In 1996, Griffin Dunne was getting ready to direct a film called Addicted to Love, with Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, and he met with a young production designer named Robin Standefer. He wanted the movie to have some of the cartoonish nineteenth-century-industrial qualities of the films of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet—who made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children—and Standefer, understanding immediately what he was after, took Dunne to a prop house in Brooklyn that “specialized in things like turn-of-the-century gynecological equipment and bottles of unguents and spindly old wheelchairs,” Dunne recalls. “I could have lived there.”
In a way, he still does. He loved the loft that Standefer and her then-boyfriend, art director Stephen Alesch, had created for the French ex of Meg Ryan’s character so much that he wanted to live in it himself. “It was so hot-shit that, at the end of the film, I bought everything,” he says. “The rugs, the bed. I live with it today.”
He then hired the couple, who’ve since married, to do the production design for his next movie, Practical Magic, with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Standefer and Alesch designed a three-story house that “looked like it had been there forever” and a kitchen somehow so profoundly satisfying that Dunne fielded queries about it afterward. (“You’re calling me about the stove, not the movie?”)
This is how these set designers began transforming the real world into something more pleasingly cinematic. Bullock, Ryan, and Broderick all “began circling,” says Standefer, wanting, like Dunne, to live in a set that didn’t have to be struck when filming ended. But nothing came of these conversations; there was always another movie to film.
Then, in 2002, Ben Stiller, who used them for Zoolander and Duplex (a film, appropriately enough, about the lengths New Yorkers will go to get the perfect apartment), asked the couple to think of building a place for him instead of doing another film. They’ve since designed four non-movie residences for the actor.
So they started a “buildings and interiors” firm called Roman and Williams (neither is a registered architect, though Alesch trained as one), named, with the same create-a-legacy ethic that has come to mark everything they do, after their maternal grandfathers. In 2004, in the midst of doing a Los Angeles house for Kate Hudson, they quit their rental in Silver Lake and moved back to the loft they owned in Noho.
They got their big break that year when André Balazs hired them to work on the interiors at his meatpacking-district Standard Hotel, including the Boom Boom Room. After that was under way, they were hired to remake Philippe Starck’s haute-1988 lobby of the Royalton, followed in quick succession by a commission to design the interiors of New York’s Ace Hotel. As their careers took off, they moved on to entire buildings, including a new brick condominium on the corner of Elizabeth and Prince Streets so contextual it’s nearly impossible to notice, and a just-announced 30-story hotel on West 57th Street that breaks ground in January. They get fan mail from people who aren’t real-estate developers and sometimes, they say, they get recognized on the street. All the while, they’ve been steadily building a New York that many New Yorkers have always fantasized was the city they lived in. It’s heirloom design, prop houses for living. They’re not alone in this: Keith McNally and Taavo Somer have been creating prefabricated backstories for your dining pleasure for years, while architect Robert A. M. Stern has shown the profit and prestige to be had in faking the prewar in new condo buildings. But Standefer and Alesch are comfort-architecture stars.
“They create an environment where even though it’s new, it seems to have inherited a history to it, a preexisting world that goes on,” says Dunne.
“I don’t invent a lot,” Standefer, 46, says intently. She’s a careful, coiled talker, the sort who often repeats your name to make sure she’s holding your attention. “I like to draw from the familiar and find new ways to express them.” Alesch, 45, leaves her to do most of the conversational selling, while quietly pencil-hatching the corner of one of his meticulous sketches of the already-built ground-floor restaurant for the Standard (tucked under the High Line’s girders), carefully smudging it for the right effect. “The thing with Stephen and I, we don’t really like design that much. I want to say we’re almost anti-design. We think more about the narrative, more about the experience, and the spaces sort of accumulate out of that.”
This is how they work: She talks, he sketches; she’s a designer who loves structure, he’s an architect who loves minutiae. But on everything, they both have to agree. We’re sitting in Roman and Williams’ little conference room on Lafayette Street, a stack of matted photographs and plans between us. The wall behind Standefer is frosted safety glass, like from an old factory or a creepy state hospital, framed in iron, and the shelves to her right are filled with inspirational knickknacks: an aluminum office lamp, some glass vases, fossils. They recently signed a deal to make a line of furniture for that ultimate popularizer of the Mad Men look for the home, Design Within Reach. It won’t resemble something Charles Eames created to furnish a mid-century Utopia. They describe it as being inspired by “early modernism, before it became totally stripped down.”