Jun 11, 2009

Philippe Starck/Ian Schrager: Designer Hotels

My last interior design case study, Naomi Leff/Ralph Lauren’s Rhinelander Mansion, served as a model of retail design as a cinematic experience, its interior spaces seamlessly integrated into Lauren’s sophisticated image-world. In this case study, I will trace the development of Philippe Starck’s New York hotel designs – the Royalton (1988), the Paramount (1990), and the Hudson (2000) – in order to explore further models of the 21st century interior. In partnership with entrepreneur Ian Schrager, Starck popularized the boutique “designer” hotel, creating original destinations that served to differentiate a Schrager/Starck hotel experience from a generic chain hotel stay. Starck’s acute semiotic sensibility redefined the contemporary hotel as an engaging and stimulating experience. Along with Lauren/Leff’s Rhinelander Mansion, the Schrager/Starck hotels exemplify a significant shift from an understanding of the interior as a functional architectural space to the interior as a space for staging experiences, and their impact is still significant twenty years later.

In its contemporary New York manifestation, the boutique designer hotel may be traced back to 1983, when entrepreneurs Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell engaged French designer Andrée Putmann to redesign Morgan’s Hotel. Putmann transformed an existing 1929 building into an informal but luxurious Manhattan destination, marketed via Putmann’s unconventional signature style (see image below). The hotel soon gathered a loyal clientele who appreciated the distinctive sense of place, intimacy and atmosphere. By the 1980s, hotel design had become impersonal, generic and predictable, and Morgan’s offered a sophisticated and original experience for the emerging design-conscious market. This new “lifestyle” market was one that Schrager and Rubell knew well. In 1977, the pair founded the legendary Studio 54, a nightclub renowned for its clientele of rock stars, movie stars, fashion models and “beautiful people”, exactly the kind of clientele who would later patronize their hotel ventures.
With the success of Morgan’s, Schrager and Rubell commissioned Philippe Starck to design the first of his New York trilogy, the Royalton. Not coincidently, Starck had designed nightclubs in Paris in the 1970s, but established a reputation in France as a chic interior designer with his 1984 Parisian café, Café Costes. However, it was Starck’s provocative, witty and conceptual design objects that made him the Andy Warhol of late twentieth century design. Along with other design celebrities of the 1980s and 90s such as Marc Newson and Tom Dixon, Starck transformed the popular status of industrial design from a technocratic, rational profession to a sexy, cultural one, drawing less upon engineering and systems logic and more upon semiotics and surrealism. Starck’s designer furniture and objects, such as his 1990 lemon squeezer, Juicy Salif, became totemic items for the yuppie generation. No longer simply functional, Starck’s furniture and objects were anthropomorphized, characterized by a sense of humor, irrationality and personality. He was thus an inspired choice for the design of distinctive New York hotels: like Putmann, he had French designer cache, but his flamboyant personality and growing celebrity status infused his furniture and interiors with that additional je ne sais quoi.

The Royalton

The Royalton was a rundown midtown hotel, coincidently built during the first Gilded Age (1898). Ninety years later, Starck’s brief was to redesign its interior for a young, globetrotting and design-conscious clientele who were bored with standard five star hotels. From the exterior, there was little to suggest a hotel – underplayed signage and a few subtle cues (such as a snake-like banister) seemed to confirm the idea that you needed to be “in the know” to find the Royalton. Inside, guests entered a long space, a royal-blue rug with a curious snakes and bird motif extending its length. A mahogany-paneled wall on the right was punctuated with shiny horn-shaped light fixtures, while to the left, a sunken lounge area was filled with Starck-designed furniture. Here, Starck’s signature tapered steel legs, and color scheme of white with orange, green and purple highlights, challenged the bland, practical furniture typically found in hotel lobbies.

A line of large, round columns provided rhythm and separation of the lounge area from the guest’s promenade along the blue carpet to the reception desk or elevators (both hidden out of sight). The blue carpeted corridor thus functioned as a kind of “runway” raised above the lounge, with Starck drawing upon the language of the nightclub or fashion show rather than the language of a conventional hotel lobby. Entering the Royalton involved a cinematic experience of traversing the runaway in full view of anyone seated in the lounge below.

