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|If the legendary Cˇsar Ritz personified the Old World hotelier of four-star service and glamorous perfectionism, Andrˇ Balazs is his New World successor: casual, low-key and intellectual, but every bit as driven and focused as the job requires. As a pioneer of such conceptual hotels as the renovated Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles (the legendary celebrity hide-out), The Mercer in New York (minimalistic loft-living), the Sunset Beach on Shelter Island (bungalow chic), and now The Standard in L.A. (hotel as nightclub), Balazs has built a name for himself in properties that offer their guests distinct lifestyle packages.
The Standard, located on the Sunset Strip portion of Sunset Boulevard, was built in 1964 as a motor hotel named The Thunderbird. Following the decline of the neighborhood in the early '70s, the hotel, like so many of its kind in Los Angeles, became a retirement home. When Balazs bought the building last year, it was a run-down shell of its former self, yet it still evoked the era of vacation-style living, as its sky-blue, undulating exterior walls testify.
Intent on preserving its origins, Balazs hired Hollywood production designer Shawn Housmann to renovate the property as a pastiche of retro-futurist kitsch. The lobby immediately sets the tone: ultrasuede sectionals, deep shag carpeting, chrome arc lamps and planted cacti. But lest all the kitsch look a bit too precious, there are touches of surrealism throughout: a glass-encased live model reclining on an inflated pool raft behind the reception desk; purple, vinyl-padded walls on the upper floors; silver bean bags in the rooms; and brilliant blue Astroturf on the pool deck.
While waiting for Andrˇ in the lobby, I observed the following parade: a Madonna impersonator (circa "Papa Don't Preach," oddly enough) and her toupˇed manager; fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Betsy Johnson; a minivan family of three (the mother held a blackened banana peel); a personal trainer or hustler (unable to tell which); various stylists on cell phones; and a tall, heavy-set woman with long blonde hair, who repeatedly left and re-entered the lobby through the sliding glass doors.
DAVID: The Chateau Marmont occupies a really rich tradition in Hollywood history as the ultimate Hollywood scandal hotel.
ANDRE: We wear that badge proudly.
DAVID: Is that tradition still continuing?
ANDRE: Oh, I would hope that tradition continues. Absolutely. I feel that a good hotel and all the classic hotels in the world always have more than their share of scandal and all sorts of great love affairs. I mean, it seems to me that a good hotel will encourage that kind of excess and behavior.
DAVID: How does it do that?
ANDRE: I think there are two unique functions. First, a good hotel immediately sets up a zone of comfort and safety that will envelop you. And it does that with lots of different messages and signals having to do with the staff, with the physicality of the place. And they're all things that you can study and analyze you can figure out the signals. The other is that, having then established a sense of comfort, it encourages you to feel like you're some place totally else.
DAVID: To leave your old self behind?
ANDRE: Yes. And that encourages you to do things that you wouldn't necessarily do in your own environment, which is what I think makes hotels interesting. But ten years ago when I first bought the Chateau, it was in a very bad decline. It was no longer at all an interesting or charming place. A lot of people had simply stopped going there.
DAVID: It still had a seedy glamour.
ANDRE: Even if there lingered in people's minds this aura, which was a very powerful aura, it was clearly no longer reality. But there are many people I've found who are hotel junkies. They are very passionate about where they stay and about the kind of experience they have in a hotel. They'll write long letters about it. They talk about it with great passion. For example, when the writer Eve Babitz came back to the Chateau, she wanted to talk about what I was going to do with the hotel.
DAVID: In terms of renovations?
ANDRE: How we were going to renovate it, yes. I think she was very afraid that somehow the spirit of it would be tampered with. And she came in and saw one of the model rooms that we worked on and said: "This is really really nice. I love it." But she also said, "I'm not sure you could commit suicide here." [both laugh] To me it's very important that a hotel have that kind of rakish, charming, instigating atmosphere.
DAVID: So now that The Chateau Marmont looms over The Standard, what sort of dynamic do you think has popped up between them?
ANDRE: Well, it's a very different kind of hotel. We live in a time where the young are totally versed in what's going on in music, fashion, all kinds of cultural things. And frequently your sophistication far exceeds the capabilities of your wallet. And I found that there are a lot of people who are just as conversant with all the cultural currents that you're trying to incorporate into a hotel their expectations are that they will be entertained in a certain way, the standards are such in a hotel and yet there was no hotel where someone like that could stay.
DAVID: So The Standard was created for a younger market?
