Ian Schrager on Consistently Capturing the Zeitgeist
Behind every unforgettable space and every extraordinary experience is a certain je ne sais quoi. If anyone has an idea of what exactly that is, it’s the hospitality impresario and Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager. For more than four decades, Schrager has been a defining cultural catalyst and beacon across industries, from hotels and nightlife, to art and architecture, to fashion and food, and beyond. Along with his former business partner Steve Rubell, he has been credited with coining the term “boutique hotel,” which over the past two decades has been used so ubiquitously that it’s become meaningless. Today, he prefers the term “lifestyle hotel.”
Since the early 1980s, Schrager has devised and developed more than 20 ahead-of-the-curve hospitality properties, including the Edition line of hotels, a project he’s worked on for the past 15 years with Marriott International and recently announced he’s planning to depart from; the Morgans (1982), the Paramount (1990), the Hudson (2000), the Gramercy Park Hotel (2006), and the Public (2017)—The Guardian has dubbed him “the king of Manhattan”; the Mondrian (1996) in Los Angeles; the Delano (1995) in Miami; St. Martins Lane and the Sanderson (both 1998) in London; and the Clift (2000) in San Francisco. Across all of his creations, Schrager has shown an uncanny ability to both tap in to culture as it evolves, as well as set his own trends that seem to spread almost instantaneously. He even has a term for the still-proliferating imitations of his properties worldwide: “Schragerization.”
At present, Schrager’s most focused on expanding his company Public—luxury hotels at a more affordable price point—across the country, with the Public West Hollywood scheduled to open on Sunset Boulevard toward the end of 2024 and potential future locations in places such as Brooklyn and the Catskill Mountains. Beyond designing for mere aesthetic appreciation, Schrager’s visions go further. He cultivates emotional experiences and memorable moments—places with a soul and spirit all their own. “You walk into a place and you feel good, you feel content. There’s a happiness about it. There’s an elevated feeling about things,” Schrager says on this episode of Time Sensitive. “That, to me, is luxury.”
On the episode—our 100th—Schrager discusses his tried-and-true design philosophies and definition of luxury today; his admiration for the visionary thinking of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Walt Disney; and the enduring aura of Studio 54.
Schrager talks about why the notion of the “boutique hotel” became meaningless, and thus why he doesn’t use it anymore. He also discusses why he’s going to be parting ways with Marriott, with whom he’s been building the Edition line of hotels.
Schrager shares his future plans for Public Hotels. He also mentions his admiration for the visionary thinking of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Walt Disney.
Schrager speaks about why luxury has a lot to do with time and not “the white gloves and the gold buttons and all the other things.”
Schrager looks back at his upbringing in Brooklyn. “I have all the credentials,” he says. “I was born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. I’m unstoppable.”
Schrager reflects on his time with Steve Rubbell running the legendary Studio 54 nightclub in Midtown Manhattan.
Schrager recalls his entrance into the hotel world and highlights some of his philosophies behind and approaches to truly great hospitality.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Ian. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
IAN SCHRAGER: Thank you very much.
SB: I thought I’d start today by mentioning a particular milestone that you have on the horizon, which is: Next year will mark forty years since you first opened the Morgans hotel in New York. You created this with your Studio 54 co-owner, Steve Rubell, and it’s really been credited—I think, fairly—as introducing the “boutique hotel” category. If I’m not mistaken, that was a phrase that Steve himself coined.
SB: How do you think about this particular period of time, these forty years and your time in the hotel industry? I mean, four decades is a long time.
IS: Well, I’m still at it. I think I’m still at it because I love it. I love what I do. I love creating experiences. I love blowing people away and doing something that hasn’t been done before, and that has always been my goal and my purpose. I think I do it because I have to. There would be an emptiness if I didn’t. The ironic thing about it is I never knew I had any kind of capability in what I was doing. It just kind of came to me. It seems [like] forty years, but it seems fresh to me and inspired and driven, and I’m just happy that I can keep going and evolving and keep having an impact and doing something again, continuing to do something that hasn’t been done before.
SB: Researching for this interview, I returned and read a 2004 piece in The Guardian that called you “the king of Manhattan.” In it, you call the proliferating imitations of your hotels “Schragerization.” This phrase “boutique hotel” was eventually rendered meaningless. How do you see it now? I believe I asked you this question maybe a decade ago [for the cover story of Surface magazine’s July/August 2013 issue], but how do you see it now?
IS: Well, Steve really did use that word because it was his way of telling people what we were trying to do. We weren’t trying to be a department store, which is all things to all people. We were trying to take a specific approach, have a specific attitude, say something specific, and we lost ownership of that word. Because it never had anything to do with size. It just had to do with approach to something, having something very specific to say. And now it has lost all meaning, and I keep coming back and telling people it has nothing to do with size.
I consider Apple to be a “boutique” company because it has a very narrowly focused mission, and that was always what we were about. But it doesn’t take long in America … if something has proven to be successful for everybody, jump on the bandwagon and to try and do it. And so it’s been completely assimilated and has lost all meaning. I don’t even use the word anymore. I use “lifestyle hotel,” which in an ironic way has changed the hotel industry, because they’re all trying to do lifestyle hotels now.
