Originally published in New York magazine, April 2008
HAVE YOU MET 9A YET?
Tousle-haired, drives a black BMW, does Vinyasa on the roof every morning? Never got his name—Stefan, maybe? Works in hedge funds. He has this killer apartment in District, that new building on Ann Street. Thursdays, he has his buddies over for single malts in the billiards room. Shops at Prada, spends Saturdays gallery-hopping in Chelsea. Dinners at the Spotted Pig, nightcaps at the Bowery Hotel. He’d be a catch if he were ready to settle down.
And if he actually existed. Stefan is a fiction, a full-size Sim. District won’t be completed until this summer. And apartment 9A is just a set piece, a fantasy built to sell condos.
What we know about Stefan—and we know an awful lot—is based on clues set throughout the model apartment by brokers, developers, designers, and marketing experts. Every scrap of evidence has been chosen to flesh out the imaginary buyer, down to the magazines he reads (Men’s Vogue, Wallpaper*), his taste for ethnic art (rough-woven tapestries dotted with shells), and his bed (round). Meaning that a visit to 9-A feels like you’re breaking into someone’s home and trying on his life.
Condominiums make up 56 percent of the residential sales in Manhattan, and even as the market shows (faint) hints of slowing, many of them are presold, from blueprints. “Buyers don’t have the imagination that we do, so you have to help them,” says Shaun Osher, CEO of Core Group Marketing. Nor are they satisfied with multimedia simulations. “Five years ago, everyone was doing virtual walk-throughs,” says Nancy Ruddy of Cetra/Ruddy architects, which has designed dozens of luxury show units. “But people want to touch and feel the environment. Back then we were asked to do models for maybe 50 percent of the projects we designed. Today, it’s more like 80 percent.”
“Think of it this way: You wouldn’t buy an $8,000 Thom Browne suit without feeling the fabric,” says Barrie Mandel, a senior VP at Corcoran. So absurd sums are being poured into model apartments. “We’ll spend up to $500,000 on furnishings alone,” says Ruddy. The build-out cost can reach $1 million. “But they work,” says Kelly Mack, president of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing. “Whichever line of a building we represent with a model, that’s the line that sells the fastest.” The amount of detail is staggering, and the particulars are not an ancillary concern but the crux of the experience. “It used to be,” Ruddy says, “a model would show that, yes, you can fit an eight-foot sofa in this room. Now it’s saying, This is who I could be.”
The breakthrough for the trend came in 2006, when the William Beaver House—a 47-story financial-district tower hyperconceived by André Balazs—put an entire wardrobe in its demo closet. The archetypal Beaverite evidently favors ruffled shirts from Zara and silk-screened tees from Old Navy. He, or maybe his nephew, rides a Sector 9 longboard.
Still, a closet can tell you only so much about yourself. That’s why District provides not just a model apartment but a movie, streamed on the Web, about two ideal occupants. She’s a broody film-noir flirt, adjusting her thigh-highs on the sidewalk; he’s a smoldering dreamboat, showering in slo-mo. In fact, the whole building seems to be about getting some. smart. sexy. available teases a poster in the sales office, showing the couple (him shirtless, her pantless) retrieving a pair of stilettos from the Liebherr fridge.
Sex-addled Sherman McCoys will get a leg up from Amy Sacco, who owns a penthouse here and is District’s “lifestyle consultant.” The nightlife guru is talking with Stephen Starr about an in-house restaurant. “People are moving here, but there’s nothing super-sexy to do. Our concept is to make District the hottest spot downtown and put the financial district on the map,” says Christopher Mathieson, who is District’s sales director (or was; he’s left the job since we spoke).
But maybe you’re not a horndog banker. Maybe you’re an Artforum reader with a taste for Egon Schiele. Then Tribeca’s Artisan Lofts could be for you. The model here is pretty masculine, with exposed conduits and concrete ceilings, but also warm and elegant, with glowing floors of oil-rubbed walnut. Here’s a manhole-cover end table; here’s a collection of old blacksmithing tools. “The goal was to convey authenticity,” says Corcoran’s Barrie Mandel.
