“A lot of people misunderstand what they see as our nostalgic-ness,” says Alesch. “We love older things because they’re better made. But we’re not Luddites in the sense of, um, just filament bulbs or a big block of ice and a fan.”
“We love the unused,” says Standefer, pointing to a detail of a door in a photograph of the Elizabeth Street condo.
“It’s beautiful, right? It’s a beautiful flange,” agrees Alesch, referring to an interesting, but nonfunctional, metal lip.
“All the bricks are dead stock, too. No one’s used them since 1930,” says Standefer. “They were like, ‘You want to use those?’ And we were like, ‘Yes, please.’ ”
“Sourcing is a huge part of what we do.”
“Going to wood shops or factories, digging through back rooms.”
Theirs is a connoisseurship sensibility, a journey toward quality. And they see respect for the past as being something essentially moral. “We are trying to take a role in the growing-up phase of this country,” says Alesch. “You know, growing up in the seventies and eighties—fun moments, for sure, but a low point in the culture of the Earth, especially in construction.”
The couple can dig through the vast Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts to find, say, the perfect glass panels from a 100-year-old schoolhouse to use as the ceiling for the private dining room of Andrew Carmellini’s new restaurant, the Dutch. Or they can design, for Cole Haan, the office-shoe division of Nike, a new store in Soho that “has some level of authenticity” and can “help customers to understand the history” of the brand, says Standefer.
“It’s taken twenty years to kind of shake those dumb, hippie seventies things of ‘never look back, only forward’; ‘history is meaningless’; ‘no regrets,’ ” says Alesch, who apparently has some issues with Maoism that he’s taking out on the drafting table. “We kind of feel like we’re just this first group of people to say there’s nothing wrong with looking back and moving forward …”
“Some architects were like, ‘Where did you copy that from?’ Really juvenile statements.”
“Concurrently,” says Standefer.
“It’s not like if you look back, you’re going to be stuck in a top hat and driving a Model T,” Alesch continues (although when you look at the Dickensian barista costumes in the coffee bar at the Ace, you might wonder if that’s the case). “My love of traditional architecture came from growing up in places like Arizona, where there’s, like, 7-Elevens and gravel. There was nothing to rebel against—anything old had been bulldozed. Even in L.A., there’s all this rebellion but no background. And I always said I want to help build that background,” he says. “I love rebellious artists, nihilist artists. But I decided I’m going to help build the new background that they can kind of terrorize.”
He was born in 1965 and started his life outside Milwaukee. “But when I was 2, my mom bailed on the house and, with my brother and me, moved downtown and kind of teamed up with the Black Panther movement. It was pretty intense and scrappy there then. My brother and I were the only white kids in our entire school.” In 1973, he and his aunts moved to a New Age community in California. (“The blonde sisters in the station wagon with all the kids and the little black babies driving to California. I mean, you have to have the vision,” says Standefer.) One of his mother’s sisters married the guru, Torkom Saraydarian, and Alesch didn’t have to go to school, “and when I did go,” he says, “I was sent home because I was so filthy.” Then they moved to Sedona, “because of the vortexes,” in 1982.
“Things need something to react to,” says Standefer, who grew up on the hippie-era Upper West Side. “But suffice it to say that I was with my parents in 1969 when they were smoking hash with a rug dealer in Morocco. It sort of goes on. There were always parties and traveling and hanging out with musicians and people at the house— ”
“We had no punishment,” says Alesch.
“No punishment; it was just ‘free to be you and me,’ ” says Standefer. “My mother was a model, young, and then stopped working. My dad trained dogs. Nobody did much work.”
Alesch and Standefer, unsurprisingly, are workaholics, with a firm named after his grandfather Roman, a painter, and her grandfather William, a jeweler. “Hardworking guys, working class,” says Standefer. “Old school, money under the mattress.”
“And our parents were like, ‘You want to be like them? They’re the ones that kicked my ass,’” says Alesch.
After André Balazs “jump-started us” with the Standard job, says Standefer, “we just got swept up in the boom. Everybody was building, everybody dug us.” Today, even though not much else is getting built, they are so busy, they’re turning down work. Consequently, they’ve come to define the retro look of the Great Recession.