SB: Right. You’ve also recently announced that after fifteen years you’ll be parting ways with Marriott. This is a company you’ve been building the Edition line of hotels with. Tell me about this decision and also your time with Marriott. I know you were particularly close with Arne Sorenson, who was the president and CEO of Marriott International from 2012 until his death, in 2021.
IS: When I first got started doing the deal with Marriott, there were skeptics all over. Everyone went, “Well, let’s see how this turns out. They may kill themselves before they’re ever done.”
IS: But in a funny kind of way, we had more in common than people thought. We both had the drive for excellence, we both wanted to do something special, and we wanted to do something that had a real impact on the industry. For that, working with Marriott all those years made me better at what I do. It was expansive. I learned to work on a lot of projects and I was able to do it. I learned not to agonize over every single detail. I realized that there’s a universe of options for any given problem, and I could quickly react and move forward with it, and that has really served me well. The part about it is, I learned a lot and [about] what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.
I didn’t want to work in a big company that acts like a big company. Being in a big company that acts like a small company, that’s nimble and innovative and can make a decision on a dime and go off into different directions and wasn’t afraid of failure. Because when you’re afraid of failure, then you never try anything. You can’t be adventurous.
So it was a really great learning experience for me and very fulfilling. And I was very close with Arne Sorenson, who probably may have had—next to my father—probably the biggest impact on my life.
IS: Because he was such an incredible human being—and so bright and so smart. And even though he had been at Marriott for a long period of time, I never considered him a Marriott person. He was from the outside. And, as you can see when he ran the company he made a lot of really adventurous decisions and took them into places that hadn’t been done before. But he was such a genuinely decent guy that, and it was really—I think they took a risk on me. I think outside the box. I don’t do anything in the way it’s normally expected to be done.
I’m trying to do things that haven’t been done before. And because of the risk that they took on me, I really, really gave it all I had, only because I wanted to reciprocate with Arne that his faith and trust in me was justified.
I really tried to do as good a project as I possibly could, whether it was mine or it wasn’t mine. And so, it was a big experience for me. I did the Marriott deal because I wanted to do something big. I wanted to do something that had a big impact on things. I would usually spend my time, spend a year or two or three working on one individual hotel, focusing on the buttons and the zippers and whatever was being involved in the project.
I think that the footprint that I had wasn’t commensurate with the ideas that we contributed and the impact I had on others. And so I wanted to do something big, which is why I did the Marriott transaction in the first place. It was unanticipated, not expected, but it was a very gratifying experience in my career. When I look back at it and I see the time I spent with those guys—and there were a lot of nice guys there, a lot of very smart guys. I’m very happy that I went through the experience. It was just time to move on.
SB: How many Editions is it?
IS: We worked on about forty. I still have about nine more left to complete. The fun thing about it is, so I would do these projects in different locations. To me, the secret of doing something—a hotel—very well is, in some way, you have to capture the spirit of the place you’re in and the spirit of the time.
You have to manifest something about that place, not with clichés. It would be not like having a Statue of Liberty for sale in the gift shop in a hotel in New York. But capture the essence, the DNA of the place, but yet have to be true to who we are and our aesthetic and what we do. It’s a kind of balancing of that act.
So we would go to a place like Singapore, for instance, and say, “Well, we want to do something that can only be in Singapore, but we have to be true to ourselves. We have to do what we do.” Because we do think there is a collective taste level all over the world—it doesn’t matter where you are, or how old or how young, or how rich or how poor you are, there is this collective umbilical cord that connects all of these people that have a certain taste level.
And so, that’s why it was easy for me. When we first announced the transaction, people said, “Well, how are you going to make every hotel different?” Easy! Different location, different physical plant, different design person—it’ll be different by definition. We didn’t want to roll out a chain of monotonously similar hotels—I would kill myself. And so, I did find it a gratifying experience, and it was a benefit to me.
SB: You’ve also been busy building Public hotels. Tell me about your vision for Public. I know there’s been quite an evolution of the brand over time, which had a location in Chicago, then it went away, and now you’ve got this flagship here in Manhattan.
IS: I think Public’s the most important idea I ever had. It’s been a long time in the making. I did the Paramount Hotel back in 1990. It was a six-hundred-room hotel in the middle of Times Square, which at that time was not a very fashionable area. The rooms were very small. Some of the rooms were seventy square feet. You would open up the door and it would bang into the bed.
IS: So at that time, it was different than Morgans and different from Royalton, which had preceded it.
So we decided our inspiration for that was the great transatlantic ocean liners—which I’d never been on, but I had studied—where they had very, very small cabins, but great, promenading decks and public spaces, and you were meant to get out of your room and enjoy the public spaces. I mean, the rooms were small in the Paramount. So the idea for that hotel was “cheap chic.” We were going to do a less expensive hotel, but it wasn’t going to be dumbed down. It wasn’t going to be appealing to the lowest common denominator in terms of taste level. It was going to be just as sophisticated, but it was going to be less expensive.