Another highlight tucked away to the right of the entrance was a small bar area featuring a circular “private” room with a checkerboard pattern floor and black padded walls (see image above). The bathrooms were also unusual, with the men’s room featuring a long waterfall urinal and communal hand washing facilities (see image below). In the private spaces of the guest rooms, furniture and fittings were also designed by Starck in a similarly idiosyncratic manner. Starck’s fastidious attention to detail included handrails shaped like snakes, and the horn shape repeated on door handles, lamps and vases. The Royalton’s interior was marked by playfulness and surrealism, although of the mysterious and suggestive kind rather than the completely bizarre, and with a subtle sense of hedonism implied by the repeated snakes and horns.
Architectural critic Philip Arcidi noted that the Royalton’s staff were as carefully manicured as Starck’s designer interior: “This is a place where you can imagine yourself enrolled in a coterie of beautiful young people. You can blame that delusion on the staff, arguably the best-looking in any New York hotel. Appearance counts more than anything in getting a job here.” (Arcidi, p.80). The Royalton’s seamless image included not only the designer space and the designer staff but also its clientele. In its heyday during the early 1990s the Royalton was an important space that brought together local and global fashionistas, models, media and advertising executives, movie stars and rock stars. Infamous Vogue editor Anna Wintour was a restaurant regular, as were the Vanity Fair editorial crowd, movie stars such as Julia Roberts and Matt Dillon, and rock stars from Duran Duran to Madonna (see Slomin for further celebrity details).

Like the Rhinelander Mansion, the Royalton was a destination for a particular social group, and being one of the in-crowd was very much part of the appeal for both places. In this case, the in-crowd was culturally literate, with details such as postcards of artworks displayed on little stands in each room, and a library on the ground floor, stocked with glossy art and design books. For the extremely culturally literate, Starck painted the corridors to the rooms in Yves Klein Blue (although how many of the in-crowd would appreciate the reference is worth contemplating). Starck’s spatial design, as well as his sculptural furniture and fittings, appealed to the aesthetic sensibility of the image industry – a hotel was no longer simply an empty box filled with instrumental objects but redefined as an interactive environment, stimulating its inhabitants with expressive details, subliminal suggestions and a dramatic experience.

The Paramount

Starck and Schrager’s next New York hotel venture was the Paramount, completed in 1990 (note: Steve Rubell died in 1989, leaving Schrager to continue to build the lifestyle empire alone). Like the Royalton, the Paramount was an existing hotel, but with 610 rooms on 17 floors, it was much larger. Starck’s brief was to create a more accessible, “budget” designer experience in heart of the Times Square theater district. Additional amenities such as a children’s playroom, a gym, and a guest movie theater, implied a shift in clientele as well as budget – designer lifestyles might appeal to mom and pop tourists as much as to the Royalton’s “beautiful people”.

Like the Royalton, guests at the Paramount were greeted with typical understated Starck cues on the exterior. In the vestibule space between the street and the lobby, they were greeted by fresh red roses set into a marble wall (see image above). Once inside, guests found themselves in the spectacular volume of the Paramount’s lobby. In an aptly theatrical touch, the lobby’s main feature was a monumental staircase that ascended to a mezzanine level above. The off-center staircase was spot lit and framed by a platinum-leafed wall behind, providing a glamorous focal point that recalled a Deco-era Hollywood film set. As at the Royalton, Starck’s creation of a theatrical experience and the sense of looking and being looked at were “paramount”.

In the lobby’s center was a giant checkerboard rug upon which sat an assortment of designer furniture. This central lounge area comprised temporary perches for waiting to meet someone, check in or out, rather than a socializing space like the Royalton’s lounge. But unlike the Royalton’s all-Starck original furniture and fittings, here, Starck played the role of a curator by mixing an eclectic array of furniture forms, materials and colors –sofas by Jean-Michel Frank, upholstered chairs by Marco Zanuso, a wooden chair by Antoni Gaudi and even Marc Newson’s chaise lounge. This could be seen as Starck’s homage to historical and contemporary sources, but equally an acknowledgement of the growing appreciation of designer furniture by collectors, museums and Starck’s design-literate clientele.

