He calls it “accessible luxury”, and this is Ian Schrager’s latest big idea. The first was Studio 54, where elitist hedonism was born behind a velvet rope. The second, which he came up with in prison, doing time for tax evasion, was the “boutique hotel”. Schrager is the man responsible for purple feature walls, for lobbies that double as local cocktail bars, for chairs that look like comfy sculptures, and for today’s luxury hotel experience, with all the exclusive glossiness that entails. But this week he opens Public in downtown Manhattan, where he’s trying out something new. Populism.
In a voice that sounds like concrete mixing, Schrager explains that this is a hotel for everybody. Despite costing less than half the price of his glitzier hotels (rooms start at $150, for bookings made before the end of August), it retains the neon glamour of its five-star neighbours, and has already attracted Studio 54-level interest, with Patti Smith performing on the opening night. “I start with the rate I want to charge, then back in from there,” he growls. “And it means breaking rules.” Walking through the lobby, with a shop that sells flowers and T-shirts and perfume, and a landscape of white sofas, it’s not immediately obvious where the money’s been saved, where the rules have been broken.
“I originally started putting white furniture in my lobbies because I thought nobody else would copy them,” Schrager says. “I’m not one of those people that thinks flattery is the most sincere form of compliment.” All is grand, all is luxurious. It’s only when you look closer that you begin to notice, and it’s in the detail.
Where your traditional luxury hotel might have marble and mahogany, Public (which he plans to roll out internationally) has concrete and plywood. The bedrooms are all window and pale wood, with blinds that go full black-out with the touch of a fingertip. You can check in online, and download your room key on to your phone. While there are advisors around to help, there’s no one waiting to take your bag up. “Why would you need it,” points out Schrager, “When everybody has a case with wheels?” He sees this as a “re-education”.
And rather than room service you order food from the downstairs deli online, and five minutes later fetch it from the lobby, where it waits in a white paper bag. “Or you order in, of course, from one of the millions of restaurants nearby. Why do you need traditional room service any more?” The housekeeping is outsourced (so they can bring in more staff when the hotel is full), and there are no iPads or extras in the room. It’s designed as a genuine alternative to Airbnb, a hotel for the hotel’s lost generation.
When I arrive, Schrager is instructing the manager on exactly how far the benches should be placed from the tables. He is a proud perfectionist – when he organised Bianca Jagger’s party at Studio 54, he stayed only until her white horse had successfully navigated the dancefloor.
“Luxury is not a business classification,” he says. “It’s something that makes you feel good. And it’s possible to create something just as sophisticated and visually provocative here as in a more expensive space. It was never about the design for me – it was always about the idea. Special effects can’t make a bad movie good.” He says that it was dreaming of hotels in his prison cell that kept him sane, “because when you lose your enthusiasm for life, you’ve lost everything.”
Schrager claims he never cared about the money. “I was always just trying to make a good party – and it’s all in the mix,” he says, gesturing to guests sipping iced teas, the deli with its gluten-free cookies and fried chicken. “Of people, of music, design; of older women in ball gowns dancing with shirtless boys… The mix is what creates the electricity. And with this hotel? I’m still trying to make a good party.”
Exploring later, I emerge on to the 17th floor, to be met by a white-bonneted Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a bit of a shock. It’s a costume exhibition, mannequins holding faceless babies beside ceiling-height windows, all of Manhattan stretched below. Up on the roof is the hotel’s “crazy bar”, which appears to be floating above the city; and down in the basement a performance space, with cinema screen and plans for open-mic nights.
As well as the (affordable) deli in the lobby, there’s a fancy restaurant for those desperate to spend their savings. The Lower East Side is enjoying a kind of renaissance – a branch of Soho House has opened over the road – and the combination of fashion and wealth with long-standing businesses like Jewish deli Russ & Daughters is fairly intoxicating for a greedy tourist.
Lying in the dappled shade of the hotel’s secret garden, I sip iced orange water and quietly agree with Schrager. For the same price as a Holiday Inn, this is the kind of luxury I believe in.
Rooms at Public start at $150 a night – this is an introductory offer only available for bookings made before the end of August 2017. For bookings made from September rooms will start at $200.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010