A visionary who speed-reads floor plans and green-lights far-out ideas for an endless stream of mega-million-dollar projects around the world, Barry Sternlicht is the dream client. The founder and chairman emeritus of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide has a passion for design that's revolutionized the hospitality industry, earning him the admiration of designers, architects, and guests alike.
"I love his brain," declares Clodagh , the Hall of Famer who's designing guest rooms and some of the public spaces at the W Fort Lauderdale in Florida. "A lot of people with charisma don't have the brain to back it up. Barry has his eye on the financial ball, but he's also deep where it counts."
The former arbitrage trader turned a practically bankrupt REIT into a $14 billion hotel company-the world's largest, with 231,000 rooms at 733 properties in 80 countries. He did this by integrating a hodgepodge of properties and honing several distinct brands: Westin, Sheraton, St. Regis, Four Points, the Luxury Collection, and his baby, W.
"The first time I stayed at an Ian Schrager hotel, I realized you don't need a plaid bedspread," he recalls. "There are people out there who appreciate good, functional design. I just thought we could do it better."
One by one, he vanquished pet peeves such as claustrophobic showers, clunky armoires, bad lighting, phones that tether you to one spot, cheap plants, and ugly art. Westin's Heavenly Bed, with its multilayered pillow-top mattress, and Heavenly Shower, with its double showerhead, have become industry icons, emblematic of the touches that have propelled Starwood's occupancy rates to 75 percent. "You can capture your customer through design," Sternlicht says, "and they'll be loyal."
While Sternlicht defined Westin through sumptuous familiarity, he says he created W as ' a place of "surprise and action" based on the buzzwords wonderful and wow. He recruited Hall of Famer David Rockwell for the first one, in New York-setting a tone as sophisticated as it was comforting. "It's easy to be sexy and cool when you design dark," Sternlicht says. "I was trying to be light and happy."
Suddenly, a Starwood commission was a coup, and Ws in particular became an opportunity for designers to strut their stuff. Studio Gaia came up with egg-shape hanging chairs at the W Seoul-Walkerhill in South Korea. Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects designed an unusual wedge of a building for the W Hoboken in New Jersey.
The W New York-Times Square helped launch George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg , Hall of Famers who've gone on to design Whiskey Blue at a W in Los Angeles and an entire W in Miami Beach as well as St. Regis properties. "He's one of the few people who really understand design as a tool to enhance business," Pushelberg says. "By the sixth board of your presentation, he's saying, ‘I get it. I like it. But change one thing that makes me crazy."
Perhaps Sternlicht is a frustrated designer. ("Perhaps all designers are frustrated hoteliers," Rockwell quips.) He does fancy himself an artist, having studied painting when he was younger. When he went to Harvard Business School, he soon discovered a new art: hospitality. "Getting back into design and real estate through hotels was like coming home," he says. "It was a part of my job that never felt like work."
At 45, he's shifting into his role as chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, and he foresees a time not far off when he'll return to the painting and sculpting he put on hold 20 years ago. Recently, he set up a studio in his house on Nantucket, Massachusetts. "I do think he'll go back to his art, because part of his greatness is the power to change," Clodagh says. "First, though, I'd love for him to become an architect-and intern at my studio."