The hotel’s rooms, though tiny (a standard room was 12 feet by 14 feet), featured white walls, ceilings and blinds to make the spaces seem larger. As well as a Starck-designed side chair, table and overhead lamp, the guest room’s main feature was an oversized print for a headboard. In a gilt frame, the giant reproduction of Vermeer’s painting “The Lacemaker” provided a playful and memorable experience, a maternal figure watching over guests as they slept (although this is the image most photographed, other rooms contained reproductions of alternative Vermeer portraits). With the oversized figure above each bed, Starck was engaging the inhabitant in a voyeuristic game, and curiosity aroused by the gaze is a key to his designer environments. For Starck, the creation of a particular hotel experience was described thus: “Being away from home is disorienting for hotel guests, but after settling them down, we want to give them pleasure with mental and visual jokes. If people look closely, they can discover the secret life and relationship between objects.” (Morgan, p.58-59). In both the lobby and in the Paramount’s guest rooms, Starck created seductive yet conceptual environments in which objects interact with each other and with the inhabitants, engaging the senses of the inhabitants as well as their imaginations.

The Hudson

The final Starck/Schrager New York hotel, the Hudson, was completed in 2000, and in many ways represents the culmination of Starck’s New York trilogy. As with the previous two hotels, the Hudson project involved retrofitting – in this case, the 1928 American Women’s Association clubhouse and hostel was converted into a 1000 room hotel. The New York designer hotel formula became clearer at the Hudson – minimal private sleeping spaces yet maximal public spaces. With an average 150 square feet for a queen-sized room, the dimensions of the private spaces were tiny. However, conceived as a kind of “urban resort”, the Hudson offered facilities including a basketball court, a volleyball court, a bowling alley, a boxing ring and an Olympic-sized pool. The attention lavished on the public spaces was spectacular, suggesting a lifestyle where private rooms are for sleeping only, and lifestyle living takes place in full public view.

Just off Columbus Circle, the brick building’s exterior was downplayed, with no signage but instead a curious blank façade punctuated by a luminous yellow door, a strip above and a row of small windows. The guest’s journey into the Hudson began as if entering a science-fiction film, up steep escalators through a neon yellow tunnel. At the top, the guest entered what looked like some kind of conservatory, with dark wooden floors and exposed brick covered in ivy. Ahead, a sixty-six foot long solid oak reception counter carved with Art Nouveau-inspired forms sat below a glittering Ingo Maurer chandelier fitted with hologram bulbs. Beyond the reception area, the designer public spaces included a library, the bar, the courtyard garden and a restaurant.

Perhaps the most impressive of these were the bar and the library. The glamorous bar featured illuminated floor tiles, a ceiling fresco by Francesco Clemente, and between the two, Starck’s ultimate collection of designer furniture – Louis XV armchairs covered with fluorescent fabrics mixed it with Jurgen Bey’s Tree Trunk Bench, Starck’s own ghostly Louis chairs met a host of other design classics (see image below). Starck’s eclectic designer furniture in a nightclub atmosphere with suitably designer staff and designer prices certainly made for an experience. No less full of Starckian visual puns, the library featured a large pool table over which a hung an oversize domed lamp by Ingo Maurer, while walls of bookshelves were stocked with both real and obviously fake books. On the wall, large photographic portraits by Jean-Baptiste Mondino depicted cows wearing fashionable hats by Chanel and Dior – both a sly reference to mad cow’s disease of the time, and perhaps also a playful Starck pun on the clientele. In both spaces, Starck’s play with scale, visual puns and the semiotic language of interiors (such as his playful references to the Victorian-era library as a “masculine” space for retiring after dinner), created a sophisticated designer environment.

