Designer of the Month - April - Roman & Williams

1 April 2008

Roman and Williams

Founded in 1999 by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors is a comprehensive design firm based in New York City.

Having worked together for almost two decades, Standefer and Alesch have forged a powerful and singular design philosophy – one based on an understanding and reverence for craft and tradition, combined with their highly personal, contemporary viewpoint. Quality materials, exceptional craftsmanship, rigor and functionality distinguish their work. Unlike so much current architecture and design that is theory-based, their designs always prioritize the total experience of the end user, which results in the creation of environments that feel rich, resonant, and real.

Roman and Williams is the new embodiment of an old model for architectural design firms. Volume is not the goal and their process is comprehensive and design-intensive. Roman and Williams is extremely selective about the projects it accepts and the firm principals are involved in every design decision for every project. Drawing on this historic model, Roman and Williams’ scope and capabilities include architecture, interior architecture, interior design and finishes, lighting, color selection, and more. The creation of a Roman and Williams environment is an inclusive and fully considered process that embraces all aspects and phases of design.

Roman and Williams is currently working on a wide range of projects, including high-end residential projects, new buildings, several commercial spaces, hotels, nightclubs and several new product lines. The firm’s current and recent project list includes the renovation of the iconic Royalton Hotel in New York City; and the design of the spa and gymnasium at 40 Mercer Street and The New York Standard Hotel, both for hotelier Andre Balazs. Other current hotel and hospitality projects include a renovation and remodel of The Gale, an 88 room art deco landmark in Miami (with The Morgans Group and Serge Becker of La Esquina); the Ace Hotel New York, a 1908 building located on 29th Street and Broadway in New York; and a New York location for 40 Deuce, the legendary burlesque club owned by Ivan Kane, David Bowie and Sting. In addition, the firm is now overseeing construction of its first ground-up residential building at 211 Elizabeth Street in Nolita. Roman and Williams is renovating and expanding one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s important Usonian Houses and designing several large New York City apartments. Other current and completed projects include major residential projects in New York and Los Angeles, many for important Hollywood celebrities, such as Ben and Christine Stiller, Kate Hudson, Elisabeth Shue and Davis Guggenheim, and more.

Roman and Williams' website:

Frette Q&A - Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch

1. Your home environment is quite eclectic, with every nook or adornment telling a story. How do you decide what makes it into your tableau?

In our hearts, we are collectors and what we collect is very personal and diverse. We always seek out pieces with wonderful details, weight, color, patina - whether that thing is a lamp, a table or a giant piece of coal - and we combine and layer them in ways that are rather unexpected. We tend to design in that way - we set a base and then layer on top of that to create still lives and tableau. We love to put seemingly disparate objects together and allow them to simmer to see if we can raise the temperature of a space.

2. Do you travel frequently?

We both enjoy and learn so much from the experiences we have when we travel. But it isn't just about going to a new place, it is about learning to travel and really see what it is in front of us. Going to a new culture - our last trips were to Vienna, Morocco and India - inspires in ways we often are not even aware of at the moment. But we do actively seek out objects and inspiration from other cultures. For example, in Paris, we found an amazing 30-foot metal screen that had been part of a 1940s modernist building. It now hangs in the lobby of The Royalton and became the basis for many of geometries and furnishings that we designed for that space. We also drew inspiration from Africa and Brazil for The Royalton, and somehow that screen embodied elements of all of those places for us.

3. Which places or time in history have influenced you the most in defining your aesthetic?

Our aesthetic is constantly shifting and evolving. I think that is our greatest asset - we are not limited by what we did last. We are constantly pushing ourselves to grow. It makes us hard to define, but it is what keeps it interesting for us.

We are also hard to pin down because we strongly believe it is possible to be contemporary and modern without being labeled as "modern architects" and possible to be interested in history without being "historicist". Both of those terms are loaded and have certain connotations. Our work communicates that voltage between past and present and between cultures. We take this ethos and translate it for each project in a singular way. No two projects should look the same.

Depending on what we're working on, there are different places and time periods that inspire us. Our apartment shows our interest in the turn of the 20th century, when people were expressing through design the changes that were happening all around them. It is an interesting time period to us because there was a wonderful tension expressed between the decorative vs the industrial and the practical vs the ornamental that spoke to the energy of that time of transition.

4. We found ourselves wanting to touch everything in your home and had the same urge while having drinks at the Royalton. How important does tactility play with your designs?

Creating tactile environments is extremely important to Roman and Williams! We love to think, talk and argue about ideas, but in the end our work is much more tactile, sensual and authentic than it is cerebral. People don't want to live in concepts! We want our clients to touch everything we do and, through the work, to connect with their senses.

5. Your own bedroom is somewhat moody and dark while the bedroom you designer for Kate Hudson was light, whimsical and airy. How did your design approach differ for these very dissimilar environments?

People always talk about the kitchen being the heart of the home, and we believe that to a large extent, but the bedroom is so important. It is where we dream! It is the last thing we see when we close our eyes at night and the first thing we see when we open them in the morning. So we like to create bedrooms that are very powerful and very evocative of the personalities we're designing for.

In our bedroom, we experimented with the idea that dark tones help inspire better sleep and ended up painting the room a strange blue color, as if you were under water. And the effect is exactly like that feeling of being enveloped by water. The blue walls combined with the black floor and high glass trim makes the room very rich, and handsome. The masculine quality of the massive walnut bed, carved wood furniture, sheepskin and leather accents, combined with the paint, all serve to eat the light and create a wonderful tranquility.

For Kate Hudson's bedroom, she knew exactly what she wanted. Her bedroom was meant to be used and enjoyed all through the day, not only at night for sleeping, so it was very much about light. We layered many different shades of white. There are pieces that shimmer and twinkle like a diamond, a beautiful alpaca rug, beaded draperies, embroidered Moroccan ottomans. The result was a combination of a rich, ethnic room, mixed with soft surfaces that sparkle. The contrast of our room and hers is proof that our work isn't limited by a specific style.

6. How do you define luxury?

We are interested in a new definition of luxury. We are at the forefront of that idea, which seems to be in the zeitgeist right now. Luxury, for us, is about things that are handmade and one of a kind. Custom is luxury. For the Royalton, we designed and manufactured every single piece of furniture because we did not want to see ourselves coming and going. Anyone today can buy a Louis Vuitton handbag, but not everyone can have something made just for them. Also, materials that are natural - rather than manmade - feel particularly luxurious to us.

7. Are you at all influenced by the green movement or being politically correct in your selection of materials and decor?

Without being intentional about it, we have received several commissions on what are considered to be "green" projects. Our quest for what is real and authentic led us to use vintage, antique and reclaimed materials and furnishings, which is de facto more environmentally friendly than using new materials. It is luxury with a green angle, and it isn't something we sought out. It was a wonderful natural side effect of what we were doing from the start.

We love food analogies (people have often told us that our work is the design equivalent of the slow food movement) and I think our work is green in that it is the design version of "tail to snout". It is sort of a high-low approach, where nothing is too mundane or too lowly and we aren't afraid to pair something that isn't fancy or pedigreed, with things that are. We just put it all through our lens and it comes out being Roman and Williams!