You grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and your parents’ house was filled with quite a bit of midcentury modern furniture. Did this upbringing get you thinking about design, architecture, and the urban experience at an early age?
Yeah. Because my parents lived in Sweden for 15 years, when they moved to Cambridge, they brought with them this complete immersion in what we now call “midcentury modern.” They moved to Sweden in 1941, so the ’40s and ’50s totally informed their life. My family’s house was, by far, the most modern in Cambridge. My mom just moved out, but when I would take people there, they’d go, “Oh, this is the coolest thing!” That was the environment I grew up.
I also had a wonderful, inspiring ceramics teacher in sixth grade. That led me to sculpture. We had a very unique program in high school; you’d spend the last half of your senior year doing a project, and I did some large-scale outdoor steel sculptures. Then I went to college at Cornell University, and was in a very unusual scholar program that allowed me to approach any professor in any of the multiple schools they had on campus. I then studied architecture, along with political science and economics and everything else. It was a really eclectic liberal-arts program. Most of my friends there were architects. Cornell’s architecture school then was a five-year program. I spent a lot of time with the school’s students. That’s when I started getting into journalism. I started a newspaper with two friends and was the art director for it. I became very involved in graphics. That’s why I ended up at Columbia Journalism School, because I thought I was going to go into publishing and magazines.
So you were basically training to be a bridge builder between architecture and storytelling.
Only later, looking back at all the things we currently do, whether its graphics—or when I moved to New York, I wanted to be a fashion designer for a while—does it make sense. When you’re doing it, you’re convinced you have no idea what you’re doing. Which may be the truth. Everything I did then relates to what we do now, including starting businesses. I always appreciated the excitement of creating something from nothing, which is what, at the end of the day, starting a business is all about.
What led you to not become a sculptor or fashion designer?
What was really frustrating about sculpture was exactly what I liked about what we’re doing now. It was a very, very conscious abandoning of that pursuit. I felt very frustrated with the inability of most people to understand the vernacular of sculpture. Graphic design, painting—they’re much more readily graspable by most people, even today. The tree-dimensional vocabulary of sculpture is in many ways why it’s more sophisticated, but also why fewer people understand it. It’s sort of why even architecture, despite the big push given to it by various economic interests, is still poorly understood.
That may be also because either architects don’t know how to describe their work to non-architects, or because the media generally struggles to make architecture more accessible.
Do you think so?
Well, one problem seems to be architects not communicating the complexities of what they’re doing in a clear and understandable fashion.
Well, if you asked Renzo [Piano] what the fuck was going on over there [points to the new Whitney Museum building out of a south-facing window], I don’t think he’d have trouble discussing it. I think people might have difficulty understanding what he’s saying. But it’s not that he’s not speaking articulately about it. It’s that he’s speaking a language that very few people understand. You can’t really be accused of being a bad poet if the people trying to read your poetry don’t have a command of the language. You may be a bad poet, but that’s not necessarily the conclusion. I wouldn’t blame architects for the lack of understanding of architecture.
Part of it may be the media grabbing onto certain “trends” in architecture, but maybe ignoring some of the more substantive things about it.
That’s part of it, too—journalists trying to write about it. I wanted to be an art critic for a while. Clement Greenberg was my big hero. And Harold Rosenbloom. I wrote an art column in the Cornell Daily Sun. That was interesting, because the language of art criticism—I was a big fan of Baudillaire—to me was, “Oh, you use that language.” How you write about art is a whole separate thing from the art. Similarly, how you write about architecture is not the same as architecture. Whether an architect is articulate also depends on the writer and whether they’re articulate. It’s hard because a writer can get into the whole semiotics of it, and it can get really fucking boring. It can be dry. Which I think is the biggest complaint against architects in general.
It’s a classic conundrum of architecture publishing: How do you make it exciting?