Starck’s objects in both spaces functioned less as practical furniture and fittings and more as interfaces for communication, both constructing spaces and giving them particular characteristics. Design critics Pascale Sassagnau and Christophe Pillet argue that Starck’s objects (and we could add his spaces) comprise “scenographies”: “Starck’s ‘scenographies’ of objects share with the spaces of science fiction a feeling of strangeness which derives from the de-personalization of their environment… In Philippe Starck’s work the gaze becomes the major function, by displacement of the field of signification. The staging of the gaze gives objects fictive development possibilities because it is the instrument of all projections and identifications.” (Cassagnau and Pillet p.11) Starck’s interior spaces as “scenographies” are exemplified by the Royalton’s runway, the Paramount’s staircase, and the Hudson’s illuminated bar and library – all built up layers of signification and engaged with the fantasies of their inhabitants. His “staging of the gaze” in his New York hotels was both stimulating and disorientating, the designer experience essential for the construction of particular identities.


If the Schrager/Starck hotels created unique destinations as a challenge to the generic hotel chain experience, it seems ironic that Starck-designed hotels multiplied through the 1990s and beyond, including Miami’s Delano Hotel (1995), Los Angeles’ Mondrian Hotel (1996), London’s St Martin’s Lane Hotel (1999) and Sanderson Hotel (2000), Hong Kong’s Jia (2004), and most recently, the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills (2008, see image below). As designer hotels became mainstream with the turning of the new century, part of the Schrager/Starck legacy has been imitation by the competition – Starwood Hotels and Resorts hired architects Ricardo Bofill and Charles Gwathmey to design boutique hotels for their W Hotel chain, for example. And Schrager himself added another New York destination in 2007 in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel – the pseudo gothic and “bohemian” Gramercy Park Hotel. Most recently, and perhaps most ironically, Schrager has entered into a partnership with Marriott International to create Empire Hotels, a new global chain of boutique hotels.

Finally, despite this legacy, the fate of the first two Schrager/Starck hotels in New York is worthy of brief reflection. In 2007, the Royalton was redesigned and completely de-Starckified, a move which raised both a brief protest in the design press and the question of interior design heritage – should historically significant interior spaces be preserved? It seems that in New York, while architecture (defined as the exterior façade of buildings) is important enough to be landmarked for preservation, interiors are not (there are only a handful of officially landmarked interiors in the city). There was less media attention when the Paramount was also de-Starckified this year, with Starck’s distinctive guest room furniture and fixtures (including the Vermeer on the headboard), replaced by standard hotel furniture and a prominent flat-screen TV. While both the Royalton and Paramount were significant interiors, it seems their de-Starckification confirms the transitory nature of the 21st century interior. Beyond simply a change in taste, the fate of Starck’s interiors also confirms that the experience he and Schrager orchestrated twenty years ago no longer fits with the aspirations and fantasies of a new generation.


Arcidi, Philip, “Hotel Hauteur: Two Models from Manhattan: The Royalton and the Paramount”, Progressive Architecture, Vol. 74, No.2, Feb. 1993.

Barbaran, Regina and Stephen Robert Frankel, “Far Out Inns”, Metropolis, Vol. 10, No. 4, November 1990.

Bernstein, Fred A., “Remembering the Royalton”, Interior Design, 9/17/2007, online here.

Cassagnau, Pascale and Christophe Pillet, Beef, Bretillot/Valette, Matali Crasset, Patrick Jouin, Jean-Marie Massaud: Starck’s Kids?, Editions dis Voir, Paris 1999.

Cohen, Edie Lee, “Paramount”, Interior Design, December 1990.

de Vleeschouwer, Olivier, New Hotel Design, Paris: Telleri, 1998.

Morgan, Conway Lloyd, Starck, New York: Universe, 1999.

Rawsthorn, Alice, “Fire and Ice”, ID Magazine, March-April 1996.

Stein, Karen D., “Repeat Performance”, Architectural Record, Vol. 179, No. 1, Jan 1991.

Slomin, Jeffrey, “Other Voices, Other Rooms, Black Book, 27 January 2008. Online here.

Photos and plans of the Hudson at Architectural Record, online here.

The post-Starck Royalton interiors featured in Metropolis, December 2007, online here.

1 comment:

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