I remember, when we opened up, the Royalton was two blocks away, and that was three hundred dollars a night, and this was going to be a hundred dollars a night, and all the people working in the Paramount came, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to do it?” To me, it was kind of very obvious. You’re not going to get a three-hundred-dollars-a-day experience and pay a hundred dollars, so there’s no problem that they’re two blocks away. And so it started there.
Then I did the Hudson, too, which is on 58th Street, which was small rooms and less expensive. The idea of doing an incredibly sophisticated hotel, as sophisticated as any other project out there, that has this really exciting food and beverage and entertainment options, better than anybody else out there and also offers it at a less expensive price is something very democratic to me. And making it accessible to anybody and everybody who gets it, who wants to be a part of it.
I just think that a really important idea is—[Elon Musk, the CEO of] Tesla came out with his automobile and it was quite expensive, but he had to do that—quite expensive cars. A million cars sold. He had to do that to establish his brand architecture. Now he’s doing a less expensive hotel. It’s a much, much, much bigger market, we’ll have a much, much, much bigger impact on things. And I just think those ideas that you could make accessible to anybody but that aren’t dumbed down or as good as anything, very, very expensive, it’s just the right and moral thing to do. I think there’s a moral imperative to do it and it’s gratifying for me. Because luxury today is different than it has been, and it should be different, because everything else changes. Why shouldn’t the notion of luxury change? So that’s why I say it’s my most important idea, a real contribution to do something great and make it accessible to everybody. Something about it I just find appealing.
SB: It’s interesting you mentioned Tesla. And I’ve also noted, you’ve mentioned Steve Jobs. I know he’s been sort of a figurehead in some respects for you. Do you view what you do as a product the same way an iPhone or a Tesla is a product?
IS: Well, I don’t compare myself to Tesla and Steve Jobs—that I want to say right off the button. But I think Steve Jobs was product-driven in the pursuit of excellence. He was able to apply things in a business fashion that other people didn’t see. I mean, Xerox Parc had all those things—computer interfaces and everything—before Steve Jobs had it, but he was able to do it in a great way.
There were iPods, they weren’t called iPods, but there were those music devices twenty years before the iPod came out.
And so yes, I identify with Steve Jobs. With Tesla, he, too, is subversive to the status quo, which I think is part of the DNA of all innovators. They think outside the box and they do things. When you talk about Tesla, you talk about Jobs, I talk about [Walt] Disney as the three people that march to their own drumbeat. Again, I don’t put myself in that category.
An interesting thing about Tesla: The big car companies had bulk, and they discontinued the manufacturing of it. They didn’t get it. They couldn’t pull it off, they couldn’t execute it, they couldn’t give it to the market. It took somebody like Tesla to come around and introduce it to the world. There were Motorola and Ericsson and all these other mobile phones were out there before Steve Jobs came and did the iPhone. So yes, I mean, when I got started, they had hotels, but they were generic and commoditized in the same way it was with cars and in the same way it was with telephones and in the same way it was with animated movies before Disney got started.
So those guys are inspirations for me. Also, because they were right at that intersection of art and innovation and business, and they were all able to execute it well. I bet you none of them did it for money, either. They did it for other reasons, and then the money came, which is the reason that I do it as well.
SB: On the subject of time, I did want to ask you about what could be called “hotel time,” which is basically the time you spend in a hotel, at the lobby bar, that kind of thing. You are someone who has spent an extraordinary amount of time inside and around hotels. So I wanted to ask, how do you think about hotel time? What does hotel time mean to you?
IS: To me, it’s a very, very interesting question you asked because I think the distinctions between hotels and offices and residential projects are blurring now, and they’re all kind of merging together. When I met Adam Neumann, who did the WeWork and WeLive, he said that the hotels were his inspiration for WeWork. Because really what it’s doing is it’s bringing a life and an experience—adding that to the functionality one requires at an office or a residence. It adds value, it brings something, it makes something different. And you see now with all the amenities that are being added to offices to make them distinctive….
And the same thing with residences. It was what we tried to do with hotels. And the only reason we tried to do it was because we came from the nightclub world. We didn’t have a product to sell in the nightclub world. They had the same music, the same décor everybody else had, but the way you put it together, the experience—the elevated experience, the excitement—distinguished it. We tried to bring the same thing to hotels, and now I think that’s happening with offices and residences as they’re all blurring.
So it’s funny to think about hotels leading the way with what’s coming on with those structures, but I think it is. I think they’re all doing hotels in their offices and in their residences, in this elevated experience, because it’s what people want.
SB: It’s interesting too to think how it might shift our time, because I find, at least when I’m at an elevated hotel, time kind of slows down. Something happens, it’s sensory overload. There’s a sort of alchemy occurring.
IS: That’s the goal. If you don’t get to the alchemy, you don’t get anything. The only difficult thing is you can’t write a book on how you achieve that, but you just hit it right on the head. Because, to me, luxury today is giving someone a lot of free time to do what they want and to pursue what they want. That’s the true luxury.
