|Sometime in Mark Zeff's career, he will run his own hotel. He was raised in South Africa and travels extensively around the world, and from his vantage point as one of the lodging industry's most evocative designers of niche hotels, there are still many holes in the market to be filled. |
His latest debuts-Night Hotel in Manhattan and Social Hollywood restaurant in Los Angeles-fit the Zeff mold: They are bold and sexy and took some significant risks. "I believe you can come up with pretty much any idea and make it work," says Zeff, president of Zeff Design. "I always tell my clients they need to be brave and come up with something groundbreaking and proprietary."
While Zeff craves the modern edginess of new hotels, he is also nostalgic for the meticulous care and nuanced nature of the grand old dames. Today, he says, few hotels get the design, food and customer service to work seamlessly together with flair and creativity. "[In new hotels today], there's always a disconnect. Sometimes it's the food that doesn't gel with the lobby, or it's just generic branding," he says. "I love the Savoy in London, the Bristol, the Plaza in its day, and the Lowell in New York. Those upmarket, six-star old palaces, they have that branding thing down. Even the uniforms of the chambermaids are in character.
"It's in the new hotel where they've tried to change the paradigm. They don't really get it. The whole mythology of the hotel is not thought through. Hopefully some day the modern hotel developer will get that kind of cooperation between those three parts: the design, the food and the service."
Night in New York
In the same family as Vikram Chatwal's Time and Dream hotels in Manhattan, Zeff gutted a former Best Western in the heart of Times Square to create Night Hotel, which opened in June 2006. Like falling down a rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, guests find themselves in another world among the surreal black-and-white landscape of the 72-room hotel noir, in which Zeff and Chatwal took some risks. The gothic and erotic hotel experience brings to life a fictional family conjured by Zeff through photography in the lobby and throughout the hotel. "The concept was to create a 21st-century manor house and throw in a little Blakes hotel of London," Zeff told The New York Times, referring to an elegant boutique hotel in South Kensington.
"When we first saw the building, it had the sense of being a manor house. It didn't feel like a huge hotel or a town house. I came up with this idea that there was a family that ran rampant through the house, and we came up with this idea of the Knight family." Pictures of this anti-storybook family engaged in suggestive and erotic poses line the halls of the hotel.
During the design process, Zeff felt good about the concept, but knew some of the eroticism could be a hard sell, even in Manhattan. "The whole use of my Knight family and using that sexy imagery was pushing it. I had a bit of trouble getting it through the ownership," Zeff recalls. "They said, Do we really need to have these pictures of scantily clad people in the lobby?' And I said, Definitely. The community is able to handle that.' That motif is pretty cutting edge. But it wasn't done in a lewd, crude way. There's a sense of playfulness, but it's smart and tailored and it feels like you can anticipate those things when you go there.
"Most hotels today are so formula and meticulous to the point that there's no personality. My work is so personality- driven," Zeff continues. "There's a sense that there's a personality behind the scenes that is driving this."
Zeff and his design team also struggled with the constraints of very small guestrooms. "Instead of trying to pretend that the rooms are bigger, we designed this huge, big sexy bed. The bed feels futuristic," he says. The chariot-style bed, like all of the elements in the hotel, is designed to contribute to the overall theme.
Zeff takes great pains in his design to make sure all the elements go together to create a consistent atmosphere throughout the hotel. "The hallways are very dark and atmospheric. There's a sexy movie outside the room that depicts the number of the room. It's very emotive. There's this gothic thistle wallpaper on the walls to give it that feeling," Zeff describes.
Zeff Design is working on another Chatwal project, due to open in late 2007. He has narrowed it down to two concepts: Heart, centered around passion and lust; and The Falcon, a 21st- century hunting lodge. "We're playing off of wooden lodge rooms and fireplaces. I think that's the one we're going to go with," Zeff says.
Awarded a Gold Key for his design of the lounge and bar of Social Hollywood in Los Angeles, Zeff says that's just a taste of what's to come. The project with American restaurateur Jeffery Chodorow, whose 24-restaurant resume also includes China Grill in Manhattan, Asia de Cuba in West Hollywood and Social Miami, was the perfect showcase for Zeff's creativity, he says. "The client gave me almost carte blanche to do what I wanted. I was able to query and choose art that was real and put it in a space that was for dining and clubbing and socializing," he says. "In my business, the most important thing is the client. I'm always looking for a client that has the bravery to step in and try something new."
Chodorow and Zeff have joined efforts with the Blackstone Group, a prominent private equity and management investment firm, to open a $20 million conversion project of a South Beach Holiday Inn in mid-2008, which would transform the 38-year-old hotel into the country's first Stay Social.
Although the project is a bit larger than some of his other hotels, Zeff says he plans to debut a revolutionary design. "We've managed to get a niche formula out of [Blackstone]. It's going to be very forward-thinking in terms of organic meeting smart and slick design. I hope it's a new trend we're creating," he says. "The rooms are very cabana-like. It's not green necessarily; it's just soft materials using more wood and natural materials. I hope this changes the paradigm for seaside hotels. It's formulaic, but I feel it's broken ground in some areas. We've used photography in the lobby. We're going to create a space that is quiet and unpretentious."
As it did with the Night Hotel, Zeff Design is doing the branding, architecture, interiors and design for Stay Social. Working that way ensures solid branding and a consistent guest experience from top to bottom, Zeff says, something he believes many hotels are missing.
"Design, service and food are the three most important things, and if you can get those three to talk to each other, you then have a cohesive design project," he says. "And I don't think that's common in the marketplace right now." n
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