Even with seven hotels slated to open in the next three years, Andrew Zobler puts details first.
BY TONY PERROTTET
PORTRAIT BY CELESTE SLOMAN
March 10, 2017
“I’m not really used to talking about myself,” says Andrew Zobler, founder and CEO of Sydell Group. He settles into a plush armchair in the library room of the Nomad Hotel in Manhattan, one of the properties in Sydell’s rapidly growing hospitality portfolio. Instead of his own career, he starts by talking about his work through the story of a fictional character. “When we design a hotel, we personalize it, we create a narrative,” he says, bringing up the Nomad’s library room as an example. Together with designer Jacques Garcia, Zobler imagined the space as the refuge of a young French woman who ran away to New York with just a few clothes in her bag—“a refined woman,” he says, “but also a free-spirited one.” Even the antique books lining the room’s walls were chosen to be the sort of reading material the fictional gamine might enjoy. It’s a fair bet that not one of the guests relaxing in the library is aware of this backstory, which obliquely tells a great deal about Zobler himself and the secret of his success: his obsessive attention to detail, and his creative balance of history and contemporary design.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Zobler dresses as if to avoid attention, arriving for our interview in a muted business suit, the main flourish of which is an open-collared shirt. He looks like a Wall Street broker reluctantly conceding to casual Friday. The buttoned-down appearance, though, is deceptive. “For someone who looks and dresses like a lawyer, he’s one of the most creative people in the industry,” says Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House, who is collaborating with Zobler on The Ned, a fothcoming hotel and members’ club in London. “I have enormous respect for Andrew.”
Today, even Zobler seems a little dizzied by the rapid expansion of Sydell. Since opening the Nomad in New York in 2012 in a beaux arts office block, the brand has honed a winning formula of renovating spectacular historic buildings and reviving neglected neighborhoods. The Nomad was followed by The Line, a restored 1960s modernist structure in Los Angeles, as well as two Freehand properties, one in Miami and one in Chicago. Over the next 18 months, Sydell has seven more hotels slated to open. Just this spring, a new Line debuts in a former church in Washington, D.C.; a Freehand is opening in Downtown Los Angeles; and the wildly ambitious Ned complex is arriving to London in an imperial-era bank. In the fall, a Nomad Los Angeles and Freehand New York are coming; in 2018, there are plans for a Nomad Las Vegas and a Line in Austin, Texas. “All of this has only happened in the last six years,” Zobler says, clearly astonished. “The hotels are all so different. It’s kind of unprecedented.”
Despite his reluctance, when Zobler does talk about his background, it’s very telling. He starts with his two larger-than-life grandmothers. He inherited his ambition from his Holocaust-survivor paternal grandmother. “She had the idea that we survived for a reason,” he says. “That we should do something of importance.” He attributes his aesthetic sense to his maternal grandmother, Sydell, for whom the company is named. A leading New York antiques dealer, she took Zobler on leisurely, summer-long trips to Europe when he was a teenager, traveling by cruise liner across the Atlantic due to a fear of flying. “That’s where I got my appreciation for design and old things,” he recalls of these trips. “But I never did anything with it until later in life.”
Instead of art or design, Zobler went into corporate law. His interest in hotels began almost by accident when he was in his thirties. He became vice president of acquisitions for Starwood Hotels, putting together real estate deals for the W brand. Later, while working with André Balazs to create The Standard, a landmark hotel that juts over the High Line in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, Zobler recognized his itch for design.
“We would work with architectural models in meetings, to see how a building might sit on a site,” he recalls. “Design was really the heart of the business.” In 2005, he decided to go out on his own and shortly after began building the Sydell Group with the support of billionaire developer Ron Burkle.
The first success came when he partnered with Atelier Ace to help develop the Ace Hotel New York in 2009, turning a rundown flophouse into a round-the-clock social hub by mixing the style of Manhattan nightlife with an old-school sense of hospitality. The Ace’s popularity inspired Zobler to tackle his first solo project, the 168-room Nomad, one block south. “I realized how much I was enjoying the process,” he says. “I wanted to be more fully responsible.” Located on a former Gilded Age office block, the Nomad takes its name from its setting, North of Madison Park, a once-thriving commercial district that had declined into a seedy sidewalk market. “It was full of street hawkers selling counterfeit stuff, but it was also a super-convenient location and the architectural stock is among the best in the city,” he says. “On the street it was cheesy, but you looked up and the buildings were beautiful.”
