Chain Reaction

21st January 2009 (Last Updated January 21st, 2009 18:30)

From the disco daze of Studio 54 to a collaboration with Marriott, the Ian Schrager signature has been writ large. In an exclusive interview, Bill Millard finds out why a man famed for living on the edge went mainstream.

Chain Reaction

No one with even the haziest knowledge of Ian Schrager’s colorful history would expect his office to feature prominent reminders of an abandoned project. As a tastemaker and zeitgeist-surfer who has transformed two industries, he is consistently identified with what’s around the next bend, not what’s left behind.

Before Schrager, there were nightclubs and hotels; after him, the celebrity-magnet discothèque and the boutique hotel, spaces that served their traditional purposes but added a self-referential element, have become attractors in their own right. The Schrager era has seen scads of imitators, some distinguished, others wannabes and Schragerlings, trying to do with mere bling what he’s done with taste, energy, an unerring eye for edgy connections and a relentless mental discipline.

Yet a set of monuments to what might have been sits across from his desk: not just one version but multiple iterations, positioned where his restless eyes can’t help but land on them several times a day. Models of Manhattan’s unbuilt Astor Place Hotel, much lamented in certain architectural circles – the “cheese grater” designed in 2001 by the formidable collaborative team of Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Basel-based Herzog & de Meuron – remind Schrager of one revolution he didn’t quite pull off.

With the shadow of 11 September 2001 darkening the New York hotel business, the project collapsed for a variety of reasons: timing, personalities, finances. The site ended up as a conservative mirror-glass condo tower by Charles Gwathmey, lucrative for the landowner Cooper Union but largely unloved.

Schrager’s regret over the Astor hotel is palpable: “I would have loved to have done that project,” he now says.

“It was way ahead of its time. Jacques [Herzog] said it was a masterpiece, that building.”

Its oblique angles, moonscape facade and irregular punched-metal windows created an appropriately aggressive look for a site that Schrager calls “the gateway to downtown”. Saying it once, it appears, isn’t enough: “That was a loss, that was a loss, that was a loss.”

Asked about the design’s site specificity and the chance that something like it might eventually be realised elsewhere, however, he brightens instantly: “Sure!” His reaction to the Astor Place experience is Schrager in a nutshell: intensely emotional, driven, improvisatory and mercurial.

He is reflective in ways that have recurrently surprised anyone who dares take him less than seriously, and that leaves collaborators and rivals alike marvelling at his openness to new ideas. Above all, he is resiliently optimistic.

“Who says that great style and design have to be reserved for rich people?”

Being married the week before the interview may account for part of his enthusiastic tone, but Schrager’s optimism is nothing like naiveté. He views economic globalisation with alarm as a force that flattens distinct cultures into uniformity, and he laments the way that profit-driven “design on steroids” has overwhelmed individual vision in skyscrapers and hotels alike.

(“In New York, the Seagram Building was maybe the last great building,” he says, “and that was 60 years ago!”)

He is well aware of the gap opening between the crashing US economy and the market for four-star destination hotels.

But he views the transition from a derivative-fuelled gilded age to a broadly accessible Apple/Ikea/Muji aesthetic as another field of opportunity. He’d take on the challenge of redefining one or two-star lodging in a New York minute: “I love the idea. Who says that great style and design have to be reserved for rich people?”

The hotels that Schrager pioneered have been anti-Trumps and anti-Marriotts, sometimes financially downmarket, or “cheap chic”, and sometimes four star, but consistently opposed to standardisation, always quirky, and frequently headline-worthy.

His latest headlines, however, involve a venture that some observers might consider contrarian, even a contradiction in terms: a partnership with the Marriott chain. “I had the market to myself for about 25 years,” he says, but imitators eventually arose: Starwood’s W Hotels and its offshoot One Hotels, San Francisco’s Kimpton, Minneapolis-based Graves Hotels Resorts, the exurban NYLO chain, Hyatt’s Andaz series, Britain’s Malmaison, Spain’s Hospes.

“It took much longer than normal, but finally everybody’s taken note of it, and everybody’s rushing into that area. It became less interesting for me when it was no longer the exception to the rule, but more the rule. I thought, ‘Well, we invented it, so why don’t we join with someone and try and do something on a really large scale that I’ve never done before?'”

The big rethink

Schrager has endured experiences that would drive many people into a cowed, cautious existence. His most famous early venture, the Studio 54 dance club, co-founded with fellow Brooklyn native and Syracuse University friend Steve Rubell, imploded into a black hole of tabloid decadence and legal troubles in the form of a stash of untaxed cash, for which both partners served 13 months in federal prison.

Schrager re-emerged in 1984 as a hotelier, converting a battered Madison Avenue property into the elegantly minimalist Morgans, the first in the series of speciality hotels that would fuse design excellence, art-world panache and a canny business sense into a personal brand.

His empire would grow within and beyond New York to include the Royalton, the Hudson, the Paramount, the St Moritz, Miami Beach’s Delano, London’s Sanderson, San Francisco’s Clift and LA’s Mondrian. In 2005 he split with the Morgans Hotel Group and launched the Ian Schrager Company (ISC), acquiring and restoring the Gramercy Park Hotel – a longtime favourite among artists from Koolhaas to the Clash, Schrager notes – as the flagship of Manhattan’s haute bohemia under the guidance of artist Julian Schnabel, whose work joins that of Andy Warhol, Fernando Botero, Cy Twombly, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince on the walls.

Schrager has also expanded into luxury residential development at 50 Gramercy Park North, a brightly lit apartment building by John Pawson next door to the hotel, and 40 Bond Street, incorporating Herzog & de Meuron’s arresting cast-iron façade and graffiti-inspired aluminium gate.

Each stage of Schrager’s career has relied on a blend of hunches and perfectionism. At Studio 54, Rubell was the attention-getter who manned the infamous velvet ropes and stayed up all night partying with the boldface names; Schrager was the diligent brains of the operation, obsessively managing the details of spaces and events while ducking the limelight.

Attention to nuance remains an essential component of his knack for generating unique experiences. The nightclub work, he says, was “critically important” in shaping his philosophy.

“What you do to distinguish your product is predicated on some kind of visceral experience.”

“First of all, we had no discernible product, so that honed my marketing skills,” he says. Any nightlife spot can provide drinks, music, a dance floor, and spaces to socialise, but Schrager contrived an atmosphere that competitors couldn’t replicate.

“What you do to distinguish your product is predicated on some kind of visceral experience, an emotional connection that you make with a person.”

It’s largely a matter of instinct, and Schrager has refined his gut reactions into an instrument that defies focus groups and value engineers. “It’s not so much about the colour of the night table or the sheet count; it’s about the emotional connection that you make – the same kind of things that car manufacturers, entertainment companies and home builders realise. But for some reason we in the hotel industry were preoccupied with execution.”

He locates his work in the context of the hospitality industry’s history, noting that as hotels have evolved from their Roman precursors through various stages – the English roadside inn, EM Statler’s variations on European luxury models, other American inventions such as the large convention hotel and the standardisation of Kermit Wilson’s Holiday Inns – the hotel visit as a carefully integrated, nearly theatrical experience has been a relatively late development.

“Up until the hotels we did,” Schrager says, the whole industry was “conceived and directed toward previous generations.” Morgans, in contrast, “was in response to my generation, and to what we responded to”.

One thing that resonates with boomers and post-boomers, he finds, is a design sensibility that refuses to equate cultural sophistication with deep pockets. “In previous generations, not everybody had access to wealth, so we were obsessed with wealthy people,” he notes.

Now, “we jettison all those notions of what luxury is; they’re completely irrelevant to me. We’ve never had a marble bathroom, for instance. There’s no relationship between good taste and high wealth. They have nothing to do with each other.”

Instead of ostentatious materials, Schrager’s hotels offered the work of names that design cognoscenti would recognise: Andrée Putman, Philippe Starck, and other architects and designers who created ambiences that Schrager could term “exclusionary” on the basis of cultural savoir-faire, not price points.

Signage vanished. Advertising was by word of mouth.

Staff, chosen by casting directors, skewed toward the gorgeous (occasionally, some visitors complained, with attitude to match). Lobbies morphed from nondescript, functionalist pass-through areas into prime hangout spaces.

The target population was a group Schrager terms “discretionary travellers,” more a “psychographic” than a demographic group, definable by sensibility rather than income or profession and relatively resistant to market fluctuations. “To me,” he says, “the discretionary traveller is any person who exercises an independent judgment and seeks a unique experience.”

