Haute Hotels

Roman and Williams Does Another Head-Turning Hotel Transformation

Haute Hotels

Roman and Williams Does Another Head-Turning Hotel Transformation

For their latest project, the Freehand in New York, Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch imbued a 1928 building with a youthful, colorful vibe.

Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams
Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer, of Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, recently completed the Freehand New York, their fourth project in a five-year collaboration with the Sydell Group (portrait by Sebastian Kim). Top: The Gallery, located on the mezzanine level, serves as a meeting space during the day and a lounge at night (all photos by Adrian Gaut unless otherwise noted).

Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, founders of the New York design studio Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors, have a passion for narrative and vernacular, for telling a story, through design, about place and culture. This penchant has helped fuel their rise to stardom, from an early start in film production (Zoolander, Practical Magic) to designs for hotels — the funky-hip Ace, in New York and New Orleans; New York’s ’70s-cool Standard Highline (and its famous cocktail lounge, the Boom Boom Room); the Windy City’s Chicago Athletic Association — and restaurants: the impossible-to-book Le Coucou, in downtown Manhattan, and the nearby La Mercerie, located in their recently launched shop and gallery, Roman and Williams Guild.

The pair’s latest hotel, the Freehand New York, is like a new chapter in a best-selling novel. It’s the fourth project they’ve done for the brand (following properties in Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles) as part of their five-year collaboration with the Sydell Group. The group, founded by Ron Burkle and Andrew Zobler, finds interesting, often neglected older buildings and, instead of modernizing them, commissions interiors that honor their sites’ history while appealing to the contemporary traveler. This approach is evidenced in both the high-end Sydell properties — like the Nomad, in New York, Las Vegas and L.A., and the Ned, in London — and the younger, budget-friendly Freehand ones. Each of those is conceived, as the website states, “as a hotel with the spirit of a hostel,” with accommodations ranging from suites to bunk rooms, all designed to suit families or groups of friends. Roman and Williams collaborated with Sydell on everything from Freehand’s name, branding and “free to be you and me” concept to the choice of art on the walls. “It’s youthful and colorful,” Standefer says of the vibe. “It’s not about work — you won’t see lobbies full of people on their laptops — it’s about fun. The principle is discovery, curiosity and community.”

Studio, Freehand’s mezzanine-level restaurant, serves North African and Middle Eastern-inspired cuisine in a room featuring custom millwork and walls painted in Benjamin Moore’s Oasis Blue.

Studio’s “earnest and raw” wood chairs are among Stephen Alesch’s favorite pieces in the hotel.

In the sunny Gallery, classical elements like caryatids are juxtaposed with mid-century modern furniture. Robin Standefer says the decor evokes “a combination of grandfather and hippie mom.”

The wall behind Freehand’s check-in area sports a custom mural, and the desk is inlaid with panels of rich green tile.

This stairwell features vintage paintings by lesser-known New York Abstract Expressionists.

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Freehand Hotel exterior
Built in 1928, the building that houses Freehand New York was once known as the George Washington Hotel. The Freehand pays homage to the first U.S. president with an eponymous bar in the former library.

The Project

The Freehand New York is housed in a 1928 structure at the southern end of Lexington Avenue that was home to the 395-room George Washington Hotel, which offered residential and short-term lodging. Its famous occupants included W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and — later, when the building was leased by the School of Visual Arts — Keith Haring, then a student there. The building, with its exuberant mix of architectural styles, from Jacobean to neoclassical, now includes three restaurants: Simon & the Whale and the Smile to Go, both on the ground level; and the mezzanine-level Studio. It also contains the George Washington Bar, in what was once the library; and a branch of the wildly successful Broken Shaker, in the former solarium on the roof. The lobby has only a small seating area. Instead, the mezzanine-level Gallery, reached by a grand staircase from the lobby, serves as a meeting and hangout space by day and a lounge by night, its mix of 1960s and ’70s chairs and custom sofas, covered in vintage Turkish carpets, accented by homey touches like book-lined shelves and houseplants in handmade pots. Here, Standefer and Alesch share how they arrived at the Freehand’s bohemian charm.

The Inspiration

For for the interiors, the partners drew on what Standefer calls the “folk craftiness” of mid-20th-century design. “We love where the California Craftsman era meets nineteen-sixties modernism,” Alesch says. Many of the furnishings in the public rooms come from flea markets rather than high-end dealers — among Alesch’s favorite pieces are the anonymous, “earnest and raw” wood chairs they used for Studio — but the pair were also influenced by mid-century French designers like Guillerme et Chambron, with their graceful, sculptural wood furniture. They were equally fascinated by photographs of the New York apartments of lesser-known mid-century artists, which, as Standefer notes, “were added to over the years, with someone’s grandparents’ furniture layered in with pieces from the sixties and seventies. It’s mismatched without being contrived.”