To create the hotel’s rich, layered interiors, Zobler brought in French designer Jacques Garcia, and then, to run the restaurant, invited Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park. “It was clear from the beginning that they had the right vision,” Zobler says of Humm and Guidara. “Our first meeting lasted for six hours, and we spit-balled every possible idea.” Humm and Guidara agree. “It was pretty much love at first sight,” Guidara says. The trio hoped to revive the lost restaurant tradition of icons like the Waldorf and the Plaza, where the dining and bar experience was part of a cohesive whole. The biggest risk was giving the restaurant the same name as the hotel, thus tying their fates together. “It was a very, very big commitment so early in a relationship,” Guidara jokes. “It’s like going on one date with a girl and then deciding to marry her. But you just have to lead with your instincts.” Since opening, the Nomad has been heralded by many critics as the best hotel restaurant in the U.S. “Sure, it was a risk,” Zobler recalls. “But we nailed it.”
The concepts behind most of Sydell’s properties, at heart, are rather straightforward: First, Zobler falls in love with an imposing-but-near-abandoned structure. Then he reinvents it with a dramatic, site-specific design. But the lure of old architecture is not just for the aesthetics, he stresses. It also makes good business sense. “The early lifestyle hotels”—dating back to the 1980s—“were very in-the-moment,” Zobler says. “It was wasteful. They needed to be constantly reinvented. I also wanted to make money! I think about good design, but it has to have longevity.”
Sydell now has four very distinct hotel brands. One of them, Freehand, designed by Roman & Williams, seeks to create the kind of upmarket hostel common to Europe but long ignored in the U.S. “Some of the younger guys in the company championed the idea,” Zobler says. Although initially unconvinced, he went on a tour of successful hostels, such as the Michelberger in Berlin, which offers small and affordable but elegantly appointed rooms. “I was inspired by the culture,” he says. “These places were so sweet and social. And I remembered when I was a kid, the best times of my life were sharing a beach house with friends—not when I had a big house all to myself.” The first Freehand opened in an art deco building in Miami Beach in late 2012 and was quickly embraced. That’s especially true for its Broken Shaker bar, a partnership with local duo Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi, which is often credited with ushering in the city’s craft cocktail revolution. “People were sick of all the bling in Miami,” he says. “The Freehand is like being in someone’s house.”
By contrast, The Line hotel in Los Angeles, designed by Sean Knibb, revives a 1964 brutalist building in Koreatown with austere, Asian-influenced interiors. Hometown chef Roy Choi runs the two restaurants.
One big reason for Zobler’s success is his talent for collaboration, which has allowed him to diversify Sydell’s offerings. “Our hotel brands may seem random, but they all have the same approach,” he says. “We bring together interesting people and let them do their thing.” It’s this knack for partnerships that also allowed for Sydell’s speedy expansion. “Andrew is an amazing curator of creative people,” Guidara says. “He sees their talents before the rest of the world has recognized them. And he knows how to get out of the way. He trusts people.” Adds Humm: “He supports us and lets us do what we’re good at.”
The Ned, opening in London in April, is Sydell’s first international venture. The scale is mind-boggling: The former 1924 Midland Bank in the heart of the City will have nine restaurants (including a New York-style Jewish deli called Zobler’s), 252 bedrooms, a Turkish hammam, a rooftop pool with a view of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a three-level private club, all designed by the Soho House team. Jones found the building for The Ned three years ago, but knew it was too big to tackle alone. “I had experience with small art-house movies,” he says of his boutique members’ clubs. “This was a blockbuster.” Ron Burkle, who also has a controlling interest in Soho House, put Jones together with Zobler, who had earned a reputation for bringing in large projects on time and under budget. The pair certainly shares a sense of ambition. “If The Ned works here in London, why can’t we do a few Neds?” Jones says. “In New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo …”
While the London opening will draw enormous media attention, the project that excites Zobler the most is The Line in Washington, D.C., which debuts this month. “Up to now, there has been no cool hotel in D.C.,” he says. As with previous projects, he was first inspired by the building itself, a Neoclassical church with 60-foot vaulted ceilings, copper portals, and brass fittings. Says Zobler: “As soon as I walked in there, I thought, we need to do something with this space!” The New York-based architecture studio Incorporated was brought in to collaborate on the design, and Spike Gjerde from Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen and Erik Bruner-Yang of D.C.’s Maketto were hired to handle the respective food-and-beverage outlets. “It will be our best work to date,” Zobler says. “It’s going to change the way people see D.C.”
Zobler may like to stay in the background, but his excitement is palpable. He appears lost for a moment, as if imagining the once-derelict church as a bustling lobby, a modern American answer to the European town square. Grandmother Sydell would be proud.