Up at 141 Fifth Avenue, a Flatiron-district building that’s being turned into 38 condominiums, the show unit is even more lifelike. On the kitchen table sit four bowls of cereal. A chessboard is frozen mid-game. (White’s winning.) On one bed, Anya von Bremzen’s New Spanish Table is open to a recipe marked with a pen. “Originally I thought of having the radio on, the shower going,” says Osher, whose Core Group markets the property. “It would have been difficult to orchestrate, and maybe a little gimmicky, but just so people could envision themselves in the space.”
Sometimes one model life isn’t enough. The Stanhope Hotel conversion at 995 Fifth Avenue has two. Apartment 5-S is all Roche Bobois furniture and Poul Henningsen lamps; 5-N has Louis XVI chairs, antique copper pots in the kitchen, and books about the manor homes of Normandy. You can imagine the neighbors, crossing the hall to chat, then privately savaging each other’s taste.
Swig Equities went even further at Sheffield 57, a project on West 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It’s in what designer Nancy Ruddy terms “an interstitial neighborhood,” meaning it has no real profile. So the team invented one—or rather, five of them. “One was a 60-year-old writer, widowed, on the board of the Met,” says Ruddy. “Another was a young Master of the Universe guy. We also had a 50-year-old real-estate lawyer; a jet-setting Brazilian family with a sophisticated 6-year-old; and a gay shoe-designer couple, so we could do fun things with colors.”
Does any of this work? Nobody knows for sure. Not one real-estate professional I spoke to could cite evidence showing that these maneuvers boost sales. Indeed, one wonders whether they put off buyers who don’t share the precise tastes they reflect.
“There’s conflicting lore out there,” says Justin Kruger, a professor of marketing at NYU. “The traditional lore says, take away all the individuating elements so buyers can imagine living there with their stuff. On the other hand, people’s ideal selves and their actual selves are often different. If Realtors are able to capture an identity that buyers do aspire to, who knows? There’s probably a cost-benefit analysis you could do that asks, ‘What proportion of our potential market are we alienating?’ versus ‘How much more attractive are we making this apartment to that subset?’ ” A huge hit within the 5 Percent Nation of Skateboarding Fund-Managers may be worth turning off the other 95 percent.
Consider all this from a different angle. Last year Sheena Iyengar, a professor of management at Columbia, conducted a study of consumer choice. “Let’s say I give you a menu with 50 different coffees on it—Yukon Blend, Black Satin, and so forth,” she says. “In one case, I just give you a list. In another, I organize the list into reasonable categories: spicy, tangy, nutty. In the third case, I organize them by the names of fictional coffee shops, such as the Living Room, Le Café, the Gathering. If I don’t organize the list at all, people are less likely to order a cup of coffee, and they’re less likely to like it, even if it’s free. It doesn’t matter whether I organize the list by content labels or by seemingly content-free labels. Knowing that they’ve chosen from a category makes a difference. They feel somehow that they understand the choice they made.”
Here’s the catch, though: They all got the same coffee. “Yet nobody could tell. Nobody was disappointed.” Many of them could cite distinctions where there were none. Amid uncertainty, a buyer will gravitate toward familiar “categorization” elements (a Vespa, a yoga mat) that say You belong here. Choose me.
Come on, you’re thinking. I’m going to shell out an extra $200,000 because a fictional dude and I like the same T-shirts? Surely people see this is bullshit. Yet, as Kruger points out, seeing through the bullshit does not always negate its effect.
“When you dress something up in a way that looks desirable, people make two-stage judgments,” he says. “Something looks good, then the mind thinks, Wait a minute, I only like this apartment because I like the furniture.” Yet research has shown that such decisions tend to be biased toward the initial stage. “For example,” says Kruger, “compare a well-decorated apartment against an identical one that’s poorly decorated. Even if people are fully aware of their bias, they end up liking it perhaps a little more than they should.”
They may also be susceptible to the power of what’s missing. In these idealized lives, there is none of the rumpled quality that even the most well-kept home inevitably takes on. There’s never a grime line at the edge of the grout, or a haze of water spots on the counter after it’s been wiped down. The experience is that of a visitor, less home than hotel. In fact, resort marketing has a lot in common with all this. “I wonder if nowadays people just want to be in a hotel all day,” muses architect Annabelle Selldorf, who’s built projects like the Urban Glass House in Soho. “But if you’re young and you’re not from New York and you have a lot of money and work really hard, maybe it appeals to have a life that’s catered-to and ready-made.” And if yours isn’t, you can go buy Stefan’s. •