Interdisciplinary design

Interview with Robert Finger, co-founder with Chris Fogarty of the architecture firm Fogarty Finger

BentallGreenOak headquarters, New York City
BentallGreenOak headquarters, New York City

Later inspired by Renaissance culture, studied in depth during his schooling in Florence, by the spatial sequences of Italian architecture and a master of the contemporary, David Chipperfield, Robert Finger’s passion for design began in childhood, when he utilized the patterns of his family’s carpets as if they were streets and cities. A creative vision that Robert and his studio Fogarty Finger – founded in 2003, now with offices in New York, Atlanta and Boston – imprint on every creation, be it a residence, public and commercial space, a hospitality destination, a gourmet venue… With important clients such as Vornado and Boston Properties, and exclusive projects like the new Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Rockefeller Group Headquarters, the Platt Street Hotel, M2 Sky Bar & Lounge, his stylistic signature relies on a refined, evocative aesthetic. Captured in interior design of rare elegance.

We love to own every aspect of our interiors. Over many years we’ve established a long list of craftspeople, makers, artists, and graphic designers we prefer to partner with on a detailed vision for our projects. We often use the furnishings, accessories, and increasingly commissioned artwork to speak for our own vision, as well as our client’s culture.

Robert Finger

Robert, when did your passion for interior design start?
I always knew I wanted to be an architect. My earliest memory is of creating streets and cities with wood blocks using the patterns of my grandmother’s graphic rugs. By my first year of Architecture School at Syracuse, everything about that had changed. My tools were more complicated than wood blocks, and I had no graphic foundation to build on. But I still wanted to be an architect.

Robert Finger - Photo © Andrea Feldman

Robert Finger – Photo © Andrea Feldman

BentallGreenOak headquarters, New York City

BentallGreenOak headquarters,
New York City

BentallGreenOak headquarters, New York City

Graduating in 1993, there wasn’t much work to be found in NYC. I was asked to design a line of furniture for a small interiors firm in Soho as a freelancer. I thought this would be a simple exercise, and I was wrong. With a pencil and some vellum and no knowledge of the history of furniture or the scale of furnishings, I spent many late nights educating myself. This was the beginning of my love for interiors. Later, when I was asked to design spaces I developed a real passion for Interiors.

Which Masters of Architecture have particularly inspired you?
I spent my junior year of school in Florence, studying the great Renaissance artists and architects. Their mastery of interior space is highly rational and impactful. But what I really learned in Italy is the importance of the hierarchy and sequence of spaces. David Chipperfield is a contemporary architect whom I admire for his sense of space-making, both on a grand and intimate scale. I find he’s extremely good with proportion, details and pattern-making. At first glance his material palette seems simple, yet it never is.

With Chris Fogarty you founded Fogarty Finger, dedicated to interior design and architecture. Could you tell us about the studio? And who are your main customers?
Chris and I have created an interdisciplinary design studio of over 100 architects and designers, based in downtown New York City with additional offices in Atlanta and Boston. Our firm is responsible for many prominent residential and commercial projects, and our clients are largely developers in the New York City area, such as Vornado and Boston Properties.

The Dime, Williamsburg, USA - Photo © Alexander Severin
The Dime, Williamsburg, USA - Photo © Alexander Severin

The Dime, Williamsburg, USA
Photo © Alexander Severin

The Dime, Williamsburg, USA - Photo © Alexander Severin

The Dime, Williamsburg, USA – Photo © Alexander Severin

Your projects include private residences, offices, townhouses, commercial spaces… How would you define your design signature?
There are many adjectives that apply – modern, clean, timeless and thoughtful. What surprises me is how different and still consistent our work is, across our two major project types – multifamily and commercial. Over the years I’ve learned it’s very difficult for commercial interior designers to understand a residential aesthetic, and for residential designers to understand the needs of a commercial client. Yet I find we are able to do both equally well.

You can see this at The Dime, which Chris and I recently completed in Williamsburg: this is a mixed-use building, half commercial and half multifamily. The exterior is beautifully consistent from base to top, but looking at the interiors there’s a noticeable difference between the two building lobbies, elevator cabs, base floors, fitouts, art and the furnishings. Each was done by separate teams, yet both could have been done by the same hand.

The Dime, Williamsburg, USA - Photo © Alexander Severin
The Dime, Williamsburg, USA - Photo © Alexander Severin

The Dime, Williamsburg, USA
Photo © Alexander Severin

Dock72, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City

Dock72, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City – Photo © Connie Zhou

Are there any materials you love to use most? Do you also make custom furnishings?
We love to own every aspect of our interiors. Over many years we’ve established a long list of craftspeople, makers, artists, and graphic designers we prefer to partner with on a detailed vision for our projects. We often use the furnishings, accessories, and increasingly commissioned artwork to speak for our own vision, as well as our client’s culture. The common areas of the new development, Dock 72, are an excellent example. In the design of the main circulation area, we’ve commissioned Brooklyn-based artists to create a series of four murals running parallel to the waterfront. Each inspired by their own knowledge of the Navy Yard past and present. Individually and collectively, they tell a story which becomes a beginning for the greater narrative of the project. Custom furnishings by local craftsman are designed to support the language of each piece.