ANDRE: You can say that it's a younger market. More to the point was the question: Is it possible to create an interesting environment that is affordable and has all the basics? A hotel that is just absolutely the best and has a different attitude that makes it interesting? Part of it is driven by the fact that every ten years or so there's truly a change in the way people live the way you use a room, the way you communicate. All these things tend to go through shifts and it's very rare that hotels actually keep up with that. It's one thing for very expensive hotels to keep up with it, but it's rare to find in a hotel that you can afford if you're traveling when you're on a $150-per-diem allowance.
DAVID: Which is what most people are on.
ANDRE: So The Chateau and The Standard have dramatically different price points. I mean, the most expensive unit here is less than the least expensive room at the Chateau ... so it's a completely different price range. But having said that, what's been remarkable is how many people go back and forth.
DAVID: Oh really?
ANDRE: For example, if they're on a studio budget, they may stay at The Chateau. But when they're on their own budgets they may be here.
DAVID: Do you think the renaissance in Miami's South Beach made a hotel like this possible? Or paved the way for the renovation of these types of old retirement homes into hotels, which I understand The Standard was at one time?
ANDRE: It was most recently. But it was built in 1964 as the Thunderbird Hotel. It was a hotel. And then for the past eighteen years it's been what you'd call a retirement home. It was a very run down place. It followed the steady decline of Sunset Boulevard itself over time.
DAVID: There's a whole genre of hotels that have, since the early '90s, been opening up for young people on a budget, who want to have a fun, hip experience, which seemed to have its genesis with South Beach.
ANDRE: Well, the difference is that South Beach has this wonderful air of a resort community. And it's true that there was a lot of hotel inventory that could readily be converted. The idea behind The Standard is that this is really a business hotel. The premise was that the basic way a business hotel works had to be reinvented, and that there is in effect a new standard.
DAVID: Hence the name.
ANDRE: Well, despite its name, this hotel is anything but standard. And its genesis is that people are traveling on business people are coming here to do something. It's not a resort. It's not a beach hotel. It's meant to be an effective, efficient place to work. And as such, it's set up that way. The kind of communications that we have, in terms of T1 lines, I think these things are basic. They're not even amenities any more. I consider a cordless phone and a data port ...
DAVID: ... like towels and water!
DAVID: The Standard has been described, somewhat enigmatically but I think still right on target, as "the first internet-wired, hip-hop YMCA."
ANDRE: I view this really as offering an alternative to a Hyatt, to a Best Western. So I find more parallels to the reinvention which occurs every fifteen or twenty years in the hotel industry. It's just that this category hasn't had any reinvention in what seems like fifty years. So I don't see that much parallel to South Beach, which I think is a phenomenon really unto itself.
DAVID: There's a wonderful scene at the beginning of the James Bond movie, Goldfinger, an aerial shot of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, and the camera zooms down to a man diving off the high dive board into that huge pool, and then it continues zooming all the way in to Gert Frobe, who plays Goldfinger, sitting poolside. That made me want to visit the Fontainebleau. But of course when I got there, thirty years too late, it looked like another bland Hilton, and all of Morris Lapidus's fabulous international moderne architecture had been erased.
ANDRE: In the hotel business it's very easy for the soul of a project to get sucked out of it. For example, it's very common for a designer to be hired by the developer. The designer does their own thing and it becomes a design statement, but it has no bearing on the overall concept of how it's going to be run. Eventually the designer disappears, frequently the developer disappears, and then it's turned over to someone who operates it, and who may have an altogether different approach to the whole thing. This is one of the reasons why you can't simply hire an accomplished designer to create a hotel. They can apply their signature aesthetic, but that does not in and of itself create the soul of a great hotel.
DAVID: You think it must be a collaboration with the developer in order for it to work?
ANDRE: And in fact the hotelier. Because if there's a disconnect at any one of those points, it loses something. So it's more complex than simply good design. It's as though you said, "Look, I'm going to make a great movie by hiring the best art director to do it, or the best cinematographer." It's an important component, but a great art director doesn't make up for a missing narrative.
DAVID: Tell me about the interior designer you worked with on The Standard, Shawn Housman.
ANDRE: He's here in L.A. He's a production designer who has worked on a number of movies. He most recently did The People vs. Larry Flynt. He's someone I've known for quite a while. He had been one of the principal designers of Area. With The Mercer, we had the notion of a hotel as a home ...
DAVID: Loft living in SoHo.
ANDRE: ... and with The Standard it's very much about a hotel as club, as social center. So Sean's background was very apropos for what we're doing.
DAVID: And it's still not quite finished, is it?
ANDRE: We're going to have a bar which Mark Newson, the Australian designer, will be doing, behind the restaurant in the lobby. Working on a hotel is always collaborative, and very much a process of first figuring out what the program is, what you're trying to accomplish, and then coming up with a design that responds to the overall vision that also recognizes the inherent architecture. You can't deny what you start with.
DAVID: This is very Sunset Boulevard.
