Redesigning NYC's Royalton for Comfort
Published: April 2009
By Charles Gandee
Philippe Starck’s over-the-top look made the hotel famous. Can a new design team make it comfortable?Charles Gandee reviews the renovation.
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.
Compared with Starck’s whimsical tongue-in-cheek riffs, the new Royalton lobby is a relatively sober affair. There is not, in fact, a joke or a pun or a three-legged chair in the place. "It’s about craftsmanship and comfort," says Standefer. "We wanted to have things that were very well made and livable." It is also about associations, the kind we inevitably make when confronted with such classic elements as wood-paneled walls, chesterfield-style sofas, and commodious club chairs.
"We wanted it to be warmer, cozier, moodier, sexier," says Standefer. "We wanted to create a very vibrant social environment."
Depending on your frame of stylistic reference, the new Royalton lobby is indeed evocative of other times and places. There are shades, perhaps, of the Playboy Club in Chicago circa 1965, for example, of a members-only men’s club outfitted to the silk smoking-jacket specifications of a young, devil-may-care Hugh Hefner. It is the kind of room where highballs get ordered, where black crocodile wallets and gold Dunhill lighters get flashed. Envision a charmed world of vicuña coats and Charvet shirts…of very attentive cocktail waitresses in black sheaths with spaghetti straps and ample décolletage.
To automobile buffs, on the other hand, the lobby may bring to mind the interior of a new Maybach 62S. That is, it is a conspicuously handcrafted interior embellished with luxurious materials—leather and wood, bronze and brass, glass and springbok skin—exquisitely rendered by expert artisans. Like the princely car, there is a tactile, highly textured quality to the lobby, a conspicuous material richness that is not so easy to place in time.
With its velvet-upholstered banquettes and attendant bronze cocktail tables, the Royalton interior is also evocative of its venerable neighbors along this particular stretch of West 44th Street: the Harvard Club, the New York Yacht Club, the Algonquin (though not so stuffy or staid—traditional elements here have dramatic twists). Those sofas and club chairs are encased in massive custom-made brass or bronze enclosures that wrap the seats and cushions in a tight, slightly reflective metallic embrace.
Alesch and Standefer wanted the space to have what the partners describe as an "international" or "global living room" quality. "So we really played with different languages, different materials, different textures," says Standefer. "Things came from different parts of the world. It definitely melds together periods of design and different stylistic moves." She adds that it’s "hard to tell what’s vintage and what’s new." Standefer feels the Royalton lobby has echoes of late Midcentury Modern hotels "in Lisbon and Brazil." It may be New York 2008, but you could just as well be in the lobby of a hotel in Cologne or Düsseldorf, Osaka or the Hague, and it could be the late 1950’s, the 60’s, or the early 70’s, and British design legend David Hicks could have had a hand in it. The reason for the eclecticism?"I wanted a) not to date myself, and b) not to immediately be categorized," Standefer explains.
To give the lobby heft and gravitas, the walls are either paneled—in rosewood, mahogany, or teak—or upholstered in blue or brown leather. Breaking up the monolithic surfaces, and introducing a welcome element of scale, are shimmering brass channels that add a bit of geometry, which is echoed in the irregular squares woven into the carpet. On one wall, a 30-foot black iron screen that once adorned a 1940’s Modernist building on the outskirts of Paris now hangs like a piece of art, a kind of hard-edged graphic backdrop for one of the sunken seating areas. It was the first thing Alesch and Standefer bought for the project, and—much to the design team’s delight—mhg supported, without hesitation, the $60,000 acquisition. "That’s when we knew they were going to be good clients," says Standefer. "That screen really jump-started a lot of our shapes."
One such shape—a monumental double-sided fireplace encased in a massive bronze- colored steel surround—recalls the large-scale work of sculptor Louise Nevelson. Intense and tough, the fire pit provides an animated central focal point for the lobby, as well as visual warmth. On a lighter note, suspended from the ceiling is a series of one-off, handblown glass globes by such artisans as the Brooklyn-based John Pomp and Los Angeles’s Alison Berger.
To help invigorate the bar and restaurant, MHG brought in John McDonald, the publisher of City magazine and the restaurateur responsible for such New York hot spots as MercBar, Chinatown Brasserie, Lure Fishbar, and Lever House. McDonald rechristened the Royalton restaurant "Brasserie 44," and is determined to return the restaurant and lobby bar, "Bar 44," to their glory days with the fashion and media crowd—the place once served as a kind of commissary for nearby Condé Nast Publications, meaning that each day around noon high-profile editors and publishers from Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House & Garden scurried to the Royalton in their Manolo Blahnik slingbacks to score one of the four coveted chartreuse velvet banquettes.
"The Royalton had a great concept—wit, intelligence, individuality—but it didn’t have great craftsmanship," Standefer says. "On a pure design level there was a lot of superficiality to it. In many ways it was decorative." To her proud eye, the new lobby boasts "a level of customization and handicraft that you don’t typically see in a hotel."
Time has not stood still for the Royalton, nor for the people who created it. An affable, larger-than-life character who possesses the showmanship of P. T. Barnum, the self-assurance of Martha Stewart, and the ego of Frank Lloyd Wright, Philippe Starck, in the wake of his success at the age of 39 with the Royalton, has gone on to design everything from sailboats to pasta; German toilets to Tokyo office towers; sunglasses, motorcycles, toothbrushes, colanders, and clothes to expansive product lines for, among innumerable others, Alessi, Cassina, Duravit, Emeco, Kartell, and Target. After Rubell died in 1989, Starck designed seven additional hotels for Schrager. In fact, for the better part of two decades, Schrager and Starck routinely stopped the presses with such overnight sensations as the Delano in Miami Beach, the Mondrian in Los Angeles, the Paramount and the Hudson in New York, the Sanderson and St. Martins Lane in London, and the Clift in San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, the person who’s having the most difficulty with the very notion of a Royalton renovation is the original designer. "I’m not sad for me," says Starck in an e-mail from Paris. "I’m sad for the people who had memories of the hotel." In the same e-mail, Starck notes, "I’m not a businessman, but I think if you’re lucky enough to own an icon, you shouldn’t kill it. [The Royalton] proved that you can do something very strong, very personal, and still make it timeless."
Ian Schrager, meanwhile, says that if he had been at the helm of MHG he would not have redesigned the Royalton lobby. "I would have done the opposite of what they did," he says. "I would have done the rooms." And then he adds, "In all honesty, reasonable people differ." MHG did address the Royalton guest rooms, though with only a minor "freshening up," according to Mari Balestrazzi, MHG’s vice president of design, who tapped Starck alumna Charlotte Macaux Perelman for the job, which included such things as new carpets and bedding and flat-screen TV’s. "The guest rooms had started to show their age," says Balestrazzi.
Twenty years later the tongue-in-cheek novelty of the boutique hotel has worn thin, and Standefer seems pleased with the new user-friendly attitude she’s helped usher in. But she is also a realist, understanding that tastes don’t stand still. "Somebody’s going to redo our lobby in 20 years," she says. "Hotel interiors tend to be in flux. People redo things. Maybe the Ritz reupholsters the same chair. But even if in 20 years someone comes in and says, ’Paint it purple,’ I’m hoping that there are architectural elements strong enough to survive."
The Royalton, 44 W. 44th St., New York, N.Y.; 212/869-4400; royaltonhotel.com; doubles from $399.
Charles Gandee is a frequent contributor to T+L.
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