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The New York Times, House & Home | August 3, 2006

Julian Schnabel, Reluctant Decorator

By Philip Nobel

With his ambitious renovation and redesign of a New York City icon—the Gramercy Park Hotel—Ian Schrager hopes to reinvent the very idea of the dramatically grand urban hotel.

From afar — say across the plastic-shrouded expanse of a Manhattan hotel lobby, under construction and crowded with architects, builders, photographers, a documentary film crew and associated hangers-on — Julian Schnabel looks a lot like Philippe Starck. He moves the same way, parting the crowd with a brooding glance when in private thought, or drawing it to him (and then dispatching it with new purpose) when he has a point to make. Mr. Schnabel, the painter, sculptor, director of films and creator of music, shares an impatient intensity, a commanding bulk and a guru’s ineffable charisma with Mr. Starck, the legendary French designer of everything from ear swabs to spaceports. They even have the same wild hair.

The work that recently brought Mr. Schnabel to the chaotic center of the lobby in question marks another point of overlap with Mr. Starck: both have now designed the design-intensive interiors of Ian Schrager hotels.

Mr. Starck, of course, has done numerous hotels for Mr. Schrager, the developer and onetime nightlife impresario, including iconic interiors for the Paramount and Royalton in New York and the Delano in Miami Beach — jet-set destinations, in their 1990’s prime, that pioneered a style imitated endlessly around the world and cemented Mr. Schrager’s success as a hotelier and an arbiter of taste. Mr. Schnabel has now completed his first Schrager project, the newly renovated Gramercy Park Hotel at the bottom of Lexington Avenue, which will open on Tuesday amid healthy buzz, including some speculation as to whether Mr. Schrager’s new look will prove as influential as his last.

With an old-fashioned luxury inflected by modern art, the hotel is an abrupt departure from the slicker, more impersonal, often sci-fi chic that Mr. Schrager and Mr. Starck developed in their projects together over nearly 20 years.

"The Schrager-Starck hotels reshaped the landscape of the small urban hotel, " said Mayer Rus, design editor of House & Garden magazine, who has followed developments in Mr. Schrager’s empire for many years. "Now, in 2006, the world is littered with the hell-spawn of that marriage: every city has cheesy boutique hotels that primp and strain to convey their hipness in different, disagreeable ways," he added, many characterized by "poor service, pointy furniture and poseurs galore."

Mr. Schrager, never one to be caught too long off trend, agrees. "Those hotels are over," he said, referring both to the imitators and the originals, which he no longer owns.

The selection of Mr. Schnabel — who has done only small interior projects for friends, as well as his own houses in Greenwich Village and Montauk — seems to serve Mr. Schrager’s need to put forward a new of-the-moment look. "The great genius of Ian Schrager is his ability to read — and ride — contemporary culture," Mr. Rus said. "If you look around at the culture today, art is what’s hot, and there’s no greater decorator in the art world than Julian Schnabel." Still, with only a few outsiders having been through the hotel so far, whether Mr. Schrager has succeeded this time remains to be seen.

I don’t really feel like talking about this," Mr. Schnabel said one recent morning at the hotel, again evoking the often evasive Mr. Starck. He was pacing the crowded lobby in sneakers, baggy shorts and a Western checked shirt, waiting for the delivery of the hotel’s estimable collection of plus-size art (much of it his own), adjusting the placement of the chairs and side tables (also heavy on the Schnabels) and generally helping to put the finishing touches on the $200 million project that has transformed the old Gramercy Park from a bastion of musty authenticity with wall-to-wall carpeting and Swedish meatballs in the bar.

Mr. Schrager was there, too, with his in-house architect, Anda Andrei; his business partner, Michael Overington, vice chairman of the Ian Schrager Company; and other essential and long-serving staff members. But though Mr. Schnabel’s friend Lou Reed would drop in briefly to view and praise the artist’s latest work in progress, Mr. Schnabel had brought with him only a small and quirky entourage: an assistant imported from Paris to perfect the French dialogue in his forthcoming film adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and his twin 12-year-old sons, Olmo and Cy.

Ever the rebel, Mr. Schnabel rejects the obvious term for someone who does what he has just done at the Gramercy Park Hotel. "I’m not a designer, but I’ve always built things," he said. "Basically I’m a painter, and this is something that really isn’t that hard to do."

With a sweeping look up at the raw wood-beamed ceiling of the newly carved-out double-height bar space, down to the checkered tile floor and over to a classical-via-Iberia fireplace surround, Mr. Schnabel indicated that by "this" he meant interior design. And for practitioners of that art, he has little patience. "It didn’t take me very long to figure out," he said of his plans for the space. "I walk in and I use myself as a guinea pig."

"Was I thinking ‘grand hotel’? Yes," Mr. Schnabel asked, then answered. "But I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I just want to make things feel right."