That time is the result of luxury, not the white gloves and the gold buttons and all the other things. The free time that comes in a situation where you work, where you live, where you stay in a hotel that you have for yourself and to pursue what you want. Which I think, because of what’s going on today, it’s so complicated, it’s so intense, it’s so partisan. You need that free time more than ever.
SB: It’s like a cloak. It’s like an atmosphere around you.
IS: Right. I think it’s just incredibly important. I mean, we were just discussing before, picking up on those cultural trade winds, this collective unconsciousness that goes on, and trying to put something that’s responsive to that. That’s why it’s not about design. It’s about capturing that moment, the direction that people are going in. It’s something that you feel. It’s not an intellectual or a logical or a linear process. And that’s what’s so exciting to me about it. You never know where you’re going to wind up. You get started, and you never know where you’re going to wind up.
SB: I was also interested to learn, in researching for this, that the culture of Japan has had a large influence on you—the aesthetics, the simplicity of it. I mean, you can see the direct translation of that in your work. Not only the projects with John Pawson, by the way. More than that, but how have these philosophies or principles or your time in Japan, how has that shaped—
IS: Incredible impact on me. Because Leonardo da Vinci says that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. There are quotes from Voltaire and a lot of other thinkers throughout history that talk about simplicity. I think Voltaire says something like, “Nature loves simplicity.” [I was] reading a book about Einstein and the elegance and simplicity of his formulas or equations. The aesthetic of Japan, it’s exactly what resonates with me with a little bit, perhaps a little bit more emotion, a little bit more heart that I would add to it.
I was just reading something the other day about something in Japan, a theory in Japan that said imperfection is good. Which I kind of think: If it’s too perfect, it doesn’t resonate with people. And so, I think Japan, their aesthetic there, their approach to life, it’s had a profound influence on me. The funny thing about it is, John Pawson worked in Japan for a long time.
IS: And a lot of other great architects also—
IS: Yes, it was. And because of Iso—his nickname—I got access to the “real” Japan, which a lot of people don’t get. And they’re just a lovely, charming, respectful, gracious people—and simplicity is the way, always. In America, we’ve lost that way a little bit, maybe, with all the financial success everybody has had. But simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and I think I got exposed to that first by Japan.
SB: Yeah, I was actually reading a quote you more recently said, where you also said that “the new luxury is spiritual luxury.” I think that ties to this Japan idea as well.
IS: Absolutely. Boy, you do your work; you do your research. That comes in with this: You walk into a place and you feel good, you feel content. There’s a happiness about it. There’s an elevated feeling about things. That, to me, is luxury. Not getting something that has a very prominent brand on it or that costs a lot of money. That thing is completely irrelevant to me. I think it’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s something that doesn’t make sense anymore, period. I think we’re all getting there.
SB: One of the things that I wanted to ask you, because hotels of course are so fast-changing. I mean, also just there’s the wear and tear, there’s…. And they can be kind of fleeting in terms of a cool factor. Your hotels have managed to, for longer durations of time, maintain that, but at the same time, they go away, eventually. So I was curious, what’s required in creating staying power for a hotel to you?
IS: Great execution. Great, great, great, great execution. I could give you an analogy about that. It’s the Hermès clothing company. They don’t have big-name designers working there, but they just execute perfectly. Their stuff is just perfect, and it lasts. I think it’s not so much the cool factor as maintaining the integrity of what the idea is. That doesn’t go out of style. I mean, yes, it’s true, a bar can have shelf life, but a hotel doesn’t have shelf life. If you maintain the integrity of that idea and you keep it there, and it keeps appealing to sophisticated people and it doesn’t erode, it can last for a hundred years—a thousand years. When the design is very, very good, it never goes out of date.
I remember I went and visited—I went on a vacation once, and I met with one of the young owners of a new Aman hotel. I said to him, I really loved it. And I said to him, “Boy, it’s so great. The design hasn’t changed for fifty years.” I don’t think he took it in the right way.
IS: I meant that it’s such a great design and such a great aesthetic that it will never go out of date. It will always be appealing to people. I meant it like that. I meant it as the ultimate compliment. I’m not sure he took it that way, but that’s the way I meant it. Because good design always is great. It never goes out; it always stays. And that good design and good execution means that something will never be considered trendy—even though it’s provocative, even though it’s adventurous—because it’s executed so well. And that’s where the obsession comes in. The obsession of Steve Jobs, the obsession of Walt Disney. And I don’t know as much about Tesla, Elon Musk.
SB: I love that we haven’t mentioned his name yet. [Laughs]
IS: I don’t know as much about him, but that’s—
SB: There’s a new biography [by Walter Isaacson]. [Laughs]
IS: I’m finishing a book now; I’ll read that next.
IS: But that’s where the obsession pays off. And I think it might’ve even been Elon who said, “Obsession trumps talent all day long.” I think it was him, but I’m not sure.
