Mourning Phiippe Starck's Miracle on 44th Street
Published in: Interior Design
September 2007

The lobby of the Royalton hotel has been dismantled, robbing the world of an iconic interior. The cause of death was the desire for profits, tied to a relentless search, among hoteliers, for the next big thing.

Philippe Starck’s handiwork, which lasted 19 years before workers began carting it away, may have been the most important hotel lobby of the late 20th century. “It was the ship that launched 1,000 others,” architect Calvin Tsao says, referring to the flotilla of boutique hotels that imitated the Midtown original but never surpassed it. Tsao was one of many architects expressing dismay that the lobby no longer exists. “It’s shocking,” says David Rockwell, who called it a “seminal piece of work.”

Equally disappointed were chroniclers of New York society. The Royalton’s restaurant, 44, was the place where the media establishment of the 1990’s gathered. New York Times style columnist Bob Morris believes that, for historic importance alone, the lobby should have been preserved.

The Royalton lobby may have been the defining interior of Starck’s career. Phoning from Paris, the designer expresses mixed feelings. “I’m not sad for me. I’m sad for the people who had memories of the hotel. They’re calling me and telling me how terrible it is.”

“I’m not a businessman,” Starck continues. “But I think if you’re lucky enough to own an icon, you shouldn’t kill it.” The new owners, the Morgans Hotel Group, should have opened something else nearby instead, he says: “Then they could have seen which one people liked better.”

Former owner Ian Schrager says of the Morgans executives, “I’m in no position to second-guess their decision. They’re financial guys, and I don’t know what their criteria were.” He acknowledges that he’d also been considering a renovation shortly before he sold the hotel—but not a gut: “We would have kept the Royalton’s DNA.”

Unlike the countless boutique hotels where minimalism is an excuse to dispense with luxurious accoutrements, the Royalton lobby featured heavy fabrics and rich colors—but in a completely original idiom. As Morris points out, until the Royalton came along, if you wanted plush, you went to the Plaza or the St. Regis.

The lobby may be best remembered for its oddities, such as light fixtures and chair legs shaped like horns or snake heads, Starck’s aesthetic fixations. But his achievement went far deeper than surface decoration. Faced with a through-block lobby that, by conventional standards, was too long and too narrow, he transferred what Schrager had learned about theatrics at Studio 54 to a hotel context—creating the chicest living room in town. Different zones made the narrow space seem wide enough to contain multitudes.

Stretching from the front door to the far end of the building, a strip of royal-blue carpet with puzzling patterns woven into it made you want to stop and look as you moved through the space. To the right of the carpet were the reception desk, elevators, and restrooms, set into a wall of highly polished teak that alternately dazzled and disappeared. To the left of the carpet was a series of thick concrete columns. Here, Starck was at his most brilliant: He cut away enough of the tops of the columns to create the illusion that they didn’t reach the ceiling, that they were freestanding sculptures rather than mundane structural elements.

Between the columns, three steps led down to a seating area where angled mirrors reflected the Starck-designed furniture, its eccentric shapes apparent even through white slipcovers. Seen from the sofas, Tsao recalls, the parade of people on the blue carpet suggested models on a catwalk. Stephanie Goto, who recently collaborated with Tadao Ando on the restaurant Morimoto, says the Royalton’s lobby “brought out a bit of the supermodel in everyone.” Starck’s level change, she says, was a “seemingly effortless but ever-so-calculated dramatic device.”

Like many architects, Tsao questions whether the Royalton was so dated that it needed to be destroyed: “Everything is of its period, but you don’t tear down Versailles and the Palais Stoclet on the theory that they’re passé.” To this writer, the lobby looked as fresh in the spring of 2007 as it did in 1988.

Busy designing properties for Los Angeles businessman Sam Nazarian’s SLS Hotels, Starck himself sounds alternately blasé and defiant. On the one hand: “I’m always moving on. Life is life.” On the other: “It proved that you can do something very strong, very personal, and still make it timeless.” The mere existence of the Royalton lobby, he adds, offered support to young designers who wanted to make strong statements—but whose clients were afraid the results would have to be torn out after a year.

Now that support is gone. Legally, there was no way to force the new owners to preserve it. New York has approximately 24,000 landmarked buildings but just 120 landmarked interiors. Owners, who prefer to be able to respond to changing market forces, tend to resist designation of interiors. Besides, sites can’t even be considered for landmarking until they reach age 30.

As for the Royalton’s new owners, Schrager says, “I just hope they do something better than what was there. If they don’t, they’re opening themselves up to criticism. I think they’re taking a real risk.” Indeed, they seem to be acknowledging that risk. Postcards announcing the October reopening include praise from the New York Times (“Spectacular”). But the quotation actually refers to the Starck design.

Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors was chosen by Morgans president Ed Scheetz to redesign the lobby. Scheetz did not return calls requesting comment on the renovation but is clearly determined to maximize profits, having taken his company public in 2006. A truly public company might have considered the value of saving Philippe Starck’s miracle on 44th Street.