Could you tell us about your creative process in public / commercial spaces like Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard?
During my time in Italy, and in much of my experience since, I’ve learned the basics of making beautiful and functional spaces. Beyond space-making, however, is place-making which is really about creating an identity. Place-making is less tangible and harder to pin down, but you know it when you feel it. With Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we sought to create interiors for the building that would function well for tenants, while at the same time, we wanted to create a sense of place that would share the extensive history of this special spot, reflect the culture of its ongoing marine activity, and celebrate the more recent influx of talented makers, artists, and artisans to the neighborhood.

Dock72, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City

Dock72, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City – Photo © Connie Zhou

Many times your designs have been awarded for their ability to create comfortable and stimulating environments. How do you manage form, function, and the emotional in your designs?
My approach to designing interiors is both intuitive and deeply thoughtful. The art falls somewhere between what is purely functional and effortlessly beautiful. But this is also personal. I design for myself and what I would like. My challenge as a professional is to create a language that speaks to my clients, and often a larger audience. That requires stepping out of my own head and trying to put myself into the mind of my client. This ability to translate someone else’s desires into design is not a skill we are born with, nor is it generally taught in school. But all good design has to begin with our own vision of what’s appropriate, and beautiful. We have to find our own vision before we can guide others. A favorite moment with a mentor, while we were talking through a particularly complicated program of spaces and requirements was when he sighed heavily and said ‘but can’t this just be beautiful?’ And he certainly created a beautiful vision to back that up. When graduates emerge from architecture school, they are trained to talk about their work in abstract, impersonal ways. Generally, it’s based on research, studies, precedents, or formal language based on an algorithm. Everything is outside of ‘I like this, or I think this is beautiful’. I found that incredibly useful as an education, but not very useful in the professional world. Young designers in the office will present design this way, because that’s also the way they think about it. My goal is to have them think about how they do this for themselves because that’s the basis of being able to communicate with a client and to create something beautiful.

Falling WaterWhat are the key elements to crafting creative harmony?
One of those elements is tension. The tension between what we are feeling about a space and the contradiction of what we know about it. A favorite example of this in architecture, is Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright. Standing inside, you no longer see the namesake waterfall, but instead you’re surrounded by the sound, the scent, and the humidity of the water – almost as if you’re standing in it. But you’re not. Almost all the elements of this design are intended to bring you as close to an immersion in nature as possible, while knowing you’re still inside. When designing a new headquarters for the Rockefeller group, we worked closely with the team to create that kind of tension between more hospitable spaces, and what we think of as traditional workplace. At the most basic levels there are visual clues of lighting, or brightness, and a contrast in the color palettes. But going a bit further we’ve manipulated the acoustics, added music, and even scents as more subliminal clues. Degrees of privacy, furniture, accessories, and artwork all help to bring that experience to another level.

How do you see the future of office space after this unprecedented historical moment?
I think we are all emerging from this pandemic a bit more thoughtful about our work environment. Working from home has accelerated a trend that was already happening – unlocking you from your desk and finding alternative spaces to be productive. Personally, WFH has shown me there are times when I do my best work on a sofa with my phone off. Others may find crunching numbers works best at a desk with a large screen, and still others find the energy of an open office inspires creative thinking. What we, and many of our clients have realized, is the importance of finding the right time of day and the right space to do our best work. And that may not be our desks.

Rockefeller Group headquarters, New York City

Rockefeller Group headquarters, New York City – Photo © Connie Zhou

Rockefeller Group headquarters, New York City

Rockefeller Group headquarters,
New York City – Photo © Connie Zhou

Rockefeller Group headquarters, New York City

What are the most urgent requests from your customers about this challenge?
I think many assumptions made a year ago and six months ago have not proven relevant. In the commercial interiors market, I found clients had really put any decisions on pause. Now, with a vision of post-Covid, I find the greatest urgency is to play catch up on the improvements or expansions that haven’t been addressed for the last 18 months. The majority of these actions are based on 2019 planning.

Are you designing any alternative solutions?
In particular, we are using a more aggressive approach to personal health and well-being. In our multifamily work this strategy includes adding more types of fitness areas, including larger classrooms and private training rooms with access to virtual technologies. In addition, we’re looking at expanding outdoor spaces in ways that can be multi-seasonal, and including a more extensive planting, or green layer, throughout. For commercial design we have a similar approach. In a new office building in Brooklyn, located at 141 Willoughby Street, we’ve aligned the entry of the building with the adjacent park and visually linked that green space through the public spaces of this project. Included are a series of amenity spaces such as a library, lounge with bar, and a coworking component all designed around views back to the park.

What projects are you working on now?
Many new ground-up projects are moving ahead, including a 50-story commercial development in Long Island City, and a handful of condo/rental buildings all in different phases of design. Especially interesting for me is creating a larger portfolio of amenity spaces for a commercial developer-all under one brand, but each with their own specific program and character. The challenge is finding a common thread of experience and emotion through a diverse range of buildings. A different, but similar challenge is about creating a very large and elevated amenity for the GM Building, an iconic tower in Midtown with a strong history and identity. How can we build on that presence, work within that spirit, and still create something both modern and as timeless as the building itself?