Schrager on His First Time

shott 0 Schrager on His First Time“It was almost like a first child,” famed hotelier Ian Schrager said of Morgans, his baptismal hotel project, which opened in 1984, at 237 Madison Avenue.

“Morgans was the one that started it all,” Mr. Schrager said, meaning not only his ever-expanding career as a hotel developer but also the revolutionary “boutique” hotel movement, which over the past two decades has increasingly become the industry standard worldwide. “Morgans was the one that broke with tradition, broke the rules, took a new and fresh approach, and everything evolved from that.”

On Sept. 10, Morgans Hotel Group unveils its $10 million “reimagination” of that pioneering vision, with a splashy party in the hotel’s penthouse, hosted by original French designer Andrée Putman.

Ms. Putman, now 83, was brought back recently to add some subtle new touches to the understated lodge. Note the new gray tones amid the original black-and-white palette, as well as the new interactive light installation on the lobby ceiling. It’s a sort of different approach than the company’s drastic and controversial overhaul of the Royalton on West 44th Street last year, which scrapped designer Philippe Starck’s legendary lobby in favor of an all-new look from local architects Roman and Williams.

“It’s sort of difficult, when you inherit something as strong and iconic as the Royalton; you’re sort of between a rock and a hard place,” said Mr. Schrager, who left Morgans Hotel Group in 2005 but took the opportunity this week to reflect on the historic hotel’s legacy for The Observer.

“We envisioned Morgans as more of an introvert, more of an understated getaway away from the hustle and bustle of a city like New York. It was more reserved. When we did the Royalton, we tried to juxtapose the Royalton against Morgans. Morgans was an introvert with a very small lobby. We wanted the Royalton to be an extrovert with a beehive of activity in a big lobby.

“I think the essential idea of Morgans was to create a hotel that has a truly residential feel to it, but that it was even better than home because it had more to offer than home,” he said. “It was an idea whose time had come. People wanted something new. They wanted something that manifested their generation and their lifestyle and their popular culture rather than that of an older generation. …

“It had a more modern casual approach to it,” he continued. “We had jettisoned the old uniforms with the brass buttons and had Giorgio Armani design the uniforms. There were a lot of firsts at Morgans. But that was the first time anyone had called the fashion designers to come up with something fashionable and have the people working in the hotel look like the guests in the hotel.

“I think it was a great choice to go with Andrée,” he said of the recent Morgans redesign, though initially, back in the 1980s, “people said we were crazy” to hire her.

“At that time, even working with a European designer was treacherous. They have different standards over there. They work in centimeters, not inches. The sink heights are different. A lot of times water closets are separated from sinks. They like square pillows. We like rectangular pillows. It’s sort of a different aesthetic. We went to a European designer to get that European sophistication. But we had to make sure we Americanized it. … Now that also has become the norm, working with a European designer.”

Indeed, an awful lot has changed since the hotel first opened—the neighborhood, in particular. “Outside there were a bunch of hookers walking up and down the street,” Mr. Schrager recalled.

Yet, even now that boutique has gone mainstream, he insisted that the original Morgans vision still resonates: “This kind of quiet, understated European inn with a high level of privacy and sophistication is the DNA and the idea behind Morgans. And I think those kinds of ideas never stop being relevant.”

cshott@observer.com