Boutique Iconoclasm

As the design hotel that launched a wave of imper­sonators, Philippe Starck’s Royalton in midtown Man­­hattan could have been considered an untouchable icon. But that history didn’t stop its owner, Morgans Hotel Group, from ordering a gut renovation. “The expectations of guests have been raised over the last twenty years, from when the first ­boutique hotels became prominent,” says Mari Bale­strazzi, Morgans’s vice president of design. “It takes a little bit more to impress a guest. People have seen a lot of things.” To give those world-weary travelers a refreshed destination (and make the hotel a hotspot once again), Morgans tagged New York architecture and interior-design firm Rom­an and Williams to reimagine the public spaces.

Where Starck’s 1988 scheme was a see-and-be-seen marvel of conspicuous contemporary design, Roman and Williams have opted for a sumptuous, laid-back vibe. Gone are the French provocateur’s signature tusk tables and famous—or infamous—catwalk-style promenade. Instead, there is a monolithic fireplace of striated blackened steel and cozy seating arrangements where craft and materiality are at the fore. “We wanted it to be known simply as the Royalton,” says Stephen Alesch, who runs Roman and Williams with partner Robin Standefer, “not as a Starck hotel or a Roman and Williams hotel. The poor company has been under that thumb for so long.”

The only obligation Standefer felt was to deliver something new. “We were aware of this whole Starck iconic-boutique-hotel reputation, but things naturally run their course,” she says. “You can’t just give that kind of place a partial face-lift—you’ve got to really go for it.” Where the long narrow lobby was once exhibitionistically open, it is now sliced into intimate alcoves. There are handmade touches throughout, from overbuilt steel-and-brass chairs to handblown glass-globe ceiling fixtures as well as vintage finds, like a massive geometric steel screen that was the exoskeleton of a 1960s building in France. “We wanted it to be about small textures and details,” Standefer says. “It has the sensuality of good craftsmanship. It’s less about a scene or an attitude—it’s just a cool, sexy place you want to be.”

A similarly cozy transformation has swept the ground-floor restaurant, where Manhattan powerbrokers once dined in plain view of mere mortals shuffling through the lobby. Lightening colors draw your eye toward the new Brasserie 44 “like a moth to a flame,” Standefer says. The carpet underfoot graduates gently from dark to light, and the wood changes from deep rosewood to mahogany to teak. The restaurant has a nautical feel, with teak-and-leather banquettes that have rounded edges similar to the curved rails of old surfboards (surfing is one of Alesch’s favorite pastimes) and are topped by rope partitions reminiscent of spirograph drawings.

Starck’s touches haven’t disappeared from the Royalton altogether. While the guest rooms have been updated by Charlotte Macaux Perelman, a former Starck employee who has since gone solo, his influence is still recognizable (the tusk motif remains). That’s because, the company insists, the changes aren’t a backlash against Starck. “It wasn’t an aesthetic decision, but more an ethos—we are a company that wants to push the envelope and find emerging talent,” says Balestrazzi, noting that Morgans is now working with designers Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz and Marcel Wanders on new projects. “We needed to take the risk and move forward.”

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