The DrifterAlia Akkam • Photos by Nicole Franzen • December 4, 2017
The abandoned, circa-1950s motel in New Orleans’s Mid-City neighborhood was dilapidated, yet a trio of entrepreneurs—Jayson Seidman, Zach Kupperman, and Alex Ramirez—savvy in finances, technology, and real estate, saw promise in the crumbling structure. Eager to restore the motel to its Beat Generation heyday, they transformed it into the Drifter, a contemporary, 20-room sanctuary on an emerging, industrial swath of Tulane Avenue.
Seidman says that the Drifter’s “refreshing, minimal” aesthetic is meant to evoke nostalgia and “create a sense of space that is welcoming.” The inaugural property in the Drifter Hotels portfolio, which, Seidman points out, aims to expand to urban and rural locations around the world, captures the brand’s ethos: “a movement of small hotels that see the locals and guests who frequent the space as individuals. We believe the design should be calming, almost therapeutic, and not too visually distracting,”
New Orleans and New York-based Nicole Cota Studio—along with local architecture firm Concordia—looked not to the Drifter’s rundown past but rather “on what we wanted the hotel to become: new but timeless, playful but not kitschy, luxe yet low-key. I wanted this project to feel like it was connected and inspired by New Orleans in a way that I hadn’t seen other properties achieve,” says owner Nicole Cota.
An asymmetric awning and revitalized neon sign first greet guests to the property, where they eat and drink among a mix of white ceramic tile, stained plywood, and brass. They can also head to the pool area with its alfresco bar, cantilevered disco ball, and lattice wall that conjures Mexican architect Luis Barragán. A pink and green tropical mural and plentiful foliage dominate the lobby, just as the old parking lot is now carved into “a lush landscape that guides you through the property,” says Cota. “I love being reminded that we are in the steamy South.”
As a newcomer to the city, Cota’s design narrative for the Drifter weaves in touchstones that resonate with her—not the French Quarter clichés of wrought iron and gas lanterns but the “joyful, colorful, and weird” creativity that permeates New Orleans. She turned to local artists to fashion the furniture and lighting, and, to tell the building’s story from its conception through the decades, added design layers by sourcing items from the 1950s through the ’80s. Terrazzo in the lobby is the sole original material, prompting Cota to take design cues from the period and incorporate the wood ceiling and painted white brick.
In the guestrooms, shapes for the bed and desk call to mind architect Gio Ponti, while the inherited yellow popcorn walls and ceilings are now shrouded in troweled concrete, complemented by cooling cement tiles emblazoned with lively Oaxacan patterns. “There’s something nice,” says Cota, “about leaving the heat and humidity and entering these cool, gray rooms.