SB: Tied to this, there is this idea of the zeitgeist, which I think you’ve always managed to tap into, but at the same time I think it’s because you’re really tapping into these core human emotions: a sense of awe, an appreciation of beauty, a profound attention to detail—the things that move us. I mean, even Anna Wintour has said that you’re “natural at tapping into whatever is going on in the culture.” So if she’s saying that…. So I wanted to ask, what’s your secret sauce, as you see it? How do you find the sort of timeless sense in all of these?
IS: I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you. I don’t have data. I don’t have focus groups. It’s just something I instinctively feel. I don’t have data, any studies to tell you about this merging of offices, apartments, and hotels. I just feel it. I just feel it. And I think maybe I’m lucky that I think outside the box, and I can just feel it coming. And I think a gift I have is an incurable and insatiable curiosity. I’m curious about everything. If something happens, I kind of wonder, “Why? Why is this happening?” I’ll tell you the way that plays. When I was doing a nightclub at one of the hotels, a lot of the young people that I deal with told me that, “Hey, you want to do a nightclub, you have to do it in Brooklyn. Because people don’t dance in Manhattan anymore.”
SB: [Laughs] What?!
IS: Where is that written? It may have been that maybe all the cool clubs are in Brooklyn now, but there’s no reason for that. There’s no cultural reason. Somebody just hasn’t done one. And therefore we can do one because there’s just nothing…. There’s no intuition. There’s no instinctive thing that tells me if you want to do a cool nightclub, you gotta do it in Brooklyn. No, that doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m fine to assume that risk because that’s just what I feel.
SB: In the Studio 54 documentary [by Matt Tyrnauer] that came out a few years ago, there’s a scene in it with Michael Jackson, and he’s describing the escapism that he was allowed to feel in that place. Do you think it’s partly escapism, this sort of trick to what you’re creating time and again?
IS: It’s not so much escapism for me as it is freedom. You are free. It’s that time and freedom of time. Maybe that’s the flip side of escapism, but you could have gone into Studio and you could be anything you want, do anything you want, be with anybody. It was that absolute freedom. We don’t get the opportunity to experience that very often. And that, to me, was the reason for the success of Studio. It was the freedom. People felt free when they went there. They felt protected, and of course, like the boutique hotel work, now everybody has reasons why something was successful, but to me, it was because you felt free. There was a freedom—not the freedom to do drugs. I’m not talking about that. It’s just the freedom to do and be who you want.
And that’s a rare occurrence. That’s why I think it was so successful, because all of the elements came together and the alchemy happened. I mean, Steve and I put all those elements in there, in that soup, that primordial soup or whatever it is. What came out was more than the sum of the individual parts because they just…. Something happened when they all were together, and that’s why it was successful.
That, and the diversity. Diversity means you are with people you’re not ordinarily with. There’s nothing more boring than being in a room full of rich people or a room full of everyone the same. But when you’re with a lot of diverse people, that’s when that combustible thing kind of happens, that nuclear explosion. It’s funny, because I’m still out to do the same thing in the hotels. It’s still—still—the methodology. Which is why I think I’ve been lucky enough to be successful. It’s the same approach I had back then. Same exact approach.
I’m rambling on, but when people say, when I would do a hotel, I was trying to do a nightclub, nothing could be further from the truth, but I am trying to achieve that same freedom in the hotel that I did in the nightclub. That I am trying to do.
SB: I think this would be a good moment to go back to your upbringing in East Flatbush, where the drive began. Your father was a women’s coat manufacturer, and I know you’ve spoken about his level of taste and a certain kind of sophistication—
IS: And my mother.
SB: Yeah. A way that they both carried themselves that was an early portrait of you, of an appreciation of certain finer things. Not fancy, but just—
IS: No, no. Not fancy.
SB: A certain taste.
IS: First of all, being raised in Brooklyn was a gift, because I know a lot of gunslingers that came out of Brooklyn and the Bronx with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. So I’m so happy that…. I have all the credentials. I was born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. I’m unstoppable. So I do think that that was very, very important.
Rather than being some kind of maybe wealthy or upwardly mobile kind of situation, everyone was hungry and everyone wanted to do better than their parents. And so, I did get that drive, and I was exposed to the great taste of my parents. I remember my mother and father had a party over at the house, and when everybody was leaving, there was a big stack of Sunday New York Times that people could take when they left. Boy, that to me was such a nice touch. As Steve Jobs said, “You can only connect the dots when you look back.” But I think being raised in Brooklyn and the impact of my parents—tasteful, restrained, not ostentatious—had a really, really big impact on me.
SB: I understand basketball was also what you’ve called your first love.
IS: Obsessed. I was obsessed. Because you are a product of your environment. We didn’t have baseball fields. We didn’t have those things. We had schoolyards. So everyone would go to the schoolyard or go to the night center and play basketball. And I think there was a certain hierarchy involved with that, and a certain status, I suppose, that came. So I was obsessed with basketball. Obsessed.
SB: Did hotels eventually become an obsession?
SB: There was a story I read at some point about you going to the Delano in Miami with your parents.
SB: Which is pretty incredible because it’s full circle—years later you actually redeveloped the whole property yourself.
