How André Balazs is taking his empire of buzz into unexpected new territory.
Original URL: Conde Nast Traveler
by Lindsay Talbot
October 8, 2014
Photos by Douglas Lyle Thompson
Call him a ringleader, call him a real estate magnate, call him a restaurateur—just don’t call him a hotelier. How André Balazs is taking his empire of buzz into unexpected new territory.
When André Balazs was 22 years old, he checked himself into the Bowery Mission, a homeless shelter on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Though the red-brick building’s half-timbered, neo-Tudor facade was designed to look as inviting as a 16th-century English inn, the rescue mission was anything but—a last resort for the derelict and the down-and-out. “I stayed for ten days, as though I were homeless,” says Balazs, who was there undercover while writing his master’s thesis at the Columbia School of Journalism. “The Bowery was all sailors and flophouses back then.”
Much of the Bowery has changed in the last ten years: The famed rock-and-roll club CBGB has been turned into a John Varvatos boutique, and there’s a gleaming museum of contemporary art, but the street remains impervious to total transformation. The restaurant-supply wholesalers and the industrial lighting stores are thriving, and the Bowery Mission still stands. Now, that old tenement building on Fifth Street, just two blocks from the rescue mission, is the entrance to Balazs’s Standard East Village hotel. If you find it disorienting, that’s the point. The ceramic lamps hanging in the trees; the mismatched lawn furniture and kooky sculpture in the courtyard in the manner of an East Village victory garden; the colorful sidewalk café that Balazs says pays homage to a fast-disappearing downtown café culture, when Raoul’s, Cafe Gitane, and the Shark Bar on the Lower East Side were the places to go—it’s all so convincingly propped that even a local might think he’d stumbled into 1995.
Amid this artful bit of gentrification, it’s easy to forget that the 21-story-fritted-glass tower attached to the tenement was once the ill-fated Cooper Square Hotel, which Balazs bought in 2011 and has been slowly transforming into his fifth Standard. When the tower first went up in 2008, residents of the tenement, like the poet Hettie Jones, refused to vacate, forcing the developers of the Cooper Square to build around it. Balazs, however, decided to build through it. The 1865 structure, with its stained glass windows, was to him quintessentially East Village and therefore the perfect setting for a lobby that would offset the daunting scale of the tower and allow him to mix and match a host of nostalgic references: a concierge desk framed by red globes that mimic old subway station lamps; a concession stand, based on a vintage library card catalog, where you can buy Jones’s poetry (along with condoms and Advil); a café with Victoriana moldings and a Haight Ashbury–like hanging garden. Everything has been painstakingly considered—from the Muji-esque wallet you’re given when you check in (with one of five different artist-designed key cards) to the café’s minuscule pink matchbooks. And yet Balazs has, by his own admission, hardly touched the 145 hotel rooms above, except for adding a giant lip-shaped pillow to every bed, a visual ploy to distract you from the fact that nothing else has changed.
The Standard East Village is so centered around a cluster of smartly contrived public spaces that it feels much less like a hotel than a hangout for certain clued-in locals. Tellingly, the property’s restaurant, Narcissa—which looks like a cross between a Scandinavian ski lodge and a Japanese teahouse—drew so much foot traffic in its first three months that the carpet had to be rebound. And you can bet that most of those stilettos weren’t taking the elevator down from the guest rooms. Such is the Balazsian philosophy: More than comfortable beds or nice shower gel (both of which The Standard East Village has), what travelers really care about is atmosphere, sex appeal, and the ability to feel like they’re actually living a movie version of the New York, Los Angeles, or Miami life. His latest projects, in London, will further the point: He’s turned a Victorian firehouse on Chiltern Street into a 26-room hotel and restaurant, is opening a pub across the street in December, and will soon start converting a former town hall in Camden into his sixth Standard. You could call it an anti-hotel approach, one that has led Balazs to redefine for himself what being a hotelier means.
Balazs may consider César Ritz his hero, but he’s perhaps most indebted to Morris Lapidus, who brought architectural theatricality to 1950s Miami Beach resorts like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc. (Lapidus designed the Lido Spa, which Balazs transformed into Miami Beach’s Standard Spa hotel, and the Fontainebleau’s nightclub was called the Boom Boom Room, the name of the lounge at the top of The Standard High Line.) His hotels were like stage sets—public backdrops for private dramas—and Lapidus knew the virtue of vulgarity: lots of color, lots of curves, and lots of camp. He put live alligators in the lobby pool of the Americana so guests would know they were in Florida; he thought about having monkeys swinging from trapezes but decided that they might damage the chandeliers.
