The Mercer lobby at dusk. A great hush envelops the room, as if there has been a demand that tones are kept classy and collegial, but over the faint clink of silverware on china, some things carry.
“The most important step after this conversation is to see Richard Serra . . . ”
“The political nature of the firm is such that you will not be able to develop those ideas autonomously . . . ”
“As it is written, this is a man who has never gotten his way in life, and we must have someone who reflects the vulnerability of that position . . . ”
In a corner nook, beneath the flattering white light of a rectangular hanging lamp, sits André Balazs, sybarite and businessman, the proprietor of the Mercer and a small empire of exceptional hotels, as well as a newly minted condo developer, or, in his parlance, a “creator” of “residences.” You could call him Soho royalty, and he would like that: Balazs has lived in the neighborhood since 1984, what some might call the beginning of the end, and he can tell stories of what it was like to live above the old Dean & DeLuca, just down Prince Street from where we’re sitting, or how, during a blizzard, he scaled a snowbank with Calvin Klein to visit Keith McNally in the semi-constructed Pravda, the three of them underground in the storm’s dead silence.
André Balazs is a small man and very handsome. This is his real name, though he is not French, as you might fairly assume. At 48, his face is barely creased with age, and there is nothing about him that is blemished—the shave is close, hair freshly cut, expensively understated clothes well pressed. A gray-stone pot of tea sits in front of him, and I order one as well.
“That’s good,” he says. “That’s good.”
It’s a compliment, I suppose, because Balazs is one of the city’s great authorities on sophisticated living. Creator, though it sounds silly, is perhaps the best description of what he does. He does not aggressively finance and acquire properties, and his forte is not managing properties or being a real-estate investor. He is a performer: Much like a nightclub impresario, his own investment is secondary to his ability to bring money and architecture together to create a significant hotel experience, and more than any other hotelier today, he has proved himself able to keep the cool people when they come. The Raleigh in South Beach, the Sunset Strip’s Chateau Marmont, Sunset Beach on Shelter Island, L.A.’s two Standard hotels, Hotel QT in Times Square—these are all his. Each provides a socially salubrious experience, a kind of swishy Club Med for young urban tastemakers. The obvious comparison is Ian Schrager and his battalion of boutique hotels, but Balazs’s hotels are far more unique and eclectically designed. He does a little advertising, and the press has been almost universally kind to him and his properties.
As careful as a politician in his speech, Balazs is quick to say that his hotels and new condos, Richard Gluckman’s One Kenmare Square and Jean Nouvel’s 40 Mercer Residences, are “not for everyone, but they appeal in a strong way to a very select group.” Very clever, Mr. Balazs, for who can resist when the select group has traditionally included movie stars, like his current girlfriend, Uma Thurman, or Russell Crowe, he of the telephone toss at a Mercer desk clerk this summer, or, perhaps, Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng, who stayed in the Mercer for months before they purchased their Soho apartment, now on sale for $28 million. The Murdochs commissioned Paris-based furniture and interior designer Christian Liaigre, designer of the Mercer, to design their entire apartment, “soup to nuts,” says Balazs. This morning, the “House & Home” section of the New York Times quoted Deng on her vision for her apartment. “We just thought we want something like that style [of the Mercer],” she said. “But better.”
“Ah,” Balazs says uneasily, sipping his tea. “That’s very, very sweet.”
Balazs’s hotels are wonderful, frivolous, artistically free, as true to the spirit of boutique-hotel godfather Morris Lapidus as good-time icons like the Paramount or Balthazar or the Maritime, but none of them will necessarily be landmarked buildings—they are about temporal experience, and some are only as good as the guests housed within. Today, Balazs wants to compete in a bigger game. One Kenmare Square, whose 53 apartments all sold before the interiors went into the building, was the initial gambit, and not everybody thinks it’s a masterpiece. “It’s a unique solution to the problem of the site,” says Balazs. The building has a wave in it like a modern Finnish vase and is set on a sorry excuse for a “square” on Lafayette Street below Spring. “If there was one thing I’d do differently, I don’t think the windows, the glass, is light enough—the darkness did surprise me,” says Balazs. “It gives it a slightly ominous look.”