Ian Schrager’s Brooklyn-bred rasp comes at you like spitfire. Ideas—plucked from the worlds of art, food and commerce—tumble forth from all directions. It’s easy to imagine swarms of exclamation points floating in the air above his head.
In minutes, the millionaire hotelier has skipped from the wonders of Trader Joe’s to the charms of Apple, from how bottle service killed New York nightlife to how, and why, Williamsburg is the city’s new Soho.
Picture Malcolm Gladwell’s brain. Add Tom Ford’s sexed-up style sensibility, say, and round off the package with Woody Allen’s hyperfluent New Yorkese. Speak to the 65-year-old hotelier about something that makes him passionate, or drives him crazy, and you can imagine precisely such a creature.
Right now, what’s driving Mr. Schrager crazy is $20 coffee.
The king of boutique hotels, whose Gramercy Park Hotel has defined the boho-luxe look of Gotham hospitality in the past decade, making him a fortune in the process, will come out and say it. Paying 20 bucks for a hit of caffeine is preposterous.
“I don’t think people care about the guy with brass buttons and epaulets, serving them something out of bone china, spreading out a table-cloth,” he says. “Previously, my hotels included, if you woke up and called room service and asked for a pot of coffee? It’d be at least $20. Seven dollar service charge. And you’d have to wait 45 minutes!”
Though there will always be those customers willing to pay for five-star opulence and violently expensive hot beverages, Mr. Schrager thinks enough is enough.
On Oct. 11, he launched what is perhaps his riskiest concept to date: PUBLIC Chicago, a total reimagining of the city’s Ambassador East Hotel, which aims to be the paragon of mass class. The Trader Joe’s of posh hotels. Room rates begin at a cut-rate $135.
The Ambassador, which opened its doors in 1926, was once a well-groomed Midwestern glamour-puss of a property. Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall thronged the Pump Room, its famous see-and-be-seen restaurant. But by mid-2010, when Mr. Schrager got the keys, it had lost its luster.
“It was essentially a dump,” says Mr. Schrager, who offered $25 million to buy it from Chicago developers Peter Dumont and David Bossy, according to reports.
Located on Chicago’s Gold Coast, which is jam-packed with international hotel chains, the Ambassador had to become something different. “It was sexy. I respond to a building the way another man might respond to a woman. It’s a visceral thing. I walk through, and it’s got the bones. The sex appeal.”
It wasn’t just below-the-belt thinking. “I’m in an opportunistic business, and the acquisition was very compelling,” he adds.
Eschewing what he terms “design on steroids,” PUBLIC Chicago is rendered in calm tones of camel and wheat, mellow metallics and crisp white. The supper club–inspired Pump Room has been reinvigorated by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and a pot of coffee from room service costs five bucks, thank you very much. “It gets there in five to six minutes,” says Mr. Schrager, triumphantly.
The bottom of the hotel market is “wide open,” he says. “It’s completely devoid of creativity. There’s nothing original there, there’s no elevated experience.” With PUBLIC Chicago, he aims to change that.
For a moment, he stays emphatically on message. PUBLIC Chicago’s wider concept, its accessibility, is just the beginning. “I’m probably more excited about this brand than I have been about anything in a long time. It’s a little bit like what Terence Conran and Mary Quant did in London in the ’60s. What Andy Warhol did with art. He took the pretense out of it. Make it available to anybody and everybody.”
Betting on high occupancy, rather than sky-high room rates, is a canny move in this economic climate. “When we got in the boutique space,” recalls Mr. Schrager, “everyone was very skeptical of it. They thought that only people who wore head-to-toe black and lived in Soho went to boutique hotels. About 15 years ago, I remember The Wall Street Journal had a headline: ‘The Death of the Boutique Hotel.’ It was like ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’ Now what’s happened is that everybody went into that space. It’s really, really overcrowded. Today, the opportunities are above that space and beneath that space.”
Instead of bowing to amenity creep and gouging guests on bath butlers and doggie massages, Mr. Schrager is getting back to the basics: good service and “plain old good taste.”
The business of doing business has changed. “There’s a paradigm shift. I think people are going to be very focused on value. It’s not quite so easy to become wealthy. What’s going on in Europe … I’m not an economist. But what was really challenging [with this project] was to redefine luxury service. Get rid of all those things that nobody cares about. Create a sophistication that someone who’s rich and someone who’s not rich can both appreciate.”
Which brings him back to cheap-but-chic visionary companies like Trader Joe’s, or the service-centered ethos at the Apple Store, where high design is a given but hasn’t clouded the focus on people. “I think it’s being treated with dignity. It’s being friendly. When I got started 25 years ago, we were looking to get ourselves noticed. We really focused on the innovation of [the hotel space]. The look and feel of it. Well, that’s not enough now. I learned a lot from the Apple stores. You’re met by a brand ambassador and you don’t wait on line to pay. The person who helps you, they’re an expert. If you go into a hotel, it’s like staying in somebody’s home. If you’re treated beautifully, that’s what matters.”
Born in the Bronx in 1946, the son of a garment worker, Mr. Schrager has New York—its energetic mayhem, its sometimes destructive glamour, its bull-headed optimism—in his bones. By 1977, still under 30, he and business partner Steve Rubell became the life force of New York night-life with their club Studio 54. Its starry legacy—Liza, Mick, Bianca—still elicits a heady era in Manhattan, when the Beautiful People danced ’til dawn (with not a stretch Hummer or gourmet taco truck in sight).
In 1981, after an oft-reported spell of time in prison for tax fraud, Mr. Schrager was primed to reinvent himself. Studio 54 may call to mind a lost decade of high-octane, reckless fun, but it had exacted its toll. Looking back on that era, he told French Vogue, “It almost destroyed me. I must have been intoxicated by the success of it all and got lost along the way. I made certain mistakes and I paid very dearly for them. Very dearly.”
By 1984, Mr. Schrager had hit upon a new idea. The boutique hotel. Morgans, the Royalton, the Paramount and the Delano followed, as did a fruitful period of intense collaboration with designer Philippe Starck, which began in 1988. In 2005, he founded the Ian Schrager Company with the Gramercy Park Hotel, a collaboration with artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel and its first showpiece.
But today, Mr. Schrager seems to be tinkering with the formula that catapulted him to rock-star status. Hotel design, he says, has become overblown. “The design! You hear about somebody doing a hotel and the first question is always, ‘Who’s designing it?’ I really feel like it’s Frankenstein’s monster, what we created here. There’s no more tricks. When I used to do hotels with Philippe, there was al-ways something, a little wink, a chair that was lit, or a phrase on a wall. Now it’s gone too far, there’s a thousand tricks in every square inch of every hotel space. Everyone is trying to overwhelm you with how clever they are. It’s oppressive and precious and you feel like you can’t breathe. It’s just too much. I think we’re trying to go the other way,” he says, pausing to catch up with his thoughts. “Plain old good taste is a universal language.”
When the moment is right, Mr. Schrager also feels that the PUBLIC Chicago model can work in New York. “We have one hotel in the works, a new build downtown, and we’re close to announcing a second hotel. In this climate, it’s difficult to get anything done. In New York hotels, I think there’s going to be price pressure, because there’s been a tremendous increase in supply. But business is always going to be done in New York—[the city’s economy] will get back to where it was.”
A die-hard city-dweller and booster, Mr. Schrager is passionately engaged in understanding what makes New York tick and how the urban landscape has transformed over the three decades he’s been at the center of it all. Before he was a slick, powerful hotelier, Mr. Schrager was one of Manhattan’s original after-dark pioneers. Today, the co-founder of Studio 54 says the city’s partyscape falls flat.
“I’m a little disappointed with the nightlife in New York now,” he says, a hint of exasperation in his voice. “I hope I don’t sound like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who thought New York was at its best in the ’20s. But you go out on a weekend night in New York and it’s not the same as it once was. When I was in the nightlife biz, there was an electricity in the air. People were up ’til 4 or 5 in the morning. When we were in the club business, anybody that wasn’t from New York, someone from Florida or California, who wanted to open a club here? We would laugh at them.”
Mr. Schrager’s engagement with the city is infectious. You sort of wish he’d adopt you. Or at least invite you into his richly drawn vision of New York as it was, and as it could be.
He’s fascinated by the shift from downtown to Brooklyn and the gentrification of Williamsburg, which he deems “one of the places in New York that’s more fertile than any-where.” He’s also intrigued by the cult status of food culture in the city. “I passed through the era when the movie stars were It and the artists were It. Then it was the rock stars, the media kingpins. Now it seems to be the chefs,” he says, praising restaurants like the Smile, the low-key Bond Street cafe where Melia Marden, daughter of artist Brice Marden, runs the kitchen. “It’s really cool,” says Mr. Schrager, who pops across the street from his 8,500-square-foot, $14.5 million penthouse at his project 40 Bond Street, which changed Noho from a boho thoroughfare into a thoroughbred.
He isn’t about to write off the age of the dance club or the glamour of dressing up to stay out all night. The most succulent spit-roasted pig in the world doesn’t supplant the need for a really good nightlife. “A healthy nightlife is part of the fabric of a city, like the theater, like music. Don’t forget that clubbing, at its core, it’s still young people dancing and socializing. The city makes it hard, is really hard on nightlife now. So there are roadblocks. But somebody should do it, and do it right. I’ve done that already.”
These days, if the indefatigable entrepreneur is staying up all night, it’s because of PUBLIC Chicago. He is anxious to see how it will be re-ceived and hopes it’s as revolutionary as he believes it to be. He still has big ambitions. “When I open up a hotel, I take it very personally, I internalize it. It’s a real act of love for me, to try to do something that hasn’t been done before. I always feel anxious. I feel like I’m opening up a show.”