When Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch met as young set designers in Hollywood, the sparks that flew instantly between them lit the flames of a creative and personal union that burns more brightly now than ever. Working on a host of high-profile movies they were tasked with creating a vividly real past space from which characters, these time-orphaned ciphers, could draw a physical vocabulary as if they were rune stones.
Approaching their work like actors from the Strasburg school building up the emotional spine of a character, this extraordinary partnership created such beautiful and persuasive emotional contexts that on many occasions the actors themselves signed them up on the spot to design their own homes. Such contemporary stars include Ben Stiller, Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow.
With the lines between celluloid fantasy and celebrity reality already so blurred, it was a natural step that Standefer and Alesch should pan their viewfinder out beyond the whirling frames. Encouraged by their celebrity clients, in 2002 they established design firm Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors and committed their fantastic talents to the creation of deeply envisioned spaces. These are highly stylised and yet overwhelmingly plausible, where anyone can become the actor playing themselves in a movie too perfect to ever be filmed.
Each new design brief is approached in a spirit of blank stillness, authored with absolute faith in their ability to fashion a pocket of new reality - a creation that charms and convinces on its own terms, independent of parochial concerns such as stylistic identity.
Like actors using props and sense memory, Standefer and Alesch use of materials reveals a startling emotional palette that they use to create the uniquely convincing personality of their elaborate spatial performances.
Harnessing the buried truths and emotional force of vintage, found and even reclaimed objets and material through stunning leaps and winding journeys of re-contextualisation they transform the mundane to the exotic, making them chime harmoniously together in a symphony of space, light, colour, texture and simply being. Thus we see 480,000 copper pennies that create the fabulous flooring of The Standard New York’s swanky restaurant, The Standard Grill.
Nowhere can this sense of a pitch-perfect universe of style be seen more plainly than at Roman and Williams extraordinary reimagining of the former Breslin Hotel. When this imposing New York landmark, first opened in 1908 in a fancy Broadway location, was bought by Ace Hotels boutique chain renowned for its achingly cool hostelry, there could really have been only one name on the list of potential designers.
The tantalising comfort of vintage and found furniture in the luxuriously laid back lobby brings their own peculiar welcome of lived-in familiarity. Above which Standefer and Alesch set the original stained-glass ceiling against oak panelling reclaimed from a Park Avenue apartment that sprinkles the singular class of old New York into the ether. The one-off rooms themselves have the tailored-by-happenstance coolness of a borrowed bohemian apartment, offering their guests Smeg refrigerators and Saarinen chairs.
Using the fencing taken from a Pacific Northwest ranch for the flooring for the hotel’s lobby-level restaurant, city-wide crowd-puller The Breslin, Standefer and Alesch laid the intangible weight of wind-battered history beneath their paean to the to the traditional pubs of England and Ireland. That sense of swaying solidity, the muscular flurry of ales and porters, is powerfully evoked in the rustic browns, greens and blacks filling in soothing utility the spaces between the custom-made posts and beams.
An altogether lighter note is struck by the Ace’s John Dory Oyster Bar, in which Roman and Williams eased through more whimsical gears to create acid green outsized styling with train station trusses propping up the ceiling, 1970s Captain’s Stools and black tiling glamorising the bar.
As seen at The Ace New York, one of Roman and Williams’ neatest tricks is to thread a contiguous aesthetic sensibility through grand design projects that feature venues that have become stand-alone landmarks in their own right.
Playing on Standard Hotels’ wry metropolitan sexiness at its New York outpost, Standefer and Alesch sought, with the custom orange, black and cream-tiled guestrooms, to create an experience of staying in a “perfect Modernist cabin”. They then dragged New York’s hippest and most glamorous crowd up to the Standard’s 18th Floor, using a riot of influences, ranging from Windows on the World to the inside of a Bentley to tall trees and rivers to pay homage to the otherworldly extravagance of the fabled New York hotspots of the 1940s. Their Boom Boom Room uses the opulence of alder, brass, rose mirror, cream leather and burl wood to entice and bewilder in equal measure.
This pioneering firm’s close association with New York’s creative cream continues with their work on the hallowed site of such former nightspots as the Elephant & Castle and the Cub Room. One of the city’s most acclaimed chefs, Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde fame, and partners Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom drafted in Roman and Williams for their casual dining venture The Dutch. With trademark verve, Standefer and Alesch by turns cleared out, preserved and skilfully augmented the space to create an instant classic, where sophisticated modern American food is presented in an environment of exquisite formal complexity that somehow lulls guests into a cosy informality.
That they were selected for the revamping of the Royalton and that the project received such critical acclaim, despite it being one of the original boutique hotels with Philippe Starck interiors that revolutionised the hospitality industry, is a measure of the esteem in which Roman and Williams are held. This guileless artistry, in the face of the flashy artifice of many contemporaries, led to their being entrusted with the renovation and expansion of one of modernist godfather Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well known Usonian houses, an edifice animated by the genetic code from which modern architecture has flourished.
With a complete ground-up hotel - the seamlessly integrated building at 211 Elizabeth Street - under their belt and another in the pipeline for 57th Street, a second East Coast Ace venture, and new projects with Alain Ducasse and Andrew Carmellini, Roman and Williams’ stock is at an all time high. Not content to rule only New York from their style menagerie, Standefer and Alesch’s intoxicating influence is reaching out beyond the five boroughs and even the fifty states. They recently secured one of the marquee clients of the present day - having already begun work on Facebook’s Northern California campus, and completed the ultra exclusive Crystal Pavilion nightclub at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
On a profoundly spiritual level, we experience space in purely temporal terms. While that into which we move is forever a snapshot of a past we have never lived, we then occupy that space as a precipitous now. The future is an as yet undiscovered by-product of the camphoric alchemy that takes place when the present climbs through the flickering frames of the past - it is what happens to space once we take possession of it.
In the march of the soul as it moves through time, space is the grand theatre of the consciousness in which this eternal drama unfolds, and it seems that no star in the modern galaxy of designers - these conjurors of space - knows this more profoundly than Roman and Williams.
- Benjamin Stewart
Roman and Williams
Address: 324 Lafayette Street
New York, 10012
Tel: 212 625 3808
Photo Credits: Douglas Friedman: Image 1
SA: Images 10, 56
Katie Sokoler: Images 16, 21
Melissa Hom: Image 27
Nikolas Koenig: Image 34
Joe Schildhorn: Image 45
Eric Laignel: Images 46, 47, 48, 51, 58
Roman and Williams