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Standard Thinking: Inside the World of André Balazs

Meet the chic and cheeky Balazs, whose Standard hotels have turned high-end hospitality upside down

Talk about making an entrance. When the Standard hotel opened back in 2009, all anyone could talk about were the exhibitionists getting freaky in the windows of the 18-story, glass-fronted hotel that had just risen (ha) above the High Line park in Chelsea. This wasn’t the first time André Balazs, the man behind the Standard, had flaunted sex to create buzz. The West Hollywood outpost of the hotel opened in 2002 and featured a model in a bikini lounging in a fish tank behind the front desk. At the nearby Chateau Marmont, meanwhile, Balazs made headlines by stocking condoms in the hotel minibars. Part of the appeal of an André Balazs hotel, it seemed, was the feeling that somewhere in the building someone was getting it on. 

In recent years, a series of upstart properties—the Ace Hotel chain in New York and Las Vegas, the Palihouse in Los Angeles—began encroaching on the Standard’s cool, debuting buzzy restaurants, luxurious gift shops and lobbies populated by beautiful laptop warriors. Mention these new competitors to Balazs and he’s quick to point out that “they all used to work for me or work with us.” But he certainly appears ready for  a counterattack.  

Perhaps borrowing from the world of fashion, where creative collaborations are all the rage, Balazs, 55, has aligned with a series of hip names to ensure there’s more to the Standard than, you know, waking the neighbors. Seamus Mullen, who redefined tapas at Tertulia in the West Village, was recently the chef-in-residence at the Standard Plaza in New York’s Meatpacking District, where a newly installed woodburning oven is as inviting as a campfire. 

Balazs quietly acquired the Cooper Square Hotel on Manhattan’s east side in October 2011 and rebranded it the Standard, East Village. A spring 2013 relaunch is expected (look for a new entrance, among other improvements). He enlisted the eyeglass purveyors from Warby Parker to curate a hip Readery. 

Most impressively, this fall Susan Sarandon installs the first permanent L.A. branch of her Ping-Pong club, SPiN, at the Standard, Downtown L.A. The Oscar-winning actress had been looking to expand to L.A. ever since the New York branch first opened in the Flatiron District—but couldn’t find the right location. The Standard, Downtown L.A. not only fit the brand but also was accessible and offered an easy liquor license. “The only thing you can count on is that Ping-Pong and drinking go well together,” Sarandon says with a laugh, adding, “The Standard is witty. They know how to have fun. And André is the right combination of business and hip.” The cumulative effect of these big changes at the Standard, it seems, is to create a clubhouse feel. “You can call it a clubhouse,” Balazs says. “But I like to think of it as a culture. You keep layering things on. Otherwise you’re just a Sheraton. You’re just a bunch of rooms.” As for the table tennis, he smiles and says, “It’s the thinking man’s bowling.”

If Balazs disdains the ordinary, he comes by that sentiment naturally. The son of Hungarian immigrants, he flirted with a career in journalism before starting a New Jersey-based biotech company with his father and then moving to SoHo when he was 27. At the time, the neighborhood was an industrial wasteland, and Balazs moved into a fifth-floor walk-up on Greene Street. “Most of the time,” he says, “you’d throw your keys down to your friends in a pair of athletic socks. And they’d trudge up.” He palled around with Calvin Klein and Keith McNally; when Eric Goode, the founder of the seminal nightclub M.K., asked if he wanted to invest in the club, Balazs found his calling.

If the hotelier Ian Schrager is known for spectacle, Balazs was becoming a pioneer of a different kind, forging headfirst into industrial neighborhoods with no foot traffic and creating spaces worth walking to. After revitalizing the Chateau Marmont in 1990, he bought an old warehouse in SoHo; eight years later it opened as the Mercer hotel—a celebrity-magnet from the get-go, not to mention a stylish hangout, what with its white tile, soft lighting and industrial fixtures. (Rupert and Wendi Murdoch lived there for months during their courtship; Wendi liked the décor so much that she hired the Mercer’s interior designer, Christian Liaigre, to do their SoHo apartment.) The Mercer was the first boutique hotel to open in SoHo. In 2002, Balazs would pull off the same trick in downtown Los Angeles with the Standard, Downtown L.A. 

“To call Downtown Los Angeles dead doesn’t begin to tell you what was going on there at the time,” Balazs says.  

Like Ralph Lauren or Martha Stewart, Balazs is the embodiment of his brand and its best spokesperson. He dated Uma Thurman in the days after her split with Ethan Hawke, and in a rare impulsive moment during a weekend getaway upstate, he bought Bob Guccione’s 19th-century Hudson Valley estate out of foreclosure. Though he and Thurman later split, his love of his upstate farm only grew. Now he’s raising cows, pigs and rabbits there and even supplies the Standard Grill with farm-to-table organic eats. “The chickens are particularly delicious,” Balazs points out. “We call them model birds—because they have very long legs.” Naturally.

In a way, Balazs has become his own worst enemy, constantly one-upping himself only to see rivals bite his style within moments. And there have been hurdles along the way, to be sure; his Jean-Nouvel-designed property on Mercer was planned as a hotel but went condo during the recession as banks suddenly saw tourism as a bad investment. (Meg Ryan, Daniel Radcliffe and Marc Jacobs were early residents at 40 Mercer, a building the architecture critic Herbert Muschamp described as being all “about sex.”) When the historic Hotel Chelsea went up for sale in 2011, Balazs was in the mix—and seemed a natural fit for the property. Its rock-and-roll roots dovetailed nicely with the Chateau Marmont’s own celebrated history. Some say Balazs lost out on the deal in a fierce bidding war, a claim he denies, saying, “Honestly, I didn’t want to be the asshole who evicted everybody.”

Expanding the Standard—as both a hotel and a lifestyle brand—seems to be his focus, with a London property likely. “We’d like to be overseas,” he says. As for the competitors nipping at his designer heels, Balazs exhales, exhibiting a Zen approach befitting a gentleman farmer: “Ian Schrager used to say there’s only one game in town. But I don’t subscribe to that mentality. It’s an egocentric perception of competition.” Since when was business about ego? 

The Properties of André Balazs: A Quick List 

The Mercer, New York
Housed in a six-story, 84,000-square-foot Romanesque revival building built in 1890 for John Jacob Astor II, the Mercer was Balazs’ first New York City property, opening in 1998. Decorated with minimalist Christian Liaigre furnishings, the hotel has 75 rooms and suites, some with fireplaces. Its most popular amenity? The spacious, lower-level, Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, Mercer Kitchen. 

Photo: Courtesy of Andre Balazs Properties

Chateau Marmont, Hollywood
This 63-room, 9-cottage, 4-bungalow hotel, Balazs’ first, was built in 1929 and modeled after the Château Royal d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. And while it was originally an apartment house, these days the celebrity haunt, which Balazs bought in 1990, is practically a Hollywood star itself. The restaurant remains one of L.A.’s best spots to see famous faces. 

Photo: Courtesy of Andre Balazs Properties

Sunset Beach, Shelter Island
A ferry ride away from the teeming Hamptons, Shelter Island offers a laid-back alternative for the summering set—and Balazs’ Sunset Beach, which opened in 1997, fits right in. The 20-suite, seasonally operated hotel boasts outdoor showers, bicycles for guests and beachside dining, all of which add to its subdued, sandy appeal. 

Photo: Courtesy of Andre Balazs Properties

The Standard, Hollywood, West Hollywood
Balazs opened the first of his Standard hotels, this Sunset Strip property, just steps from West Hollywood’s shopping, dining and nightlife, in 1999. Thanks to its sceney lobby, featuring live DJs nightly, and in-room hipster touches like Warhol-print drapes, the hotel has since lived up to its name as the definitive contemporary boutique hotel.  

Photo: Courtesy of Andre Balazs Properties

The Standard, Downtown L.A.
Located in Los Angeles’ emerging Downtown neighborhood, Balazs’ second Standard hotel made its name hosting weekend parties at its rooftop pool and offering upscale lodging to suits descending upon nearby business centers. With a 24-hour restaurant, poolside bar and over 16,000 square feet of meeting and event space, it accommodates whatever guests might be looking for. 

Photo: Courtesy of Andre Balazs Properties

The Standard Spa, Miami Beach
If its Belle Isle location wasn’t aquatic enough, the 105-room Standard Spa offers a variety of water-based treatments, including a Finnish sauna, Roman waterfall and Turkish-style bath. The healing theme continues with nutritional counseling, acupuncture and waterfront yoga. 

Photo: Courtesy of Andre Balazs Properties

The Standard, High Line, New York
An 18-floor, 338-room pleasure palace with two tabloid-mainstay nightclubs, Balazs’ Meatpacking District hotel, which straddles Manhattan’s High Line park, was immediately infamous upon opening for its views from the promenade into often erotically occupied rooms. The hotel has proved so successful that in 2011, Balazs acquired an East Village building to expand his presence with a second Gotham Standard. —Adam Rathe

Photo: Stephen A. Jones