IS: It’s funny, I went down with my team down there, and everybody liked the property next door. I didn’t, because I didn’t think that the public space was laid out right; I wouldn’t be able to create this dynamic energy in it. And I felt we could do it at the Delano. Now, I would’ve never done it [because of my parents]. There was no sentimentality involved in my making that decision. The fact that I had stayed there with my parents is great, but I did it because I thought that there was a possibility of creating a great public space, a great communal place for people to interact and all. That was a great project.
SB: Was there another hotel or experience at a hotel in your youth that captured your imagination?
IS: No. I think that coming to a project with complete ignorance is a virtue because you’re not going to be saddled with the rules or what’s gone on before you.
You’re just going to go in there and respond honestly with what you think is relevant. And I do think that’s a virtue. The funny thing is, when I started in the business, I never worked with designers that had any experience with hotels—never.
But it’s not rocket science. And I didn’t want somebody coming to the party with preconceived ideas and notions of what way you’re supposed to do something. So I do feel that ignorance and lack of experience is a virtue, but it can be nerve-racking. You’ve gotta be obsessed to make sure you pull it off. But it really means you have a blank canvas to work with, which is what I do every time I start a project.
SB: So after Brooklyn, you go off to Syracuse University—and I’m going to skip over a lot of things here, but it’s there that you meet Steve Rubell.
SB: Who was a senior when you were a freshman. And, as I mentioned earlier, he later became your partner and co-owner at Studio 54. You also created this nightclub in Boston; Enchanted Garden, a disco in Queens. And you worked with him, spent so much time together with him. How do you think about all of that time now, from college through working with him as a lawyer, until his death in 1989?
IS: Steve was a very, very, very special person to me. I’ll never have another friend like that. We were perfectly complementary to each other. We shared the same values. He grew up in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from where I lived. But because he was in a different district, and older, we didn’t know each other, but we were from basically the same neighborhood. Our values were the same, our ambitions were the same. Our character was the same. But after that, after those essentials, we were completely different. We completed each other. He was a very gregarious, outgoing person who loved people and loved helping people and—
SB: Running his mouth in the press. [Laughs]
IS: Yes. Yes, he did. But he was also good at it. And I wasn’t like that, so together, it was one plus one makes six, and it really worked very well. Somebody once said—a lawyer of ours way back then—that he thought each of us would be successful if we were alone but that we’d be more successful together. Because I’m not a networker. Steve was a networker. And in business, you need to be a networker. And I just rely on the product. It’s the work. I rely on the work, nothing else. That’s it. I’m sorry. That’s it. But you can’t.
It’s funny, I’m doing a big project in Saudi Arabia—a big one. And so, I’m going to a big conference that they’re having at the end of October. Usually, I wouldn’t go. All the big shots [from] around the world will be there. All of them, government heads. It’s a little bit like Davos. But in Saudi Arabia. I wouldn’t go. Steve would’ve loved to have gone. He would’ve gone there, mixing shoulders and rubbing shoulders and reading all these big shots and so on and so forth. I wouldn’t go. I had no interest in going. But I am going this time, because I think it comes with the territory of what I want to do now. I want to do something very big with Public, and so, I am going. So you continue to—
SB: You found yourself filling some of the shoes, I guess?
IS: Yeah, well. Really, I cared about the reaction of the people, not the reaction of the big shots. But it’s the big shots—where you come and take the bows and things happen because of that, I suppose. So I’m doing it. First time in my life.
SB: So much has been said about Studio 54, but I can’t not have a conversation with you where I don’t bring it up a little bit. And I was loving how Bob Colacello framed it as “the Valhalla of Hedonism, the Taj Mahal of Free Love, the Camelot of Nightlife.” [Laughs] But I did want to bring up this element of timing here, because it’s so important to your story and the story of Studio 54 is the timing, that moment, that very April day that you opened in 1977.
IS: It’s funny. Everybody thinks that. I don’t. And the reason I don’t is because—and it’s very consistent with what we talked about—yes, it’s true, New York City was very different. New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy. New York City at that time was occupied in a very bohemian kind of place. It was just when the gay population was emerging, and they were setting the social trend and the social standard. Before then, Black people were doing it. Now, Black people are doing it again. And Europe was in political turmoil. So it’s as if Europe turned over on its side and everybody rolled into New York. And this country turned over on its side and everyone from L.A. and California rolled into New York. I mean, if London was in the sixties and London was in the fifties, New York was in the seventies. But I don’t think the human species changes. I think the length of the skirts and the dresses changes and the automobiles change and refrigerators change and everything else changes. But I don’t think the human species changes.
And there are people, even Matt Tyrnauer—
SB: The filmmaker.
IS: —who directed the film, didn’t think you could do another Studio 54. No. I think you can. The fashion would change. Certain things would change. I know we have the iPhone—or any kind of cell phone—you might be able to take pictures. It might inhibit people. Those things are not the bull’s-eye. They’re tertiary. I think we as humans, that same desire to have fun and let loose and have freedom….
SB: The primordial dance.
