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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.