July 1, 2009
Style & Substance
Anachronistic tastes land Roman & Williams two of New York’s hottest hotels—and a quiet, little brick apartment building that looks like it might be more than a century old.
On a cool, damp morning in New York, Roman & Williams—the noms de guerre of the husband- and-wife designers Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer—stand on a Nolita street corner looking up at a brand-new building of their own creation. With wood-framed, double-hung windows, intricately detailed brickwork, and the careful proportions of a Park Avenue manse, it seems to be a perfect replica of a time that has never existed. “Memory is important to us,” Standefer says, her hair in a tight bun, wearing a delicately ruffled black peasant blouse. Beside her, Alesch’s keys poke through the pocket of his thickly cabled sweater. With their stalwart building proudly behind them, they resemble the better-looking city relatives of the farm couple in American Gothic, the Grant Wood painting. Standefer grips a BlackBerry in place of a pitchfork, but the intense presence, the sturdiness, is the same.
We are living in quieter times. If the design pendulum is swinging back from its glittery mid-decade sheen, then Roman & Williams have caught it at its lowest point, closest to the ground, which is where the firm lies: in the world of found objects and craftsmen, in the thick line weights of Alesch’s charcoal drawings and the dirt of Standefer’s Montauk garden. Their spaces are an argument against flimsiness. “It makes me deeply unhappy to see Modernism falling apart,” Alesch says. “It feels like a broken dream or something. I’ve avoided it my whole life. There’s nothing more tragic to me than broken cutting-edge things.”
The catch is how cutting-edge they are—how hugely fashionable—at this precise moment. Roman & Williams is arguably the year’s hottest design team—a flimsy honor if ever there was one. Standefer and Alesch did Gwyneth Paltrow’s apartment (in lavender) and Kate Hudson’s house. In 2007 they replaced Philippe Starck’s famous lobby at the Royalton. This spring, they completed the interiors for two of New York’s most prominent new hotels: André Balazs’s glamorous new Standard, and the Ace, the first East Coast outpost of the eminently hip Seattle brand run by Alex Calderwood. And then there is this quiet, little brick apartment house at the edge of Soho, their first from-the-ground-up building and the project closest to their eccentric intent.
Peter Manning, one of the building’s developers, hired Roman & Williams when he realized that his corner of Soho needed neither a glass box nor some historical re-creation. “It’s not like I don’t love Modernism, but it’s very hard to do well, and its bastardized version is horrible—and would have been completely inappropriate in this neighborhood,” he explains. Yet he says the classicists out there are “so stuffy you can’t even breathe.” He went to see Alesch and Standefer on the recommendation of a friend—even though they had never built anything and couldn’t stamp their own drawings. “It was a total leap of faith,” Manning says, “but have you been to their offices?” With white-brick walls, dark-wood floors, solid-wood-and-black-steel furniture, and hefty glass-and-steel room dividers, the feeling is of such weight and substance that one worries for the structure of the ceiling below. “As a kid, I bought all my clothes at thrift shops,” Alesch says. “I liked the thickness of the pants. The wingtips were five pounds each. It’s always taken that I want to be-long to some other time, but I just want the thicker, better things.”
They design the same way, digging through the cobwebs of antiques dealers, brickworks, and their own imaginations. “To work with Roman & Williams is to go down the rabbit hole of a fanatical obsession to detail” is how Manning puts it. Their first battle was to push the building back two inches to accommodate the depth and texture they wanted for the facade—the kind of move known to make a New York developer apoplectic. At the Glen-Gery brickworks, in Pennsylvania, they searched the dead stock for molds with the right character, and then insisted on a “troweled-off face”—meaning that a man, rather than a machine or a wire, wipes the wet brick flat. It took months of assuaging the waterproofing consultant’s concerns about leaks and pigeon droppings to get the simple windows they wanted, with deep ledges and serrated jambs. “It’s really a carpenter’s window and not a window designed by lawyers and insurance companies,” Alesch says. Each one is seven feet tall, with sills thick enough for a picnic.
Inside, the couple specified what they call “taboo” details for New York condos, like door casing and shoe molding. The kitchen was a special case. The cabinets are painted a glossy black and have little wooden legs—but don’t call it a country kitchen. “It has been so difficult for the owners to accept, especially on a condominium project,” Standefer says. “There are not any precedents for this. It’s a truly original design. We’ve had that kitchen in our heads for ten years. It’s, like, ‘Throw the research books and the tear sheets away!’ We have lived long enough and thought about it long enough to know what we want to do.”
“They’re sui generis,” Manning says. The building’s marketing team calls the result “bespoke”—and one-bedrooms start at $1.5 million—but the designers dismiss the term out of hand: “too precious, too Victorian, too show-offy,” Standefer says. “Things that get labeled quickly can get tired. We both want to create an environment that’s hard to put your finger on, that’s hard to place in a time period.”
In the months after 9/11, Alesch—like every other architect—sketched his own version of the Freedom Tower: a Gothic skyscraper that could have been out of a 1930s comic book. “I just wanted it to be intense, shooting lightning bolts into the sky,” he says. Alesch, now 43, grew up surfing off the beaches of Malibu and Santa Monica. After college, he got a job doing architectural drafting and applied to the Southern California Institute of Architects. He was accepted, but never enrolled. “I was like the Jewish grandpa in my peer group,” he recalls. “I had a big heart for hand drawing and traditional architecture. There was no way I could contemplate having that broken apart.” On a visit to New York one summer, he was walking around in a T-shirt when an old man came up to him and said, “What are you doing in your underwear?” Alesch thought to himself, This is where I want to live.
