The Richter+Ratner sign has been ubiquitous at construction sites along luxury lanes and malls in the U.S.
The 96-year-old, third-generation-run company, led by chairman and chief executive officer Michael H. Ratner, specializes in retail stores from Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, as well as in malls nationwide.
The firm has long-standing relationships with designer brands including Prada, Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani, Barneys New York and Bulgari. The portfolio has diversified to galleries, residences and public institutions, as well as a new consulting practice bearing Ratner’s name, targeting merchants and manufacturers seeking to enter retailing and those abroad that want to establish a U.S. presence, guiding them through the store-development process.
At his offices at 1370 Broadway in Manhattan, Ratner discussed everything from the state of his business to the economy, retail design trends, his most challenging projects, and one of his pet subjects — staircases — as design features to stimulate shopper flow.
WWD: How is business, in light of the world economic crisis?
Michael H. Ratner: The phone is not ringing anywhere near as much as it was, and that’s why we are fortunate that we have longer-term relationships and projects that we are doing. We have seen the rise of institutional work, private schools, churches, non-profit organizations that already have capital. With the recent downturn, we are hoping to get better pricing. The smarter guys would be expanding right now if they had the money. They could get [jobs] done for less money and make better deals with landlords. I think this a challenging time for everybody. I was talking to a friend of mine who is much more involved in the real estate end. He said the banks are willing to loan money [to retailers] for merchandise but not for expansion.
WWD: Are designers and retailers using cheaper materials to save on construction costs?
M.H.R.: We haven’t seen that at all. You’ve got to understand there is always a push, a challenge, or a need to accomplish the aesthetic at the lowest possible cost. So people are pushing as hard as they can, but they usually do that anyway.
WWD: What are you constructing that’s unusual?
M.H.R.: We’re doing the Ana Tzarev gallery for contemporary art on 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, with a glass-enclosed elliptical elevator with a winding staircase that snakes around it. It’s a good example of how important staircases are. A decorative staircase will announce to the customers ‘Hey, there is something worthwhile upstairs.’ If you just have a plain set of stairs or a stairwell, people won’t pay much attention.
We are also doing a $35 million out of the ground LEED gold-rated building at the Bronx Zoo. It’s the Center for Global Conservation, for scientists to do research.
WWD: What do you find most challenging in your work?
M.H.R.: After the architect gives us the set of documents we have to follow, we look at them and say ‘Are you sure you want to do it this way?’ The challenge is often to maintain the aesthetic and bring things in at a reasonable cost. That’s where we shine….Also, an awful lot of the clients don’t understand that 80 percent of what we do is in the walls. So when they walk on a job three weeks before it is supposed to open they get frantic. They don’t understand that 80 or 90 percent of the work is done but they can’t see it. It’s in the walls. That structural work takes a lot of time. To just put the Sheetrock and the final details in goes rather quickly.
With Uniqlo [in SoHo] we took apart an old cast-iron building that wasn’t built really well, and put it back together as a modern building. They knew how to cut corners in 1880 just as they do today. We went through two or three different designers and [completed] this $20 million project in an outrageous amount of time — 16 weeks. We knew from Day One that we couldn’t be late because the Japanese would feel very, very embarrassed. Uniqlo was probably the most challenging project we ever did because of the time frame.
WWD: How do you accelerate a project?
M.H.R.: Work around-the-clock and put more people on the job than you want to. But then you lose efficiency because people get terribly tired.
WWD: What design trends do you see now?
M.H.R.: You see a lot of stone and glass these days, but I don’t think there have been many [major] changes in the last couple of years. Minimalism still seems relatively hot.
WWD: What stores impress you?
M.H.R.: The Apple store in front of the GM building [on Fifth Avenue] because of the architectural impression that it makes. It makes really smart, creative use of a very difficult space. My very favorite store is Jil Sander on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Michael Gabellini has some details in that store that are just marvelous. He has these knife-edge valances. You get an infinity reaction. He used nickel silver, a very rare metal that has a certain sheen you don’t see anywhere else, for displays and accentuating certain details.