International Herald Tribune | February 9, 2006
A Comeback and a New LuxeBy Alice Rawsthorn
NEW YORK - One day last week Ian Schrager e-mailed a poem by Rudyard Kipling to his employees. "It's the one that goes: 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,'" he laughs ruefully. "At this stage in a project I feel so catatonic that I become almost stoic, because if I'm not calm, how can I expect anyone else to be?"
The immediate cause of Schrager's catatonia is the opening Tuesday of the first phase of the Gramercy Park Hotel, the $200 million New York project on which he has been working for three years. Several tons of topiary are being unloaded in preparation, and dozens of Venetian crystal candelabras unpacked. Schrager is worrying about having spotted not one, but two stains on the velvet curtains in the bar, and about whether to hang a Damien Hirst or an Andy Warhol above the lobby fireplace.
Decisions, decisions. Schrager has been here before, when he opened each of the eight glossily minimalist hotels designed by Philippe Starck - like the Royalton in New York and Delano in Miami - with which he pioneered the designer hotel at the turn of the 1990s. This time, the stakes are higher. Schrager sold his original hotels last summer, and the Gramercy Park not only marks his comeback, but an attempt to launch a new type of luxury hotel in a dramatically different style.
"Philippe and I had a great run," says Schrager. "But we couldn't expect anyone to feel very excited about us doing another hotel. And they definitely wouldn't have felt excited by another slick, stylized interior. That style is everywhere now. If I was going to do another hotel, it had to be a challenge. And this one definitely was, because it's way outside my comfort zone. I'm a minimalist at heart, and there's nothing minimalist about it."
There certainly isn't. The Gramercy Park was designed by the artist Julian Schnabel with rich baroque colors, voluptuous forms and show-stopping contemporary art. When you walk in past the graceful brownstones of leafy Gramercy Park, you see an enormous Cy Twombly painting to the right, a Richard Prince to the left, and a magnificent Aubusson carpet hand-woven to Schnabel's design in deep reds, blues and pinks. A gigantic Venetian chandelier hangs from the ceiling, which, like the columns, is clad in raw, reclaimed Douglas fir. "I wish I could say that we'd found it somewhere exotic, but the lumber is from Brooklyn, like me and Julian," says Schrager.
He invited Schnabel, whom he met in the late 1970s when he was running the nightclub Studio 54 and the then- fledgling artist was a waiter at the Mudd Club, to design the Gramercy Park because he loved Schnabel's homes. "The hotel is meant to be evocative of the way an artist works and lives, that haphazard, idiosyncratic way of putting things together, and mixing the finished with the unfinished," observes Schrager. "It's supposed to look like nowhere else."
When the Royalton opened in 1988, it looked like nowhere else, too. Schrager, whose résumé reads like hip pulp fiction, entered the hotel market after he and his Studio 54 partner, the late Steve Rubell, were imprisoned for tax evasion. Aiming to appeal to affluent young travelers who wanted to stay somewhere that looked like their favorite clubs and restaurants, he bought a New York flophouse and commissioned Starck, by then the enfant terrible of European design, to remodel it in an opulent post-modernist style.
As industries like advertising, media, finance and technology expanded, so did the Royalton's clientele. Schrager and Starck rolled out their formula to other hotels in other cities, but competitors surfaced, often imitating their ideas. So many designer hotels have now opened that a backlash has begun. The hottest hotels of the moment are eco-friendly ones, like the Vigilius Mountain Resort designed by the Italian architect Matteo Thun, and quirky "baby" hotels with a handful of rooms. The fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa runs one in Paris, as does Carla Sozzani at her Corso Como store in Milan.
There has also been a backlash against the glossy stylization pioneered by Schrager and Starck, not least as people have become bored with seeing it in so many places. Just as fashion buffs scour vintage stores for one-off clothes, so taste in design has become darker, more surreal and idiosyncratic.
It is this spirit that Schrager has striven for in the Gramercy Park, hoping to evoke its bohemian ethos after it originally opened in 1925, while charging upwards of $525 a night. He admits that collaborating with Schnabel wasn't always easy. The artist ended up playing the part of the client by describing what he wanted to Schrager and his design team, led by Anda Andrei and Kirsten Bailey, who then sourced it for him.
They scoured flea markets for furniture, and Schnabel cast bronze tables, lights and fire irons for the lobby. The pool table and chairs for the guest rooms were commissioned from the young Dutch designer Maarten Baas, who literally burns wooden furniture into charred, surreal forms. Most of the other guest-room furniture was made in China to the Schrager team's design, and the rooms were decorated in baroque colors chosen by Schnabel. As for the jaw-dropping paintings in the lobby, most of them have been borrowed, and will change every few months.
Once the Gramercy Park is finished, with the autumn opening of an Alan Yau restaurant and private Roof Club, Schrager will move on to other projects. After completing two deluxe residential developments in Manhattan - 50 Gramercy North, designed by the British architect John Pawson, and 40 Bond, by the Swiss practice Herzog & de Meuron - he will develop two hotel concepts in Miami. Next up is a 100- acre, or 40-hectare, site including 10,000 homes in Las Vegas to be master- planned by Herzog & de Meuron. "It's huge, unbelievably huge," says Schrager. "But I'm a builder, I can't resist it."