Rough luxe: how Ace Hotel redesigned… just about everything


So, you know those ceramic tiles, filament bulbs, industrial fittings and stencil graphics that are everywhere? You saw them here first

Ace photobooth Portland

Picture: John Mark Sorum

We like grand dame hotels dripping with marble and Acqua Di Parma bathroom products as much as anyone, but if we could live in one hotel, it would be an Ace. The Pacific Northwest house style, mixing elements of grunge, hip hop, letterpress, army surplus, vintage vinyl, steampunk, machine-age architectural salvage and the trappings of the Beat Generation, has become a design movement in itself. Coffee shops and boutique hotels the world over have stopped taking their cues from Starck and Schrager, and now take them from Ace Hotel.

The Portland, Oregon property, originally a flop-house that had a cameo alongside William Burroughs in Gus van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, feels like the heart of the city. We love nothing more than setting up office for the afternoon on one of the big, roughly canvassed sofas in the lobby, beside the black and white photo booth, with something lush from Stumptown Coffee next door.

Similarly, the lobby of Ace Hotel New York has become our de facto HQ when we’re in the city. This space, created – along with the rest of the hotel – by Roman and Williams, New York’s most influential architects and interior designers, has become an immensely appealing paradigm of urban modern style. During our last visit to Manhattan, when we were arranging meetings with New York-based Civilian contributors, every single one of them suggested it as a meeting point. Like the Portland property, it has energised a whole area, bringing in destination retail from Opening Ceremony and Project No. 8a – an offshoot of our favourite LES concept store – and of course destination dining, with April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman’s two restaurants, The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar. There are also – Chelsea Girls style – a few shambling, oddball tenants who remain in situ from its previous incarnation as a welfare hotel.

Ace Hotel New York Portland

Alex Calderwood

Everything at an Ace is art-directed to within an inch of its life, yet their hotels feel fresh and surprising, from the playlists to the black and white graffiti-tag staircase that leads off the Manhattan West 29th Street lobby. The last time we were eating in the Breslin, we were halfway through a bowl of boiled peanuts fried in pork fat, when Without You” by David Bowie came on – track four from his 1983 Let’s Dance album. “Oh. My. God. I LOVE this, I’d totally forgotten about it!” shouted one of our party. It was a typical Ace moment.

The man behind Ace Hotel is Alex Calderwood – co-founder and design genius. We spoke to him while he was on business in London about the Ace Atelier, Ace aesthetic, Ace rip-offs, and Ace plans for world domination.

Civilian London: We were in Portland, Oregon recently and just about anyone doing anything creative seems to have links to Ace Hotel. We heard a lot about the Atelier, the creative HQ you’ve been putting together – what’s that all about?

Alex Calderwood: Well, we have a team of about 30 people in Portland, and a couple of people in New York. If we have an oddball idea that we want to try and make happen, we can do it now. We have three full-time architects working on projects, and we’ve added interiors people, so when we start with a new property, the team is there, and experienced and ready to go… We could, theoretically, do everything ourselves now.

We love typographical history and work – Milton Glaser and Lou Dorfsman are long-time heroes

What is Ace Atelier in Portland like? Does everyone look fabulous?

Everyone is very “interesting”. We look for people who have a wide variety of interests, or a natural intellectual curiosity. Each person’s personality adds to that mix. So some people might be super literature-focused, others are very nerd-focused and technological. The mix is very dynamic and it’s consistent with the hotel. It’s not about hipness, or over the top fashionableness, it’s ideas driven.

What brings you to London? We know you’re opening in downtown Los Angeles – are there plans for Hackney?

We are working with a digital agency in London (and no, can’t say who). London is always super-interesting. I was here last summer and a friend said “Let’s hang out”, and it was one of those days of discovery. We ended up at the Serpentine, at the Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei installation, and it was really well-executed and had a feeling of the unexpected.

Ace Hotel New York City, picture: Lyle Thompson

Ace Hotel New York City

The first time most people heard of Ace Hotel was via the Seattle property when Herbert Ypma featured it as one of his Hip Hotels. It was very stark then, but the style has changed a lot now, hasn’t it?

That book came out in 2003, so a lot has changed. We’re glad that people recognize the common threads that run through all of our hotels as a distinctive style, but we’re consciously avoiding holding patterns. There is, however, a common appreciation of natural, low-tech materials, without any overly wrought design to intimidate people. At the downtown Ace Hotel Los Angeles opening later this year, guests will see evolution. Each Ace absorbs its persona from the look and feel and culture of its environment – that’s a commonality at every one of our projects, but it manifests itself differently in each neighbourhood.

You clearly look to the past as much as the present? What’s been inspiring you recently?

The Bauhaus; the flea markets of the Pacific Northwest; Noguchi; De Stijl; street art in London and handicraft in Tokyo.

The Ace style is in sync with the hotel’s collaborators: Stumptown Coffee and April Bloomfield come to mind immediately. And April is, in turn, in sync with the modernism of St John and Fergus Henderson in London. What do you all have in common?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s a common passion for what we do and an honesty of voice.

We don’t issue communiqués about perceived levels of whateverism. Carrie and Fred [Armisen] are great. Portlandia is very funny, with a sharp wit and cultural observation. We love what they do

You’ve influenced a lot of other design-focused brands. What are the most outrageous rip-offs you’ve seen?

We try to not pay too much attention. We only have so much time in a day, so we have to devote it to our own work. I just hope that people find their own voice and not try to replicate ours. Regurgitating and fostering trends lead to sameness.

Is there an Ace Hotel colour and type chart? How nerdy does it get?

