Gotham Fourplay: The Significance of Four New Manhattan Hotel Designs
Part 1 of a series in concert with TFT Travel.
The building and branding of luxury hotels and resorts can be beautiful business. Or it can deconstruct to a big ole mess. When the design “works,” these addresses become bastions, landmarks in their neighborhoods and cities, and sometimes known throughout the country and world. Such trendsetters influence how we think about and interpret design, creating stages for the new or reevaluations of the old might. At their greatest, they even can coin a descriptive phrase or conjure a whole fantastic confection: “Ritz-y, ain’t it?”
Over the last several years, luxe hotels and resorts have cross-pollinated with luxe fashion and jewelry design houses, which have sought to expand and buttress their brands brands (ciao Signore Armani; come stai, Signore Bulargi!). They, in turn, are building on ground broken by nightclub impresarios such as Ian Schrager, who in 1988 transplanted the Happening quality of Studio 54 to his first hotel, the Royalton (pictured above the lobby in 1988 designed by Philippe Starck), starting a trend of trans-global “the party’s in the lobby!” boutique (meaning low lighting, less service and derivative contemporary design) hotels that I pray are starting their dance of death (W Hotels, can you hear me?).
That trend, combined with an eve at home passing through a bottle of red while paging through an issue of “Vanity Fair,” full of sad-eyed well-groomed waifs in gorgeous decorous locations selling expensive decorative arts, all punctuating stories dealing with a gamut of gorgeous types doing gorgeous things gorgeously, gave me a Eureka! on the sofa epiphany.
Paris’ Hotel Costes (its courtyard pictured right) is Kate Moss: classic bones; sleek, snappish, sly and clever as a lurcher; not as in-yo-face, bold and beautiful as the Plaza Athenée (that’s Naomi Campbell), but where the new and old kool kids glamorously let their hair and knickers down, and where they have been doing so for much longer than a model’s career usually lasts (Kate Moss, can you hear me?). I was onto something, it wasn’t just the gin that I’d progressed to or my Siamese talking.
Decoding the Post-Its I found in my hair the next morning, I remained convinced. Hotels and resorts should be examined, discussed and evaluated as style icons, cultural archetypes, Reality TV “personalities”, playground bullies, or sellers of fool’s gold. So much simpler and clearer, and of course much more fun.
Still don’t get what I’m getting at? Then prepare for my anthropomorphic exploration of four New York City hotels: The Surrey, The Greenwich Hotel, The Pierre, and the Bowery Hotel. Two uptown, two down. Do they have what it takes to become landmarks (at any level)? And if so, what approach and design philosophy got them there? Each candidate is either a new, ground-up construction or an über major renovation or redesign. Each also represents a different design and business approach and perspective. One of the hotels had interiors designed completely by its two owners; another was an owners-driven design team involving many specialists and consultants; another was designed by the managing hotel group’s go-to design group, located abroad; and another was designed by a West Coast designer starting to attract international attention.
Candidate One: The Surrey With the Passementerie on Top
The Surrey hotel—which officially opened its artful glass-and-iron doors last fall, November 12 to be exact, on a quiet tree-lined block but a long black limousine from Central Park—is the ne plus ultra Second Wife. No, not a Tom Wolfe-sian Lemon Tart or any of the malevolent teenybopper alternatives in The First Wives Club.
On the contrary, The Surrey is the type of sophisticated soignée out-of-towner with a fresh out-of-towner perspective who marries a rich, established Upper East Side widower, then—quietly and discreetly but with plenty of sex appeal—gives him a new lease on life. And this she accomplishes while fitting in with his friends, his neighborhood, his world—and all while staying true to herself. No easy trick.
How so? For decades The Surrey led a life of respectable if forgettable First Wife-dom. Built in 1926 as a residential hotel, one the likes of which John F. Kennedy, Betty Davis and Claudette Colbert called home for brief stints, it had over the years become tired, very very tired. (a suite is pictured at left). Reproduction antiques, chintz, lots of upholstered furniture with needlepoint throw pillows, perhaps a hunting print or ten.
Everything, in short, safe and Wasp manqué supposed to evoke the presumed lives of neighborhood residents (but honestly, or as “they” might say at nearby carriage-trade cantina Swifty’s, Really, I mean really!). Not the place anyone would want to honeymoon, The Surrey was never the nearby glamorous Carlyle. It was a cheaper yet acceptable pad to recommend to a visiting well-heeled aunt and uncle who wanted to be near the museums, art galleries, and shops such as Berluti and Loubouttin (both luxury footwear boutiques stand within four-inch heel distance). In design terms, a soporific or suppository—take your pick!
All that changed in 2008, when the Denihan Hospitality Group bought The Surrey and took the old girl off life support. What was needed, the company decided, was not so much a revolution (a very bad word on the Upper East Side) as a soup-to-nuts reconsideration. Or, perhaps, a menage of ideas, aesthetics and execution.