Freehand New York elevators
The walls of the elevator bank are bedecked with stately Jacobean woodwork. The ceiling and elevator doors are painted in high-sheen teal.

The Art of the Mix

The Freehand’s architecture is itself a composite, with Jacobean woodwork in the lobby, classically inspired caryatids on two walls of the Gallery and fluted mahogany pilasters in the George Washington bar. Alesch describes the building as “the last gasp of neoclassicism,” to which he and Standefer responded with an “art school invasion.” In the Gallery, Standefer says, “we sort of let the layers of history clash,” evoking “a combination of grandfather and hippie mom.” The George Washington’s traditional structural elements contrast with curvaceous 20th-century bar stools and a custom-designed sofa with flame-stitch-patterned velvet upholstery that provides a ’70s vibe. A portrait of Washington behind the bar is balanced by three of Alesch’s own contemporary paintings of the first president.

The Palette

Rich wood tones, from warm caramel to dark, almost ebony, dominate the public spaces, including the lobby, the Gallery and the restaurants and bars. The guest rooms’ custom-designed wood beds, tables and cabinets are somewhat lighter in hue. Here and there, the designers added potent touches of color, like the teal walls of the grand staircase, the deep blue carpeting in the bedrooms and the batik wall panels enlivening the Broken Shaker.

The George Washington Bar, located in the hotel’s former library, features the original mahogany millwork and fireplace, which have been restored.

Each of the Freehand’s 395 guest rooms is decorated with a custom mural created by Bard College students and alumni through the Freehand Walls program.

Suites have living room areas, contributing to their apartment-like feel.

The hotel’s Three’s Company rooms include a queen bed under a single bunk, making them ideal for small families and trios of friends.

Simon & the Whale, the Freehand’s street-level restaurant, features iroko-wood millwork and green-tile-paneled walls.

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Freehand hotel check-in
Jewel-toned walls, vintage chairs draped with sheepskin and an eclectic array of potted plants give Freehand’s check-in area a warm, welcoming vibe.

The Custom Commission

Through Freehand Walls, a collaborative program with Bard College, 17 students and Bard alumni were commissioned to create artwork for the public spaces and guest rooms, many of them riffing on the hotel’s storied past. From the chosen artists, 10 of them painted murals in all 395 rooms.

The Vintage Find

One of Freehand’s focal points pops up in an unexpected location: the mezzanine-level vestibule, where a treasure trove of vintage New Yorker covers lines the walls and extends into the restrooms. Illustrations by Saul Steinberg — another New York City icon — hang in the hallway outside, as do paintings by less celebrated New York Abstract Expressionists. “It’s like coming across the archives of an art school,” Standefer says of the intended effect. Adds Alesch: “We tend to look for paintings and drawings with a lively line — not necessarily ‘cool’ art.”

The Room to Book

In addition to the hotel’s gracious suites and king and queen rooms, the cozy quarters dubbed Three’s Company offer a stylish solution to accommodating parents and a child in the same space: A queen bed nestles under a sleek single bunk, stylishly eliminating the need for a rollaway.


GET THE LOOK

The French designers Robert Guillerme and Jacques Chambron, who were active from the 1950s through the 1970s, are favorites of Standefer and Alesch for their sculptural wood furniture, like this armchair.

The career of Suzanne Guiguichon, another favorite French designer of Standefer and Alesch’s, spanned from the Art Deco era to the 1950s, when she designed this modernist bar, an elegant composition of lines and planes.

The American designer Don S. Shoemaker, who moved to Mexico in the 1940s, is best known for his curvaceous wood Sling chair, but he also designed more geometric pieces, like this 1970s zigzag chair in exotic cocobolo wood.

The French ceramics collective Accolay, founded in the mid-1940s, made objects ranging from buttons for Christian Dior’s first collections to the 1960s green vase shown here, with its sinuous, organic form.

Made for the legendary California company Architectural Pottery, this lamp, with its textured base and shade, was a collaboration between two noted artists: the ceramist David Cressey and the textile designer Maria Kipp.

The Abstract Expressionist painter Syd Solomon, a contemporary and friend of artists like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, was a pioneer in the use of acrylic paint, creating colorful, sensuous works that were influenced by nature, like this 1963 canvas, April Rain.

The California designer and artist Stan Bitters has been an icon of modernist ceramics since the 1960s. This 1970s birdhouse combines charm with elegant simplicity.

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