One of the biggest problems, I find, isn’t even the writing. I think the photography is what’s really disturbing to me right now. With the limits of 2-D photography, how do you convey what architecture is—or even interior design? I always read design magazines upside down. Because then you immediately see how fucked up the design is. It’s like, “My god, another fucking white floor with fucking holes in it.” [Laughs]
Then there’s travel writing—I’m essentially in the travel business. You get some journalist writing that they went to the Ritz Carlton in Maui, and that it was really “hip” and “cool.” Then you go, “Now what?!” If “hip” and “cool” have been used to describe the Ritz in Maui, then—
Next they’ll use “chic” and “unique.”
[Laughs] Yeah, those are already gone now, too, so what the fuck else is left? You’ve got this tremendous dilemma. It applies to the language of design reportage and criticism, architecture reportage and criticism, and travel writing. It’s becoming harder and harder to find what means anything.
I think with design photography meaningfulness is one of the really difficult things. You can kind of snazz up everything. In the end, it’s not even the design but peoples’ reaction to the photos of the design that then becomes a part of the dialogue. It’s a really tricky area, which is one of the reasons I hate the Milan Furniture Fair, because it’s at the vortex of all of that. It’s not boring exactly, but more sad and depressing. You go through the pieces—one more, one more, one more—and none of it means anything out of context.
Much of what you seem to be doing in your work is about storytelling, which you studied at Columbia.
Yes, there’s a connection. I’ve always loved storytelling. I think the greatest contribution to the work of a designer or an architect is providing the story, then the architect or designer becomes a collaborator in it or the illustrator of it. It’s very hard for an architect or designer to create a narrative in the first place—other than if it’s a self-involved site. How do you design a house without knowing the way someone wants to live? An architect can only do a good work if they have a good client.
When you give a brief, do you give them a story?
It always starts with a story, but it’s iterative. Good design is always an iterative process and never fully formed. I was in the offices of an architectural firm, and they gave me a 400-page book that Taschen had just published, and we were flipping through it. I was like, “Jesus Christ, they’ve built hundreds of buildings around the world.” Then I went through it again and realized there wasn’t a single building that had been built. They were all renderings, but they were so realistic. Then you look at “old-school” architects—like Frank Gehry—and they build maquettes. Even with a maquette, you have no idea what it will be like, which is why design is iterative, because so many times you build a volume and it’s not until the volume exists and you’re in it that you can go to the next level. Most places that fall flat, I think, are because somebody along the way cut off the design process and presumed it was done when it was only 20 percent done. Developers do this kind of shit to designers and architects all the time: “Give me the plans. I want them on April 1st.” Then whatever they get on April 1st they take and presume it’s a building. But it may or not even a tenth of the way there.
Then there’s the whole “sustainability” kick developers are on these days.
What does that even mean? That the architect can sustain himself?
To me, sustainability is more about building something that’s high quality and long lasting, not necessarily because it’s made of “green” materials.
That’s interesting. Think of how many things you can apply “sustainable” to. It’s sustaining the integrity of the concept; it is, as you say, a building that is of such high quality that it lasts a long time; it can be of such high quality and have a light footprint on the environment; it could be made entirely out of materials that are “sustainable,” which is that the damage of making them expendable is less than other materials. I don’t even know what sustainable means.
You must deal with buzzwords quite a bit.
Yeah, I try to ignore them. [Laughs] They mean nothing. I honestly don’t know what the fuck sustainable means. Do you?
Well, if you don’t—if the editor of Surface doesn’t—then who the fuck does?
Let’s dig into the substance of your business: What is it that you look for in an architect? How do you build, create, and—I won’t to use the word “sustain” here—maintain or keep the substance?
