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Redesigning NYC's Royalton for Comfort

Twenty years ago, when Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell opened the Royalton, a fantastically sleek and maddeningly popular 168-room hostelry in midtown Manhattan, they did more than perfect the concept of the boutique hotel; they ushered in a new design era. Flash took precedence over comfort, theatricality was more important than substance, and the designer—in this case enfant terrible Philippe Starck—became a pop star.

The Royalton was a slam-dunk sensation, a dazzling tour de force that commingled wit, charm, irreverence, irony, and a slightly surreal rendition of daredevil Modernism with a soupçon of perversity, a whiff of 1970’s sex clubs, and a tongue-in-cheek giggle. And yet, if to Starck’s eye the Royalton was timeless, with its luminous glass sconces modeled after rhinoceros horns, its glistening (and potentially painful), asplike stainless steel backrests, and its three-legged chairs that, yes, tended to tip over, to the eyes of others it had become of late a time capsule marked "October 10, 1988," a period piece that instantly conjured up a decade obsessed with "avant-garde" design.

Somewhat inevitably, the powers that be at Morgans Hotel Group, which owns the Royalton and seven other Starck-designed hotels, quietly brought up the word renovation. "You’re doomed if you do, and you’re doomed if you don’t," says architect Anda Andrei, Schrager’s designer for 22 years. "The place definitely needed work. It was time. After all, they’re not museums, eh?" Schrager, who left MHG two years ago, confesses that he did not envy the hotel group its task. "Anytime you’re working with an icon, you’re between a rock and a hard place," he says, noting that, to his mind, the best strategy is to "keep the same kind of dna."

Enter architect Stephen Alesch and designer Robin Standefer, the founding principals of New York firm Roman and Williams, named after Alesch and Standefer’s respective grandfathers. Best known as the designers of choice for the young Hollywood set, Roman and Williams’s client list is filled with such red-carpet personalities as Kate Hudson, Ben Stiller, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.

When the new Royalton reopened in October 2007, it was clear that Alesch and Standefer did not set out to re-create the Starck dna. Far from it—they demolished Starck’s legacy, erasing virtually all evidence that the great Gaul had ever been to West 44th Street. Quips Standefer: "Philippe, peace be with you, but we’re moving on."

Moving on meant sacrificing surface appeal for depth, and dazzle for coziness—and yes, if ever a 10,000-square-foot space could be described as cozy, it’s this one, with discrete seating areas broken up by somewhat ethnic-looking, wall-size screens made of wood, metal, and glass. The screens are "a big part of the narrative," according to Standefer. "I wanted there to be mystery. I wanted you to be able to see people through things. The screens increase the voyeurism, that peekaboo quality."

Moving on also meant custom-designing everything, "every chair, every handrail," says Standefer, who likens her firm’s work to bespoke tailoring. And yet, unlike the leisurely pace associated with all things bespoke, MHG gave Alesch and Standefer a single summer to transform the Royalton lobby. Despite the tight time frame, the duo pulled it off. Guests now enter the hotel through a glass-walled vestibule, pass under a vintage Venini chandelier, and set out on a 105-foot-long carpet runner that bisects the slate-floored lobby and leads from the front door (Starck’s famous mahogany doors did survive the renovation) to the restaurant in back. Deep blue at the entrance, grading to a pale blue at the restaurant, the carpet’s subtle shift in hue was chosen because people tend naturally to gravitate toward light. "We wanted to draw people to the restaurant," says Standefer. Once there, diners are greeted by intricate webs of spotlit rope arches that appear to have been inspired by suspension bridge design. With its teak banquettes and tables and chairs, there is a "Scandinavian vibe" to the luminous light-wood restaurant, according to Standefer; but others note that the restaurant is also reminiscent of the work of American architect and furniture designer Warren Platner in the 1970’s.

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