Velvet Revolution

Hotelier Ian Schrager atones for the chill of past projects with the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan

Remember Studio 54? Bouncers would expel mousy folks from the door queue, and the suspense in line, before it was your turn, was wonderfully icy. There was a similar froideur at the Andrée Putnam–designed Morgans hotel, not too far away. Past the robotic young staffers in black lay rooms excised of color, furniture, and square footage. Nowadays the scene, if not the people, has been transferred to Miami’s Delano, where Philippe Starck turned a Deco hotel into a soundstage with enough billowing curtains and mega lamp shades to make the burghers feel as if they had to clear the set for filming.

Studio 54, Morgans, the Delano, and many other one-time hot spots were all masterminded by hotelier Ian Schrager. In their heyday, art-minded people loved being surprised and disoriented by his off-putting interiors; they rushed to share the company of strangers exercising their senses at long, communal dining tables, indoor-outdoor lobbies, and shallow swimming pools that served as liquid lounge areas. Schrager proved that aesthetic discomfort, done well, could turn profits.

But the bugaboo of Schrager’s success came when non-hip people checked in and hip people moved on, while he found himself in an arduous competition to create the newest thing. (As designers well know, nothing is more exhausting and expensive.) So in 2005 Schrager did something strange: He denounced all of those ventures as “slick, spiffy, and overstyled” and started a new firm to develop hotels and condos that were “innovative” and “meaningful” but that couldn’t be emulated. The firm’s first project was the recently redone Gramercy Park Hotel. As the name suggests, it overlooks Gramercy Park, the only private park in Manhattan. Hotel guests can borrow a key, or they can access the private roof garden via a keyed elevator. Perhaps this is all meant to ooze exclusiveness. But otherwise, the place is quite welcoming.

As Schrager sees it, today’s zeitgeist is luxury. And the watchword is Julian Schnabel, who designed [with Anda Andrei] lots of the quirky decor that doubles as art and painted some of the huge canvases that double as decoration. What does Schnabel have to do with this moment in time? Not much. Presumably, that’s the idea. He’s not hip, just tireless: a 1980s artist and 1990s film director who made schmoozing into a shameless art form. And at 55, he’s an old guy who nonetheless likes to eat, drink, and party like there’s no tomorrow. The hotel, according to Schrager’s marketing prose, celebrates a bold and gracious eccentricity that is, apparently, a more sincere replacement for the smarty-pants design of Starck et al.

But if you’re not in on the backstory, the Gramercy Park looks as if it’s all about upholstery. Lots of it. There’s velvet in every conceivable form: tassled, gathered, pleated, fringed, and tacked. What’s not upholstered is draped in hand-embroidered, puddled red velvet, or carpeted in wool that was hand-tufted in Aubusson, France. The rooms are also done in deep, velvety red, green, and blue, with leather dining tables and crystalline “drinking cabinets” that light up like sparkly altars. What’s the point? That upholstery, the last frontier of luxury, can be revived? Or perhaps that you have to be Ian Schrager to find a good upholsterer these days?

For Schrager’s old fans, the place is just too damn cozy. The lack of exclusion is palpable right from the start. You can walk into the lobby like you own the place, which feels more like a yummy Tuscan villa than a much-hyped hotel. On the ground floor, the surfaces that aren’t covered in fabric are paneled in incongruous woods, all rustic and reclaimed: There are thick Douglas fir boards on walls and columns, and on the ceilings, fumed cypress beams are in-filled by mushroom crate slats from Brooklyn. Elsewhere, the front desk hides from view while a giant white chandelier, custom and Venetian, hovers overhead, and a huge fireplace glows just beyond.

Lounging in the Rose Bar feels like being a cheeky expat who has imported rude American paintings and, for kicks, a pool table to accompany the soft Italian sofas. The heavily trained staff, in their casual, dark uniforms, maintain the fantasy. Clearly, they’ve been instructed to remain unobtrusive but ever-present. In fact, some have been un-trained: The veteran concierge confesses to being deprogrammed from his French-hotel manner, in favor of a bearing more empathetically chummy.

Chat with the concierges, personal assistants, doormen, and bartenders, and Schrager’s vision finally appears: It’s not furniture design he cares about now, but institutional warmth. It’s a “downtown Carlyle,” as one of his colleagues reportedly said. Okay, now we get it: a place where guests are ensconced in “an elegant private residential atmosphere” served by a staff as “discreet and polished,” as that grand dame of uptown hotels, born in 1930, describes herself. This time around, it’s time itself that Schrager wants to excise. He wants to deliver the stuff of legend right now. With feeling.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.