I think it’s very unfair to architects—and it’s bullshit by developers—to do competitions. If you don’t know which architect to hire, then you don’t even know what you’re trying to build in the first place. Hiring an architect isn’t a fishing expedition, yet so many people treat it that way. A lot of the projects that do it like that are committee projects, like a new museum or a new town hall. It covers everyone’s ass to do this. It’s like an RFP. By the end of the day, they’re still going to hire someone that makes sense for a bunch of reasons. A young Shigeru Ban, a young Jean Nouvel—all these people bust their ass, do drawings for nothing, then a bunch of committee people sit around together and steal the ideas they like. It’s so unfair to the designers.
When private developers do competitions, it’s especially unfair. In Europe, the reason young architects could get great commissions, at least in the past, is because everyone could submit. So there is that oddball chance that a 30-year-old architect can get a museum in Europe. In the U.S., private developers go through the same bullshit process, but then they only invite the Frank Gehrys of the world, about whom there’s no question of their competence or greatness. Then they still ask them to do a competition, which I think is so patently unfair to the architect. It means the person who’s doing the commissioning has no idea what they want anyway.
For example, when I built 40 Mercer here in Soho there was to me only one possible architect: Jean Nouvel. This was way before he won the Pritzker Prize and before he did anything in America. Soho had this industrial feel, and it was historic. We were building a new building, and it couldn’t be a faux cast-iron building. It had to be something new. To me, it was obvious that Jean Nouvel would be the best architect for that mission. There was no competition. He was the only one.
Could you have imagined him designing the tower he’s now creating next MoMA?
The reason he’s doing that is because Goldman Sachs, which was my partner at 40 Mercer, got to know him on that project. But did Goldman Sachs and Heinz, the developer, make an original choice? I don’t know. They did what they knew. I don’t know that I would’ve asked Jean to do that particular building. I honestly haven’t studied it. But I know the reason he’s the architect is because both of those firms—Heinz and Goldman Sachs—were my partners in 40 Mercer, and both of them got to know him in that process. It was not an inspired or risky choice; it was a safe choice. I really hate the building Jean did here on the West Side Highway in Chelsea. It’s terrible.
You seem to have really strong opinions on architecture. You must spend a lot of time researching. Is that why you felt qualified to curate “Design at Large” at Design Miami in Basel this June?
One of the reasons I was interested in curating “Design at Large”—after Rodman [Primack, the executive director of Design Miami] asked me—is because I’ve been very, very interested prefabricated and modular units for a long time. It’s one of the reasons I bought the Maison Tropicale. If one were use the word “sustainable” for something like that, it was sustainable because the means of production was controllable, therefore the pricing was sustainable and there was climate control. The Maison was amazing because of the innovations relating to airflow, the handling of ultraviolet light, the material choices for its use in a jungle atmosphere. Everything about it was very innovative considering it was done in the ’50s. This was 65 years ago! It looks so modern. It’s nuts.
I’m very interested in this prefab idea of making affordable, very well designed buildings for various uses. I’ve been looking at architects working in that vernacular.
Who are some of those architects?
I shouldn’t say because we get knocked off so fast anyway. Within a week of opening someplace, an executive from every major hotel company is camped out there. I also don’t like talking about projects we haven’t completed.
Where we’re sitting is a pretty good example of your influence on the hospitality industry. It seems like Roman & Williams’s career skyrocketed after this place opened.
Can we set the record straight? Sean Hausman is the designer of this hotel. Todd Schleeman, who’s now at Ennead—which was called James Polscheck & Associates—is an old college friend of mine; he was 100 percent responsible for the building. We went through hundreds of iterations until the exterior building resembled what the Standard brand was supposed to represent. I had worked with Sean for many years. He’s worked on every Standard, and he’s working now on the Standard in London. He was a production set designer. I needed a firm in New York that had the manpower and was close enough to execute the plans he was producing.
