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.