Of Desire: An Interview With Stephen Kotler of Douglas Elliman

Stephen Kotler is chief operating officer of Douglas Elliman, the renowned real estate company responsible for sales much like One57 and others around the globe.

In October 2014, a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan was sold for $34 million dollars. It was the most expensive sale of the week. Its runner-up, another three-bedroom, was sold for $27 million dollars.

Both apartments were situated within One57, New York City’s tallest residential building. Perks include twelve-foot ceilings and unparalleled views; its architect is the Pritzker Prize-winning Christian de Portzamparc. One could list other details that will try to inch the gap between a 4,000 square-feet condo and its eight-figure price tag closer, but the Manhattan luxury real estate market is one built on myth, not logic.

In a time where wealth is being increasingly politicized, luxury is taking on a more neutral definition. We have onyx and marble instead of gold. We’re favoring Teslas over Ferraris. But the bungalow will never displace the ivory skyscraper – or could it?

How do you see a property like One57, which lacks the outlandish opulence of your traditional “luxury” properties, and incite desire for an extremely high net-worth client?

To answer that, let’s take a step back. The sales experience that they had for potential buyers coming in was one of the best sales experiences I’d ever seen. They’ve built the entire apartment inside the showroom. How heavy do the doors feel? What are the materials of the hardware on the handles? All these things touch people when they’re looking at a home. When you’re selling a vision that will be [realized] in 24 months out, you really have to create this immersive experience for what it’ll be like for people when they live there.

The immersion you speak of – it sounds like you’re selling what it is, instead of what it could be.

There’s so much data that’s available to [buyers] online that the experience of people shopping for apartments has changed a lot. Ten years ago, there was no past history of sales. You’d call a broker, tell them what you were looking for, and the broker would put together 10–15 properties, and arrange a day for showings. Now, customers are doing that in the background before they call the broker, sometimes six months before they want to engage in the process. They’ll know everything they need about the property before they go see it.

What we are doing, and looking at very strongly right now, is full 3D immersion into a property. There are a couple of companies in New York that are OculusRift-directed. They create an immersive environment where I can walk a customer in Moscow through an apartment here in New York. By the end of 2015, they tell me you can slide your phone into the Oculus and use it as a viewer.

We’ve recently developed a technology called Elli, and what that does is curating your listings based on what you’ve rated. It also has a 3D augmented reality feature, so you can lift it up to any apartment building in New York that we have available and you can see what the units look like inside. The idea is asking what customers like or don’t like, and delivering content based on what they’ve told us. If we’re talking about desire, this way, you’re really giving them what they want.

How do you see spaces like One57 figuring into how we define the desire for luxury and success in the modern age?

When you build these buildings, you either have to be extremely stylized, where you know exactly what your customers want and probably have a [small] offering. Or you have a building like this where you have multiple floors of apartments that are essentially the same. You almost have to appeal to no one – meaning that it’s beautifully finished, with quality materials that are not going to offend anybody.

What’s changed in the last ten years about desire and luxury in properties like this is that ten years ago, people bought at 15 Central Park West, came in, and ripped out the kitchens and bathrooms, and redid the apartments after closing. Because of the way the world is changing, and post-9/11 and post-Lehman, people want ease in their lives. They don’t want to have to go through the brain damage of having to do complete renovations; that’s why they buy new construction. Developers now understand that.

That modern sensibility you speak of – would you define that in the opening up of spaces? That luxury is no longer about the world you’re keeping out, but more so about the privileges of its neighborhood?

Yes. All the spaces we’re seeing being developed now are more open spaces. More communal living, frankly. I think that’s what’s appealing to people: spaces that have the modern sensibilities of downtown TriBeCa, with an uptown address.

That shift towards neighborhood culture – I see it in food, where high-end luxury chefs are being inspired by street food and a kind of defiant cultural authenticity that may have been disdained in previous generations.

Absolutely. They’re calling TriBeCa TrBurbia for a reason. It’s all families. It’s full of people who want to identify with that street culture and lifestyle. People who have lived uptown most of their lives are now moving downtown.

Does this flexibility in defining luxury make your job easier?

I don’t think it makes it easier, but it gives us more opportunities and different ways to look at it. It’s just gentrification. Brooklyn’s a good example – who knew so many people would want to live there? If you look at certain parts of the Upper East Side, prices there have remained below average for the past five years, because people have always viewed it to be more staged and more stable. People grew up in those neighborhoods, and started having their own [experiences] with New York; they identify more with downtown.

 But having said that, I can tell you right now that with the opening of the 2nd Avenue subway, we’re seeing big growth in people desiring to come back to the Upper East Side. It’s all constantly changing.

To read the rest of the interview, pick up a print or digital copy of the Desire issue of MISC.

the author

Caroline Leung