Standefer is on a mission to create the familiar, even if it comes at the expense of someone else’s heritage. When Roman and Williams overhauled the famously abstract and hard-edged Starck lobby in the Royalton, they turned it into something groovy and comfortable, but not necessarily startling. “I hate to say it, but if you remember walking into that lobby before we redid it,” says Standefer, “it was terrible. From a pure physical point of view. I’m not talking about stylistically; it just ached, terribly.” (Starck wasn’t happy, complaining to the Times: “I think if you are lucky enough to own an icon, you shouldn’t kill the icon.”)
They had little use for the ache of the new. “I don’t want to be tabula rasa,” she says. At the same time, they don’t want to be known for a particular style either: Roman and Williams will do whatever they’re hired to do, whatever makes sense for the film the client sees himself (and his future customers) in.
This collaborative ethic is why Balazs hired them to work on the interiors of the Standard—that retro-monument to the exemplar of tabula-rasa modernity, Brasilia. It was itself designed, by the Polshek Partnership, to look like it had been atop the High Line for decades. Balazs’s friend Griffin Dunne recommended them. “We don’t look to designers to provide creative direction,” says Balazs. “What was so nice about Roman and Williams when I met them: They had no style then. They’d basically done a kitchen or two and, other than that, a film set.”
Which isn’t exactly accurate, but then Balazs is a bit annoyed at Standefer and Alesch for writing an open letter to the website Curbed.com arguing about who gets to claim credit for the Standard’s interiors—Balazs’s longtime collaborator Shawn Hausman or Roman and Williams. (“Shawn dropped in on only a few meetings over the five-year design process, never visited our offices or met with us privately, never put pen to paper on this project and never approved or corrected any sketch or working drawing,” they wrote. “Therefore, he should not be given credit for the design.”) Balazs dismisses this, saying loftily that “the hallmark of a good collaborative team is that you almost forget who originated the idea.”
The most successful of the interiors is the Boom Boom Room, the Standard’s penthouse party chamber. The mood there is very Nude for Satan, according Alesch, referring to the 1974 Italian B-movie. Balazs, they say, wanted it to look like the inside of a Bentley. Ultimately, its visual ethos was grounded in the groovy corporate glamour of Warren Platner (“White turtlenecks and gold necklaces,” says Alesch), who designed the interiors of Windows on the World, which also opened in the early seventies. And the Boom Boom experience, especially looking south to the harbor, is not unlike the old Windows. Balazs says it was supposed to evoke the Rainbow Room.
Even as the Standard was going up, Balazs’s former business partner, Andrew Zobler, had bought an old SRO with partners on 29th and Broadway with the idea of turning it into a hotel. He wanted to bring in the people behind the Ace hotels in Seattle and Portland to run it and had asked the Ace team whom they’d hire to be the architect. Alex Calderwood, one of the Ace’s founders, called Serge Becker, one of the people behind the restaurant La Esquina, who told him to call Roman and Williams. As it turns out, among the pictures the Ace founders had on their “inspiration wall” was a photograph from a magazine of Alesch and Standefer’s bedroom.
Unsurprisingly, Calderwood shares Roman and Williams’s quasi-academic mystical design language. “Narrative is a very, very important word both for us and them. We like to explore and celebrate a narrative in terms of an item or object,” he says. “We share a mutual interest in kind of manufacturing techniques and materiality and an appreciation for a sense of history but not being slavish to an absolute re-creation. It hopefully feels like it was collected and curated over time, has a sort of residual feeling.”
Zobler is just happy that, even if it’s an accident, the Ace is the lobby du jour. “I think their style fits perfectly into the post-recession reality,” he says. “Comfortable and inclusive. It’s not cold or like a nightclub. It’s inviting.”
Which isn’t to say Roman and Williams always gets respect from their peers. One prominent city architect allowed that they were “contextual” but refused to say more, not wanting to “resort to a string of verbal abuse.” Another, Enrico Bonetti, whose firm, Bonetti/Kozerski, works in the minimalist style that was until recently popular for luxury projects, notes that “it’s not strange that in times of depression, people look back to the past.” Still, “I’m a little jealous that now they’re everywhere.”