Sean Macpherson’s Bare Necessities

The man behind a slew of downtown Manhattan hotels ponders the intangible essence of things.

(Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti for Surface)

I stumbled upon the book Quintessence: The Quality of Having It (Black Dog & Leventhal) when I was in college in the mid-1980s. The notion of it has stuck with me for the 30 years since. I’m always mindful of it in terms of what I do and how I go about life. I want to understand the most core version of whatever it is that I’m try ing to do. If one gets a pair of blue jeans, for example, it’s important to understand that the quintessential pair of blue jeans is the Levi’s 501. That type of thing is important to understand when I approach work. Different ideas and offshoots start from this initial genesis.

There’s a lot of untethered design out there, which can be fun, but it doesn’t last. It’s not that I’m looking to design the purest form of everything, but I am wary if a development is a superficial change of pace. One needs to understand the essential characteristics of something in order to embellish it.

It’s about context, too. To design a hotel—or anything, for that matter—responsibly, you need to have an understanding of where things come from. Anyone particularly good at what they do is also a good student. Ask Mike Tyson, who was a champ in the 1980s, about boxing in the 1940s, and he’ll be able to tell you about every single fighter and how they boxed. You don’t need to duplicate the past, just understand the outcome from the start. For example, if Coca-Cola makes a new bottle, what’s the purpose, and is it better? Form follows function, but there’s also an essential beauty to the bottle. When was it metaphysically at its peak? When was it mastered? I could argue that the soda bottle peaked with the Raymond Loewy packaging in the 1950s and ’60s. Quintessence takes into account the additional metaphysical qualities beyond form and function, the magic component.

The Zippo lighter essentially can’t be improved. That’s a remarkable feat. Not just from a practical point of view, but also from a magical one. Is there anything as good as a manilla envelope? The Slinky? It’s the simplicity of timelessness. As much as the world changes, these things keep their allure.

I always try to think about what the best version of a building can be. What does it want to be? I listen to it and go from there. I don’t work to impose my will on things so much as uncover their essence: the block it’s on, the neighborhood, the history. With the Bowery Hotel, for example, I tried to conjure what felt to be the most natural incarnation. It has this thought of old New York, one that’s not worn down, with a 19th-century marble mosaic entry.

As information travels more quickly, it’s harder to distinguish one design from the other. The world has become more sophisticated, and companies like Design Within Reach and Restoration Hardware become trendy, so how do you transcend trend? You create timeless environments, with things that aren’t “of the moment,” but are eternal. It’s easier to apply to something like clothing: I could wear a white T-shirt and 501 jeans every day for the rest of my life, and it would be fine.

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