The Urge to Create: In Conversation with Ian Schrager

On the occasion of the recent opening of Ian Schrager’s latest EDITION Hotel, this one in the much-maligned New York neighbourhood of Times Square, our managing editor Philip Annetta spoke to the legendary creator of Studio 54, the Palladium, Morgans Hotel Group and many more

Image by Chad Batka

Image by Chad Batka

Design Anthology: This is EDITION number ten of a mooted one hundred, plus you’ve created your own hotels and many projects as a developer and designer. Are you still learning?

Ian Schrager: Of course. And evolving. Working with Marriott in and of itself is an expansive experience for me, so still learning, still refining the craft. Always.

There’s been a lot of scepticism about opening the hotel in Times Square, and I guess you’re aware of that. Did it impact your decision making?

You know, I’ve been dealing with scepticism my whole life and I’ve also been dealing with hotels, nightclubs and luxury apartment buildings in unlikely locations — creating neighbourhoods — and I know better than anybody else that if you build something special and unique and distinctive then people will come to the moon.

I’ve already had a number of projects in and around here — the Royalton on 44th Street, which up to then was unsafe to walk on. And the Paramount on 46th Street. The only thing in Times Square at that time was the Marriott Marquis and the Paramount Hotel — that whisky bar was where Rande Gerber met Cindy Crawford, and there were all these stylish, chic people walking through Times Square to get to the hotel, to the whisky bar. Studio 54 was in this neighbourhood, before Robert De Niro was in Tribeca it was a truck stop, then there’s the East Village and the West Village west of Seventh Avenue and the meat market and Wall Street and Columbus Avenue and on and on. The city is like an ebbing and flowing river, and when I hear that type of thing it’s preposterous. Let them come tonight or tomorrow night or the night after and see all the people that are here and see if that’s questioned. That, to me, interests me, upsetting the status quo.

You referred to building a neighbourhood. Is that how you approach things?

No, I don’t think like that. I’m not a real estate guy — I don't go into a neighbourhood and buy everything around it. I’m very product-driven, you know, do something great and it lifts the tide. 

I remember when I did the Delano in Miami Beach, the hotel next door was available for three million. My partner said ‘buy it, buy it!’ But I wasn’t excited about doing another hotel there at the time. Do a great product, that’s the credo. Everything else gets taken care of. 

OK. But knowingly or unknowingly you’re building third spaces — you’re really strong on bringing people into the lobby and doing things on the ground level — and in modern cities there’s this constant question of whether the third space is a good space. And do we even have a third space?

You know, fashions change but the human condition doesn’t change. Ever. Socialising is a human urge. I don’t care if it’s dating over the internet, you know, all those things change but they don't change the basic urge to socialise and meet people. So to me, staying in a hotel and having a microcosm of the best that that city has to offer right downstairs in the lobby just made a lot of obvious sense.

And it’s not a totally original idea — that’s the way hotels used to be. But then the real estate guys, they couldn’t figure out how to make any money with food and beverage — it’s too labour-intensive for them, so they got rid of it all. Then the bars and the restaurants and everything became boring to be profitable. It used to be that the restaurant and event spaces in hotels, they were like the social centres of the cities they were located in. Those great hotels like The Plaza in New York… but we got away from that. So I just thought, you know, let’s do it again. But let’s do it in a modern way.

It seems boutique hotels always try to bring a sense of place more than you get with a big chain hotel. Do you think that’s more crucial than ever? Especially given that cities are getting more homogenous and that we’re in an era where I can go online and book someone’s apartment in Madrid tomorrow. So is it more important than ever for a boutique hotel to actually curate the best of a city like that?

I think you can book an apartment wherever it is, in Madrid or Barcelona, but you’re not going to get the community social space and the public space that a hotel has to offer. Airbnb, which I assume you’re referring to, they can’t do that and that’s a critical structural element of a hotel and it plays to our strengths, and I think that has to continue. Whether cities get homogenous or don’t get homogenous, there’s always diversity, whether it’s in the suburbs or in the mountains or in the desert it doesn’t matter – you have an elevated product with an elevated experience, it will attract people who are interested in being a part of what they think is going on that manifests the zeitgeist, that manifests popular culture – it’s just an obvious thing to me, it comes as second nature.

As far as that goes, and you can see that in evidence here, the rooms are really subdued. It’s Yabu Pushelberg and yourself, and they’re very calm, very minimal, but then the public spaces, that's where the pizzazz is.

Well, it’s a different function. I think the room is supposed to be a sanctuary where you sleep and eat and bathe, you know, you’re coming in here rest and to kind of recharge and regroup. I find it more difficult to do the rooms because they’re not very forgiving. If you make a mistake, you go in to shave and you bend your elbow into the shower door, where the public spaces are more operatic, they’re more flamboyant, more dramatic, more forgiving. We’re not quite sure how they’re going to be used specifically but I think they’re supposed to complement each other, you know, where the public space is supposed to make the room look better and the rooms are supposed to make the public space feel better because it’s an outlet – it’s like a very tight concept. Originally we were toying around with the idea of black and white here – you see it in the lobby. Originally these rooms were black and white. I didn’t think that worked in the rooms. It didn’t feel calming and comfortable. You never know what’s going to work.