Well, we are judicious with our use of colour. Almost conservative, you could say. There are no set rules concerning colour, but we tend to lean towards what I’ve referred many times to as “non-colour colour”. Neutrals, but with contrast. We love typographical history and work – Milton Glaser and Lou Dorfsman are long-time heroes, but there are others too. We’re not addicted to a certain font. It’s all dependent on the objective. We love the tactile feel of different printing processes, from stencil to screenprint and letterpress. Our guests have an intuitive grasp of craft and a curiosity about how things are done, and so do we. Spike Lee told us that the Ace seems like someone real made it, not a corporate cookie-cutter. We were very flattered by his observation.

Ace Hotel New York City

Ace Hotel New York City

How do you stay one step ahead? When everyone is shoving a Warhol-style black and white photobooth in their lobby and branding with letterpress style, what do you do next?

What we have always done – stay inquisitive and reckless. Don’t just try to “succeed” at a popular aesthetic, even if you made it popular. There’s so much out there to explore, I don’t think we ever need to worry about where we’ll get ideas or get inspired. Our objective is not to satisfy a template, but to spend our days well – to be exhausted and elated at the end of the day. This makes for better work.

In New York and Portland recently we noticed a slight softening of style from some of the staff – the looks that the guys in Stumptown are wearing now aren’t quite as arch as they used to be. There’s less of the Amish/Yohji workman style. With Carrie Brownstein satirising “hipster” culture, do you need to soften it?

We don’t issue communiqués about perceived levels of whateverism. Carrie and Fred [Armisen] are great. Portlandia is very funny, with sharp wit and cultural observation. We love what they do. Stumptown is an entity all its own as it happens, and I think what happens there each day is natural. The staff evolve, as all humans do.

The Chelsea, I think, is an influence on so many creative people and renegades and weirdoes. Active participants and creators of culture tend to band together around particular places

The tag “hipster” has become redundant. As we saw someone write on Twitter recently: “They’re not hipsters, that’s just what white people look like now”. The term has really negative connotations – a homogenous group of people who all want to look alike. What’s your take on “hipster culture”?

I don’t know what the term means any more, if I ever did. I think it’s just become a catch-all for a bunch of stuff. I think your question sort of answers how I feel about it – the Ace is continually built with pieces from the full spectrum.

The choice of locations for each Ace is key. Ace Hotel Portland feels like it’s in the heart of the city, and everyone we spent time with recently – Paige Powell and Janet and John Jay, etc. – all seem to revolve around it. In L.A, you’re opening downtown, which makes perfect sense in terms of the drift of the city. But in New York there was some surprise that you didn’t open where the Wythe has now opened. Why did you choose that area, not Williamsburg?

We fell in love with the potential of the building and the area spoke to us as a real working NYC neighbourhood. We liked that location specifically because it was unexpected and a “brave” choice, but actually it’s also a very good geographical place to be in Manhattan.

One of the most extraordinary members of the Ace team is Linda Gerard, who hosts the restaurant in Palm Springs. She looks like a larger than life Golden Girl, and bursts into song throughout the evening. She’s a force of nature and she really shifts the balance in that restaurant, which seems a very leftfield, Ace thing to do. How did you get her on board?

Ace Hotel Palm Springs

Linda Gerard – Picture: Ace Hotel

We met Linda when the Ace Hotel & Swim Club was holding a staff hiring event, and we knew right away she was a perfect match. She’s developed a natural stage presence and a way of charming her audience through her years on Broadway. She was a standby for Barbara Streisand in the original run of Funny Girl and she has created her original nightclub cabarets since the 1960s. Visitors and guests find themselves spellbound. We’ve actually compiled some of her early singles that we’ve released as a record.

Do you see what you’re doing as kind of modern-day version of the Chelsea Hotel? You are big on incorporating underground and counter-culture elements. But can you fashion that kind of focal point of culture in a commercial sense, or must it happen organically?

The Chelsea, I think, is an influence on so many creative people and renegades and weirdoes. Active participants and creators of culture tend to band together around particular places. Dropouts from the system are the ones who really influence history and make magic in significant ways. The Chelsea Hotel was also a business, and a business can’t create that space. But people can – and business can make space for that. Business can do its job and get out of the way and let culture shine.

Your collaborations also feed energy into Ace – from Janet Jay’s black soap to offbeat fashion labels and musicians and artists. What have been your favourites?

I find them all great. Janet’s soaps always make me happy when I use them. We did a small project with the Japanese label Number (9) when they were still active and that was pretty special. We did a small collection with Tanner Goods over the last holiday season and they were incredible.

Some people say there’s now a mismatch between some of the prices of rooms and the low-fi style of the Ace. What’s your feeling about that? A lot of the kinds of people synonymous with the Ace style can’t afford to stay there.

Well, Ace has never professed to be the cheapest, it’s value in terms of the experience you get for what you pay. It’s based on supply and demand and the improving economy overall.

Who looks after the musical direction and what is the directive? It’s always good and always surprising, particularly at the Breslin. It’d be so easy to just play The Smiths the whole time.

The music in the Breslin is always very good! I believe a woman named Kate, a friend of Ken Friedman, does it and she does an exceptional job. Some of our music is curated by our friends at KEXP in Seattle. Some is by Other Music in New York and Amoeba Music in Palm Springs.

Where next? And if you were opening in London, where would you consider? The scene moves so fast. A few years ago it was Shoreditch, now it’s Dalston. Or is it better to open up and invent a whole new area?

Stay tuned. Our next opening will be Ace Downtown L.A, on the site of the landmark, flagship United Artists Theater built in 1927 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and company. We’re actively looking at different locations around the world, including Europe and the U.K. In London, who knows where we would throw down roots? It would just have to feel right. C