IS: Right. It’s still there. It hasn’t changed. You have to find—music may be different and other things may be different but we’re still the same. So no, I think you could do Studio 54 now. You have something like that going on in Ibiza. You have a version of that happening in Miami Beach, perhaps, but not like Ibiza. And you have it in East Berlin, too, where there’s a mayhem, a wild mayhem going on.
So no, I don’t believe that. I think I could do a Studio 54 now in a heartbeat. It would just be different. I might have to make people check their phones before they come in.
And there are things like that you may have to do. But no, we’re dealing with the same people. The demographics were also different then, when the baby boomers were emerging, and there were people who were a lot younger, who are a lot older now. But I don’t know what they call it, Gen Z or whatever they’re calling it. But that’s also a big bulge in the population, like the baby boomers.
So no, I think it’s not a question of timing. I think it’s a question of execution, of responding to what culturally is going on and understanding what people want. Because I still want it and if I still want it, my criteria is other people also want it.
SB: I know you don’t get too nostalgic, and we won’t go on a trip down memory lane here. But how do you think about your time in Studio 54, in that very building? And are there any particular moments or memories that stand out to you? I mean, it’s obvious to say, sure, there was Bianca Jagger on the white horse, or Truman Capote and Andy Warhol’s Academy Awards party, or that incredible Issey Miyake “East Meets West” fashion show.
IS: There are a lot of great, great, great moments. So funny, my son’s having a bar mitzvah, I was thinking about bringing a white horse in for him. [Laughter] But my daughters, who are a little bit older, said, “No, it won’t play well now, you shouldn’t do it.” That’s what I mean about the fashions changing.
But I was thinking about it only because it was such a historical moment. Studio 54 was a springboard for me, and for Steve. I didn’t want that to be the high point in my life. I didn’t want everything to be down from there, so I was really motivated: Well, that’s step one, but we have to now go on. But I still have people I work with that were there at Studio with me, still working with me, which is very gratifying.
It was a special time for me because it was…. We did a nightclub in Boston, but we didn’t really do it. We had partnered with somebody and they did it. And that’s when I went to Steve and said, “Steve, I could do this.” Because I saw what he did. And so, Enchanted Garden, it was limited because it was in a residential neighborhood and they were making noise and it became a problem so we had to close that pretty quickly. So I look at Studio as really my first uninhibited, open-ended opportunity to do something well, and just, all the forces of the universe came together for us. But I’ve been lucky because they’ve come in every project that I’ve done. I’ve been lucky to have been successful.
IS: I’ll say.
SB: Of course, it’s the stuff of lore now, the time in prison, and then President Obama commuting your sentence in 2017, right before he leaves office.
I wanted to kind of skip over all that and focus on Steve and your journey into hotels. So you get out, you’re back in the game, you create Palladium with Iso, as we mentioned, and then, by 1988, you find yourself the largest private hotelier in New York City—five thousand, five hundred rooms! That is a rapid change over a decade.
IS: It’s so funny when we were in jail, it’s kind of consistent with what we’ve been talking about now. Because what was going on at that moment was Donald Trump was doing his first hotel. And Harry Helmsley was doing a hotel with Helmsley Palace, and the press was playing up this competitive situation between the old guard, Harry Helmsley, and the new guard, Donald Trump.
SB: And you’re reading about this in the papers.
IS: It sucked us right in. Wait a minute, we could do better than both of them! We could do our kind of hotel. So that was one of the reasons we wanted to do a hotel—
SB: The thirteen months in prison, it’s germinating in your mind. You’re like—
IS: Right. What we were going to do when we got out. Because we did something stupid. We got punished for it, but we couldn’t even go back to what we did before because we couldn’t get a liquor license. So we had really had to start all over again, and we didn’t know what we were going to do. And when we did open up our first hotel, we didn’t have a liquor license for a year or two. For four years, we didn’t have a liquor license. But we were still able to pull it off.
After that, that drew us into going into the hotel business. When we came out, we didn’t have any money. The reason we opened up Palladium was because we heard all these nightmare stories about people going in and doing hotels and real-estate things and running over budget, that kind of thing. We had no source of revenue or anything. So we did Palladium in order for us to have some money in case we went over budget. And that was the only reason we did Palladium. I didn’t want to do another nightclub because we did the only—we did Studio. What are we going to do now? That was the original idea. Palladium was just more. It wasn’t an original idea, the way Studio was. So we did it for that very expedient reason.
SB: And it worked out for a time, I guess.
IS: It worked out.
SB: And you go on to do Morgans, the Royalton, the Paramount, the Delano, Mondrian, St. Martins Lane, Sanderson, Hudson, the Clift. It was an incredible journey. I guess, looking back on it now, which moments or hotels do you think were the biggest hits?
IS: You always have a preference for your first love, which was Morgans, but I think the first four projects were all very important. Why? Morgans was the first project that we ever did. Then we did the Royalton, which was juxtaposed against Morgans because we didn’t want people to pick up from Morgans and go and stay in the next latest, greatest hotel. So if Morgans was an introverted hotel, with no lobby at all, Royalton was an extroverted hotel with a big lobby and lobby socializing. Then third, we did the Paramount, which was a less expensive hotel. And the fourth hotel was the Delano, which proved we were not just a New York phenomenon. We can go out and we can do these things in other places. And they worked. So those four were—
SB: It was like finding the DNA.
