Every decade or so, someone comes along and tweaks the way hotels look and do what they do.
In the 1970s, London designer Anouska Hemphill transformed a pair of run-down South Kensington townhouses into Blakes, the template for the one-of-a-kind boutique hotel with a sumptuous, ethnic-inflected aura and rooms so exotically dressed – puddled silk curtains, midnight colors — guests (usually) forgave the miniscule dimensions.
In the 80s and 90s, Ian Schrager of Studio 54 renown teamed with French designer Philippe Starck to resurrect the Royalton, Paramount and Hudson, a trio of musty brick New York properties, and usher in an era of high concept design, moody lighting and lobbies that doubled as nightclubs.
Alex Calderwood, the co-founder of Ace hotels who died unexpectedly on Thursday at the age of 47, was an innovator of the next generation. Starting with the gentle rehab of a 28-room Seattle flophouse in 1999, Calderwood and his Ace hotels changed the way we travel.
His properties — billeted in vintage urban buildings (if Palm Springs counts as urban) – observe basic rules. The design reflects where you are. The feel is relaxed (go ahead and put your feet on that reclaimed coffee table). Luxuries can surprise (guitars and turntables in rooms, full-size Smeg refrigerators in the suites). And a sense of community is cultivated (Ace had communal lobby tables from the get-go and a DJ spins most nights).
Most notably, Ace pioneered a meeting of high and low, with budget rooms, sometimes sharing bathrooms, next door to what look like hipster apartments. The name Ace was chosen because the card is “the high and the low card in the deck,” he told The New York Times. “We employ that high and low principle in our hotel models.”
The concept extended to retail, as I discovered when I interviewed Calderwood for a story on hotel shops in 2011. “We have things at an accessible price point, and then there are things at a more premium side,” he said.
Calderwood, who skipped college, ran a vintage clothing shop early in his career and seemed genuinely interested in retailing as one of the components that came together to create the Ace identity. “I think retailing is another layer that makes the overall hotel experience kind of engaging for the guests,” he said. “It’s a sense of discovery for them when they see something that they may not see everywhere else.”
Ace rented out retail space to “friends of ours,” as he referred to Opening Ceremony and Project 8, the two retail shops in Ace New York. In addition to providing extra income, it made more sense for professional retailers to run the businesses than the hotel, he said.
But Calderwood was enthusiastic about the limited run items the hotel commissioned from time to time, like a reproduction of a vintage Converse sneaker about to debut when we talked. “I genuinely believe when someone gets a pair of shoes or anything else related to Ace, it gives them a sense of memory of their time here every time they use it at home. There’s an emotional connection to that time when they were here,” he said.
Ace didn’t reinvent the hotel, as their website points out. But Calderwood understood what a growing segment of hotel-goers wanted and gave it to them in spades.
Click here to read Ace’s online memorial to its “mentor, friend and muse.”