Nightclubbing: Ian Schrager


Thirty five years ago, Ian Schrager’s legendary New York nightclub, Studio 54, closed its doors and the man himself — and partner Steve Rubell — headed off to prison for tax evasion. Who knew that this was just the beginning, with another nightclub to follow and designs on the hotel world that would change the industry. Just don’t call him a designer...


BLueprint

Words by Anthea Gerrie

In a New York minute you can capture a waft of that high voltage energy peculiar to Manhattan by pushing open a door in a back street in London's Fitzrovia. Enter the London Edition hotel and it's a blast of buzz soaring all the way to the doubleheight ceilings, a place where throbbing 21st-century bar collides with 19th-century baroque and not a reception desk in sight.

Nightclub Studio 54 was a massive hit, attracting huge crowds. Photo Credit: Peter L Gould
Nightclub Studio 54 was a massive hit, attracting huge crowds. Photo Credit: Peter L Gould

Ian Schrager says, I am not a designer. Photo Credit: Oberto Gili
Ian Schrager says, I am not a designer. Photo Credit: Oberto Gili

That could be because people are partying like it was 1999, when an Ian Schrager lobby was THE place to be seen, far more important than the guest rooms which topped it. Now, after perfecting his party trick of making hotel foyers double as destination bars thrice over in London and more than twice as many times in his native USA, he is hoping to conquer Asia with his visual, highly theatrical signatures.

Studio 54’s exotic interior featured tube banquettes, which moved on wheels. Photo Credit: Jamie Ardiles-Arce
Studio 54's exotic interior featured tube banquettes, which moved on wheels. Photo Credit: Jamie Ardiles-Arce

Studio 54’s famous banquettes, as seen from the bar. Photo Credit: Jamie Ardiles-Arce
Studio 54's famous banquettes, as seen from the bar. Photo Credit: Jamie Ardiles-Arce

Just don't call Schrager a designer - he hates the word, insisting in the new book celebrating his life's achievements that 'the work has never been about the design, it has always been about the product and the experience'. When we talk, he ventures a theory on how he created experiences so dependent on visuals without, seemingly, any technical skills. 'Steve Jobs wasn't an engineer, and it was Walt Disney's storytelling skills, not his animation, which made his company,' he says of his two greatest heroes, who he considers visionaries with a sharp eye for detail - like himself. Indeed, this supreme aesthete sweats the small stuff obsessively (a decade after John Pawson finished his apartment he is still agitating that the floorboards originally specified were the wrong colour, according to the Wall Street Journal); but he doesn't draw up plans, just expresses his vision and leaves it to the experts to deliver.

The art-deco-inspired bar had a glass-block water feature, which wouldn’t work on opening night. Photo Credit: Neal Slavin
The art-deco-inspired bar had a glass-block water feature, which wouldn't work on opening night. Photo Credit: Neal Slavin

Keith Haring at work on the Palladium’s soon-to be-famous vast signature backdrop. Photo Credit: Keith Haring Foundation
Keith Haring at work on the Palladium's soon-to be-famous vast signature backdrop. Photo Credit: Keith Haring Foundation

One of those experts would be Philippe Starck, of whose talents he was an early adopter for the strangest of reasons: 'I was tickled by visiting the restaurant of the Hotel Costes in Paris and seeing visitors come out of the lavatory looking bemused,' he explains. The fact that they were bemused because they didn't know how the sanitaryware worked would have put off most hotel entrepreneurs, but then Schrager was really a nightclub king, totally winging it when he decided to go into the hotel business 30 years ago. 'We both reflected and influenced the zeitgeist a little bit,' he says referring to Studio 54, the legendary New York nightclub that first made Schrager and his late partner Steve Rubell famous in the Seventies. 'You have to anticipate the collective consciousness and what resonates with people,' explains the law graduate who swapped the theatre of the courtroom for the greater glitz of the disco scene. 'You're not going to have a big hit unless you lead people to something they haven't seen or experienced before. But, you can't be too far ahead or they'll feel uncomfortable - you have to just hit that sweet spot.'

