The Boutique Hotel Gone Wrong

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The New York Sun

The world is full of people who possess not the slightest measure of visual tact. As long they decide to become accountants, riveters, or matadors, this makes no difference to their lives or those of the people around them. The problems start, however, when they presume to take up, say, painting. And, of course, all hell breaks loose when they imagine they are interior designers.

And then you have Julian Schnabel, who fancies himself both a painter and an interior designer. In truth, he is neither the one nor the other.As if any further proof were needed beyond his most recent show at Gagosian, visit the newly renovated Gramercy Park Hotel, which opens today, in its grand pre-war structure, on Lexington Avenue and 21st Street. Ian Schrager, the famed hotelier and merchandiser of lifestyles, thought it would be adorable to give Mr. Schnabel the free run of the place, to allow him to be as “visual,” as “rebellious,” as “Julian” as he wanted to be. The result is a catastrophic amateurism that, until this morning, had never been seen before in a first-world hotel.

As you enter the lobby, the place is chock-a-block with all manner of dopey incongruities and clashing asymmetries that look as if they’d been created in conformity with a sitcom’s notion of how crazy contemporary art behaves. The first thing you notice is a massive chandelier fit for the Paris opera. But the effect is abruptly ruined by the ugly pillars that surround it, clad as they are in the unvarnished wood of a ski-lodge. Over checkered floors are the halves of two very mismatched carpets, and throughout the hotel, in the curtains and upholstery, are those lengths of velvet Mr. Schnabel has used in his paintings and which he apparently imagines to be his signature. In one of the bars, more unvarnished wood gets the chance to clash with a Renaissance-style fireplace and, in another room, with pea-green walls and blue velvet stools fringed with gold braid. As for the bedrooms, I sense that Mr. Schrager thought them too important to be left in Mr. Schnabel’s wayward hands and so consigned them to grown-ups, who worked in accordance with Mr. Schnabel’s “daring” taste. These do look a little better, a little more sober, and are probably pleasant enough to wake up in. More materially, their views of Gramercy Park are worth whatever is being charged.

But even with that admission, this debacle is especially startling and regrettable, given that Mr. Schrager virtually invented the idea of the boutique hotel with the help of the great Philippe Starck.The Hudson, which opened five years ago at Ninth Avenue and 58th Street, is a supreme example of the art form. A summa of sumptuous good taste, its every subatomic particle has been charged with that unerring visual power that makes Mr. Starck one of the foremost designers of the age. The Gramercy Park Hotel is not so different in conception from the Hudson — except that it is lousy rather than good. You find here the same sort of jauntily themed bars, the same displays of art books and designer tables and lamps, the same obligatory flat-screen televisions and sparse bathrooms. But to compare Mr. Starck to Mr. Schnabel, even allowing that they belong to the same species, is like comparing Hyperion to a satyr or, to quote the architectural critic Henry Reed, Pegasus to a Percheron. In Mr. Starck everything is intelligence and understatement. Even the opulent overstatement of some of his unanticipated accents has an understated afterglow that flares in the mind a second or so after it is encountered. With Mr. Schnabel, by contrast, everything is braying, spluttering bombast, especially in those moments where he thinks he is being subtle.

Mr. Schrager apparently decided to engage Mr. Schnabel because he is so very contemporary and cutting edge. In fact, the entire Gramercy Park Hotel feels weirdly like a mid-1980s time warp, for that was the instant of Mr. Schnabel’s fleeting spasm of cultural relevance. Not only is he an artifact of that vanished age (who has not progressed artistically since then) but the artists he has put up on the walls of the hotel — himself, his late friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the inevitable Warhol — have long since acquired a dreary “blue-chip” stodginess.

What is really depressing here is that by the time the beau monde begins to swamp the place sometime this evening (and especially after the hotel’s restaurant opens in the fall) it may be doubted whether any of them, even if sober on arrival, will recognize just how graceless the premises are. All they will understand is the force of that fugitive “nowness” that somehow attaches to everything Mr. Schrager does.


If and when Mr. Schrager seeks redemption, he may find it in the new residential structure that is attached to the Gramercy Park Hotel. This coppercolored affair was designed by John Pawson, whose tight-lipped, British minimalism is as far as you can get from Mr. Schnabel’s lobby. Right now, covered as it is with scaffolding and dust, I hesitate to pass judgment. Certainly it will be the most modern-looking thing in Gramercy Park, and certainly it will be more successful than the hotel to which it is attached. The question is whether it will be as good as Mr. Pawson’s fine Calvin Klein flagship on Madison Avenue and 60th Street. We will know in a few months.

The New York Sun

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