IS: Yes, exactly. So then everything else after that, in different cities—we weren’t just a New York phenomenon.
SB: Well, I love how you began this conversation linking what you’re doing today with Public to some of the thinking going back then.
SB: You can even literally find through lines, like the escalators that would whisk people up at the Hudson to the escalators at the Public.
IS: And the Paramount!
SB: Yeah. And the Paramount.
IS: And the Paramount. We didn’t have an escalator, but the idea of the Paramount, we had a big second floor. So how do you make a second floor valuable? Make a glamorous staircase. Make a glamorous escalator. In the Hudson, the lobby was on the fifth floor. So how do you make it work? You make getting there a trip, some kind of a visceral experience. I mean, there’s business behind it.
SB: Right, and at Studio, you’d always have the doors closed. So people would enter and come through and they’d hear this music pulsing in the other room. It’s all about the entrance. [Laughs]
IS: Exactly. It’s supposed to work like a theatrical piece. There’s an unfolding as you walk through a place. There is a first act, the second act, a third act, and a finale. It’s a narrative. It’s a story you are telling. And that’s what I think keeps people’s interest. It’s not a vanilla box that’s cherry-red or blue. There’s a real trip involved. And I think that—
SB: You’re sounding like a Broadway theater director.
IS: Right. Yes! And that’s—
SB: Would you do a Broadway show?
IS: Yes. Yes, I would. Because it’s the same kind of approach. We were thinking about doing a Studio 54 show.
SB: I can picture the white horse on the stage. [Laughs]
IS: Well, so then here’s the issue: Do we do something that’s historical and tells what happened, which wasn’t the part that interested me? Or do we do something modern and forward-looking that evokes the spirit and the freedom that you had at Studio, which—I opted for the second, by the way. But yes, I would because it’s the same thing. You are looking to move people, looking to do something that moves them. Just because of the way it’s all put together. And yes, I think that could work with anything—film, theater, anything.
SB: So, final question. I wanted to end our conversation on a subject that might surprise the listeners, or seem random, but I want to talk about invitations. I want to talk about invitations because you’ve made some extraordinary ones over the years. And there’s something about an invitation, I think in this time, in this world that we live in that’s so fleeting and fast and digital and ephemeral. And you’ve created these markers of time, really, these invitations. I was hoping you could speak to some of them. Your Studio 54 book, for example, includes some really incredible invitations, such as an invite to Roy Cohn’s birthday party that looked like a subpoena and these Lucite boxes that were filled with black confetti for New Year’s. I mean, you’ve always been very creative with your invitations in everything you do.
IS: You know why? Just to give you the whole background, put it in context. You have other businesses and they advertise. When you’re a nightclub and you’re trying to do something cool, you can’t advertise. There has to be a drumbeat that goes out that people hear about, like a groundswell, a buzz, whatever it is. And so we couldn’t advertise.
So how do you get people—and create a buzz, talk about, and give people an idea of what their expectations should be when they come to this place? It was the invitation. You’re sending out something that’s setting a level of expectation for the recipient of what to expect. It’s so funny, just again, my son’s having a bar mitzvah: I wanted to make this big invitation, big this, big that. And my wife was telling me, “Well, that’s not the way you do it anymore.” When you do it now, because first of all, the invitation go to the kids’ parents and you have to do it over the email with that program that they have.
SB: Paperless Post. [Laughs]
IS: Yes! So we did something with it, but I would’ve done something else. So I think, when you’re creating a unique situation, every single thing you do has to reinforce and reaffirm what that place is about: the claim check to the coat check, the glass for the liquor, the water fountain, everything. Everything has to be on brand to create a really strong experience. Everything has to reinforce that. There’s not one superfluous gesture. Everything.
And it started from the invitations. Everything was always critically important, and you know why? Because I never knew what detail would push something over the top. I never knew what detail would work. So therefore, every detail was a matter of life and death. Every detail was important. That’s still my approach.
So now, by the way—sorry for skipping around. But now everyone’s doing these invitations, so it’s lost its gravitas; it’s lost its impact. To me, if you want to do something like that today, then you’re going to have to go into those automatic, technological invitations and you have to do something in that arena to make it stand out, which is possible.
SB: It’s no longer the printed artifact.
SB: Some digital subversion.
IS: Yes. It can be done. There’s always a way when you think outside the box and do something that hasn’t been done before. When people outside the box send something outside the box to people inside the box, it resonates with them because they’re not used to seeing it or feeling it. That’s the secret sauce.
SB: Someone listening to this is going to go create the Paperless Post competitor. [Laughs]
IS: Well, somebody should, because it is simple. You do have some latitude, but not a lot. And you’re trying to do a special event? Well, you gotta send out a special invitation.
SB: Ian, thank you. This was a pleasure.
IS: A pleasure. It’s always fun. And thank you for having me. I mean that.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on September 20, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Mimi Hannon, Hazen Mayo, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Chad Batka.