I met Roman & Williams through an actor friend of mine. Roman & Williams had also been set designers and had done a kitchen or two for some actor friends. They said, “You should meet this guy [Stephen Alesch], who draws like old-time Hollywood set designers could.” Very few architects or designers today can draw like him. So I met with them. In order to facilitate the production of Sean’s interiors, I hired Roman & Williams and introduced them to Sean so that they could execute on the concepts Sean was developing. Subsequent to the opening of this place, Roman & Williams really took a lot of credit that belongs to Sean. This room is an ode to Warren Platner, and that was an idea that Sean and I came up with. This is not to take anything away from Roman & Williams’s subsequent work, which stands on its own.
What’s your working relationship like with Sean?
I’m working with him daily in London. He moved to London, and we’re doing a Standard there in King’s Cross. There’s a purpose-assembled design office that’s functioning for the sole purpose of building that one hotel. That’s the way we typically do it: with our internal people and selected outside professionals who help build the narrative.
When and how did you start working with Sean?
We did the Bar Marmont with him. I knew him from the days of Area. He was in L.A. doing production design. This was 20 or so years ago. We expanded the Chateau to include Bar Marmont, and he did the design for that.
It’s interesting, this connection between set design and hospitality design.
It ties right back to narrative. If you have a narrative, like you have a movie, you put together what a production designer does, which is to create the physical environment in which certain moods and stories unfold. If you want someone to enter a dining room and it’s supposed to be menacing, you adjust the dining room’s décor to help convey that. If it’s supposed to be sunny, bright, shiny, and friendly, then you adjust the décor to support that narrative. Production designers are used to adjusting their design to be at the service of the story.
Because of the economics of the way the design industry works, designers are largely beaten down and forced to abandon that all the time because some potential client will come to them and say something stupid like, “I really liked what you did for David Geffen, can you do that for me?” What’s the designer supposed to do? You can’t say to a client, “Fuck you, David wanted this, that was that site, and he’s this kind of person. Why would you want me to do the same?” I don’t mean to beat up David Geffen. He’s an example of a really informed, really sophisticated client. I can’t imagine he would go to a designer and say, “Build me something like …” But I can see other clients saying, “Give me something like what he has.” Where does that leave the designer? People develop styles. How can you create something original if you hire someone with a signature style? It takes a lot of work to convince someone to give up a style. Or you harness it—but it takes a lot of work. That’s where we are right now in the design world.
In your work, there’s not necessarily a Balazs style. Your spaces are each layered and complex in their own way. How do you continue creating these new stories?
You have to invent it. It just requires more work. I think it’s a little embarrassing to do things twice.
Let’s talk about Chateau Marmont, which was a turning point in your career. In 1990, you took the hotel, which had a sort of tired reputation, and brought it a revitalized one. What was going through your mind as you were doing this?
The good thing is we’re still doing it. We’re about to step it up. We’re about do start redoing all the bathrooms. This year will be 25 years [since I took it over], and the fact is, it’s always been under renovation during this time. There hasn’t been a month that something’s not being done. The magic is, if you were to be in there for the first time, you’d go, “Oh, this is amazing, no one’s ever touched it.”
There aren’t that many people around who knew the hotel 25 years ago anymore. Most people have experienced it in the last 25 years. To put it into context: Let’s say you’re a 50-year-old director; you showed up there when you were 25. I think it wasn’t that different from any other place in L.A. Chateau had a history, but it needed to be interpreted.
You could look at its history in two ways: Either you didn’t want to continue it—you wanted to reject it and say it was terrible, because it was so rundown and fucked up—or you could say it was history that belonged. You could argue that the Beverley Hills Hotel had the same history. Actually, that’s the only other hotel you could argue that about. The Sultan of Brunei bought the Beverly Hills Hotel the same year I bought the Chateau, and he shut it down for what he thought would be five years but ended up being seven. At the same time, we kept the Chateau open and kept making incremental changes to it. The changes were meant to be so incremental that even people who were smart and had a great eye couldn’t see it.
I’m now fine tuning the bathrooms so that they’ll seem pitch perfect for what that building is: for the time period people associate with it, but with all the modernity that people expect and want. It may look like a 1920s bathroom, but the level of lighting has to be what people expect of lighting today. The scale is a little hard to change in that building because it’s so historic. The bathrooms here at the Standard, which is a different category of hotel, are different than the bathrooms at the Chateau. But that’s a function of the original building. If you gutted it, I’m afraid you’d lose that quirkiness. At the Chateau, we have kitchens, right? Nobody—well, a few people; some stay there a long time—cooks in their kitchen. Yet we have full-on stoves. Is that important to maintain? I think so. Just the idea that you have a kitchen adds qualitatively to the experience.
Perhaps it’s the notion of being at home.
The narrative of what to keep is all woven into: What’s the story of the Chateau?
What’s the narrative behind your new Chiltern Firehouse hotel in London?
It’s perhaps the most complex of all the buildings I’ve ever dealt with. It was so constrained in its parameters. This is how I approached it: Here’s this building that looks like, for an American, a cathedral. It’s high Victorian. It’s ambitious public architecture. It’s so beautiful from the outside. It has architectural details on the roof that you can’t see from any place, except for when you’re looking at an architect’s rendering, or if you’re on top of the fire turret looking down. It was built from the outside in; it was meant to convey safety, public power, the symbol of the government protecting it’s people. Inside, it was a mess. It was built for a bunch of fireman who actually lived in it with the horses, carriages, and equipment. The rooms were at odd angles not because it made sense from the inside, but because the architect thought from outside it would look elegant. It’s a classic example of bad architecture. It was more like a sculpture of civic strength against fire.
We had to add a building in between to conform. There was no way to do this, unless we took a radically modern approach with some politically powerful like Richard Rogers to achieve it. We couldn’t have done an I.M. Pei–like glass pyramid there. It just wouldn’t have flown. So we built another building to mimic it. It was all restoration. Then we had to define a language for the inside, which was completely concrete. The narrative and the challenge was: How do you make a luxury hotel that sits inside a building with this past? It had to work within the constrained spaces, yet still be a luxury hotel and seem real. It was a very complicated thing.
It was not dissimilar to the challenge with the Mercer. Chistian Liagre was just starting out on the look he’s famous for now. That was developed for the Mercer. It was a former factory building in a very unfancy neighborhood. There was no Balenciaga next door. There was no retail at all. There were no restaurants at all, other than Raul’s and this place called Food. Dean & Deluca opened a few years later on Prince Street. It was: How do you find a language that’s simple? How do you use art in a building where a lot of your clients are going to be art dealers and artists? The whole language there was a function of the story and needs. Which is the opposite of the Chiltern. There it was a different issue: How do you make it cozy? How do you make it not English? The restaurant itself, a lot of people go there are and say, “It feels so ‘downtown New York.’” That was a conscious decision. I wouldn’t try to go in and out-British the British. You have to go with what the building was, which is a little bit more grit.
You mentioned your clients. Who are they exactly?
I find that what we do appeals to people who are very sophisticated. They’re conversant with this dialogue because they face it themselves in their own work, whether they’re writers, actors, directors, artists, or designers. They’re people who are very, very self-confident. They ask themselves questions about how they dress. They really appreciate what we do, and they likewise don’t look to us to validate who they are. They know who they are. They just deeply appreciate this other layer. They’re thinking people.
So they appreciate details as much as you do.
On every level, not just design. It could just be fabulous attention to being friendly and real. You can’t design your way into meaningfulness. It’s got to resonate. You have to find meaningfulness on many levels. It’s not about who the decorator is.
Each of your hotels has a special energy. How do you create and maintain it?
I think it’s the enthusiasm of the people. There’s no substitute for the people, meaning the team that keeps it alive. The team very much involves the guests, too. It’s a symbiotic community.
Do you see yourself as a guest?
I’m a surrogate for the guests in the design process, absolutely, because in the end they’re going to be the client. It’s not going to be me. I’m just sort of channeling it to get it into shape for them. And because I’ve done it for a while, I can anticipate the issues hopefully better than anybody else.