So the dating began. “The more modern designers were not focused on comfort, and we wanted a comfortable space rooted in tradition but with a modern personality,” says Brooke Barrett, co-CEO of the Deniham Hospitality Group, “And the more traditional designers struggled with how to create energy in the environment and their spaces seemed a bit dull and not at all now.”
Finally Lauren Rottet, founder and principal of Los Angeles-based Rottet Studio, and one of only two designers to hold the prestigious titles of Fellow of the American Institute of Architecture, Interior Design magazine Hall of Fame and Contract magazine’s Designer of the Year, walked through The Surrey’s front door. Known for an ability to bridge classically-based traditional (as opposed to granny traditional) with Modern-with-no-compromise (simplicity, as Philip Johnson knew, is expensive, hiding neither mistakes nor poor workmanship), Rottet “builds” her interiors using a mix of decorative and fine art from different periods, and through consideration of and sensitivity to material, shape, color and their combinations.
In The Surrey, she took inspiration from the neighborhood’s Beaux Arts-style townhouses, fashion boutiques, art galleries and overall vibe. That, along with 14 months and $66.2 million, yielded the new Madame Surrey: 190 rooms and suites in a cool, sophisticated palette of silvers, grays and warm whites reminiscent of Cole Porter, inter-war interiors. Into this envelope, Rottet then put Duxiana beds, Sferra linens, pillow menus, and furnishings that subtly combine several 20th-century styles.
In place, everything is also of place. “I designed all of the furniture, lights and accessories in the room to look as if they had either been in the room forever or had been collected over time as the owners traveled and saw things they liked,” Rottet says, pointing to the coffee table that she believes represents many of the design elements in the hotel. “It is Art Deco-inspired, and is stamped with the logo of an imaginary hotel I fantasized occupied the same site in the mid 1920s.”
A lamp based on those above the iconic American Bar in Vienna, designed by Adolph Loos. An oversized armchair, its geometry and lines reminiscent of the 1930’s work of French designer Jean-Michel Frank, known for his minimalist aesthetic upholstered in the most sumptuous of materials. Long seat cushions, each with four quotes or fragments of poems written by Rottet about New York (such as: “Through these windows lies the soul of the City, across Madison and down 5th Avenue…;” “Only here among the crowds can you find rest, neslted up above the park deep in the City…”; “Across these rooftops the stories are told, from Madison to the Park…”). Charming and personal, and something one remembers.
Not that there aren’t misfires. The bathroom is a Hollywood starlet-worthy stage of marble and tile, but without heated floors it’s too California-king-sized to warm up and make welcoming cocoon on cold winter and fall mornings. Likewise, the desk in the standard rooms: it’s well made, with various compartments, but is it too big in relation to the room?
As much as the dec arts distinguish The Surry, the fine art gives her identity. Dispersed throughout the hotel are works by boldfaced contemporary artists Jenny Holzer, Richard Serra, Claus Oldenberg, William Kentridge, Jimmie Martin, Imogen Cunningham, Cecily Brown (the list stretches on), all chosen by Rottet. Keeping contemporary from reading chilly—and giving clue to Mrs. Surrey’s personality—are color, texture and, thankfully, whimsy. Small tables in the dark, stylish Bar Pleiades (which boasts a cocktail menu by star mixologist Cameron Bogue), for example, are made by artist Jimmie Martin, who “graffitied” them with numbers, aiding, perhaps, a discreet blind date (“Meet you at number five, bébé”).
What kind of landmark might The Surrey become? The hotel is already well integrated into its neighborhood. In addition to the bar, there’s Café Boulud, the elegant though not stuffy food temple of Gallic god Daniel Boulud (who also oversees the hotel’s room service). And finishing construction this spring is a jaw-dropping roof terrace, which will be a gathering spot for guests as well as “invited neighbors.” No fees for these lucky locals will be charged; they will be simply chosen at the discretion of the hotel’s general manager, Spencer Wadama (making him undoubtedly a very popular and much wooed man on the UES).
In contrast to grande dames such as The Pierre or The Plaza in its earlier incarnation, The Surrey’s public areas are sequestered from the hotel itself. Or perhaps vice versa. One enters the main doors and may proceed through another set of doors into the lobby proper, or one turns left to the Bar Pleiades or right to Daniel Boulud. There is no area for coffee, loitering, or people-watching. That is the point.
Madame Surrey knows herself, her taste, who she wants to be and, just as importantly, who she doesn’t want to be. She has no Page Six ambitions, and Society for her means less the Met’s Costume Ball than her husband’s quieter, clubby, cultivated circle.
Her design will therefore have an impact, but it will be amongst those traveling in Business and First Class, those with second homes, and those who edit top national lifestyle and shelter magazines. Which means that while Madame Surry will be a comfort to few, she might be an inspiration to many. To speed that process along, there are a few more pictures below.
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