Pop surrealist artist Kenny Scharf created this playroom in the basement of Palladium. Photo Credit: ISC Archives
Pop surrealist artist Kenny Scharf created this playroom in the basement of Palladium. Photo Credit: ISC Archives

The Palladium entrance featured a Palladian staircase fitted with New York City sidewalk glass blocks. Photo Credit:Timothy Hursley
The Palladium entrance featured a Palladian staircase fitted with New York City sidewalk glass blocks. Photo Credit:Timothy Hursley

And only the look and the feel of a place could distinguish Studio 54 from any other disco, the two believed passionately. He says: 'The club business was difficult because you don't have a discernible product; its success was purely down to the alchemy you created in putting everything together.'


Japanese architect Arata Isozaki designed the Palladium as a building within a building. Photo Credit:Timothy Hursley.
Japanese architect Arata Isozaki designed the Palladium as a building within a building. Photo Credit:Timothy Hursley

Achieving this alchemy came down to instinct - with only six weeks to transform an old theatre space into one whose movable partitions spawned ever-changing configurations and effects. Schrager used scenic designers and theatrical sound and lighting experts, who had also lit bridges and buildings as well as stages. 'The club business in the early days was like the early days of rock'n'roll or of tech start-ups initiated in garages. We were completely undisciplined, but we did get exposed to the worlds of fashion, film, theatre, art and lighting.'

Edition London. Edition hotels are a new venture between Ian Schrager and Marriott. Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig
Edition London. Edition hotels are a new venture between Ian Schrager and Marriott. Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig

What he called 'an open-ended, anything-goes kind of atmosphere' did the trick - celebrities including Andy Warhol, Mick and Bianca Jagger and Debbie Harry rocked the floor, to which access was nominally inclusive, but in practice restricted to those oozing a fame or glamour quotient equal to the decor.

Rails and rigging, he says, were the key to creating ever-changing scenarios - he and Rubell hired not only Ron Doud, known for his cool Manhattan restaurant interiors, but also Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz, who had designed lighting for bridges and buildings as well as Broadway shows. 'It was their idea to treat the theatre as a theatre and use all of the existing resources, like the fly rails and rigging that allowed us to fly in and out various - and constantly changing - scenic effects, lighting effects and environments. It was a revelation and the lynchpin that led to all the special effects for the club.' They hired a different designer to create mood lighting for the rooms away from the action, and Schrager recalls: 'We never mixed the theatrical lighting of the dance floor with the ambient lighting of the architecture. They had different goals and required different skill sets.'

Edition London. Edition hotels are a new venture between Ian Schrager and Marriott. Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig
Edition London. Edition hotels are a new venture between Ian Schrager and Marriott. Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig

Other design stars included Richard Long, who created a site-specific sound system comprising tweeters hung from the ceiling and enormous bass speakers that sat among dancers on the floor: 'There was no attempt to hide them. We wanted a non-stop, full-on sensation. The building shook as a result...'

The massive success of Studio 54 led to a grandiose second club for which he admits to not having had an original idea. 'It was all down to Arata Isozaki,' he says of Palladium, a thrillingly fantastical building inside a building which cost the duo, who had spent only $400,000 creating Studio 54, a cool $10m in 1985.

Edition London. Edition hotels are a new venture between Ian Schrager and Marriott. Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig
Edition London. Edition hotels are a new venture between Ian Schrager and Marriott. Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig

A dizzying cross-cultural concept, described by New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger as 'one of the most remarkable pieces of interior architecture in New York', the club was approached via a Palladian staircase fronted in the glass blocks that line New York City sidewalks leading to a brightly illuminated arch decorated with Francesco Clemente frescoes. Schrager harnessed the power of technology with multimedia and video installations designed by award-winning visual-effects whiz Bran Ferren, who had worked on the movie Altered States, and commissioned artist-du-jour Keith Haring to create the vast backdrop which was Palladium's most enduring visual signature.

Schrager is proud of pioneering the concept of bringing art out of the gallery to the people in their pleasure palaces, if a tad dismissive of the artists themselves: 'Works by Haring and Basquiat were not essential to the look of Palladium; it was more the idea of using art, democratising it by showing it as something you didn't need to visit a museum to experience.'

Miami Beach Edition

Bringing art to the people was an idea Schrager had road-tested the year before Palladium, when he and Rubell, having served 13 months in prison for tax evasion, leaped into another business about which they knew nothing - one Schrager describes as 'a generic wasteland full of opportunity... formulaic, institutionalised and commoditised.'

Morgans opened in 1984, the transformation of a down-at-heel New York hotel, which would be the launch of a whole new genre. Rubell coined the term boutique hotel - small but functional, selling itself on the aesthetic of its public spaces and the hip crowd a theatrical approach would attract. Thus, Morgans was born with the help of a few exceedingly good names, including Giorgio Armani, who designed the uniforms. 'It wasn't about contacts; I just cold-called the people I wanted to work with and gave them my one-minute pitch,' says Schrager.

Miami Beach Edition

He called Andrée Putman, then known only to the fashion cognoscenti, who created a Twenties Parisian-style vibe for Morgans, her first hotel. The art was strictly of the time, however; Schrager decorated the guest rooms with Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, explaining: 'I found it interesting that an artist who took provocative sexual pictures also made these beautiful photographs of flowers.'

If Morgans was minimal, the Royalton, for which Starck's talents were summoned, was an iconoclast with its spectacular, theatrical lobby. Thanks to more clever tricks from Starck, the Paramount, finished by Schrager after Rubell, with whom he initiated the project, died in 1989, broke new ground by democratising design hotels with the notion of affordable chic.

Supported from the beginning by longtime business partner and old friend Michael Overington, Scharger no longer owns the early hotels. After completing further daring hotel transformations in Miami Beach, LA and New York, not to mention London's St Martins Lane and Sanderson, he formed an unlikely partnership, for one who has condemned the blandness of corporate hospitality, with the world's largest chain. It was a blatant attempt to stamp his print on the entire world, he admits: 'I did a deal with Marriott because I didn't think I had a footprint commensurate with the contribution I had made to the hotel business.

'I thought it would be fun to do something on a big scale. We're working on 20 Editions at the moment, and I hope we'll do at least 100.' Sanya, Shanghai, Wuhan, Delhi, Abu Dhabi, West Hollywood and Bali are all on the Edition list, not to mention four more in New York, a Times Square Edition and three more of the cheap, chic Public hotel brand he launched in 2011.

New York Edition

Yet he could be at risk of letting himself down; the guest rooms in the London Edition do seem bland with their signature wood panelling, and he confesses: 'Marriott wants what I do, but I wouldn't say I have totally free rein. I have to work within budgetary constraints, and the hotels have to be successful.'

He defends the almost shocking contrast between the pared-back guest rooms he is creating and the theatrical public spaces.'I am more into simplicity now,' he says. He insists he's certainly no minimalist: 'I don't want to live with windows that have no curtains. When I asked John Pawson to design my apartment it was the feel of his spaces that gave me a true appreciation of his work. I went to him for his use of light and proportions.' The comment on the feel of spaces is telling because, he emphasises: 'What I make is about the feel as much as the look of a place.'

So how does Schrager view himself, if not as a designer? 'I call myself a producer,' he snaps back, a thought he has amplified to Newsweek in the past as 'like... a coach, a mother, a father'. He may be a control freak with an almost pathological eye for detail, but his vision is more for the feel than the look of his creations, he emphasises: 'I aim to create an atmosphere so electric you can cut it.' He cites the palpable buzz he feels in New York, London, Paris and Shanghai: 'In great spaces, like Trafalgar Square and Central Park, they are like the stages set for performances that I aim to create in my hotels. You just enter and you can feel the magic.'

Surprisingly, he insists the magic is not down to design: 'The goal is to create experiences that people will remember, to touch them in emotional and visceral ways, to lift their spirits, to assault their senses and to wow them in tasteful ways. While design is one of the tools used to achieve these goals, it is not the most important. Design is like the special effects in a movie. If the movie is not well done or does not have all the necessary elements, the special effects will not save it.' The jury is out on whether Schrager's lobby-level pleasure palaces will continue to carry small and not always perfectly formed guest rooms into profit in perpetuity, but Schrager remains the go-to man to bring the hip crowd into the building in the first place.





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