New York's abundant cultural assets—from fine art to the cityscape itself—inspire Rockwell Group's design of the Chambers hotel.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 8/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
At this stage in his illustrious career, David Rockwell seems to have designed it all. Restaurants, luxury hotels, resorts, retail spaces, residences…the list goes on. But, surprisingly, he had never overseen a ground-up project in New York until his namesake firm was selected to design the Chambers hotel, the newest addition to the city's bustling boutique scene. Hoteliers Ira Drukier and Richard Born (the duo who recently teamed up with André Balazs to concoct the achingly hip Mercer hotel in Soho) and partner Steven Caspi move to the West 50s with their latest effort. "Ira and Richard wanted something that was certainly high-end—with the kind of richness and luxury one expects from an uptown destination—but that would also capitalize on the small site and create an intimate, almost residential feel," says Rockwell. The location was a determining factor on the overall design in more ways than one: while the narrow lot dimensions and local zoning conditions dictated the building's setback profile and snug layout, the décor was inspired by the neighborhood's rich and abundant cultural offerings. Taking a cue from the surrounding art galleries and museums, "we proposed the idea of putting together a comprehensive art collection for throughout the hotel," he continues. Rockwell then pushed the concept further by invoking the aspirational lifestyle of a loft-dwelling artist—minus, of course, the paint-splattered floors. "We wanted to combine and juxtapose uptown luxury with a downtown loft industrial aesthetic. We felt that the two directions would be energized by rubbing up against each other."
Partner Lawrence Adams of Adams Soffes Wood, the architect of record, worked with Rockwell and his design team to build the 15-story structure from the ground up—a rare opportunity, notes Adams, since most of the city's boutique hotels are rehabilitations of pre-existing, "dowager" structures. "Collaborating on the building itself provided an opportunity to really tailor the design to the concept," says Adams. Working in concert, the two firms ultimately used the tight dimensions of the 50-ft.-wide-by-100-ft.-deep lot to their creative advantage. "The challenge for us was trying to fit the program into a very constrained site," Adams continues. "We had to be careful about organizing room layouts and corridors—which meant creating a tight core and a small number of public spaces. By budgeting the floor area, we squeezed as much hotel into as small a space as possible." The architects enlarged the basement by digging out an under-sidewalk vault, increasing available square footage for back-of-house operations. Placing the restaurant one flight below the street further freed up room for the ground-level public areas, allowing for a soaring, double-height lobby with an ample mezzanine.
Rockwell modeled the spatial sequence of the public areas after urban pocket parks; "the space contracts and expands" as guests move through an alternating progression of low- to high-ceilinged rooms. Visitors enter through enormous walnut doors, carved in a basketweave design, into a dark, compressed vestibule before arriving in the airy lobby. Foot traffic is then directed to the registration desk at left or the elevator core at the rear, both tucked under the mezzanine level. To the left of the lobby is a low, wood-paneled bar leading to the lounge and restaurant, another two-story volume. "A lot of our design went into creating a dramatic sequence to get people to the restaurant downstairs," says Rockwell (although chef Geoffrey Zakarian's equally dramatic cuisine has also proven quite a draw).
In the lobby, with its cross-cultural blend of richly textured furnishings, Rockwell achieves an intentional blurring of the uptown and downtown aesthetics. The space, and many of the individual elements, is at once refined and quirky. Steel-and-glass columns are softened with leather cladding. Clean-lined, rectilinear sofas are upholstered in a gunmetal-hued silk velvet. The materials palette is unexpected in an uptown establishment: "The use of leather, chenille, and felt is really unusual, sending a signal that everything is not so perfect that there's no room for the presence of human beings." (Stylish human beings, of course, are as integral to the interiors scheme as are the furnishings.)
But the real focus in the public areas is the impressive art collection, selected under the curatorial eyes of Rockwell, Drukier, and partners Leslie McBride and Adele Abide of Tribeca-based art consultancy Museum Editions. Some 200 pieces were chosen for use throughout the hotel's interior, including numerous site-specific installations. "The art is intentionally informal and provocative," says Rockwell, and features a roster of emerging international artists—many of whom have made a name for themselves since their selection. Although the collection was assembled long before the interior process began, "we decided that the art shouldn't be marginalized in niches," says Rockwell. "We gave the artists a lot of leeway in how they could use and interpret the space." This freedom endows the lobby with a residential feel akin to a collector's private town house.
The 77 guest rooms (of which there are five suites, 12 studios, 15 deluxe rooms, and 44 standard configurations) feature no less than three original artworks apiece. The private chambers are also where the lifestyle of the downtown artist is most expressively realized. "The guest rooms are a fantasy of loft living," claims Rockwell. An industrial vernacular is achieved by means of exposed sprinkler pipes, skeletal track lighting, distressed plaster walls, and raw, concrete slab bathroom floors. Customized furnishings include signature felt ottomans, glass desktops resting on oak sawhorse legs with leather accents, and "at least one highly-sculpted, fashion-like piece of furniture per room." Bathrooms are edgy but luxe, with hand-crafted iridescent mosaic tiles, custom-designed concrete-and-stainless-steel vanity carts, and Italian bowl-mounted sinks.
By way of brushed-aluminum French doors, all guest rooms open onto either European-style, steel-and-glass balconette railings or terraces—the latter a happy consequence of the setback façade dictated by district zoning requirements. "We also made the windows as large and as operable as we could," says Rockwell, to engage with the surrounding streetscape—which is as much a part of the Big Apple experience as the amazing art. "I love the New York view," sighs Rockwell.