No one before Schrager (and, until his death in 1989, partner Rubell) had taken the business risk of discovering how many such travellers existed, but their hunch about the potential size of this cool-hunting crowd transformed the industry.

Can the unique be upscaled?

After providing such a compelling alternative to chains that leading brands studied ways to emulate his model, Schrager joined forces with Marriott International’s CEO JW (Bill) Marriott, Jr in 2007, launching a project that combines Schrager’s creativity with Marriott’s resources and management expertise. Edition Hotels will open in 2010 in select cities, including Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami’s South Beach, Scottsdale (Arizona), Paris, Costa Rica and Madrid.

The partners are exploring up to 100 “24-hour gateway cities” where they hope to establish a presence within a decade. Each Edition hotel will feature a unique design reflecting what Schrager calls “a manifestation of local culture” and the series will include both new buildings and conversions.

They will be scaled in the 150 to 200-room range and designed by “a lot of the usual suspects”; he rattles off Pawson, David Chipperfield, Marc Newson, Piero Lissoni, Studio Sofield and David Collins as being talents under consideration.

“My anti-Marriott hotels were born in intuition and instinct,” Schrager comments. “Edition was born out of an intellectual process, thinking ‘It’d be fun to do something on a big market scale.'”

Striking a balance with the distinctly different working methods of the Marriott group will be the core of the challenge. He hopes to “make sure that the execution doesn’t dwarf, intimidate or stifle the creativity, and make sure that the creativity is not at odds with the big market impact we want to have.”

The different scales of the Edition hotels and his private company’s hotels will require different processes; the more detailed coordination of multiple collaborators in the ISC properties wouldn’t work on Edition’s scale. “When I work on my private label, sometimes I have to hold back and make sure that the ideas are viable,” he says.

“On the Edition, I have to push to make sure that the ideas are on the edge. It doesn’t matter as long as you wind up in the same place.”

The art of the catalyst

Schrager’s move into long-term residential spaces represents a different revision of his approach. “In a hotel, my personality and the personality of the designer go into it, and we’re creating a finished product. We’re creating a world that someone goes into. It’s our idea, our ethos. In an apartment building, the world is supposed to be created by the inhabitant, so it’s our job to create an envelope that will be receptive to that person’s idea. If you want an analogy, I could say a hotel’s a finished painting, and an apartment building’s a canvas.”

Shaping these canvases involves more attention to architectural bones – circulation patterns, infrastructure, the functions of rooms and gathering places – and less to the flesh of experiential design. Schrager accepts the need for a different mindset, one that places restraints on his provocateur tendencies, but he is upbeat about taking on the challenges of these and other spaces.

Perhaps offices, retail, airports and train stations – even parks – may eventually be Schragerised, he conjectures. The only spatial typology he’s unlikely to take on is the private home.

Neither an architect nor a designer (his professional training, pre-Studio 54, was in law), Schrager has established a niche role that one might define not so much as a hotelier or developer as a facilitator of spatial and cultural transformations. Collaboration is his essential art form: his eye for talent is as acute as his ability to read the zigzags of the zeitgeist.

Working with Pawson’s minimalism at 50 Gramercy Park North, Schnabel’s baroque maximalism at the Gramercy Park Hotel, or the ethereal edginess of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Schrager’s consistent contribution is to match creative people with opportunities and to orchestrate, without over-regulating, the results.

Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, now the principals of New York architecture firm Work AC, were at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture during its collaboration with Schrager on the Astor Place cheese grater. From their account of the experience, it was almost irrelevant that the hotel was never built.

Wood describes Schrager’s collaborations as “long lasting, not just trendy”, and Schrager himself as “a fantastically open person who set into motion the year of collaboration between OMA and Herzog & de Meuron, the impacts of which are immeasurable.” “On both offices,” adds Andraos. Schrager catalysed an exchange of ideas between the Rotterdam radicals and the methodical Swiss that changed the way both firms operated.

“That’s what’s great about him,” says Wood. “He doesn’t have any preconceptions. He doesn’t say: ‘That can’t be done.'”

Andraos finishes her partner’s sentence: “He’s actually excited if it ‘can’t be done’, because then he wants to do it.”