What feels right to Mr. Schnabel at his truly grand hotel is a somewhat dark strain of an idiosyncratic, rustic style shot through with vaguely Spanish references: a fringe here, a tapestry there, stucco all around. Visitors searching for the tactile effects and rude opulence of Mr. Schnabel’s best-known paintings will not be disappointed. Walls and columns are lined in wood taken from old barns and mushroom crates, and the three rooms in the public areas on the ground floor are each defined by big gestures: the custom Schnabel-designed Aubusson rug that underpins the entire lobby; the high, curving shelves he placed at the back of the main bar; and the enormous new Schnabel painting that covers one wall of the smaller adjoining Jade Bar, which looks out on Lexington.

The walls of that room are painted in its namesake hue, but the two other rooms are finished in a light salmon color. Throughout, from the door pulls to the finials on the curtain rods, are bronze accents that Mr. Schnabel said he made years ago, on a lark, and "had lying around." Several bronze tables and chairs, cast from clay blanks that the artist wrestled with himself, bear the pinch-pot imprints of his own hands.

"I built a place that I’d like to be in," the reluctant decorator said.

In hiring Mr. Schnabel, Mr. Schrager gambled that the Gramercy Park would be a place, like his other hotels, that a young, trendy, moneyed clientele would also like to be in. He and Mr. Schnabel have known each other for decades — "Julian was bumping around in the Mudd Club while I was doing Studio 54" — and Mr. Schrager suggested that their friendship (and the fact that they went to the same Catskill summer camp) put him at ease to try something new.

The rooms at the hotel were designed by Mr. Schrager’s in-house team after, according to Mr. Schrager, Mr. Schnabel had some trouble translating his vision to their more intimate and demanding scale. But they take obvious inspiration from the style established in the public areas. "We walked the edge" between an intelligent use of history and kitsch, Ms. Andrei, the architect, said. "Not to be the Four Seasons, not to be imitative of the old, not to be Disney."

Mr. Schrager said he hoped the rooms would surprise guests familiar with his other hotels. "People come in and they expect to see three-legged chairs," he said. Deviating from timeworn variations on modern design, the colors are rich (burgundy and cerulean and more jade), the woods are dark, the upholstery is unironic and overstuffed, and all the chairs have four legs. Comfort rules; perhaps the only nod to the previous, less Sybaritic mode are the rectangular Le Corbusier-inspired bathtubs, tiled in white and built right up against translucent glass windows. Mr. Schrager calls his new look "rock ’n’ roll baroque."

"He’s picked up on the fact that the art world has become a source of endless fascination for the public," said Karen Stein, editorial director at Phaidon Press and a juror for the Pritzker Architecture Prize, who visited the hotel earlier this week and admired its departure from the "slightly futuristic feel" of the hotels that Philippe Starck designed. "There’s a sense of the past, but you can’t quite place it," she said.

"I have no more interest in nightclubs because I have nothing to say," Mr. Schrager said, referring to his days as an owner of Studio 54. "But I still have things to say with hotels."

"If there’s a message here it’s about individuality," he continued before impugning the international design movement that he and Mr. Starck helped create. "There’s something wrong with all this globalization and branding, with hotels all over the world that look the same."

"This hotel is about eccentricity and the unorthodox," he said.

It is also about art, though Mr. Schrager balked at calling it an "art hotel" — another recent boutique hotel trend from which he would like to distance himself. Still, with mostly overscale works by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat and of course Mr. Schnabel himself among the first to be displayed (Mr. Schrager said the art, much of it loaned, will be rotated every few months), the hotel’s bars will probably become a destination for those who like their $15 cocktails overwhelmed by 15-foot-high paintings.

Later in the day the art movers arrived at the hotel, rolling out and restretching canvases that were far too large to fit through the door in their frames. A red-splattered Twombly took over nearly the entire floor of the main bar, and when it was moved (eventually to a home in the lobby), the fun began. A Basquiat had been misplaced, and no one could find the second Warhol. Two Schnabel copies of obscure Picassos were already hanging in prime spots over the fireplaces.

The owners of the works, including the real estate magnate and art collector Aby Rosen, soon arrived to add their voices to the discussion about what should go where. Amid the plastic sheeting and stray piles, an art show had been superimposed on the construction site. It seemed that there was too much good art, that there were too few good walls, or both.

Finally, Warhol’s ceiling-scraping gold-leaf "Rorschach" was walked slowly over to a key piece of wall in the main bar visible through an arch from the lobby. Mr. Schrager, Ms. Andrei and Mr. Schnabel considered it in silence for some time, under the scrutiny of the donors and a video crew covering the renovation as part of a documentary on the history of the hotel.

"It looks decorative," Mr. Schnabel said, which seemed to displease Mr. Schrager. Ms. Andrei rolled her eyes. Then the three took another long look, the video crew found new angles, and at length Mr. Schnabel said to his client, "It’s your place," adding, in an expression punctuated by an expletive, that it was all the same to him.

Still, by the end of the afternoon, after many more such negotiations, the giant, shining Warhol had been relegated to the corner of the bar and that prime, contested piece of wall was the new home of a 10-foot-wide brown-hued tombstone-shaped Schnabel called "Teddy Bear’s Picnic." It was the furthest thing from the old Starckian ideal of cool. Everyone agreed it worked perfectly in the space.