It seems that Gary Friedman was always poised to embark on his career path, which landed him in his current role as CEO and chairman of RH and the mastermind behind Restoration Hardware’s rebranding and launching of its grandiose RH Gallery spaces—the largest and arguably the most spectacular of which opened to much fanfare this fall in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
Friedman, 61, started out in 1977 in the stockroom at Gap, where he worked his way through the ranks for 11 years before making his mark on Williams Sonoma for 14 years and then joining Restoration Hardware in 2001. However, if you ask Friedman about his career trajectory, he humbly says, “I feel very lucky—blessed, really. For the entire journey, I’ve been blessed doing what I love with people that I love.”
When he began with Restoration Hardware (as RH was formerly known), Friedman sought to revitalize the brand, and with his keen foresight, he was able to elevate RH to the dominant luxury home furniture and furnishings brand that it is today—a strategic evolution that he says he executed very carefully. “It’s very hard to take a brand upmarket and change its perception,” he admits. Friedman inherited a mall-based Restoration Hardware in 2001 with 6,000- to 7,000-square-foot stores, and once he overhauled the product assortment and began partnering with boldface-name designers from around the world, the old real estate model no longer fit. So he sought to completely transform the real estate from staid, dark shops into spacious, light-filled gallery spaces (not stores!) that mirror the appropriate caliber of product, a tactic that he feels was key to unlocking the true potential of the company.
“RH is a reflection of my values, beliefs, and what I love,” he says. “I believe the most pleasing environments are a reflection of human design. They are a study of balance, symmetry, and the golden mean. That philosophy is reflected in everything we do.”
RH San Francisco, which opened in the Design District in 2010, marked a turning point for the brand, illustrating Friedman’s vision for the fresh brick-and-mortar strategy. But the new 90,000- square-foot, $50 million RH New York is perhaps the most critical real estate for the business, housing all of the RH brands—RH Modern, Outdoor, Interiors, Baby & Child, Teen, as well as RH Interior Design Studio & Atelier—under one roof, one that features a year-round garden, Park & Wine Terrace, and Rooftop Restaurant. “New York is by far our largest market,” Friedman explains. “It is also our bridge to Europe and international expansion. There is no other city more important to our brand and business.”
Set on a pivotal corner in the Meatpacking District, among elite brands like Stella McCartney, DVF, and soon Hermès, just across from the Gansevoort Meatpacking hotel, and blocks from Soho House, the High Line, and the Whitney Museum, in the space formerly occupied by Keith McNally’s legendary eatery Pastis, RH New York has indeed found a suitable home. Originally surveying this neighborhood seven years ago, Friedman anticipated the area would tip luxury and thus began negotiating for this site. “It provided us the rare opportunity to develop and control an entire building on an iconic corner in New York,” he offers. “The location has approximately 250 feet of storefront, an abundance of natural light, the ability to control and develop the rooftop, and the opportunity to connect the multiple levels with a central atrium. Additionally, the Meatpacking is a low-rise district that allows for all-day sunshine and unobstructed views of downtown and the Freedom Tower.”
The storefront, rooftop, and atrium that Friedman mentions are truly breathtaking. James Gillam, of St. Helena, California–based architectural design firm Backen, Gillam & Kroeger, worked with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to expertly craft a steel and glass facade with deftly designed cast-iron X’s that look like they’ve always been a part of this building in order to seamlessly integrate the new portion with the original, historic two-story brick structure. Friedman says he thinks the facade “respects the past, while also embracing the future,” and he explains that he has a long-standing, 20-plus-year relationship with both Gillam and Howard Backen from the design firm, so the level of trust and collaboration were instrumental to the success of this project.
On the inside, the design team maintains an aesthetic that’s cohesive with the industrial facade while allowing the RH product to really shine in a true gallery setting. The six-story skylighted atrium that dissects the space allows for natural light penetration and offers an awe-inspiring feel. An art installation by Alison Berger, called “New York Night,” consists of 120 handblown crystal pendants suspended through every story of the atrium. And an all-glass elevator—the only of its kind in the U.S. with fire-rated glass doors—transports patrons up to the Rooftop Restaurant and outdoor park, which features food service by restaurateur and founding president of RH Hospitality Brendan Sodikoff, also the founder and CEO of Chicago-based restaurant group Hogsalt Hospitality. The concept of RH Hospitality launched in RH Chicago in 2015 and has been rolled out in Toronto, West Palm Beach, and Nashville before its unveiling to the New York City crowd.
“We initially set out to blur the lines between residential and retail, creating spaces that were more home than store. The next logical step was to further blur the lines between home and hospitality and create an experience that activates all of the senses, one that cannot be replicated online,” Friedman says about RH Hospitality. And with regard to partnering with Sodikoff on the concept, he says, “It was important to align ourselves with someone who is as obsessive about hospitality as we are about design, someone who shares the same values, beliefs, and passion for quality.”
A feature exclusive to RH New York, a first-floor concierge can help guide patrons through the massive design gallery, show the menu to the Rooftop Restaurant, or direct them to the third-floor Barista Bar for those who want to enjoy coffee, pastries, or wine in the café or on the adjacent outdoor terrace. Another only-in–New York element is having space dedicated to RH Interior Design Studio & Atelier integrated into the design gallery. In other RH locales, the interior design services are relegated to back-of-house operations, while in New York the whole second floor is dedicated to the department, which is celebrated out in the open, capitalizing on the vibrant energy of the space, with workstations, private presentation rooms, and VIP entrances.
Friedman prides himself on being a front-runner, one leading the way and not following the pack when it comes to retail innovation and beyond. “I’m proud of our culture of innovation versus duplication,” he says. “We are always listening and learning, and that allows us to lead our organization into the future.” He says he plans to continue to evolve the RH brand “from creating and selling products to conceptualizing and selling spaces,” with this summer’s launch of the first RH Guesthouse, a hotel that’s steps away from the New York gallery. “We hope to redefine hospitality in a similar manner to how we’ve redefined physical retailing,” he adds. And when asked how he saw RH New York fitting in with its Meatpacking District setting, he quips, “Who said anything about fitting in?”