By Lucy Cohen Blatter | Mansion Global
The New York-based designer and builder always opts for simplicity—and bans the word "luxury"
New York City-based Cary Tamarkin, founder and chairman of Tamarkin Co., is one of few developers who also designs his own projects. Mr. Tamarkin, who’s a trained architect, has complete control over the buildings he creates—from the largest plans to the smallest details.
He prides himself on "calm, consistent design," focusing on light, air and space.
The firm’s newest development is 555 West End Avenue, a landmarked private boys’ school that was reimagined as a luxury building, with 13 homes featuring 12-foot ceilings.
Among the buildings Mr. Tamarkin has worked on are two former warehouses converted to luxury lofts—140 Perry St. and 206 West 17th St. He’s also designed and developed private homes, including a Manhattan penthouse, a Manhattan townhouse, as well as homes outside the city, in places such as Shelter Island, New York, and Woodstock, New York.
We caught up with Mr. Tamarkin, who is in his early 60s, to discuss the challenges facing the luxury market ("nothing’s selling," he says), the importance of simplicity in design and much more.
Mansion Global: Describe your dream property.
Cary Tamarkin: I actually own it on Shelter Island. It’s a beautifully situated piece of property, set back a little from its own beach. The water it’s on is a bay, so it’s perfect. It’s not the ocean, but it’s not completely still. Every room hears lapping waves at night. And I got to build my own house on it.
I’m completely at peace out there.
MG: Do you have a real estate property that got away?
CT: There are a lot that got away, but I don’t look back. If you’re going to look back in this business, I should have bought every building in Tribeca in 1992. A lot got away because I’m choosy about the projects I do. They need to fit the bill of being able to make a lot of money, and also be beautiful architecture. I won’t do one without the other. The goal was never to build the biggest building in New York City, or to make the most money or to have a private jet.
MG: What does luxury mean to you?
CT: Two words I never allow brokers to use are "luxury" and "units." "Unit" is like calling your kid a humanoid. You want to have some soul in these things.
Luxury is not worrying about having a roof over your head. I’m lucky enough to pick and choose what I want to design, and to spend my life doing what I love. It’s got nothing to do with money.
If you can afford to pay for your dinner, and your life, and you can enjoy your life, that’s luxury.
MG: What’s the biggest surprise in the luxury real estate market now?
CT: Nothing’s selling. No one has a crystal ball, so there’s always a cycle at the end of the development. Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised, sometimes you’re not.
I was surprised by the Annabelle Selldorf building [on the Far West Side in Manhattan] with the cars that go up to your apartment. It felt gimmicky and I was surprised that it worked so well. When people started using international starchitects, I was surprised that that worked to sell apartments.
There are a lot of people who make more money than me because they follow what everyone else is doing.
I was doing raw spaces in the West Village because I knew artistic people would want to live there, and I know they wouldn’t want to have the same kitchen as the person on top of them. That won’t work in every place in the city.
But you’ve got to follow your own path, not other people’s.
MG: What’s your favorite part of your home?
CT: My New York home is a loft, and I love it because for 15 years I lived in a townhouse and this is the exact opposite. And I’m really lucky to live in a place I designed. It’s open, bright and has a lovely feeling.
In Shelter Island, my favorite part of it is that it’s simple in its end result. That’s what it wanted to be. It’s all made of cypress wood, with no sheetrock. It’s a holiday house.
Each bedroom gets the sound of lapping waves. At some point I bombed a breezeway through it, so when you walk in you have a "wow" moment where you see the ocean. To get a cup of water in the night, you have to go outside.
MG: What best describes the theme to your home and why?
CT: There’s a theme to everything I’ve ever done in my entire life, and that’s simplicity. It’s about making the least amount of moves to make a place feel inevitable. That takes a huge amount of work, because as an architect you don’t get that many projects to do in a year, or even in your life. Sometimes you want to put everything in there. But for me, it’s about paring it back and paring it back until it feels right. It’s more like consistency than a theme. To me, there’s nothing wrong with right angles, and walls.
MG: What’s the most valuable thing in your home?
CT: I’ve played guitar my whole life, so I have a beautiful collection of guitars. There’s a 1930s Martin guitar that I bought from [professional musician] G.E Smith. I was lucky enough to be in a band with him. I have a massive library of art and architecture books, which are incredibly important and used constantly.
And the third thing is a Le Corbusier tapestry that I allowed myself to buy after the last successful deal to treat myself.
MG: What’s the most valuable amenity to have in a home right now?
CT: This is probably the wrong answer, but I’ve always thought amenities are a *** thing to drive people into your building. I’ve always focused on architecture, light and proportion. Aside from that, there have always been storage rooms in the cellar for people, and gyms, and those are important.
MG: What’s your best piece of real estate advice?
CT: Don’t try and time the market. I have friends who are very wealthy who were waiting to time buying a place, and they still rent a place for an ungodly amount of money 20 years later.
Also, when you buy a piece of real estate, if you love it and it’s right for you, you know in an instant.
When I did a building on the Hudson River, it was scary. There are a million cars that pass by, and hookers and drug dealers, but there was the light and the views. I knew that people would come in and either say they’d never live there or would say right away, "we love it."
MG: What’s going on in the news that will have the biggest impact on the luxury real estate market?
CT: I don’t look at my stocks every day. They’re invested by someone I trust. I don’t freak out or get excited either way. I just let that happen. If I were more interested, I’d get into the reasons behind it.
I think our president is insane. I don’t know if the things he does will affect real estate or not, I don’t know what the Fed raising points will do or not do, I didn’t go to real estate school or business school. When people ask me, I always say "just dive in."
MG: If you had a choice of living in a new development or a prime resale property, which would you choose and why?
CT: In Shelter Island, the opportunity to build a new family home was fantastic. I’d much rather do that than buy another house. I couldn’t live in someone else’s design.
My apartment is in an old manufacturing building, so the bones are really cool, but I got to gut it.
New buildings can take a little while to get their legs. But since I’m an architect, I’d rather live in one of my buildings.
MG: What area currently has the best resale value?
CT: It’s a really difficult time, things are stagnant. Things are sitting around, and they’re priced too high.
But people adjust and become more realistic. I don’t see anything major in terms of profit. You know the market is going to turn, but you don’t know when. When I started doing development in 1992, I had no idea what I was doing whatsoever. It turned out to be the beginning of a 14-year run-up in real estate. I couldn’t have predicted that.