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Sunday Times Style | September 10, 2006

Staying Power

By Charles Gandee

It's the talk of New York town -- Ian Schrager is back, and he's hotter than ever. Tony Allen-Mills checks out his new pad. Photographs by William Abramovich.

Since it opened its doors in 1925, the Gramercy Park hotel in New York has been a bohemian watering hole for arty types: Humphrey Bogart was married in the grand salon, and the Clash's Joe Strummer drank at the bar. Little wonder, then, that there was disquiet among regulars when the hotel tycoon Ian Schrager announced plans to revamp the faded building. They needn't have worried: push through the revolving glass door and the minimalism that Schrager famously turned into a hotel-design revolution implodes under a maximalist riot of colour. The man who gave the world white hotel rooms with white curtains and white floors has abandoned his pared-down aesthetic in favour of a style he describes as "rock'n'roll baroque".

After 25 years of catering for celebrities -- and those who, for a few nights, want to live like one -- Schrager, who co-founded the New York nightclub Studio 54, has undergone a professional midlife crisis.

"I'd been doing the minimalism thing for years, and what was once the exception in hotel design had become the rule," he says. Having walked away from his Morgans hotel empire (including the ultra-glam Delano, in Miami, and the Sanderson, in London) with a multimillion-dollar severance package in 2005, he was ready to do something different.

With the help of Julian Schnabel, the neo-expressionist artist who designed the hotel's public spaces, and the restaurateur Alan Yau, who oversees the Chinese restaurant, Gramercy Park is generating the kind of buzz that Schrager achieved when he opened the stylishly spartan Morgans hotel in New York in the early 1980s. A cool clientele is checking in (French Vogue's editor, Carine Roitfeld, the photographer Mario Testino, with a gaggle of supermodels in tow), and hip New Yorkers who can't afford the $500-per-night room rate are flocking to the Jade bar to see -- and be seen.

Schnabel leapt to fame in the 1980s with his huge canvases filled with broken plates. Over the years, he has become a bona fide New York phenomenon. After Schrager visited his Greenwich Village studio last year -- one of the most distinctive homes in the city -- an improbable collaboration was born. "I just thought there was something in the way an artist puts together his studio and fills it with extraordinary colours and things. It's a quirky, singular style."

There were problems along the way, notably in adapting the artist's flamboyant ideas to the practical requirements of a hotel, but the result is an unqualified success. The dark, brooding lobby, with its vast hand-blown chandelier and Aubusson carpet, sets the tone. A huge, red-splattered canvas by Cy Twombly dominates the space and a Schnabel portrait hangs over a stone fireplace, where real logs burn in the air-conditioned chill. The 185 guest rooms are similarly opulent, with chandeliers, fine art and rich Renaissance colours.

"I've rethought of everything. Luxury is not a price point or a logo on a handbag. It's an experience". A Picasso-esque painting by Schnabel hangs above a roaring fire in the lobby. A toreador jacket is typical of Schnabel's quirky take on interior design. The Jade bar has a democratic door policy -- no guest list or bouncers -- to attract a broad mix of people.

Yet again, Schrager has demonstrated an uncanny ability to capture the spirit of the times. "I've rethought absolutely everything I've ever done," he says. "Gramercy Park is the ultimate anti-brand. Luxury is not a price point or a logo on a handbag -- it's an experience." _ www.gramercyparkhotel.com