the balconies of a luxury condominium building by Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel, Architects. This time, for a 68-unit luxury condo by Ismael Leyva Architects, the Big Idea was about a classic reinventing itself. So Hackett called Baccarat: "What are you working on in the U.S.? Is it just Philippe Starck, or are you interested in other projects?" In no time, she'd paired the venerable manufacturer with Interior Design Hall of Fame member Vicente Wolf, who incorporated Baccarat crystals into a stunning sculpture for the lobby. The result makes even jaded New Yorkers do a double take. "People walk in and say, 'What is this? Who did this? Where did this come from?'" Hackett reports. "That's a great sign of success."
The eldest of seven siblings from Vero Beach in Florida, Ronne—as she's known to friends—never imagined herself in this line of work. She credits her aesthetic awakening to an art history course at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. However, she didn't really connect the dots until years later, when she got into an animated discussion about Eero Saarinen with Pritzker Prize laureate Kevin Roche. By then, she was working for the New York commercial developer Park Tower Realty Corp., having done stints at the C.I.A. and a Wall Street investment bank before cutting her real-estate teeth as a lender for Citibank and Chemical Bank.
She and Neil Klarfeld, her mentor and best friend, teamed up in 2000 to form Clarett, a neologism combining their last names with a reference to Klarfeld's love of wine. Klarfeld died of cancer in 2004, but Hackett carries their shared vision forward as managing partner. To date, the company has completed nine highly acclaimed luxury apartment towers in New York. Several more developments are in the works: six luxury apartment buildings in Manhattan or Brooklyn and six mixed-used projects split between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where satellite offices have opened.
Just as Park Tower was the developer every architect wanted to work for in the 1980's because of its high regard for design talent, Clarett has earned the profession's respect by commissioning such firms as FxFowle Architects, Rogers Marvel Architects, and Kemble Interiors. "Good design pays for itself," Hackett states—ever pragmatic. For one of Clarett's first projects, a rental building on the East Side, she hired Randy Gerner's newly formed GKV on the strength of a Park Tower courthouse where he'd designed interiors while working at Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects.
Although Gerner had never handled a residential project this large, Hackett liked his approach of designing a building from the inside out. And the New York residential market was overdue for the kind of attention to detail that had previously been lavished only on corporate headquarters. "What she saw in us—for which I'm most grateful—is that, because our heart and soul were focused on interiors, we had the potential to design very efficient, comfortable apartments," Gerner says. Several Clarett condo towers later, he's involved in another Hackett innovation: selling design services with purchase.
"I think that a successful project is a true collaboration between the designer and the developer," Hackett says. "My job is to get the best out of them and challenge them, to support their artistic view—though with a cost reality." Gerner adds, "If things get too fanciful and unrealistic, Ronne is careful not to deflate our egos." For a Midtown duplex with a terrace, Gerner got his own Big Idea after seeing an old French film. How about building a glass room in the sky and filling it with orchids? An orchidarium! Hackett looked at him. Was orchidarium even a word? By the time the 300-square-foot space was finished, however, the savvy marketer had found the perfect solution: winter garden.