Decoding the Subliminal Cues Hidden in SF’s Condo Names

October 21, 2014
By Lamar Anderson


Amero. Vida. 8 Octavia. NEMA. Lumina. The names unfurl easily, with a kind of sensual appeal that’s almost embarrassing. Say them often and they start to feel like a private incantation that conjures some pure plane of existence, never an actual place. Each one sounds vaguely Latin and definitely alluring—is it a nightclub, a boutique hotel, a tapas bar? No, wait: Vida and Octavia are definitely supermodels. NEMA is a sexy operating system, like Scarlett Johansson in Her, and Amero is a party drug.

Residential nomenclature is an art as old as homeowners’ associations, but the buildings now rising in San Francisco aren’t exactly taking their cues from the Brocklebank. Like “Toyota Celica,” these condos (plus the aspirational rentals at NEMA) have a soothing, if wholly fabricated, savor—a fantasy calibrated to inspire prospective buyers to drop a million or five on what is, at the moment of sale, still largely a marketing concept. So what gives? Why do all of San Francisco’s new developments sound like they were plagiarized from a spa menu?

The current crop of names clusters around the same set of attributes: they’re abstract, easy to pronounce, and hard to pin a precise meaning on. They sound feminine. Multisyllabic. Vaguely European. Not unlike a car, in fact. If Toyota Celica were not already taken, Trumark Urban would probably be building it somewhere in South Beach.

Among professional naming consultants, that rounded, rhythmic formulation is known as consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. Words that follow this pattern are “very easy and can be unambiguously pronounced by a speaker of just about any language,” says Maria Cypher, principal and creative director ofCatchword, a naming agency with offices in Oakland and New York. “Something that comes out of that structure—romance-language-type names, Italianate or Spanish or Latinate in feel—lends an air of sophistication.” From a purely structural standpoint, Christina Aguilera is an ideal condo name. Lady Gaga isn’t bad, either. Lorde, not so much.

Actually, the car analogy isn’t far off. We’ve remarked before on the propensity of Tishman Speyer, the developer behind Lumina and the Infinity, to select names already claimed by certain sedans (Infiniti being a homophone). But Cypher doesn’t see a potential for brand confusion, because a mixup of the products of Chevrolet and Tishman Speyer is unlikely. “People are very quick to get over it because the car association is not enough to matter,” she says.

For Cypher, it makes sense that automakers and developers would want to pull from the same source material. “Car names can be evocative in the same way that condo names are trying to be,” she explains, noting Lumina’s Latin translation: “lights.” “With Lumina, you’re getting a sense of infinite exploration. There’s no limit to what you can do; it sounds intelligent—all these associations you’d love to have in your condo brand as well.” Everyone, it seems, is constantly dipping into the same lexicon of vaguely optimistic root words. “If you searched the trademark database for Infinity, you’d probably see many hundreds of uses in different markets,” says Cypher. “It’s such a positive, unbounded kind of word that a lot of folks are going to use it.”

Amero, Trumark Urban’s luxury 27-unit building in Cow Hollow, unites the classic consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel construction with a very popular prefix. To be honest, our mind went straight to the bar—where the liqueur amaro kicked up requisite Italianate, sophisticated associations—but Cypher and her Catchword colleague, client services director Kristen Pembroke, detected more patriotic overtones. “Kristen and I both felt it was a strong American association,” says Cypher, “but also a bit of a blank slate. It has a nice high-end, airy kind of feel, a recollection of American, but it also felt more like an empty vessel.”

Meanwhile, Oyster Development’s Vida leaves less room for interpretation. “Vida,” the Spanish word for “life,” from the Latin “vita,” gestures so neatly at the identity of the Mission that it almost feels like an overreach—but not before handing off the metaphor to the marketing copy, which describes the zigzagging facade as “literally weaving the urban fabric of the Mission into the building itself.”
Then there’s the category of condos that prefer numerals to words, not unlike a BMW Z4 or a Porsche 911. DDG and DM Development’s 8 Octavia and JS Sullivan’s Fifteen Fifteen use stylized names of their street addresses, but those choices aren’t any less deliberate, notes Cypher. At some numeral buildings, numerology may play an auspicious role. “In Chinese culture, eight is a really lucky number,” she says, noting the digits of both 8 Octavia and Summit 800. “I don’t think any developer who has an eye on the Chinese market would have an address with a four”—a number that, when spoken aloud in Mandarin, sounds very similar to the Mandarin word for “death.”

Two outliers in the current batch of condos are Arden and LuXe. “We were trying to figure out why the ‘X’ was capitalized,” says Cypher. “The only thing we could surmise was that it was to make an oft-used word stand out. ‘Luxe’ is great, but it’s so clichéd at this point.”

Arden is clearly the more thoughtful of the pair. Cypher and Pembroke place it in vaguely British, and even aristocratic, territory. But not so much that other, equally pleasant associations are ruled out, says Cypher. Though some people might be reminded of Elizabeth Arden, “garden,” or even the French “jardin,” she explains, “for most folks it would be viewed as a sophisticated-sounding empty vessel.” That open-endedness makes the name an ideal building block for the emotional appeal to be filled in later by the developer’s marketing team. Or make it Ardenly and you have a startup. Opt for Ardenophren and you have a pharmaceutical.

Cypher and Pembroke also approved of the name NEMA. It follows that familiar consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern, derived this time from the aspirational phrase “New Market.” But Cypher took exception to the building’s choice of domain name: “It’s not the most high-end domain,” she says. “The word ‘rent’ makes it seem lower end than something renting for $9,000 a month.” Cypher thinks something like would be more evocative. It would also be harder to skewer.

· Buyers Unfazed by Dizzying $2000-per-Square Prices at Lumina[Curbed SF]
· Photo-Stalking the Rise of Lumina, SF’s Priciest Condo Tower[Curbed SF]
· Catchword Branding [Official Site]
· Past Coverage of the Infinity [Curbed SF]
· First Look Inside Amero’s Super-Sized Cow Hollow Condos[Curbed SF]
· Vida Unveiled Its Zigzagging New Facade and It’s Totally Loca[Curbed SF]
· Previous Coverage of 8 Octavia [Curbed SF]
· Inside Fifteen Fifteen, the Mission’s Newest Condo Development[Curbed SF]
· Previous Coverage of Summit 800 [Curbed SF]
· Arden’s Amenity-Laden Condos Ready to Sell in Mission Bay[Curbed SF]
· So Very Retro: Renderings Emerge for LuXe at 1650 Broadway[Curbed SF]
· Those $8,950/Month 3-Bed Rentals Are Still Available at NEMA[Curbed SF]
· ENEMA Lux Apartments [Twitter]

Amero. Vida. 8 Octavia. NEMA. Lumina. The names unfurl easily, with a kind of sensual appeal that’s almost embarrassing. Say them often and they start to feel like a private incantation that conjures some pure plane of existence, never an actual place…


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