Rachael Grochowski has seen it all. As the principal of RHG Architecture + Design, she has designed countless commercial spaces over the course of her long career. The Montclair, New Jersey-based architect and interior designer has worked on hospitality, retail and wellness projects, from botox clinics to cannabis dispensaries. She also designed Red Rabbit Aesthetics, founded by Jessica Henderson Rhee, known as the “lip queen” in the industry.
Her goal is to include three qualities in each of her designs: “holistic, engaging and consistent.” Grochowski’s design work also taps into “emotive design,” in that it’s “sensory, as well as physical.” She has worked on everything from five-star restaurants, like the Lafite in Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, to the flagship Greenhouse Spa in New York City.
As she told us: “It’s more important now than ever that Commercial Real Estate expresses the values or essence of a brand in each and every project. It’s what draws in a customer, client, buyer or lessor in and creates successful projects.”
Grochowski spoke to Leverage.com about designing commercial real estate spaces, multi-functional spaces, working with developers, and what keeps her going.
Leverage.com: Why did you first found your architecture firm, RHG A+D?
Rachael Grochowski: I started my career after college, contributing to several notable design firms in Chicago, New York City and Atlanta. I worked on a wide range of projects all over the world.
I founded RHG Architecture+Design in 2003 because I wanted to work intimately with clients to create spaces that connected them on a physical, experiential and spiritual level. By having my own firm, I felt I could offer so much more. I could approach design with my personal philosophy, which extends beyond just aesthetic and function — it’s about design that is as highly emotive and sensory as it is physical.
What design styles unify your work?
My style is underscored by holistic design: when you consider the visual aspects of design and how it engages the senses. It asks questions like how one wants to feel in the space. It makes one consider how design can be a reflection of humanity and a reflection of connection, our dependency on one another, and our honoring of one another and nature.
How important are details in your architecture and interior design work?
I speak to the lineage of a product from concept to the current moment. It might be the natural stone on a countertop. The energy of nature, the minerals, the years that create the patterns within the stone, inviting people to contemplate this lineage. Or the wood table, considering the seasons of growth of the tree before the tree was sacrificed and shared into the table, the energy and creativity of the designer and maker all the way down to the person delivering the piece for use. It’s a humanistic, sensory approach.
How do you design projects to “support the lifestyle or soul of a brand,” as it says on your website?
For me architecture and design are about the human experience. In addition to single-family homes, we also do hospitality, wellness, and retail spaces that speak to our senses and affect our daily experience. They bring us into the present moment where we experience peace, beauty, joy and gratitude. This is achieved through shape, flow, integration of the interior and exterior, materiality and designing with intention.
Where does this all come from?
Ever since I was a girl growing up in Denver, Colorado, I was very much drawn to how space can affect an experience. I also believed deeply in the power of wellness. It became a guiding principle in my life, and I realized working in design was an incredible outlet to expressly marry the two.
I immersed myself in both the mechanics of building and design, but also on the effect that design has on the human experience: I realized that we can craft structures and spaces for hospitality, wellness, retail and home which speak to our senses and affect our daily experience bringing us into the present moment where we experience peace, beauty, joy and gratitude.
How does this relate to CRE?
It’s more important now than ever that Commercial Real Estate expresses the values or essence of a brand in each and every project. It’s what draws in a customer, client, buyer or lessor in and creates successful projects.
When we meet a new client we have a lot of questions about their brand, values, future goals and more. Many times I’ll ask them to dive a little deeper; we want to know ‘why.’ This allows us to develop a structure or space that ‘feels’ like their brand through the senses; texture, around, color, materiality, aroma, service type and more. We work to create cohesive spaces based on the integrity of the brand.
You design CRE properties. How is it a different approach than residential projects?
There are a lot of similarities between us. We want to know who we are working with or who they, the brand, wants to be. For commercial clients, the brand is often more clear. Although in commercial real estate there might be a team we are working with who have varying opinions, ultimately the goal is to deepen the brand identity through the built environment. The decisions are more analytical and less emotional. Our job is to present the emotional in the analytical — that’s how CRE is successful.
Are women architects in CRE often overlooked or marginalized? Is it getting better compared to when you first founded your firm?
Although I am seeing more and more women stay in architecture, it is still a tough road out there. Women seem to be accepted as residential architects and designers without too much pause, but on the commercial side it takes a progressive team to be open to women as leaders in the architecture industry. While there are developers, engineers and contractors who welcome female architects to the team, the respect is still hard won and it requires staying focused and not attaching to the disappointments of being negated or looked over on certain projects.
Whenever we get overlooked or not invited to the table, I remind myself to stay focused on the goal. Not every door is meant to open at that moment.
You’re known for beauty companies and wellness projects. How do you not over-design spaces so they still feel free and light?
Design for beauty and wellness spaces requires keen understanding of balance. These types of spaces are about bringing the eye, the mind, and the heart to what is important. I often say ‘when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.’ What I mean by that is that if a space is overfilled, our mind and eye can’t process who is important. It makes us work too hard to figure it out. In beauty and wellness spaces, we just want to be.
In designing Red Rabbit 2.0, a brand known for its Instagram hype, how did you translate the youth and spirit of this brand into its design for the 2.0 version?
Red Rabbit 2.0 was an opportunity to express the vibrancy of the brand and the founder, and the space needed to represent this essence. The first time I went to see the space with the client and we came around the corner from the elevator, I immediately asked ‘can you take this space too?’ which became the reception and retail area. A somewhat oversized space that sets the stage of beauty and vibrancy by placing the rose-and-black reception desk in front of a wall of glass, and flanking the side with glamorous retail display and playful swings. This single space sets the tone that reverberates throughout the space.
What approach do you have in hospitality projects, and why are they so special?
We are in a cultural moment where we now realize the value of community, of coming together and of belonging. Hospitality spaces are the invitation of creating a place for this to happen, to build on the values of place and interconnectedness. For me, this is the point of design and architecture. When we think back to the moment architecture became more than a form of protection, we are reminded that architecture became a way to get closer to god (in whatever form that means to each individual – it could be a cathedral, a temple, a stupa, etc.) and closer to community and belonging.
What design trends do you see coming to CRE architecture in 2023?
Commercial real estate continues to move in the direction of multi-functional spaces. Multi brand markets and restaurants, collaborative retail collections, mixing of retail and food and entertainment. I think we will continue to find ways to bring people to one space where multiple needs can be met.
What’s next for you?
My dream is to create retreat centers. I’d like to design hospitality spaces that are focused on multi-tiered wellness for the mind, body and spirit. Wellness and design are interconnected, and both should be accessible to everyone. I want to be a catalyst in bringing great design and holistic wellness to everyone.