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Vogue | September, 2006

Up at the Old Hotel

By Eve M McSweeney

Ian Schrager teams up with Julian Schnabel to reinvent a New York legend.

On a warm July day, the hard hats are still on outside the Gramercy Park Hotel, Ian Schrager's much-anticipated makeover of the New York landmark. But inside, jackhammers of another variety are going full tilt, and the levels of power, testosterone, and blue-chip-art stock are off the scale. Peter Brandt and Aby Rosen, Schrager's partner in the venture, have just been in to discuss the placement of loans from their personal collections: Basquiats, Warhols, and Twomblys. The artist Julian Schnabel, in shorts and flip-flops, is directing traffic in the shape of chairs, tables, couches, and his own oversize paintings, much like a conductor in front of an orchestra. The high-energy Schrager is covering all areas, looking simultaneously thrilled and frenetic. "I want the two Picassos here and here." He says, pumping his arms in opposite directions. And Douglas Keeve, the documentary filmmaker, who happens to be shooting a movie about the Gramercy Park Hotel, has been weaving between everybody all day and enjoying what he describes as "Ian's kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm."

Whatever people are expecting from the formerly half-sleazy, half-glamorous, exceptionally situated New York venue where Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant were once known to hang out--as well as from the inventor of the hip hotel--they're probably in for a shock. Apart from the ultraminimal, glass-fronted, skinny slice of an apartment block that architect John Pawson has wedged into a former car park at the side of the hotel, there is barely a modernist line in sight. The color scheme in the rooms, the double-height lobby, and two adjoining bars is apple-green, mid-blue, and dusty-pink. The furniture is velvet, fringed, and tufted, with giant, traditional hearths and decorative carpets. The effect is Venetian palazzo meets grand hotel--everything the boutique version sought to overthrow. "There's no such thing as hip anymore," raps out Schrager in his rasping staccato. "If you do hip, everyone else does it in five minutes. Quirky is the new hip." To that end, Schrager had the masterstroke of putting Schnabel himself in charge of the interiors. Known for his own successfully idiosyncratic, grand-bohemian style he is currently building a residential tower atop his Greenwich Village home and studio--Schnabel contributed a broad vision for the spaces and materials and some hands-on details that no number of imitators could knock off. He made a table out of clay and cast it in bronze, carving a logo out first and filling it with red-pigmented cement "so that it would look like velvet." He also designed mantels and cast door handles and finials. "I like the handmade mark," he says. "I'm not an architect, but I've always built things; I'm moving furniture around all the time; and I have an opinion." Schnabel, who is fond of the rhetorical question, describes his role in the design process as follows: "Am I the author of it? No. Did I collaborate with Ian to make this thing happen? Yes. Do I like him? Yes." And by the way, those Picassos are actually Schnabels. "I painted them just for the fun of it in the summer," he says. "But if you didn't know that, I think you would think they're real Picassos."

The residents of Gramercy Park will doubtless be relieved when the construction crews leave and the traffic jam around their streets eases up. (The project has been two years in the making, "and there were some dark moments," says Schrager dramatically.) But then again, the barriers and temporary walkway will likely be replaced by stacked limos. Schrager demurs. The hotel partially opened last month--the restaurant and what promises to be a spectacular private rooftop club are not yet completed. "But I don't want this to be a scene," he says, flapping his arms up and down by his sides like a bird in flight. "No velvet ropes. No publicity. Low-key." Hmmmmmm. Somehow we doubt it.