Your career really took off in Soho, where you moved in 1984. During this time, the neighborhood has completely transformed. During this time, I also feel there’s been a transformation of the hotel industry at large—at least when it comes to the idea of a “design hotel.” What’s your take on these two seemingly parallel developments?
I would separate them. What happened in Soho has happened every single time we’ve opened something, anywhere, whether it’s downtown L.A. or Marleybone in London or Shelter Island. Even in the Meatpacking District—I don’t think the Gansevoort Hotel set this area on fire, and when we opened, the High Line wasn’t even a political reality. I think a really good hotel becomes a center of a community. We’ve been able to—and I think a good hotel can do this—transform a neighborhood into something else.
I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s a fact that when we started the Mercer there was no retail in Soho, and today per square foot the most expensive retail space in Manhattan is on the corner of Prince and Mercer Street. It spread from the [Prada] Epicenter across the rest of Soho. It’s more expensive now to rent retail in Soho than it is on Madison or Fifth Avenue. Again, I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but that’s what’s happened. And it’s what has happened in the last 18 months in Marleybone in London. The street was selling size 15 women’s shoes and woodwind instruments, and now it’s considered the “hot” street. I don’t know how to feel about it exactly. I’m ambivalent. But I know it’s a fact.
The question about hotels changing—it’s funny, I remember Steve Rubell showing me through the Royalton when it was about to open. He was the first one who told me it was a “boutique hotel.” I remember thinking it was clever, because he was appropriating a retail term to a hotel of a certain size. But if you look in Europe—except for the “grand” hotels—they have what we call a boutique hotel. And today, in America, Starwood and Marriott are in the boutique-hotel business, which is a complete misuse of the word. How in the world can a 300-room hotel be a boutique hotel? It’s just a Sheraton by another name. It’s kind of bullshit.
When we talk about what has happened in the hotel business, I’m not exactly sure if anything has changed or is new. You can’t even attribute the social factor to it. Caeser Ritz—my personal hero—is actually the one who stimulated wealthy people to start entertaining. He got wealthy people to move out of private-home entertainment and into public spaces. That was in 1890.
You know Design Hotels? It’s run and founded by a dear friend of mine. I always say to him, “What the fuck is a ‘design hotel?’ What hotel is not designed?” We both laugh about it because it’s such a meaningless phrase. Who has ever built anything that wasn’t designed? When you mention a change in hotels, I’m not even sure what it is. What is it you’re referring to?
I suppose mostly to the fact that hotels are more and more being marketed as “design” properties.
Claus [Sedlinger, the founder of Design Hotels] is the first to say, “You can’t build a hotel without designing it.” So what’s it mean? I don’t know what it means. Design Hotels will represent basically any hotel that wants to pay the fee to be represented, as long as it’s not a complete piece of shit. What’s the different because Leading Hotels of the World, Small Leading Hotels of the World, and Design Hotels? There are so many representation agencies. I don’t know what has happened. There are still big hotels, little hotels, good hotels, bad hotels. They’re all designed.
I think people now think now think it’s cool to go into the hotel business. Which they didn’t before.
Hotels haven’t always been so central to a neighborhood, though.
Except when Caesar Ritz did them. How far back are you going to go to make exceptions? If you want to go back, where was the coolest place to hang out in fucking Ohio in 1820? It was the saloon. And the few rooms above the saloon, which was the hotel. I don’t see it as any distinction between now and then. I see it as one continuum of rich life. Some people know how to do it better and some don’t, some people care and some don’t. The people who care less do shitty shit, and the people who care more do good things.
I think what truly makes a hotel good is the quality of its narrative. Not that many people think about it that way, but you seem to.
Very few people do. A hotel with a boring story becomes mundane. That’s probably what makes something cool or not cool: if there’s a story behind it that resonates in an intellectual and emotional way.