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Sunset Strip's Reinvented Mondrian Hotel

Dense fog has swallowed the Los Angeles skyline, and the outdoor bar at the Mondrian hotel is practically empty save for a Johnny Depp look-alike huddled over a scotch, scratching away in his notebook, and two vampy blondes posing at a votive-lit table in the corner. Heat lamps cast a brooding orange glow over the wood-and-tin bar.

"We're usually mobbed," says my waitress, apologizing for the mellow mood. "Stephen Dorff was here last night. He was trying to kiss me. Christian Slater comes all the time. So does Denzel Washington and George Clooney."

Everyone at the Mondrian keeps assuring me that the newly reopened hotel is the most happening place in L.A., from the startlingly attractive doormen in cream suits idling by the glass entrance to the bored cigarette girl, who has sold only a single pack of Gitanes tonight.

By midnight it's drizzling and the bar is still dead. Disappointed and jet-lagged, I head upstairs. When I enter my room, candles are lit and the water pitcher next to the invitingly white bed is filled. The housekeeping staff must have taken pity on me, knowing I'd give up and retire early (well, early by my standards). Maybe I made a mistake skipping out from New York City to scope the latest scene on the opposite coast. But when Ian Schrager buys a hotel on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, no less and enlists Philippe Starck to design it, and puts über club owner Rande Gerber in charge of the bar, you can only expect that the fabulous set will follow. Or so you'd think.

The next day is chilly and cloudy. A swim in the hotel pool is out, as is a top-down spin in the convertible I've rented. So much for sunny southern California. I take breakfast alone at the communal Table, the 48-foot-long marble-topped expanse meant to be the hub of action in the lobby. As I'm sipping coffee from an out-of-proportion cup that belongs in the Land of the Giants—a typical Philippe Starck touch—I fixate on a nearby James Turrell installation. Called The Wall of Color, it changes shades every 90 seconds, melting from teal to mint to seafoam green. It's almost as mesmerizing as the mysterious glass elevator bank, cloaked in filmy white curtains and glowing from within, that Starck modeled after the elevator in his Paris apartment.

Offbeat objets selected by Starck fill the lobby, which looks more like a gallery than a hotel, with its polished white-maple floor. A squishy sculpture resembling a brain is tossed next to a plastic cow-udder stool. A giant orange mirror reflects a cross-shaped chair that was displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art before finding its way to the Mondrian. Charles Eames rocking chairs surround the blond-wood concierge desk. A bench that is nothing more than a five-foot-long log dominates one alcove. It all adds up to a disjointed sight that on first glance makes no sense whatsoever.

I spot a clutch of musical instruments propped in one corner and ask the waiter whether anyone ever plays them. It turns out that on opening night in early December, Slash from Guns n' Roses picked up a guitar and ripped into an impromptu solo. I'm beginning to feel as if I'm living out one of those stories that you just don't get, where the narrator tosses off "Guess you had to be there" at the end.

Slinking away to my room, I spend the rest of the afternoon listening to CD's on the compact stereo system and reading Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, an amenity handpicked by Schrager to replace the traditional hotel Bible. Just as I'm dozing off on the cushy couch strewn with huge pillows, I notice that the fog has broken, unveiling a vista that stretches past downtown all the way to the ocean—a rare sight in smoggy L.A.

And a good omen.

When I exit the elevator at eight that evening, the lobby is buzzing. A Persian "carpet of light" is splashed from a projector onto the floor by the front door. Over at The Table, now set with votive candles and candelabra, people are standing three-deep. I spot Paul Stanley, from Kiss, and Alex Van Halen wandering around. Michael Keaton, Randy Quaid, and k. d. lang are eating at the Mondrian's restaurant, Coco Pazzo. Lycra-clad trendoids are clamoring outside the hotel entrance, like groupies trying to get backstage at a rock concert. A bespectacled pseudo-intellectual walks around with a group of friends, surveying the lobby. "It's so Starck," he intones.

Now the design makes sense. It's all about perching and posing and preening on props made for the show that takes place every night. Leggy models have draped themselves over stiff-backed schoolhouse chairs, and a gaggle of teenagers is teetering on the log, gaping at the swarming lobby.

It's a glorious night, so I scoot outside to the Sky Bar, which hovers over the pool and, beyond, all of Los Angeles. Things have changed considerably in 24 hours. Crowds spill out of the bar, down the steps, and around the pool. Some partyers are lounging on a flowered mattress that's beyond king-size: call it emperor-size. Others are sitting on wicker chairs under a tree ornamented with glowing bottle lights. And wouldn't you know, Stephen Dorff is there, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and model Angie Everhart, all mingling with the masses.

I take a deep breath and dive onto the giant mattress. It makes for incredible eavesdropping. "I love it here. It's so L.A. It's so decadent," a guy from Ohio says to his friends. Another bubbly patron is kicking up her feet and telling nobody in particular about her blossoming modeling career, all the while eyeing herself in an outsize mirror propped nearby. A New Orleans transplant who has just opened a Cajun restaurant on Sunset Boulevard invites me to brunch the next day. A trio of brunettes in plunging halters starts a mock game of "Twister" with two Italian businessmen.

There's a warped sense of reality at the Mondrian. Unlike many hotels, where you wake up and walk onto your balcony to see a crew raking seaweed off the sand or cleaning the pool, at this place you rise to a view of the staff scrubbing down the giant mattress. You swim in a pool where classical music plays underwater. You lunch at outdoor tables set next to 10-foot-high Alice in Wonderland pots filled with ficus trees. "I love when you take a symbol that everyone knows," says Starck, "something gentle and nice, and you stretch it and it becomes something astonishing."