That’s true, not till you see it. So talk me through the process with Yabu Pushelberg.

They were part of the team, but I can’t delegate to them responsibility for doing a successful product, whether it’s the room or whether it’s the public space or whether it’s the towels or the sheets or whatever, you know. There is no detail, no matter how small or insignificant, that we didn't consider or contemplate. And I also work with a very talented team of people in my office. I think you’ll find this room and this public space is different from other Yabu Pushelberg spaces.

It does feel that way. So do you start with a very strategic idea? You also worked with Madison Cox on the garden design, but you have experience designers as well — that’s The House of Yes for the live shows — and you’ve designed down to the curation of the music. Do you start with that very strategic approach?

I do, but I didn’t do it so much with The House of Yes, because that’s a new medium. They’re doing something new and original down there, there’s something new and original going on with entertainment period — that whole industry, content, is undergoing radical change, you know. I relied on them — I wasn’t sure what they were going to do even, to tell you the truth. But, you know, we agreed on an idea that was a collaborative effort to rethink, restructure a performance that’s chaotic, evolves, changes. Every performance is different — it doesn’t follow the traditional theatrical structure of a play. We agreed on that, but they really did all of that because I didn’t really have any skill set in that area. But even there, when it came to the lighting I was tempted to get involved, but you know I’m very tentative because it’s their gig. There’s no other place in the hotel that I could say it is anybody else’s gig.

It’s funny to hear you say that that’s not really your thing when you you’ve come from nightclubs…

Yes, that might be, but the actual show itself, that’s their idea.

Speaking of which, where did the idea for the jumbotron come about? To show the stage shows on the building?

It was part of the real estate transaction. But, you know, our idea for that is to use the jumbotron with no commercial purpose — we’re not selling anything, you know, we’re elevating the experience for all the people and for free. It’s not unlike what Andy Warhol did for art, making it accessible and taking the pretention out of it. It’s just great to see something up there that doesn’t sell anything! You know, it’s just visual, stimulating. It’s a civic-minded thing, and we really enjoy it and we’re going to get a bunch of young people to do a lot of great stuff with no purpose in mind other than entertaining people, just making people smile. No purpose, but…

But you can walk on the street in a busy commercial area and feel like you're not being sold to.

Which I think this whole area needs — to leave some of the touristic things that are going on here, you know, the appeal to the lowest common denominator. Not the lowbrow and highbrow mix — that we love. But it needs to be elevated — I think it needs to go back to what it was in the 20s and 30s and 40s where it was a very naughty but avant-garde cultural area. I think that — you’ve got to understand what’s going on over here — there’s the theatre district, Tin Pan Alley where all the songs were written, the Brill Building where all the rock and roll got written, the jazz clubs which are just as prominent as the ones up at the Cotton Club, the Metropole, Birdland, Roseland, the Paramount Theatre, where Frank Sinatra and all those people performed — I mean, it's a cultural centre.

I don’t think people realise what was going on over here — Madison Square Garden was part of it too, originally. Everything was here. It was a cultural Mecca. It was the crossroads of the world — you came to New York, you came to Times Square. And so it had a bad period — had the dark ages, I suppose — now hopefully it’ll come back.

On a personal note, you went to university and studied law. What happened? What led to all this?

I studied law because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. How can you be? How can you know what you want to spend the rest of your life doing? You know, the only thing you can do is get out there, start with what you know and things happen. I went to law school because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I thought no matter what I do it would be helpful. And then, you know, I see people waiting on line at clubs — that was just when the baby boom generation had come in to New York, the sexual revolution was in full bloom, people were going out — and I thought, here are people waiting on line to get in to nightclubs, taking all sorts of abuse before they got in! [laughs] That was the business I wanted to get in to. Life is… you can’t connect the dots till later, you can’t make sense of it till later. That’s what I found.

OK, and I want to finish with one last design-related question. There’s a school of thought that nobody opens a hotel for pleasure — it’s for commercial reasons. Because a hotel has to make sense operationally, has to make sense commercially, has to make sense from a usage point of view, still has to look good.

I don’t really believe that. All the great hoteliers in the past were hotel people, you know, Statler, Issy Sharp from Four Seasons, Portman, Bill Marriott, they loved to do hotels. You know, maybe the finance guys don’t care for anything but for the numbers, but that hasn’t been my experience. I like to create — it doesn’t have to be a hotel, could be anything. Could be an apartment, could be a nightclub, could be anything, but I enjoy it, and yes, it has to work financially or else you don’t get another opportunity. But I’m still doing what I’m doing because I love it, and I’ve got a job I would take if I didn’t need one. 

So that sounds like a rather bleak, pessimistic view of things, and it hasn’t been my experience. The great hoteliers are all people who like to create hotels. Kemmons Wilson, the guy that did the Holiday Inn, they all were creative guys. You have to make money or you don’t get an opportunity to do it again. That simple. But you can’t do it just for making the money — it’s a perversion of the process. You have to do it for doing something great. You know, Steve Jobs said he didn’t care how much people made, he cared about what you made, and I don’t think he was doing that because he had the most valuable company in the world maybe — I don’t think so. He cared about what the insides of the machines looked like — nobody even saw them, you can’t open them! So I don’t believe that.

Text / Philip Annetta
Images / Courtesy of EDITION Hotels