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Nightlife icon Ian Schrager is still hungry for places that create "absolute freedom," he told me when we sat down for a recent chat at his new venture, New York City's Public Hotel. In his lifetime, he explained, there have been two seminal cultural events: one was Studio 54, which he created with his partner Steve Rubell, and Woodstock was the other. "I studied Woodstock at law school, about why 400,000 people could live without a police force and no laws and not have any problems," he said. "People don't talk about that anymore—they talk about Studio. But they were both the same kind of things: absolute freedom."
With panoramic views on the 17th-floor Roof Bar, a co-working space, and two restaurants by Jean George Vongerichten, the hotel is not unlike most Schrager enterprises: youthful, inviting, and fun. Rooms start at $150 per night. In the basement exists an expansive concert space where Patti Smith performed on opening night. Later, I watched my friend lose it on the dance floor as Questlove spun her favorite songs. A subsequent evening, I saw a performance created for the Public by the artist Jonah Bonaker—plus caught a set by some awesome female comedians. Schrager wants to let real theater and the real parties happen in the rooms.
Schrager also to consider how we use technology in your experience. Walt Disney and Steve Jobs are two of his biggest inspirations—he met with Apple while developing the hotel and even poached some employees from their human resource team. "They want a friction-free process of going in there and buying something, and they want to have a sense of community—you can get WiFi and no, you don't have to give your email address to get it," he said. "That kind of approach we utilized." There are no concierges to greet you and no front desk—just iPads where you check yourself in.
I stayed at the Public twice. The first time was for its opening in early June; for the second, I thought I might try an AirBnb, but when I whipped out my phone and started searching, I couldn't find anything that compared to the Public at the same price point on such short notice. In fact, it wasn't just about the price. But I also missed the Lower East Side, where the hotel is located. When I used to live in Manhattan, I'd take early morning walks from Ludlow Street to Chinatown, passing people practicing Tai Chi in the park. Later, I'd pick up some black pudding from a little Dominican hole in the wall on my way back. I'm also a mountain-island girl, craving quiet, and in the Public I found these two worlds merged. The rooms at the Public feel like an idealized version of a sanitarium: you step inside and only the bare essentials are there, and floor-to-ceiling windows with sheer curtains give the space a sense of serenity. All the rooms have white globe hanging lamps that look like the moon. When you really want to shut out the frenzy that is outside, you press a button near your bed and the curtains come down. You wirelessly connect your phone to the flat screen in front of your bed, you can watch your favorite movie or motivational talk, and suddenly your room becomes a cocoon, one where you can fall asleep while pondering the wonderful art you've just experienced downstairs. Respite can be a kind of absolute freedom, too. Below is a condescend and edited version of my conversation with Schrager.
Shala Monroque: Last summer, I read Grace Jones' memoir I'll Never Write My Memoirs. She writes about Studio 54, and how you were obsessed with Walt Disney, and paid attention to every detail. In the best way, the Public feels like a Disney World for grownups, but with a cultural slant. Is access to the arts programming a priority for the hotel?
Ian Schrager: We did Studio 54 a long time ago. New York was kind of a very bohemian place; nobody had anything to lose. It wasn't so dominated by hedge fund guys and wealthy guys, and when you don't have anything to lose people are adventurous. And at that time it seemed that Europe was tilted over on a side and everybody was rolling in from Europe into New York and L.A. And meanwhile, this country was tilted—everybody from L.A. rolled into New York—so even though New York was on the cusp of being bankrupt, that's the context. So Studio 54 took that mix and put it all under one roof, and the mix is always where the energy is, whether it's in music, whether it's in design or whether it's in just having a party. Jump forward forty years and the sexual revolution is not in its infancy anymore, and the demographics have changed. So how do you make a club very compelling today? We thought to make an entertainment component of it, but entertainment in the sense of culture—a cultural hub, not based on vulgarity, not based on the blue angel which was when I was around a long time ago. But give it this cultural depth that would give the club more legs: the film institute, performing arts center, amateur nights like they used to have at the Apollo, comedy nights, seminars, talks, film festivals—all of those kinds of cultural things that can slowly evolve into a hot, sweaty dance place. So it's multidimensional; you can't put a label on it. I think it's the first new idea in the nightclub business since Studio.
I used to party before the iPhone. Today, your friends say, meet me here, I'm outside, then everyone is taking pictures and you can't really interact with anyone in real life. Everyone loved to reference Studio 54—I almost got tired of hearing about it—like we were still living in the past and no one was trying to figure out what the moment is now. Have we moved away from dancing into something new?
No, no. We haven't moved away. We've been dancing for 5,000 years! Somebody just has to give people the vehicle for it. I'm amazed that everybody's focused on Studio. I can't believe it. You know, it's 40 years later! Grace Jones also wrote that Studio 54 wasn't just about people breaking free—she liked that she could meet different kinds of people with different political ideologies, and that she could sit down and hash it out. It was about the curation of people.
That was the best part about it. Nothing more boring than being in a room with rich people, or any kind of homogenous group. I think the energy comes when there's a mixture. I think those conditions existed then and I think they exist now. Somebody just has to give them an outlet for it. One of my friends said that going to the Public felt like going to Apple's Genius Bar.
When I first started, I was inspired by the entertainment business—I wasn't in the hotel business, I'm in the entertainment business. Now I'm inspired by the technology companies, because they're all done by young people, they all have fresh knowledge, and their ideas are all subversive. Did you create any new technologies for the Public?
The first thing we did was get discipline, because we just didn't want to have technology for technology's sake. There are two reasons for having technology: one, it makes it cheaper; two, it makes it easier. If it doesn't do both of those things, there's no reason for technology. You have to have technology with intelligence. I think we get technology before we need it, and then we have to figure out how to use it, which is a complete perversion of the process. I like that I can use Seamless to deliver food to my room.
And you don't pay delivery charge, and you don't pay $20 and $30 for a pot of coffee, and you don't have to wait 45 minutes. There was a good reason for doing that, and that's not a hotel idea—that's a Sweetgreen idea. The young technology-type companies have a lot of new ideas not because they don't have a lot of respect for the traditional rules, but they don't mind breaking them if there's no compelling reason to follow them. Which is what I have: I actually like breaking the rules, but it can't be cavalier.
What's the most memorable performance you experienced at Studio 54?
I have to say the people. It's invigorating when you do something and you see a bunch of people responding to it in a way you meant, or fortuitously and you don't even mean it. It's just a very gratifying thing. To see people on the dance floor, dancing and whooping it up, and the DJ's are manipulating them—it's just a very special feeling. I mean we saw a lot of things, and most of the things that I found great were the things that were spontaneous. You know, people walking around and their eyes are open and it's like a feast for them, and they really love it, and they're feeling sophisticated, and they're really having a good time, and they're relaxed, and it makes them feel good. That philosophy lives on in the Public: the Public isn't for bargain hunters—it's for people looking for a good price, but that are sophisticated.
Shala Monroque is an editor at large for GARAGE Magazine.