It's these surreal twists that delight both Schrager and Starck. They have used a similar approach to tickle guests at New York's Royalton and Paramount hotels and, more recently, at the Delano in Miami. "I try to make places where the air you breathe is different, where the time is different, where life is different," says Starck, whose capacity for outrageousness is matched only by his eagerness to promote the idea behind it.

And at the Mondrian, life is a phantasmagoric trip. You are ushered into the hotel through a pair of decorative mahogany doors that shoot 30 feet into the air. Jean-Baptiste Mondino video installations dance on tiny screens in the elevator, and faux television monitors light otherwise shadowy hallways. The lobby's bar is hidden inside an armoire that looks like a dull gray-green flight case when closed but becomes a treasure when its copper-colored Venetian-glass interior is revealed.

The city beyond the hotel doors still weaves its way into the dreamscape: despite the sense of displacement within, the Mondrian is very much a part of Hollywood. "The hotel is intended to be like a stage set, and the guests staying there are the actors," Schrager says. And at times, unfortunately, the people working there are the actors and the models, all trying to make it in Los Angeles. In every one of his hotels, Schrager has opted for beauty and charisma over experience; he even brought in a casting agent to hire the Mondrian staff. As a result, there are painful moments: when the charming, suave waiter just can't figure out how to open your wine bottle; when the sassy bartender dumps a margarita on a top hairstylist lounging by the pool.

Schrager vows that the kinks will work themselves out, that these are just growing pains. "Opening one of my hotels is like riding a lightning bolt. It'll settle down," he says. Concerning his decision to hire beautiful, friendly faces, Schrager explains: "We all like good-looking people, but it's not merely that they're good-looking. The idea was to hire people who are enthusiastic, who banter with the guests, who are their contemporaries. That makes for a better hotel stay." In these early days, though, it can seem as if everyone's playing hotel.

Built as an apartment complex in the 1950's, the 16-story Mondrian was transformed into a 245-suite hotel in 1984. It quickly became an L.A. rock scene hangout. Lenny Kravitz practically lived at the bar, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Keith Richards and Elvis Costello; and in one of the hotel's darker moments, half of the bouncy eighties pop duo Milli Vanilli tried in vain to jump off a balcony.

Despite its hulking exterior, which was painted with blocks of color to resemble a Piet Mondrian canvas, Schrager had been trying to buy the hotel since 1987. "It has good bones: huge suites, almost floor-to-ceiling glass, and kitchenettes in all the rooms," he said. "I like the views, the light, and the location on Sunset Boulevard, whose name has meaning throughout the world."

Schrager has since covered the outside in white and added Coco Pazzo, a sister to restaurateur Pino Luongo's outposts in New York. With its pitched ceiling, gray-and-white board-and-batten walls, and tables topped with tin buckets of sea grass, Coco Pazzo feels like a beach house. Two walls are glass: one overlooks the city; the other opens onto the pool deck, where I love eating under the ficus trees. I get a kick out of the story behind the 150-year-old Brazilian pepper tree that sprouts from the deck. The tree was so cumbersome that Schrager had to rent L.A.'s largest crane to install it. But this is Hollywood, so when Steven Spielberg needed the crane while filming The Lost World, Schrager had to wait delaying the hotel's opening by several days.

I spend most of the weekend aching to lie outside in a bathing suit. I have to admit that I've become completely paranoid about parading my pasty New York bod through the lobby to get to the pool. The Mondrian is a fishbowl, where everyone is on display at every hour. One morning, a woman goes for a swim and does a perfect breaststroke. Good thing for her, because I hear a few people evaluating her performance later in the day.

Subliminal messages in the rooms suggest the perfect Mondrian experience. together is spelled out in barely visible white letters on the pale-beige wall over your kitchen table; dream hovers over the bed; remember is embossed on a folder containing vintage copies of Screen Stories and Life magazines. Why don't they have a little message that says skinny on the full-length mirror?

Maybe I should be spending more time at the in-house gym, run by Mark Stevens, a former member of the British Olympic swim team. But I prefer to sleep late. Besides, I reason, yoga guru Linda Guber's Wellness Center hasn't yet opened; otherwise I'd indulge myself there with meditation and "energy anatomy," whatever that is.

On my last day, I finally throw on my bathing suit and cover up with a fluffy hooded robe. I prop myself on a chaise longue and gaze across the smooth surface of the pool. The sun-drenched city looks like a giant ocean. (Starck's intention was to create a deck that feels like a harbor wharf, staring out on "a sea of white smog.")

I finally wrench myself away, sorry that I haven't spent more time in this lovely spot. Just as I'm checking out, Russell Simmons, the ultrahip president of Def Jam Records, strolls by. Lucky him: he's headed to the pool, while I'm on my way back to the tundra. I drive as slowly as I can toward the airport, roof down, soaking in my last minutes of this sparkling day.

Surprise: New York airports are fogged in, and my flight's been canceled. I dash out of the airport, grab a cab, and race back to the Mondrian, where I lounge by the pool the rest of the afternoon. A perfect Hollywood ending.

Mondrian 8440 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 800/525-8029 or 213/650-8999, fax 213/650-5215; doubles from $150, suites from $185.

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