Words: Catherine Martin Photography: Courtesy of The Waikiki Edition
Sleeper learns of the decade-long courtship between Yabu Pushelberg and Ian Schrager that has given birth to the first of Marriott International’s new Edition hotels.
It’s mid-September at Miami Beach Convention Center where the annual hospitality design event HD Boutique is well under way. On stage, keynote speaker Glenn Pushelberg is providing an insight into working alongside one of the industry’s most influential names: “He’s a challenge to work with,” come the first tentative words of what turns out to be a glowing report filled with respect and admiration for the man in question. “What’s interesting about Ian is that he’s always embodied the zeitgeist of where things are going. He’s very intuitive.” The co-founder of Toronto-based interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg is of course talking about Ian Schrager, with whom he has created The Waikiki Edition, the first hotel of a new boutique lifestyle brand for Marriott International.
Announced in 2007 from the rooftop of New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel (for which Schrager has recently sold his interests), Bill Marriott, Chairman and CEO of Marriott International, and Ian Schrager, creator of the original boutique hotel, unveiled plans to create Edition. Said to combine the “personal, intimate, individualised and unique lodging experience” that Schrager is known for, with the “global reach, operational expertise and scale” of Marriott, the partnership marks the next chapter in the lifestyle hotel story.
Back in Miami, Sleeper met with Yabu Pushelberg earlier that day to unearth the true extent of the relationship between themselves and the design guru. Waiting in the lobby of W South Beach (another of the firm’s conquests having recently completed the guestrooms and residences), Glenn Pushelberg arrives with a female colleague, not the other half of the design duo I was expecting. “George is travelling,” he informs me, referring to his co-founder George Yabu with whom he set up the firm thirty years ago. No doubt engaged in putting the finishing touches to The Waikiki Edition, due to open in Hawaii in four weeks time.
The pair met at design school in Toronto and set up together in 1980, creating interiors for residential and retail. Early success came in designing the cosmetics floor of New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, and a string of high profile projects followed. Although this retail work continues, the majority of the firm’s time is now spent designing hotels. “At one point we were doing a lot more retail work with less hospitality, it was a 70/30 split,” says Pushelberg, “Today I would say it is the reverse of that as we have around 15-20 hotels on the go right now.” Impressive given that the firm completed their first hotel project little more than ten years ago.
Their big break came in 2000 when they won the contract to design W Times Square, a hotel they revisited in 2009 to refurbish the guestrooms. At around the same time, Yabu Pushelberg decided to expand from their Toronto base and open an office in New York. “If you want to work on an international scale, then no matter how good a designer you are, if you’re based in a B-grade city like Toronto, Chicago or Atlanta, you’re just not looked at in the same way,” Pushelberg believes. The move has clearly paid off with projects on the boards that include a Luxury Collection hotel in Shanghai, a Viceroy resort in the Maldives, Mandarin Oriental Mumbai, Waldorf Astoria Beijing, Park Hyatt New York, and both a Park Hyatt and W hotel in Guangzhou. The number of contracts the firm has in China – eight hotel projects at the last count – has also led to the opening of an outpost in the People’s Republic, a region they say saved them from the recession.
But with a foot in both the Toronto and New York studios, Pushelberg is quick to add there are no plans for worldwide domination. “Two’s enough! For us, the ambition is to grow qualitatively and to continue improving our work rather than being in more places on earth,” he says, explaining the complementary roles he and Yabu have carved out over their careers. “I spend more time with the client talking about design strategy and in a sense become their eyes and ears back in the studio,” he explains. “George works on a more detailed approach and spends more time in the studio... It’s a collaboration that works for us.”
Both however, were involved in the decade-long courtship of Ian Schrager, a relationship that looks set to continue. “Thirty years ago we were coming to New York as kids, weaseling our way into Studio 54 and being in awe of what Schrager had done,” remembers Pushelberg excitedly. Fast forward a few years to when Schrager took on Miami’s South Beach working with Philippe Starck on The Delano Hotel, and Yabu Pushelberg wangled a lunch with the designer. In 2000 they got a call to collaborate on the renovation of The Shore Club but couldn’t do it. And so it continued. “A year or two later he called us again and asked us work with him on The Royalton, but we didn’t do that. It was a courting situation, we were courting him, then he was courting us. It’s tempting to be like a child in a candy store but you have to understand where your strengths are and where they’re not, what you should do and what you shouldn’t do,” he believes. “Then we spoke to Ian two years ago and he told us he was working on a new project with Marriott called Edition. It felt like it was the right time for both of us. His aesthetic had changed to a cleansing of design, there was more clarity to his work and he wanted to go back to his roots when he designed the Morgans Hotel with Andrée Putman.”
Credited with revolutionising the hospitality industry, Schrager’s role with Marriott is as creative consultant, to lend his vision for the Edition concept and direct the design of planned hotels in Istanbul, Mexico City, Barcelona, Bangkok, and now London in the historic Berners Hotel. According to Marriott, each hotel will function as a ‘home away from home’ or ‘office away from the office’ for leisure and business travellers, and reflect the best of the cultural and social milieu of its location and of the time. They will encompass “not only great design and true innovation, but also great personal, friendly, modern service as well as outstanding, one-of-a-kind food, beverage and entertainment offerings... all under one roof.”
The Waikiki Edition, a converted 1960s hotel on Waikiki beach which famously featured in the credits of TV series Hawaii Five-O, offers 353 guestrooms and suites; a contemporary Japanese restaurant by chef Masaharu Morimoto; the exclusive Crazybox; an intimate Lobby Bar hidden behind a secret passage; a Sunrise Pool with lush gardens landscaped by Deborah Nevins; a Private Sunset Beach with its own lagoon and imported sand from neighbouring Hawaiian islands; the largest ballroom on Oahu; a spa; and custom designed Surf and Bikini Boot Camps.
Each of the carefully designed spaces, says Pushelberg, speaks about Hawaii without feeling overdone or clichéd. “There’s a sense of Hawaii in a modern way, through subtleties. For example the check-in desks are morphous in form, and behind is a feature wall of broken up surfboards.” He describes the design as “calming” with a “lightness of touch”. “It’s much more edited than a lot of existing lifestyle hotels meaning there is less design to it. It has clarity and freshness,” he says. “I think that makes it innovative and feel more honest. It’s not trying to fake Hawaii, it feels part of it in an understated but very chic way.” Guestrooms are similarly pared back with natural tones and rich woods against a bright white canvas to create a sense of organic luxury.
Custom beds, 46” LCD TVs, a large work area, complimentary high-speed wireless internet, seamlessly integrated Terrazzo counter tops and sinks, large glass enclosed showers, daybeds, and 24-hour in-room dining create a fully-serviced retreat in the comfort of a private living space.
As far as brand standards go, Pushelberg testifies that Marriott has been “very smart” in giving Schrager a near free-reign. “They let him do his thing the way he wanted. They’re very open and everyone is very happy with the product,” he says. “The only thing Mr Marriott said when we were proposing wooden floors in the guestrooms was that he wanted carpet, so we gave him it.”
Despite the challenges of working with Schrager (his brief for the project was little more than a tour of his apartment), Pushelberg believes that their partnering has created a distinct product. And as for the continuing relationship between Yabu Pushelberg and Schrager? The two are currently collaborating on the design of the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago under the newly formed Schrager Hotels. The goal? To upset the status quo and reinvent the hotel experience once again.