Designers Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer, the husband and wife team who head Roman and Williams firm, have provided the interior decorations for such well-known venues as the Standard Hotel,(and its top floor hot spot, The Boom Boom Room), The Ace Hotel, and countless other projects. The versatile couple recently designed the John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel, and we interviewed them to see how their activities together have shaped their sexy, chic aesthetic:
Photo above: the couple heading to Halloween 2010 Party at the Boom Boom Room.
Grand Central Station's Oyster Bar has had such an iconic place in New York. When you created John Dory, were you paying homage to that venue or using your design as a divergence?
Stephen: You know, it's funny, because we went to it years and years ago, probably 15 years ago, when I first moved to New York,,,'95, or so. We went there a few times when we got off in Grand Central. We were crazy about it. The food and the arches. We haven't been back for a long time. I haven't been there for ten years. It's more of a memory of it rather than looking at the space. Even when we worked on the new oyster bar, I don't think we made one visit back, because we start to take things too literally. You get confused and jaded, so we just use our memory, our fun memory of it, from those years of going and, you know, to be honest, when I was kind of a tourist in New York.
Robin: I think it's about the spirit of it, you know what I mean? But creating a little bit of a punk vibe, where instead of the white tile, it's black tile. Turning that on it's ear a little bit. Even the idea that these green trusses which are more about early New York bridge construction, so as part of Ace, for us, it's really meaningful as the last piece of the puzzle for Ace. And you know, if you look at Breslin, there's a lot of black and green. The Oyster Bar is a lot of black and green, but in a very different context. And I think for us those colors had a certain kind of earthiness and gritty New York quality. Here we almost did with it with a much pop-ier vibe. Like bright color chairs and the white grout on the black tile. I think that Grand Central there's this sense of a public space or a thoroughfare, and I think the Oyster Bar has that, like you can kind of pass through it. You know, with those tall tables, as opposed to some place you cozy up for a while. I think that's where the connection comes from, Grand Central--train station, big public space. You know, those things connected the two together.
GofG: It interesting that you talk about the earthiness of the green and how it's juxtaposed with the punkiness, because I know you two are avid gardeners in Montauk.
Robin: Look at dirt and plants, they're black and green. But I'm telling you it's true: if you look at it actually on a chromatic level, black and green really pop. We, you know, in Montauk use a lot of shiny black. But when you put a bright green plant next to it, just chromatically on the color wheel, they're so intense together. And the Oyster Bar really shows that impact.
GofG: How else do you think toiling in the soil informs your design?
Stephen: Well, I think there's just as much toil in what you do working in construction as in weeding, you know. The tedium of it. Weekends gardening, you just roll up your sleeves and weed for hours and hours, and I think it's the same process in the city when you're slogging through lots of construction and you're fixing things and adjusting things, and cleaning. And for some reason, Robin and I biologically are not averted. We walk right into the middle of it constantly. And also people say, "How do you weed your frickin' garden all the time? Isn't it boring?" We say "no."
Robin: Oh, my God. Yeah, weeding's easy. But I think it's about the combination of things, like you said, tedium, patience, beauty, complexity, but we also have a real big collection of plants, and I think there's something of that eclectic nature to our work, So we like to have this kind of conflict between things that don't necessarily go together--that they're not so tidy, you know. And I think you can see that definitely in the oyster bar, and throughout our work.
GofG: What's your most interesting plant?
Robin: Either the artichoke or the angelica.
Stephen: The angelica's so big and crazy.
Robin: Oh, Jurassic, I'm telling you.
Stephen: Lasts all winter. The most magical, beautiful plant.
GofG: You guys are also reputedly great chefs, and your design and gardening collaborative work translates over to the kitchen. Do you guys just seamlessly work together well?
Stephen: There a couple things we have conflicts about, but cooking-wise, between her skills and arrangement, and she actually buys every ingredient for everything while I kind of dive wildly into the whole pile and make things.
Robin: I'm the cold chef. He's the hot chef.
[The couple's famous dinner parties in Montauk start outside with the grill and end indoors at this beautiful Sergio Rodrigues table. Photo via Times Magazine]
Stephen: Well, I think some people, they split work in half. I think ours is more complex, because Robin sort of starts mine, and then I start hers. And she finishes mine. And I finish hers. It's a really weird game of twister. It's not like, 'I'm working on the salad. Don't talk to me.' It's real invasive.
Robin: I mean, people say the word 'collaboration,' I'm like, 'Woah.' I want to find a better word, because it's even beyond that. I mean, there's a certain symbiosis. We have a lot of energy, so we're in Montauk, and we get lazy, but then all of a sudden we say, 'O.K., let's garden, let's cook.' And we like to do and make a lot of things, and we both share that on a basic level. And I think that that comes out in everything. It comes out when we shop together, when we create spaces together, when we cook: it's just a part of who we are. One feeds the other. If I get tired or if I get a little lazy, he'll be like, 'No,' and I do the same thing to him. We keep that pace, and, I think, that energy fed with each other.
GofG: What's your favorite dish to make together?
Robin: The paella is pretty, pretty epic.
Stephen: I'm pretty happy with the paella. I'm a big fanatic about roast chickens and about just getting a broiled roast chicken just perfect, which I think I hit a week ago after my hundredth chicken.
Robin: It was pretty spectacular.
Stephen: We incorporated cardoon into it--the world's finest vegetable, I'm convinced. There's bombs in this place all the time, but once in a while you just get these jewels. I keep refining my crazy roast chicken like the one that's at that, what's that French place, Robin? The one with all the Americans invaded.
Robin: L'Ami Louis.
Stephen: If you eat that chicken, you just start crying, because you're like 'how did they do this chicken?'
Robin: It's very rustic, almost medieval. Stephen and I always say something which is, "Everything cannot be good." Even in the work; which means that things that are too precious--and everything's good, and everything's perfect, they just can suck the soul out of something. So sometimes you have to like allow yourself the ability for that imperfection, and then actually something can be great.
Stephen: But cardoons are actually good. They're just so gnarly and intense that you understand. It's kind of haunting in a weird way. Haunting's kind of spooky, but if something has a haunting quality to it, it draws you in, but it's not quite good, you know? But you still can't get it out of your mind. And this is part of it...there's no formula for doing something haunting. It's like whether you have the grace of something to have that quality in your work--if it's a painting or a meal, or a piece of architecture, or something you're writing. You think you just have such a gift that you've been blessed, you know. It's something that you can't even professionally train people to have or be able to do. It's really just...I can't even begin to say where it comes from.
Robin: It also leaves you with a deep sense, a powerful memory about it. And I think memory's an important word for us, something that's a big deal for us in our work. I think our own memories influence a lot--meaning, everything we do. And I think that we love things that are memorable, whether it's food or design. And it's so meaningful for us, and it's not this one trick that you kind of forget.
[Some more photos of Stephen and Robin in action out in Montauk]:
GofG: You guys are so in sync that you finish each other's sentences and find such an easy confluence in your work. The question is: do you fight and what was your last argument?
[Photo via SoHaute]
Robin: Well, it's funny. I have to say we do. And we end them pretty quickly. They're generally about such basic, dumb stuff, analyzing--God, so dumb.
Stephen: We had an argument about passwords the other day.
Robin: Yeah, about passwords.
Stephen: The iPad. She wasn't in the office, and there was a tech guy here, and he said, 'I can't set this up without a password.' I said, 'I can think of a password for her.' And I set up some apps for her, The New York Times...
Robin: Which was super sweet, but it said, "Hi, Stephen," when I opened it. And although I love him more than anything...I'm like 'Great. My first iThing, How can it not have my name? I'm like, 'Why didn't anyone ask me?' 'Oh, you were busy.' I'm like, 'I wasn't that busy.'
Stephen: She was like, 'Man.'
Robin: After we were like, 'What was that about?' They're totally straightforward.
Stephen: And then she's like, 'What's the password anyways? 'Stephen'? 'No, it's...
Robin: You can't say my password!...But then he picked such a sweet password we got over it. Is that not completely generic and average?
Stephen: I got out of the car on 27 and started walking down the road. We have our drama.
Robin: We have our drama. Like I told you, 'We're intense.' We stopped the car, and then all of a sudden we moved a long like it : didn't happen.
GofG: Given Stephen's technophilic tendencies and Robin's aversion to a tech overload?
Robin: I love Stephen's blog and feel totally inspired and fascinated by it. And, you know, the Facebook stuff, I have a more intensive social interaction, physically everyday...I talk to a lot of people on the phone, you know what I mean? I am a little bit of the front man in that company a lot. So I think that Stephen and I find our place with those two things separately. I think I'm more physically interactive--brick and mortar, flesh and blood. He's created this vibrant cyber world. I just think it's cool, because sometimes I'm like, 'Oh, look this person up for me,' or 'who wrote you back,' you know what I mean. I kind of connect with what's going on with him in that environment. But I kind of like staying behind the scenes and kind of doing it in the way we do it. I'm a super avid emailer, a gazillion a day, but I think with all of that, to tell you the truth, it's a little, too much for me. I actually need to control it; like I'm Blackberrying and on the phone all the time. And I think that that would just eclipse things like me gardening, that would be the last few hours I have, where now, I'm planting, I would probably be on Facebook. It's a conscious decision of control.
Stephen: I'm a little reckless and kind of aware of it. I guess it's my back-of-the bus type upbringing. Sometimes we rode the bus to school, the back of the bus is just a big party of life, you know. And I think when you're in the city at high stakes, architecture and design, real estate world, you take stuff so seriously...I'm a bit of a heckler. And then I just draw, and I draw for hours. I have kind of a strangely isolated life, and what would you say?, this weird form of communication whether it's drawing or blogging or commenting. It's a more anti-social reality.
Robin: We're always on high-low, like voltage. For example, Stephen is sitting and drawing the hand drawing of the Oyster Bar - (photo at top of the post). Talk about Luddites, there's hardly anybody left on eiarth who can do that. And then he's blogging away, you know what I mean. And with me, I'm on the phone, I'm on the plane doing all of this, and then I'm in the garden. So I think we find our balance where we look at the amount of time in a day you can spend on one or the other, and you have to make sure there's the right collection of ingredients, so you're not just eclipsed by one or the other. But Stephen uses it as humor for him. It's a great outlet for that. And I knew that, because we lived together for a long time. But I think it's a great way to kind of expose that, because he get's the opportunity.
Stephen: I hate phones. I hate, hate the phone. It's like talking to my father who we bailed on when I was a little kid, forcing me to sit on the phone, just the crackly phone spooks me. I hate...I mean we're on the phone right now with you guys. But it's hard for me for some reason. I love letter writing. And email when it came into our lives 10 years ago, 10-15 years ago. I was thrilled--just the communication. I thought it reaches just a much higher level. People reading and writing back to each other.
Robin: Well, look Steven, it promotes writing. There s a soulful sense of being able to pour your heart out in a letter. That wasn't the case for the last 30 or 60 years.
Stephen: In a telegram, I guess some people began fragmented writing. I find it like haiku, as opposed to a conversation, where you're like, "Hey, what's up, how you doin'?"
Robin: Here's a story - from a few years ago--we drive a Range Rover--and someone saw us, and said, "Don't you drive a citron?' And I'm like, you so don't get it. You know what I mean? You just don't get it. They think it's all so curated. We like the best machine that drives really well. Has nothing to do with the fact that we likely beautifully, carefully, well-crafted things, and a lot of historic things. They're not in conflict. They feed each other, and that's constantly misunderstood about us. Like daily. And I think that's the issue of our relationship with technology.
Stephen: People think we drive a model T around.
Oyster Bars are notorious for the aphrodisiac qualities of oysters and champagne: what is your strongest aphrodisiac.
[Inside the Oyster Bar, photo via Eater.com]
Robin. The black. I love that shiny black. Oh, I love it., It's just sexy to be in a shiny, black room, more than the antisepticness of a white room. I think that that shiny black tile is like you're inside of some like some dark piece of licorice, that makes all the different in the world.
Stephen: I love the black too. I mean, we're a little bit committed to that shiny, whipping black--whatever you want to call it. The black and copper, it's a turn on. Those types of materials, as opposed to creamy whites, so pretty. we tend to like things a little wicked, you know.
Robin: The coppertone is so fleshy in there...do you know what I mean. All fleshy with this deep, reflective black. It's what you're saying, Stephen, like a little wicked. A little naughtier to an otherwise fresh and clean environment.
We asked Stephen and Robin a series of questions. Their responses are below:
My daily news read includes: NYTimes, Surfline, Beach cam, Facebook, Curbed Eater, Underwater times. If I could choose to travel anywhere for our next holiday I would go to: Japan My favorite thing to do on a Saturday night could very well include: Big Fire outside, Friends, Paella or other open fire cooking, Good wine, Fire games like sky Lanterns, furniture burning, Ukelele dancing jams to cheesy pop, Extraordinary proclamations and speeches. And on a Sunday afternoon: Sleep till noon, bagels and lox, gardening, surf, football, surf again, dinner on the floor in front of tvwatching football till midnight. My Best Feature: calves My Biggest Vice: Not talking on the phone. My greatest fear: tilting surfaces at great heights The one thing I can't live without is: a seaside and Robin Book I'm currently reading: New England before the mayflower Music I'm currently listening to: Horrors, Ariel Pink, John Maus Last movie I saw: In the theatre? Last Bourne movie, at home? Prince of persia! love cheesy blockbusters If I were a superhero character I would be: Aquaman! but furry and bigger. he was a little fine.
ROBIN'S QUICK RESPONSES:
My daily news read includes: nytimes and nytimes again in print that's right! If I could choose to travel anywhere for our next holiday I would go to: Japan My favorite thing to do on a Saturday night could very well include: Eating anything out of the firepit especially sausage, squash or paella with lots of good wine, watching fire lanterns in the air all night. And on a Sunday afternoon: oh its the best day... Gardening and harvesting, eating poached eggs, sleeping as late as possible, visiting the sea. Cooking and eating some more. My Best Feature: My boobs My Biggest Vice: Lots of Beef or emailing at 3am My greatest fear Indifference The one thing I can't live without is: Stephen and 50 seaside Book I'm currently reading:City life , Withold Rybczynski Last movie I saw: covers of joy division love will tear us apart and ariel pink If I were a superhero character I would be: Nightshade the shadow shaper!
Sky Lanterns with Robin and Stephen in Montauk over the Fourth of July: