Master of AllStacy Shoemaker Rauen • September 20, 2017
Hotelier Ian Schrager needs very little introduction. The 40-year industry veteran started his career with the groundbreaking and legendary Studio 54 nightclub with partner Steve Rubell, and went on to change the hotel landscape with Morgans Hotels (Hudson, Delano, Royalton), widely touted as the inventor of the boutique hotel. Now, he is trying to disrupt the industry once again, with his latest iteration of his Public brand, a property we covered in September, what he calls “luxury for all,” in New York’s Lower East Side. Imagine all the style and substance Schrager is known for without the extra frills (room service, for example) and high room rates. Here, the prolific hospitality mastermind talks about his latest and greatest, the risk that paid off, and what he’s learned from Apple and McDonald’s.
Did you want Public to continue what you started in Chicago?
The brand evolved. Chicago was a renovation. I was limited by what I could do, and we did the best that we could. We still think it was a distinctive product, but I didn’t have the same opportunity to really do all the things we wanted to accomplish with Public that we could in a new build in a different location. So it’s all of those things that we wanted to do but couldn’t. It’s a much further refined and evolved brand now.
Why is it a good time for the Public brand, and why do you think it speaks to what travelers are looking for today, especially in the world of Airbnb?
I see the same void and dislocation in the market that I saw 25 years ago with boutique hotels. I thought, here’s an opportunity to be able to bring that great style, that great design, those great and exciting F&B concepts, but make them very accessible because the definition of luxury has completely changed.
Right now a very lucrative space is select service, [filled] by Hilton Garden Inns and Residence Inns. Not that Public is that, but it takes a cue from that space, and why not go into that space and bring style and magic and exciting food and beverage, and service as well. It is the same thing I saw in the 3- and 4-Star space when we did boutiques. That, plus the fact that I feel Airbnb or other things in that area—home sharing, office sharing—are a direct threat to the hotel business. I’m not sure why, but the industry doesn’t acknowledge that. It’s similar to the way they were about the [online travel agencies] 15 years ago. The same thing is happening again, and the only way we can [compete] is [to offer] the things that Airbnb cannot. They cannot provide the social and community aspects, the exciting food and beverage concepts, and the level of service that hotels think about. They just can’t do that. So if you could take that and land that into reasonable prices that people are responding to, that’s a big thought.
You need to bring a sense of local flavor and [make guests] feel like they are really staying in that city, rather than getting some generic, institutionalized hotel that’s the same in New York, the same in Boston, the same in Istanbul; there’s something wrong with that. That was our approach 25 years ago with boutiques. [We wanted to create a hotel that] manifests the place and the time that it’s in, so that when you do stay in this hotel you are getting a microcosm of the best that the city has to offer, and feel like you’re staying right in the middle, capturing the essence of that city. That’s what we did with boutiques, and that’s what we’re doing again. And that’s one of the attractions of Airbnb.
The other attraction is the price. On a social level, the notion of wealth and luxury has changed, and I don’t think that’s part of an economic cycle. There’s been a paradigm shift. The hotel industry, perhaps because we’re so capital intensive, are always the last to respond to these kinds of social and economic trends. Offering luxury but at a very, very fair and reasonable price, is the new modern hotel. There’s a real opportunity for somebody to go into that, which is what we got into with Public.
I love how you have said that it isn’t a Millennial brand. I feel like too many people are focusing only on Millennials.
I look at companies outside of the hotel world, and they don’t do products for Millennials. They do products for people. Apple doesn’t do a phone for Millennials. They do a good product, and it appealed to everybody regardless of age—a teenager or somebody my age. It’s not about a demographic. It’s about a psychographic. Jumping on the bandwagon trying to do a hotel for Millennials is ridiculous. You have to just do a very strong product. My feeling is that we in the hotel industry are in a point of distinction business. I try to make the best product imaginable. And that product will resonate with people of all walks of life, of all ages, of all strata of wealth. It doesn’t matter. You’re not focused on a specific generation; you’re focused on trying to resonate with someone’s sensibility, to get a reaction out of them. That’s the approach that I try to do, and I’ve always tried to do.
For Public, why the Lower East Side?
I always wanted to do something downtown. I never found the right opportunity. I never found the right scale that would justify the effort because I put the same effort in for a 70-room hotel as I would for a 700-room hotel. This was a new build. It was on the edge of what I considered an emerging area. The downtown area was moving east. It was off the Bowery, which used to be a boulevard of fashionable people 100 years ago. It was a great location and convenient to get just about anywhere in New York. It was like all of the universe came together that made it just right.
How did you want it to sync in with the neighborhood and invite guests in?
We wanted it to be consistent with the neighborhood. We didn’t want to do something that looked like it landed from Mars on that site. So when we looked at the site, we were thinking a ‘refined gritty’ or a ‘tough luxe,’ something that fit in, which is why we did it in concrete. We thought it fit the ethos of the neighborhood, and then as we were developing it, we also wanted to use modest finishes and materials but use them in a novel and sophisticated way.
The garden in the front and the garden in the back are all things that make the product distinctive and make it unlike anything else. There was one practical consideration. The site was over a subway line, and to avoid having to go through all the approvals one needs to do when you’re over one, we set it a little bit back, which gave it that whole front area, and we decided to do our own little mini Central Park.
Tell us about the dramatic entry.
We wanted to put the lobby on the second floor, and we wanted to put the restaurant, the luncheonette, coffee house, and the store on the first floor. The best way was to create a new reality for guests [at the entrance], as if they were taking an other-worldly trip with a real theatrical approach, which looks and feels really unique and different. That’s what guides every decision in creating a hotel for us. Not the location and other traditional criteria, but what can we do to make the product really distinctive and unlike anything else? We take our cue from Apple, which is have a great user experience and be something unique. We have the same approach when we do a hotel.
The escalator was risky. Any time you do anything that might be over the top, you run the risk of people thinking it’s not well done. It was very, very, very difficult to do. We had to import polished metal from Japan. We wanted the color to be very similar to this color we had on the ceiling. We were afraid there would be fingerprints on it and we had to make it in a way so if one of the panels got damaged we didn’t have to shut the escalator down and fix it for a couple of days. The incandescent LED lights are from China because we wanted them to be incandescent, not fluorescent, because they are warmer and people look better. We played with lots of colors to try for the rose copper hue that we wanted. It wasn’t easy, but it’s probably the most Instagrammed photo ever. We were very happy with how it turned out.
Up the escalator, you arrive in this beautiful lobby space where you have reimagined the check-in process.
We are rethinking every step and every process. The front desk check-in has gone through a lot of iterations. First, people tried to improve that experience and offer you a glass of champagne even though you wanted to check-in and get right up to your room. Then, they wanted you to sit down, and all you really wanted to do was get your key and go right up to your room. We’ve been playing around with how to make that experience quicker and more enjoyable.
Hotels aren’t there yet. We’re not up to where they are with the airlines, with movie theaters, and with gas stations, which have been able to take the technology and make the experience seamless and without any friction. It’s more difficult in the hotel space because a lot of the technologies don’t talk to each other, but we thought that self check-in in this day and age when everybody is so technologically sophisticated, we thought that self check-in was a good way to go.
Plus, it also takes educating the consumer. Take The Founder, the story of McDonald’s. They had to educate the consumer that it’s better to get out of your car, not have a waitress, and go up [to the counter] to order your hamburger, French fries, and a Coke. [That it was] quicker, cheaper, and better than sitting in your car and waiting for 20 minutes. It took a while for them to educate everyone that this was a better and more desired result, and so we’re willing to try that because we think it’s a better way.
The lobby uses simple materials but in such an innovative way—like where concrete is polished and almost becomes a mirror.
They put 30 coats of polish on that concrete. I wanted people to be able to bend over and comb their hair and women to put on their makeup when they look in the concrete. The materials and finishes are done in a very sophisticated and refined way. They almost feel inevitable and so simple, and that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication especially now; people don’t want an over-the-top, overzealous design.
Is the living room lobby meant to be an extension of the neighborhood?
Yes, absolutely. [We’re] trying to do a new kind of gathering place. You know how that idea has evolved for me? We had always done this. We started doing this way back when with the Royalton in 1987, but it has evolved because now the lobby needs to be activated not only at night but during the day, not only for play and socializing but also for work and networking. So, to me, that’s how the lobby has continued to evolve.
And then the guestrooms are a bit smaller?
To me they’re not small. They’re about 198 square feet. I know small. The Hudson rooms were 150 square feet. The Paramount rooms were 140 square feet. I always thought it’s not an issue of size but an issue of design. In the Paramount, we got very playful. In the Hudson, we tried to make it look very nautical, looking at forms of transportation—trains, planes, and boats—which had a very efficient design. [At Public], we did it with Herzog & de Meuron, who are brilliant, world-class architects, and it is like a cabin on a yacht or a stateroom on a transatlantic oceanliner, and there isn’t one unnecessary inch of space. You have everything you need and want, whether it’s working, relaxing, sleeping, or bathing. It’s not entirely new to me because I was doing it from the Paramount and the Hudson on, but I never did it with such a refinement and a sophistication that appeals to somebody that wants luxury.
Tell us about the ornate mirrors in the otherwise streamlined rooms.
Good design is something that you can’t put in a box, that you can’t categorize. You can’t say it fits. That energy comes from the mix, from the diversity. It comes in a nightclub when you have diversity of people. It comes in music when you have diversity, like in jazz. It comes when you have a dinner party and you have a different group of people sitting together. It comes when you cook. The same thing comes with design, and so I [chose that] baroque mirror because I thought it was a nice little surprise and unexpected. That was the logic behind it. We’re not following a formula here—we’re doing what we like.
Another moment is the amazing rooftop bar, where you kept the backbar as all windows.
The view is just knock your socks off. Killer. Maybe the best view in all New York except if you’re on top of the Empire State Building. I haven’t been to the new Freedom Tower, but this has 360-degree views, and you feel like you’re floating in the clouds. It’s just really, really special. Really it’s the amount of choices you have for entertainment. When you come to the hotel, you don’t have to leave to get a microcosm of the best New York has to offer. That was the point—a resort in the middle of the city.
Especially since you partnered with chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten for Kitchen restaurant and grab and go Louis.
Jean-Georges is great. He a lovely man, and I expect to be doing a lot more with him, but he’s also the only chef I know who isn’t locked into a particular cuisine. He’s capable of doing anything. He studied at the Oriental in Bangkok, and so he’s capable of doing Spanish, American, Chinese, Korean. A person with that much depth and scope and ability, plus he’s such a lovely guy and easy to get along with as well as [his partner] Phil Suarez and his whole organization. I just can’t say enough about Jean-Georges. I used to like to have restaurants that were always the same. But [working with Jean-Georges [is] one way I have grown in this business. You have to have great food, and when I work with Jean-Georges, the food is great.
Tell us about Diego bar.
We wanted to have a special place that would be refined and sophisticated with a higher level of finishes offering very sophisticated mixed cocktails. Diego Rivera was a great Mexican artist, the partner of Frida Kahlo, and he was commissioned to do a mural for Rockefeller Center. But because it had communist overtones (it had pictures of Lenin and Marx), there was this big scandal and Rockefeller’s son, who was doing Rockefeller Center, destroyed the mural.
I read a book on the development of Rockefeller Center, and I thought it would be fun and sexy to show New York the mural. We contacted Diego’s estate, they gave us the study, and we reproduced the study on the tapestry. Then we took the colors off the tapestry, and did the whole room in the jewel-toned colors, so it’s as if you’re walking into the mural. The mural may have been destroyed by Rockefeller, but we’re showing what they wouldn’t show.
How did Public Arts, a basement multimedia nightspot in collaboration with Matt Kliegman and Carlos Quirarte of Smile, come about?
We weren’t quite sure what we were going to do with the space, whether we would turn that into a swimming pool. Nightclubs are a young [person’s] business. I’ve been there and done that, and I wasn’t really into just redoing [one that’s been done]. Public Arts is a new ideal, which is why it was so exciting to me. It is also another thing Airbnb can’t do. And it also gives the essence of the city—you’re capturing the energy of that city or location. But I wanted to do an iconic entertainment space that was more than just dancing, socializing, and drinking.
People always want to socialize; they always want to dance. It’s part of the human tradition. But I wanted to bring it forward and do something that hadn’t been done before. We were very mindful about the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)—art, theater, music, movie screenings, public readings. We are also mindful of what the coffee houses did in the ‘50s, as a place for dates and dialogues of current issues. We thought if we put that all into one space, offering culture to people but not in very accessible way that would segue into a social and dancing facility, it was a new kind of nightclub. And that’s what we were trying to do. I’m very excited about it because it is the first new idea in nightclubs since, I think, Studio 54. I’ll probably do a bunch of them in all the hotels we do.
And did New York firm Bonetti/Kozerski work with you on that?
They collaborated with us in general throughout the hotel. They had areas where they focused on a bit more, like Trade, the store. And then helped and supported our in-house design studio, which took the lead on the design. And Herzog & de Meuron did the architecture and interior architecture. It really is a collaborative effort. We’re all trying to do the best thing. By way of example, in the restaurant, [Herzog] did the freestanding kitchen with the three ovens. But [my team] chose the tile, the grout, and the banquettes, and we used one of the chairs that they designed. Working with us is a little bit like having a team where you throw an idea out on the table and everybody jumps on it to come up with the best possible thing.At the end of the day, if the product is great, everybody gets credit. If the product isn’t so great, you can have all the credit.
How did you decide to collaborate with Herzog & de Meuron?
Like Jean-Georges, they don’t have a style. Every time they step up, every time they do a project, it’s different. They don’t have a design vocabulary. They don’t work in a certain vernacular. They do everything different, and so because of that I like working with them. They’re also sensitive to budget and timing and I find them easy to work with. I’ve done four projects with them. Every one looks different, and they’re just brilliant. Their level of intellect is really amongst the best architects of our time.
I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but with the cross beams and the columns, there’s just this amazing rhythm to the lobby space.
That is very observant. That’s when great architecture works. It’s subtle. You can’t even capture it in photographs because you can’t match what it feels like to be in the space. Like when you see a sculpture by an artist, you can’t take a picture of it. You’ve got to be there because there’s some kind of tactile interaction. Nobody comes in and says, ‘We love the rhythm of the ceiling,’ but that’s one of those things that makes this space dynamic and special, and it was very, very hard to pull that off with all the HVAC, the ducts, and the electrical and all the structural columns. It was a real project, and when you say that, it makes me think all the work was worthwhile.