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The Independent | June 13, 2005

Grand Designs

By Jonathan Evans

From Studio 54 to hotels to 'lifestyle' apartments: Ian Schrager, who, at 58, is still making waves.

Ian Schrager, the man whose 'boutique' hotels revolutionised urban travel, has created an apartment block designed to change the way we live. Danielle Demetriou hears why he's going residential.

It's business as usual at the Sanderson Hotel. Beautiful waiting-staff are serving breakfast to beautiful guests in a scene worthy of a fashion shoot. However, the sunlit table at which the father of the modern boutique hotel, Ian Schrager, is seated appears to require a touch of airbrushing. For there, beyond the diaphanous curtains, the vase containing a single red rose, and the green fruit drinks served in shot glasses, something is ruining the picture of perfection. The man who introduced the word "design" to "hotel", is clutching a grande-sized cup of coffee from Starbucks. "I'm sorry, I'm an American. What can I say?", he says of his style faux-pas, in a raspy Brooklyn accent. It is an unexpected insight into a man who has made his name - and his fortune - creating a genre of hotels that is synonymous with cutting-edge design and an equally cool clientele. Schrager coined the expression "boutique hotel" after opening his first hotel in New York in 1984. Morgans Hotel proved that an establishment could be head-turning, rule-breaking and trendsetting - and still make pots of money. In the following two decades, his empire grew to include six hotels in the US and two in London - St Martins Lane and the Sanderson - and spawned thousands of imitations, some more successful than others, around the globe.

Last year, Schrager's plans to take over the world appeared to falter. Reports of debts within his hotel empire abounded. And in the midst of these came the sudden announcement that he was planning to sell his two London establishments. This week, however, a defiant Schrager made his London comeback. Dismissing financial difficulties and stating that he no longer has plans to sell any of his hotels, he was keen to unveil his latest project - his first foray into residential apartments, combined with a revamped hotel.

Now 58, Schrager, who is as famous for co-owning the New York institution Studio 54 as for being a boutique hotelier, cuts a wiry, energetic figure. His caramel tan complements his neat grey hair, and a sky-blue collarless shirt is tucked into his black jeans, at the bottom of which peep incongruously white socks.

The latest focus of his intuitive attention is the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, an iconic institution with a past as colourful as its present owner. It was here that an 11-year-old John F Kennedy lived with his parents, and that Humphrey Bogart married Helen Menken on the terrace in 1926. As well as completely redecorating the hotel interior with the "maximalist" artist Julian Schnabel, he has incorporated 23 residential apartments designed by the "minimalist" British architect John Pawson into the complex. Each residents will have a full "lifestyle management" household to cater to their every need, as well as a key to the only private square in the city, opposite the building. "The notion of living in an urban area but in an effortless, carefree way is a new trend, and we're going to be seeing more of it," he says. "It's a totally new concept and it's the way of the future. It will be unlike anything I've ever done before. If I am capable of doing a masterpiece, I hope this is it."

In a market saturated with copycat minimalist hotels, Schrager believes that the new project, which will be complete by January next year, will herald a definitive change in direction for a tired industry. "It is actually the same opportunity that I sensed when I did a nightclub, and then when I did a hotel," he says. "At the moment, there is no originality and creativity. People behave like a bunch of elephants, charging in and copying everything and trampling on it.

"I like to think that we changed the entire industry, and that we are still changing the industry."

There will, however, be one major change to the latest project: it marks the departure of Schrager's long-standing designer Philippe Starck, who recently announced plans to launch his own hotel group. Schrager is tight-lipped about the move, although there is tension in his voice as he corrects me: "There was no partnership, he was the designer I hired. I wanted to move in a different direction. I didn't think that if I did another hotel with Philippe, the world would get excited about it." 'If I am capable of doing a masterpiece, I hope that Gramercy Park North is it'

Schrager is equally dismissive of reports of financial difficulties at his hotels last year, including problems in relation to the debt repayments of several establishments, and the temporary decision to sell his London hotels. "We had no financial difficulties, we were in the middle of refinancing our debts right after 9/11, which made it complicated," he explains. "But the hotels were always performing well and profitably, and outperforming the market. We were just unlucky."

While Schrager is, today, every inch the stylish hotelier, it is clear that his early Brooklyn days were a world away. His father, the son of Austrian immigrants, was a coat manufacturer in Brooklyn, while his mother, whose parents came from Russia, looked after Schrager and his two siblings.

It was in the 1970s that he co-founded Studio 54, the legendary disco that became synonymous with the city that never sleeps. Schrager admits that he has mellowed with age. Although he is a self-confessed workaholic, he spends more time with his two daughters - with whom he is going on safari next month - as well as reading history books and generally relaxing. Unlike his ex- colleague Starck - who has 19 homes - Schrager has a modest three residences, all in the US. "Home" is a loft in the NoLita area of New York, which he describes with a wry smile, as "simple chic".

And he is clearly uninterested in the concept of early retirement. He attributes his success to a "gift" that enables him to trendspot. "I'm very sensitive, I get impulses from the street, I interpret from things going on around me," he says. A more tangible reason for his success is his notorious perfectionism. He thinks nothing of travelling across the Atlantic, say, to source the correct texture of Venetian plaster required to cover a single wall.

This trait is later confirmed when it comes to Schrager having his photo taken: he insists on deleting certain images. But as he sits on the iconic red-lip sofa in the Sanderson lobby, it is clear that, without his perfectionism, hotels would be much duller places.