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Interview: Andrew Alford

Alia Akkam • February 18, 2015

Budding friendships, eye-opening classes, and raucous parties are among college’s poignant rites of passage. Andrew Alford, chief creative officer of Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners’ (founded by Ben Weprin in 2008) recently launched Graduate Hotels brand describes this heady, transformative era as bright and expectant. “We didn’t want Graduate Hotels to recreate the fraternity house, but we wanted to capture a spirit of youthful optimism. The way we do that is through color and exuberance,” he explains.

The brand reunites Alford, who ran Dirty Lines Design in San Francisco, and Christian Strobel, former chief development officer of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the team that collaborated on Chicago’s Hotel Lincoln. That property’s proximity to DePaul University highlighted the dearth of compelling college-town accommodations. “We wanted to create something that felt like an extension of the college community,” says Strobel, now president of the real estate development and investment firm’s hotel division. “College towns have unique cultures, and they are not represented by hotels that speak to their psychographics. If you think about it, people traveling to colleges are doing so for emotional and passionate reasons, and they are not finding hotels that meet their needs.”

Graduate Hotels made its debut last spring, filling that void with imaginatively designed properties near Arizona State University in Tempe and the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens. Although Alford is quick to point out that a “preppy-collegiate” vibe is the common DNA found in both—and forthcoming—hotels, each one is a distinct reflection of the “American public’s craving for interesting design.” One way to accomplish this is by melding furniture from different design periods throughout the spaces. “Whether you are 80 or 25, you are going to see something that resonates with you and a happy time in your life. A lot of college hotels paint walls in school colors and put up pennants, but we wanted to scratch below the surface and represent the community on a microscopic level. The overarching theme is nuanced storytelling.”

On the site of an old iron foundry, the U-shaped Graduate Athens, complete with 200-year-old brick walls and a live music venue, resembles a Southern village. “One of the things I love about Athens is that it’s a tale of two cities,” says Alford. “It has classic elegance, but as home to musicians like the B-52s and R.E.M., it also has an alternative edge.” This duality manifests in a custom carpet that unites antique Persian and contemporary patchwork patterns from fashion designer (and UGA grad) Emilio Pucci. In guestrooms, a giant chalkboard marked with the chemical equation for that most Southern of staples, sweet tea, doubles as offbeat artwork and a tribute to Charles Herty, the chemistry professor who first brought football to the university in 1890.


The lobby at Graduate Athens

“None of us is afraid of big statements at the point of arrival. It’s a clue to guests that they are staying somewhere special,” says Alford. At the midcentury-inspired Graduate Tempe, this philosophy translates to an ant farm crawling with 50,000 Honeypot ants in the lobby. The lively feature is not random but a nod to the university’s acclaimed Department of Entomology. Because the school is also home to the Institute of Human Origins, the front desk is swathed in pages of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the Book of Genesis. What was once an IHOP on the premises has morphed into a diner called the Normal that’s “more Pulp Fiction than Happy Days,” according to Alford, while at Mexican street food spot, Tapacupbo, the bartop is covered in pesos and original gas pumps have been revamped as margarita machines.


Graduate Tempe in Arizona

Currently, Strobel says, there are a number of Graduate Hotels at various stages of acquisition in “top-tier university towns.” This spring, visitors to the University of Virginia will be welcomed at Graduate Charlottesville by a muted color palette and experimental dioramas that celebrate local personalities as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Dave Matthews, while those headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison will find an abundance of plaid and boating references that pay homage to Graduate Madison’s quaint location close to Lake Mendota. Summer will see the arrival of Graduate Oxford near the University of Mississippi—the brand’s first new construction project—informed by fashion and the town’s rich literary past. Says Alford of the stylish yet inviting outpost, “It will be like someone wearing a beautiful seersucker suit, but with cowboy boots.”