Standefer, 44 years old, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the late 1980s, she bounced around the New York City art world, working the desk at the Leo Castelli Gallery and in James Rosenquist’s studio. When she was 24, a friend recommended her as an art consultant for a movie. One afternoon she led Martin Scorsese up to the East Village garret of the artist Chuck Connelly, whose paintings became the centerpiece of “Life Lessons,” Scorsese’s section of the New York Stories triptych. (The other directors were Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola.) Standefer went to Hollywood—never giving up her apartment in New York, she emphasizes—and quickly worked her way up from consultant to production designer, meaning she was responsible for the entire visual look of a film. Realizing she could only do so much with words, Standefer went looking for an architect to help with renderings. Alesch showed up for an interview. Throughout the ’90s they worked on films together, becoming known for sets so real they looked like locations. “We were very interested in creating a world for those actors and that director that did not feel escapist at all,” Standefer says. They married in 2005 in New York’s City Hall, followed by lunch at Balthazar.
Roman & Williams was a side project, the name under which they’d make a piece of furniture between films. It comes from their maternal grandfathers: William Winters (hers) and Roman Alesch. After working with the pair on Zoolander, Ben Stiller asked them to design his 10,000-square-foot Los Angeles house. Kate Hudson and Elizabeth Shue followed. “Because they were movie stars, we were able to make a business out of it,” Standefer says. It might sound like a crass admission, but it’s classic Standefer. They carefully cultivate their image, pushing for press coverage—their bibliography runs two single-space pages—while maintaining an air of exclusivity; they don’t have a formal Web site, for example. And yet they are quick to acknowledge that they obsessed over how to present themselves in an interview—giving the sense that they’re not putting on an act, merely trying harder.
That wasn’t necessarily enough at the Standard. They picked up the job after beating out Yabu Pushelberg, and from the beginning there were a lot of opinions to balance. On top of the strength of André Balazs’s own vision—which means he is never an easy client—was the presence of Shawn Hausman (the designer of previous Standard ho-tels), Polshek Partnership (which was responsible for the building itself, a powerful, nearly brutalist tower that straddles the High Line park), and a team of in-house designers. The finished product is pure spectacle; the credit given to (and taken by) Roman & Williams is harder to parse. In the guest rooms, the tambour walls and garnet bathroom tiles are classic Roman & Williams, somehow simultaneously evoking ocean liners and Spanish castles. But the lobby, with its long, green catwalk stretching to the curb, seems far too glossy. “André had a challenge for us in that he didn’t want objects that carried a lot of memory,” Alesch says. “He didn’t want it to emote, to remind him of something else. We’re not the most nostalgic people ourselves, so it’s not a hard thing for us to be a little more icy or cleaner with our choices. We can leave nostalgia behind in a heartbeat. It’s no problem at all for us.” He doth protest too much. It’s easy to see that it’s not who they really are—in sharp contrast with the Ace experience, which by all accounts has been more of a mind meld with Calderwood.
The mini-chain’s first two properties—in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle—attracted national attention by capturing the zeitgeist of their own cities; every detail at the Ace, from the wool blankets to the wood trim, seemed rooted in the community. But that wasn’t going to come easy in New York, not least because of the property’s 326 rooms—compared to 79 in Portland and 28 in Seattle. “How do we retain that honesty, that authenticity, but scale it up?” Calderwood wondered. For inspiration, he ripped an image from a magazine of a cozy bedroom with an asymmetrically hung painting and charcoal walls. On his first visit to Roman & Williams’s office, he discovered it was their bedroom. “Right away I knew that if this was their personal space, the sensibility is so similar to the type of things we like,” he recalls. To build that out, Alesch and Standefer brought a truck up to the antiques markets in Brimfield, Massachusetts, and paid cash on the spot for furnishings—with no warranties on anything, only the expectation that the hotel would repair things themselves. An apothecary cabinet was refinished in high-gloss oil paint and installed behind the reception desk. A giant table became the centerpiece of the grand lobby, which feels like an old public library with walls blackened by lamp soot. In one corner, the designers installed a 45-foot stretch of wood paneling re-claimed from a Park Avenue apartment. They left the support bracing clearly visible—making it more like a movie set than an artifact. The Ace is carved out of the old Breslin Hotel, and they seem to welcome the ghosts (along with a few remaining long-term residents). “It’s something we always try to get into our work,” Alesch says. “It’s not completely finished. It’s not like a museum. It has holes in it. It’s very human.”
What they didn’t find, they made. The catalog of the giant industrial-supply store McMaster-Carr provided the raw materials (plumbing pipes and flanges) for light fixtures that show up in the lobby and again in the rooms. The lobby bookcases are their own design, made of steel and oak at a shop in Brooklyn. The plywood furniture in the rooms has its roots in the raw finishes of their house in Montauk. “They don’t let it get overly shellacked,” Calderwood says. “It’s not banging out the furniture and then running it through the spray booth.”
In one of our final conversations, Standefer says, “I thought of something this weekend that I wanted to say to you.” Calderwood had stayed with them at their house in Montauk—he calls it “their laboratory”—as a short respite from the intense final weeks of the Ace’s construction. The visit seems to have been an occasion for soul-searching by both parties, not just about the hotels but about their deepest sensibilities—about who they are as designers and where, given these successes, they go next. “I’m finding that as I finish both [the Standard and the Ace] I’m very interested in each for different parts of my own psyche,” Standefer says. “There’s an escapist quality and cosmopolitan quality to the Standard. It’s more the Zoolander model, a fantasy. In the other, I find myself. I got into that Ace room, and it creates a platform to be you. I don’t feel like you’re escaping, but you feel comfortable. And that’s a very interesting difference to me.”