Hip, hot, cool, cutting-edge are the sorts of overexcited words inevitably chosen to describe the 10 entries in the high-profile portfolio of high-profile hotels that high-profile hotelier Ian Schrager has built over the past 23 years. But with the reopening of the venerable Gramercy Park Hotel at 2 Lexington Avenue in New York, such breathless words no longer apply. This time around, words that better describe Schrager's $210 million renovation of the formerly 506-room hotel are different, the very antithesis of all that heart-racing hyperbole.
Evocative, eccentric, eclectic, personal are the words best suited to characterize the now 185-room hotel, which announces its departure from Schrager's familiar modern aesthetic at the street, where the hotelier played it polite, installing a new limestone façade at the building's two-story base. Indeed, in the scheme he opted for at the Gramercy, Schrager turns his back on virtually everything he has done to date. Good-bye, Philippe Starck, Schrager's designer of choice for eight of his 10 hotels. And good-bye to everything that ultraprolific Paris-based enfant terrible of design stands for—slick, tongue-in-cheek wit, irony, surrealism, whimsy, and jet-set modernism. Hello, Julian Schnabel, the artist and old friend Schrager entrusted to reinvent the Gramercy Park Hotel's brave new old-world aesthetic...meaning hello flamboyant gestures and grand allusions and chic sensuality; hello regal, overscale furniture and bronze fittings and lush carpets and massive fireplaces and enough red silk velvet to outfit a turn-of-the-20th-century bordello in Paris.
Standing in the lobby is an exhilarating experience, as you look around and try to get your bearings in the extravagant—in concept, execution, and detail—space that manages to evoke simultaneously Venice, Havana, Barcelona, London, and Paris, as well as Addison Mizner's Palm Beach, William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, and several of the sets from Orson Welles's 1941 Citizen Kane, minus the lonely gloom. One of the most dazzling features of the downstairs public rooms is the monumentally scaled artwork (from the private collections of Schrager's close friends) by, among others, Cy Twombly, Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and, no surprise, Schnabel himself.
"It's not just a hotel, it's an experience we're selling here," says Schrager. "We wanted to capture the kind of spontaneity you find in an artist's studio or an artist's home...not a gallery, not a museum, but a kind of singular, eclectic vision.... Bohemian. Very bohemian. And edgy."
As for the particular school of "bohemian" and "edgy" Schrager opted for at the Gramercy Park Hotel, do not think "starving young artist in an East Village tenement." Think Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, at home in her art-filled Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. Schnabel's first act was to remove the low ceiling and create a double-height space for the lobby. "You walk in and you don't expect it," he says. "It's a nice scale—not gigantic, but the volume is right, and that feels good." Schnabel also laid down a black-and-white chessboard floor in the lobby, made from nine-by-nine-inch rough-concrete tiles from Morocco. (No Trump-style slippery-when-wet polished marble here.) The irregular, imperfect floors help create a highly textured envelope, one that clearly values the look and feel of patina, as opposed to the look and feel of brand-spanking-new.
Into this space, Schrager and Schnabel have inserted some dramatically refined elements, such as an enormous Venetian chandelier suspended above an elaborate cross-shaped Aubusson carpet that features the hotel logo, GPH, which Schnabel designed. Also by Schnabel is the slightly menacing sawtooth chandelier in the adjacent Rose Bar, an area he conceived of as a living room, at least until Schrager brought him up to speed on the kind of Day-of-the-Locust throngs he knew were on their hurried way.
The furniture and fittings of the lobby are a collection of pieces that Schrager's team assembled coupled with the Schnabel-designed contributions: two Giacometti-inspired bronze tables; bronze door handles, curtain rods, and finials; and a pair of monolithic, 10-foot-high, hand-carved stone fireplaces. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel or make any kind of statement," Schnabel says. "It's about having a place where everything is not generic. The more specific the better. The more personal it is, the more human it feels."
Schrager agrees: "The idea I had is—forget about doing something subversive to the status quo, forget about trying to do something hip or underground. There is no more underground. There is no more hip. It's impossible to do it because everything is instantly out there. I wanted to do something that was an alternative, something personal."