Like Lapidus, Balazs is something of a Hollywood showman from a bygone era. For each project, he says, “we create a team like something from the old studio system. They’d pick a theme for a movie, then assemble the right people to make it happen. I love producing the story, and I like then running the show. To me, it’s all a continuum.” And Balazs’s hotels do often feel like spectacles, thanks in large part to Shawn Hausman, a former Hollywood production designer who’s worked with him on nearly all of his properties.
At The Standard, nothing is standard. You get condoms in place of sewing kits, and even the hotel signs are upside down. “There’s a suggestive playfulness involved,” Balazs says, explaining how Hausman spent months obsessing over the stained glass mural above the concierge desk at The Standard East Village. Its orange and yellow swirling patterns suggest writhing bodies—a subtler version of the roller girls who’d sit on display in the glass vitrine above the check-in desk at The Standard Hollywood. “It seems like the oldest thing in the world, [like] a Tiffany piece from 1890,” he says, “but then it’s somehow subverted. Or perverted.”
Call it subversion, or appropriation, or just masterful theft: What Balazs brings to all of his hotels is an ability to borrow ideas from a staggeringly wide range of sources, to see possibilities in challenging structures (dreary office buildings, old fur warehouses), and then to twist it all together, tweak the levels just so, and give the world exactly what it didn’t know it wanted at precisely the right moment. Chateau Marmont, his fabled faux Loire castle on the Sunset Strip, became the perfect Hollywood bolt-hole—intentionally shabby, discreet but not too much so—at the advent of celebrity culture. In the era of ’90s flash, his Mercer Hotel in SoHo had its cake and ate it too: a restaurant so buzzy that it was kept separate from the hotel itself, which had its own subtly chic, guests-only lobby around the corner. And then, in the age of masstige and democratized design, Balazs opened the first Standard in a former retirement home on Sunset Boulevard and scrapped any remaining rules of how hotel spaces are traditionally programmed. There was a DJ booth in the lobby, a front desk lined with bar stools, and a diner open 24/7 to cater to the late-night crowd. There are now two Standards in L.A., one in Miami Beach, and two in New York, and they all “use the same vocabulary, but each has its own distinct personality,” Balazs says. “Constitutionally, I can’t do anything twice—it seems like the waste of a lifetime.”
When Balazs opens the 280-room Standard in London, he’ll add another new page to his portfolio. The hotel will occupy a former town hall annex—“it’s exactly flawless, a great 1970s building,” he says—in London’s very liberal, very Labour neighborhood of Camden. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the 1960s, Balazs developed a taste for Left-leaning politics while learning to play Ping-Pong on the public tables in Harvard Square. After college he worked to revive Ed Koch’s old political club in the West Village. Camden, he says, “is essentially as close to Cambridge as you can get in London.”
It’s also the counterpoint to Marylebone, the quaint London neighborhood of Edwardian storefronts and mews houses that surrounds his 26-room Chiltern Firehouse Hotel, which opened earlier this year in an 1888 fire station with interiors that he describes as part military barracks, part cathedral—fire poles plus Gothic arches. “The hotel is really a little bit over the top,” says Balazs, who lives in the Chiltern when he’s in London. Until May, the rooms were only open to friends and family, and he smiles as he recalls those intimate inaugural evenings when the hotel was filled “with all the people you would respect culturally and creatively, just padding around in their bathrobes.” It’s a charmingly, well, perverse image, especially considering the studiously chintzy decor of paisley carpet and lots of grandmotherly pink and green (“honest,” he calls it) and the fact that the restaurant draws a steady stream of celebrities trailed by swarms of paparazzi. It’s the ultimate Balazsian anti-hotel: hospitality carved out of a seemingly inhospitable space, a stage set to act out urban life, and an abrupt redefinition of what’s cool.
Lately, Balazs has been eyeing other spots on the blocks around the Chiltern, expanding beyond the sound-stage confines of a hotel, as it were, and creating his own Hollywood back-lot Main Street. He’s already provided backing for neighborhood joints like Mario’s Gents barbershop and a newsstand—“two shops directly across the street I’ve saved by investing in.” And he recently bought an unassuming stock-brick tavern, formerly called the Bok Bar, just beyond the Chiltern’s courtyard. He won’t say yet what the new name will be, but the pub will open in December and there are rumored plans for a handful of bedrooms on the three floors above. Reviving the centuries-old idea of a quaint little English beer-brewing boardinghouse—it’s a brilliantly disruptive conceit and pure Balazs. “At the very least,” he says, “I can now say that I’m officially a publican from Massachusetts.”
A footnote from Blue-Eyed Barbarian. André Balazs was features recently in The Monocle Guide to Better Living. Here's a cut from the book: