Of his strategy for his new portfolio of some seven projects, Schrager says, "I have no strategy. But I am not looking to do the big company thing. I did the big company thing, and you know what?I didn't like it. In 1996 or '97, I sold 70 percent of my company, Morgans Hotel Group. I was an administrator for the past four or five years, and I was miserable. I thought, 'Life is too short, I'm not happy.' So, I got up and walked away with 30 percent" (which he recently sold). "There was no acrimony. I just didn't want to do it anymore."
Schrager knew from the start that collaborating with an artist was not going to be a streamlined process. "There were some dark periods," he says. "It was treacherous, the hardest job I've ever done." Schnabel adds: "It's a long friendship and it's a collaboration. Ultimately, we have different styles. Ian's a modernist at heart, and I'm an old-fashioned guy. But I think he tried to stay as true to my suggestions as he could." Schrager had a reassuring, can-do partner in the project—Anda Andrei, the Bucharest-born president of design for the Ian Schrager Company and a 22-year veteran of Schrager's office, who is all émigré allure on the outside, nerves of steel on the inside. "She is the person who makes everything happen," Schrager says. He also had Michael Overington, his head of development, who has been at the hotelier's side since 1977. "Michael makes the design happen from the practical and construction point of view," Schrager explains.
If Schrager was committed to his idea of an artist's space, undeterred by the prospect of a tug-of-war between himself and Schnabel, it was, perhaps, because he knows his way around artists. He has been working with them since 1984, when he commissioned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to provide the art for Morgans's guest rooms, large-scale black-and-white portraits of flowers signed by the late controversial artist. At the Palladium—a second nightclub he opened in 1985—he commissioned Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf, among others, to create large-scale installations that capitalized on 80's pop-culture's fascination with this small stable of high-flying young artists. For the "cheap chic" Paramount on West 46th Street in the Theater District, Schrager brazenly co-opted details from Vermeer's paintings for the 1990 hotel's oversize plush headboards, and at the Hudson on West 58th Street, completed in 2000, Schrager invited Francesco Clemente to design an otherworldly ceiling for the glass-floored bar and the shades for the swing-arm bedside lights in the 1,000 guest rooms.
Schrager's previous hotels could be counted on to remain up to the red-hot aesthetic minute, but at the Gramercy he conscientiously steps away from all things trendy. "I wanted to use a classic vocabulary, but mix it up," says Schrager. "The whole thing tiptoes right up to the edge of being retro and gaudy and too much, so it took some editing."
Given Schrager's agenda, his choice of Schnabel was inspired. For one thing, Schnabel's name is synonymous with a certain timeless grandeur. For another, unlike most painters and sculptors, his oeuvre is hardly limited to paintings and sculptures. Over the years, he has shown himself to be fearless, taking on a range of endeavors and projects with considerable panache. In addition to designing the spaces he lives and works in himself, which are heroic in scale and riveting in detail, he has directed films (Before Night Falls in 2000, Basquiat in 1996), created album covers (for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lou Reed), and designed lighting, carpets, and furniture, including a particularly imposing sleigh bed, which he makes for friends in either bronze or hot-rolled steel. (Schrager recently bought a bronze one for his rambling summer house overlooking the Atlantic in Southampton.)
"I have no ambitions of being an architect or an interior designer," Schnabel says. "Ian asked me to come over and look at the hotel. So, basically, I said I'd take out the ceiling in the lobby. I gave him a few other suggestions. I did as much as I could to help him out." And then Schnabel planned to walk away, leaving Schrager to build his hotel. But Schrager persisted in his idea of having Schnabel be hands-on, a true collaborator.
If working with his old friend Schrager struck Schnabel as an appealing proposition, also appealing was the hotel and its environs. "Gramercy Park is a wonderful address. But the place had been run-down for years. I'd stayed there before, and it wasn't fun," Schnabel says. "When I first walked into the rooms, I had no interest in decorating them. But then I started thinking how to redirect the space. I thought it should be like going to some crazy rich person's house and staying in the attic." It is a seductive idea, certainly, but one difficult to translate into bed-and-bath and high-speed Internet-access reality.
So what, to Schnabel's mind, did Schrager want?"What he tried to do was make a place that kind of looked like my house, and I just told him what I would do, and then he sort of did what he wanted... Ultimately, Ian is the author."
According to the hotelier, the 185 guest rooms proved especially challenging. "We must have looked at fifty side tables, fifty chairs, fifty lamps, fifty drinks cabinets," recalls Schrager, who is famous for complicating the process and threatening the schedule by bringing in, at various stages, what he calls his brain trust, a group of loyal friends—from fashion designer Norma Kamali to celebrity floral designer-cum-party planner Robert Isabell—to whom he perennially looks for opinions, ideas, and reactions, which he uses to help inform his final "edit."