To sit with Aby Rosen in his Park Avenue office is to enjoy a rare view. On the wall behind the co-founder of RFR, a force in the New York City and German real estate market for the past two decades, is a mesmerizing oil on canvas called Cypresses by Joan Mitchell. And all around him are works by Warhol, Basquiat, Hirst, and Schnabel.
Both a real estate mogul and an avid art collector, Rosen has made his mark on Manhattan and the world largely through his powers of selection. Whether he’s choosing properties or artworks, his unique perspective on the world is more as a curator than a creator.
“I am not a pioneer,” he explains. “I try to find something that someone else did and make it better. Our goal is to hire designers who respect the architecture and the location. And we find great architects who challenge what is already in place and find materials that will work with the old and new. I try to create value where others have settled for less.”
This approach has led to runaway successes stretching back to the early 1990s when Rosen was the first to bring star architects—Michael Graves and Robert A. M. Stern, for example—into the high-end residential real estate market. Rosen explains: “The 1960s and 1970s in New York was a time when a lot of really bad residential architecture was created. The commercial market was more open-minded, so I thought 'why not bring great architects to the residential arena?' The cost is not much higher—plus, you make that up tenfold in marketability, longevity, and name recognition—and the upside in terms of civic responsibility is huge.”
For Gramercy Park Hotel, Rosen fearlessly took on a structure built on the site of former homes crafted by the legendary Stamford White. “You attack each space with the same seriousness, regardless of whether it’s by a quality architect or a fly-by-night who did one great work,” he says. “At Gramercy, I was in charge of acquisition of financing. Ian Schrager dealt with hotel operations and construction. And Julian Schnabel was hired to help with design and interior. Julian is a very strong personality and like an artist he kept wanting to add layers.
We had to say ‘Julian this is done!’ You have to be a dictator when it comes to certain choices. But the result was fantastic.”
Rosen’s 11 Howard, with its warm colors and materials, is something of an homage to Philip Johnson, the influential postmodern American architect who helped design another Rosen property, the Seagram Building. The 11 Howard project hinged on Rosen’s belief that “Johnson’s really strong view could be taken downtown to Soho,” he says. “The question was, ‘How do we create something that will look good 10 to 20 years from now?’ We get a lot of natural sunlight so we chose bronze and colors that really come to life.” Along with standout designer Anda Andrei, Rosen brought on the star design team Space Copenhagen. “We loved what Space was doing,” Rosen explains. “We thought they were very sensitive to the simplistic lifestyle approach we were after. And Anda curated colors, artists, weavers, materials, and wood finishes. She’s into what I’m into—the big picture and the details.”
That’s a good way to define Rosen, a man who has a reputation for stopping at nothing to stay true to his vision. “That’s just my character. I can be straightforward and direct,” he says. “Could I be more diplomatic? Absolutely! But in the long run I believe I will be happy doing as I feel best.”