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2012 Design Masters

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Marcel Wisznia


Tell us about your background. I am an architect and real estate developer.  The formal name of my company is Wisznia Company Incorporated, and we use Wisznia | Architecture + Development as our “trade name”.  I am the second generation of a family practice that was founded in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1947.  After graduating from Tulane University’s School of Architecture in 1973, I opened my own practice here in New Orleans.  In the early 1980s I merged my firm with my father’s in Texas and we practiced together as two profit centers of the same company until my father’s death in 2004. My father was quite unique in that he was not afraid to combine the creative side of his brain with the logical side.  And in my case, the acorn did not fall far from the tree, as I have those same skills.  This has allowed us to pursue real estate development, not only from a business perspective, but from a creative design approach also.  We have coined the phrase “design driven development” to describe our firm.

Our architectural division almost exclusively serves our real estate development department.  In other words, Wisznia Architecture’s sole “client” is Wisznia Development. Since Hurricane Katrina, we have developed three mixed-use projects in downtown New Orleans, totaling almost $100 million: the Union Lofts, the Maritime and the Saratoga. 

Who are the principals of your firm/business? I am the principal and president of Wisznia Company Incorporated.  I am also the General Partner of numerous Limited Partnerships and the Managing Member of additional LLCs that also own and manage real estate.  Wisznia | Architecture + Development was involved in each of these projects.

How does New Orleans affect your profession? What are the benefits and challenges? As a modern architect, it has always been a challenge to find clients that understand that modern solutions fit well into the urban or neighborhood “fabric”.  Most clients feel that the only design solution is to mimic the past.  It is funny how European architects and their clients are not afraid to design contemporary buildings in historic areas……or design modern interiors in historic buildings.  And European cities are far older than most in the US.

We firmly believe that when one understands the rhythm, scale and proportions of historic structures, modern infill structures can fit in well.

Tell us about your current projects. I have touched on the three recently completed downtown developments, but want to elaborate on several sub-components of The Maritime.  In 2011 we opened a new café on the ground floor called Merchant.  It is owned and operated by me and several other individuals.  Our “tag line” is coffee – crepes – grapes. We serve ILLY coffee, and consistently hear that Merchant is the finest coffee house in New Orleans.  Certainly, the design of the café is different than what most expect to see in this City. It does prove that excellent design contributes to the success of a venture. 

This was the first time that our firm went “out of house” and selected another architect to design for us.  Merchant was designed by Ammar Eloueini, a Tulane professor and world-renowned designer. Although it is only 800 square feet in size, it has a profound impact on the branding of the entire development.

In the late spring of 2012 we designed and opened BETA, a shared workspace on the second floor of the same building. It is designed for start-ups and young entrepreneurs, what we call “the creative class”.  The open floor plan maximizes natural light, and the space is furnished with Knoll workstations and classic modern furniture from both Herman Miller and Knoll.  

Early in 2013 we will begin construction on the renovation of the Stephens Garage, or what we call “The Garage”.  It is the conversion of a historic parking garage and car dealership into a mixed-use development consisting of 65 apartments, 15,000 square feet of ground floor retail, and parking for both of the uses.  The existing ramps, spanning from floor to floor, will be removed and replaced with two automobile elevators.  If a tenant arrives home by car, he//she will drive into an elevator that will take them up to the floor they live on.  The second door will then open and they can drive out and park virtually right in front of their apartment.  It is the convenience of suburban garden apartment living in the heart of downtown New Orleans. 

Solar energy will provide power for over 60% of a resident’s utility needs.  And if that is not enough, each parking space will have access to a charging station for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles; also fed through the solar system.

Additionally, we are taking our skills and experience and pursuing several large projects in other southern states.  They will follow the same formula that has made our New Orleans developments successful, starting with adaptively reusing downtown historic buildings.

What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? Nothing! This is who I am.  I live, eat and sleep architecture and real estate development.  I was born to do this, and nothing else.

Melissa Rufty


Tell us about your background. I spent fifteen years in advertising working on branding and strategic marketing for all sorts of businesses.   I have always loved being

surrounded by creative people. I think the combination of image and problem solving in advertising  has served me well in design. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good I make a house look if it doesn't function for the people who live there.

Who are the principals of your firm/business? Me and a staff of four talented designers and administrators. I jokingly call them my "sister wives."

How does New Orleans affect your profession?  What are the benefits and challenges? The essence of New Orleans is at the heart of what I do no matter what city I'm working in.  New Orleans is such a unique dichotomy of grandeur and decay so I want my projects to have that same balance of style and soul. My office is located on Magazine Street amidst all the antique stores, art galleries and a myriad of local specialty shops…frankly, it's hard to miss.

Tell us about your current projects. I have a great balance of local jobs right now that are keeping me rooted as well as some out of town projects that are keeping my eye fresh to new architecture/design styles.  I've also just partnered in a new vintage home furnishings and accessories store, Malachite, on Magazine Street.  It's been great to buy with my current jobs in mind and complement all of the great antique stores around us.  

What else would you be doing if you weren't doing this? Hoarding.

Robin Tanner


Tell us about your background. After high school and a disastrous first go-round at college, I took a job at a nursery and fell in love with working outside in the landscape of trees and flowers. A few years later, I returned to school where I earned a degree in landscape architecture. While in school, I spent two successive summers in Japan, studying and working in the gardens of Kyoto. The great appeal to me of Japanese gardens is that they have evolved through the centuries as an art form in their own right and not merely as ornamentation to architecture. During the past few decades, I have designed and installed many gardens in the region and have worked to be mindful of the possibility of the garden as an artwork. In a way. it is the inverse of sculpture. Whereas sculpture is the fashioning of an object inserted in space, a garden is an environment that shapes space itself.

Who are the principles of your firm/business? I am the sole principal of the firm Robin Tanner Landscape Architect.

How does New Orleans affect your business? What are the benefits and challenges? There are ways in which the city of New Orleans affects the profession of landscape architecture.  The climate of the city, being much like that of a greenhouse, allows a lush diversity of vegetation.  This provides a rich palette of material for landscape design efforts. The mild weather coaxes people outdoors to enjoy their outside space. Moreover, the gregarious nature of New Orleans people encourages the use of the landscape for social activities.

Tell about your current projects. Currently, I am working on the ongoing improvement of the Japanese garden in City Park as well as several private residential projects in the city as well as one in Boulder, Colorado.  

What else would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? If I was not working at my first love of landscape design and installation, I would be riding a bicycle across the United States and Europe.

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