Starck Contrast

Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer, co-principals in the architecture and design firm Roman and Williams, have very definite opinions about the minimalist aesthetic that has prevailed in Manhattan for almost two decades.

“Take the Gehry building on the West Side,” said Mr. Alesch the other day, sitting at a table made from a reclaimed factory door in the firm’s offices on Lafayette Street, referring to the nine-story glass structure, home to Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp, that seems to jut above the highway like a disembodied jumble of windows.

Oh,” groaned Ms. Standefer.

“Every car I’ve ever been in, when we’ve driven by it, we’ve made fun of it,” Mr. Alesch said.

“Every single person I’ve ever been with,” Ms. Standefer echoed with a nod.

SANAA’s recently completed New Museum on the Bowery, meanwhile? “A monument to abandonment,” Mr. Alesch declared. “I think it leaves a lot of people empty. The only people it doesn’t are fashion-obsessed or architects, I swear to God.”

“Fashion-obsessed like they want to fit in,” Ms. Standefer said.

“There’s a huge amount of artifice in modern architecture,” Mr. Alesch said. “It loves to brag that it’s really, really authentic—that the most authentic method of living is in a kind of minimalist environment. But it’s so contrived and so pretend.”

“But then you have to define what you think modern is, because I think we’re modern,” Ms. Standefer said.

The couple, who founded Roman and Williams in 1999, naming it after their respective grandfathers (“We just loved the period they’re from, what they represent, we like the genes they gave us,” said Ms. Standefer)—is currently attempting to redefine what, exactly, New York thinks of as “modern.” Their company, which currently employs 25, is responsible for the low-lit, masculine makeover of Philippe Starck’s lobby in the Royalton last fall. By year’s end; they plan a redo of both the Breslin, a landmark building on Broadway and West 29th Street, commissioned by ACE Hotel Group, a hipster firm based in Seattle; and the Standard, hotelier André Balazs’s hotly anticipated behemoth in the meatpacking district. Morgans Hotel Group, which owns the Royalton, also retained the firm last month to turn 30,000 feet of unused underground space at the Hudson Hotel on 356 West 58th Street, another Starck creation, into an entertainment and meeting complex, complete with a screening room built into the site of an old, unused swimming pool.

The Roman and Williams aesthetic is a richly textured, purposefully nostalgic and largely handmade one: full of massive, dark woods and animal skins and re-purposed industrial materials, like that factory door. It’s the kind of sturdy design that’s meant to last 500 years—if only trends would permit.

A New Standard

When they are together, which is most of the time, the mellow Mr. Alesch, 42, and the faster-talking Ms. Standefer, 43, speak almost exclusively in the first-person-plural tense, constructing joint, richly textured run-on sentences, much as they layer materials and idiosyncratic objects in the hotels and residences they create.

He has longish blond hair and facial scruff, grew up in Wisconsin, was trained as an architect through internships after graduating from Northern Arizona University and likes to surf at the beach near the couple’s home in Montauk, where they retire each weekend to entertain friends like hotelier Sean McPherson, who owns a residence nearby.

Starck Contrast