ANDRE: When you're traveling, you want to be somewhere that's convenient. But ultimately you also want to experience the uniqueness of the location. And I think a hotel that denies its site is not really providing anything of value. Yes, you can sleep there ...
DAVID: When did hotels start denying their location?
ANDRE: It's a holdover from the perception that existed after the Korean War when Conrad Hilton was laying the groundwork for what became the archetypal American hotel company, which now dominates the industry. At that time, the perception was that the world was a dangerous place. The American businessman and it was almost always a businessman, not a woman was traveling in a world fraught with danger. And what you wanted to do in a hotel was provide a safe haven. So you would go to Berlin or Amsterdam and settle into something that looked like the place you just came from, like Boston or New York.
DAVID: To homogenize the hotel experience.
ANDRE: That was the mandate. Today, I think everything is much more fluid. People want to go someplace else and experience as many different influences and nuances as possible. If you go to Los Angeles, it should feel like you're in Los Angeles. So even though the idea behind this hotel is to try and develop other Standards elsewhere, a Standard in New York should bear no resemblance to a Standard in Los Angeles.
DAVID: Now, you were originally involved with clubs in New York in the late '80s, like Area and MK, which were practically conceptual nightclubs. They brought together art and design in an overall concept. How would you say that lead you to where you are today?
ANDRE: I've always started businesses. I started a publishing company when I was still in school. And then I co-founded a biotechnology company, which is now on the New York Stock Exchange, called Biomatrix. But I had always been very interested in design, so after about ten years of doing the biotechnology company I was really interested in doing something else. And I had an opportunity to invest in MK, which my friend Eric Goode was starting at the time along with Serge Becker. So I became a partner.
DAVID: That was about 1987?
ANDRE: '87 or so. That was my first experience with a restaurant or club. And that led to another restaurant and club that we opened here in L.A. called B.C., a sister-offshoot of MK. That's when I started to stay at The Chateau, and the unique aspects of The Chateau really influenced me. I'm not interested in large hotels and the hotel chain experience. It's that uniqueness of the guest hotel that I find so interesting. So it's because I was coming out here from New York at the time that I found The Chateau.
DAVID: That was really the heyday of Manhattan as the '80s boom town, when everyone was riding so high. How do you look back on those days?
ANDRE: Nightclubs are cyclical. Frequently people will say, "Oh, my god, it was so great, the nightlife era is not what it used to be." But the fact is, each generation makes their nightlife their own. I don't look back on the '80s as the great era of nightlife and everything since then has been downhill. There's always something interesting all the time.
DAVID: What are some of your favorite places to go? In L.A. for instance, do you have a particular place that you think really captures the feel of the city?
ANDRE: I think it's true in New York as well as in L.A. that we live in a time of great tribalization. So there isn't one place in any city right now that captures everything captures the mood of the times, captures the mood of the city. What you have instead are smaller places that speak to a particular clientele, and what I like to call tribes, because groups of people take on all the trappings of a tribe: the way that people dress, the way they socialize. So a bar or a lounge or a nightclub can look the way it is, but the people who go there typically embody a point of view. And it's everything from the way the hair is cut to the clothing to everything about it. And all of the restaurants and all the nightlife follow that. And hotels should too.
DAVID: Are you concerned about your hotels being run in the way that you initially conceived them? How do you safeguard the sanctity of the original idea?
ANDRE: Ongoing vigilance and the kindness of key employees.
DAVID: There must be a tremendous amount of trust in how you delegate authority to your various managers.
ANDRE: Well, it's a culture. One has to create a culture. And we're working on it now.
DAVID: Do you have a favorite hotel in America that you could point to?
ANDRE: I don't have one. Hotels, for better or worse, I now look at and almost dissect them: "Okay, they're doing this really well, but that's not quite as good as it can be." There are a lot of places I really like for certain things, ranging from The Royalton to a very traditional hotel such as The Carlyle.
DAVID: People make a big deal out of the celebrity clientele that frequents The Mercer, The Chateau Marmont and now The Standard. How important would you say celebrities are to your properties?
ANDRE: I think all these discussions about celebrity and clientele end up being discussions more about the demands and parameters of journalism today than about the hotel business. We're in the business of selling beds. The interest in who our clientele is is entirely an interest fostered by the outside world looking in. It's a little difficult. Because one of the things that we've always taken great pride in is never ever talking about our clientele.
DAVID: There's that comfort and privacy zone again ...
ANDRE: And especially because of the strong relationship between the hotel and the guest. I think discretion is absolutely critical. The hotel business requires that. The hotel is really a repository for so many personal aspects of anyone's life that if you violate that absolute mandate of discretion I think you lose all credibility. If the comfort and safety factor goes, everything goes.