Profile in Style:
Roman and Williams
Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch—partners both in life and in work—are the two geniuses behind the design firm Roman and Williams. Which means they’re the two geniuses behind some of New York’s most compelling spaces: The Viceroy, The Standard Highline, New York’s Ace Hotel, and restaurants like The Dutch, Lafayette, and, most recently Upland. Often imitated, yet impossible to replicate, their style borders on a sort of timeless fantasy, which is no big surprise because they actually met in Hollywood working on sets of movies like The Age of Innocence, Gattaca, and Zoolander. With grand flourishes, exquisite craftsmanship, and an eye towards the past—though exactly what time period, it’s hard to say—their spaces are also where everyone wants to be: Just walk into the lobby of the Ace Hotel on a Monday afternoon and try and find a seat. Here, some thoughts on design and timelessness—plus 10 tips to steal right now.
Photo: Sebastian Faena
Where does the name Roman and Williams come from?
Robin: We’re very close to our families: We both have kind of nomadic, sort of hippie parents, who had a real strong sense of anarchy. It was that 60’s moment when they just did their own thing. And they gave us a lot of inspiration in terms of rebelling against authority and being able to see the big picture and do the things that we really wanted to do. One of the things that came with that was not having a lot of heirlooms because we didn’t stay in that “family home.” We moved around a lot.
Our company is named after our maternal grandfathers, Roman and William, who were from a generation of working class makers—one was a jeweler, one was a painter.
We’ve wanted to build a bridge between those two generations. That’s our goal.
How would you describe your style?
Stephen: We’re constantly rediscovering things that have already been discovered. There’s something there to discover still—there’s something within that. For example, you could be making a pair of shoes: They don’t need to be flying shoes or rocket shoes that have never been seen before. You could actually try to make a pair of leather boots, and, even though they’ve been made a million times you’re still going to learn so much in the process in making a mundane, simple pair of boots.
Robin: In design and in architecture the conversation is often: “What’s the new material?” “How can we make a new shape?” And Stephen and I feel like some incredible innovation can come out of that, but we also feel that there are already so many people doing that. There’s another way to perceive this sense of the avant-garde, which is taking an existing language, taking things that are already established on earth, and rediscovering them as people living right now. That’s what’s Modern for us. And there’s something I think that creates a sense of what really is classic and what really lasts.
We’re interested in technology—fascinated by people like Steve Jobs who were about doing something that everybody could connect to but that was so new. But in design and architecture, I feel a little more that it’s about a sense of heritage and soul and roots that need to be evolved and rediscovered without being totally reinvented, and that’s an important distinction I think.
Stephen: We’re making antiques for the future—I love the idea of premeditating what people are going to find in a flea market in 40 years. We have this anxiety that there’s nothing new being made that’s going to survive….
So much of your work seems so steeped in the past. Do you consider yourselves academics or historians?
Stephen: We don’t think of ourselves that way. We are academics but I think the difference comes from being out of classroom, walking through the library and following your heart…If you follow your heart through the library, some things get neglected but you get really focused on the other things. For me an example would be tools. And books, those tended to be older books, because there wasn’t, for example, a good book on moldings after 1945. There must be a term for it, like “personal academic.” It’s the academic of your conscience.
Robin: And then, also once we’ve done all that, and sat with our clients and absorbed information like sponges, we tend to put it away…There’s a poetry to knowing that it’s inside you and then you have to then sort of…
Stephen: Make it present. You’ve digested it, put it into your mind, thought about it, dreamt about it, and all of a sudden it’s contemporary again. It’s something I think a lot of people don’t understand about nostalgia and time: It’s a misunderstanding. They see it as time travel rather than a continuation. And Modern has this connotation of a certain aesthetic whereas to us, Modern has just always been just what we do. We effectively exist now.
One of the things that really stands out about your work, especially when compared to the more sparse interiors that are in fashion right now, is an appreciation for beauty.
Robin: Stephen and I really love to embrace beauty. And again, in our industry right now, there’s something kind of marginal about that. Theory and cool come up more than beautiful.
Stephen: Cool, clean, smart… They’re nice terms but we kind of try to throw out of our head a little bit.
Robin: Right and beauty doesn’t come up that often. We want beauty to be cool.
Stephen: Beauty shows attachment and maybe vulnerability. It’s kind of been pushed out of the American culture as dangerous, and also as a sign of wealth.
Robin: And we like the egalitarian idea that things can be wonderful, beautiful, and well-made for everybody. And that’s important to us. I think Ace represented that. We want to look at that whole range. Beauty doesn’t have to be elitist.
You must both often feel so overwhelmed with the sheer number and magnitude of the projects you undertake. How do you find time to be creative?
Stephen: Working together helps that a huge amount. You know, because when you leave the office you download on what you did that day. You have stories to tell every night. We don’t talk about logistics though, after work.
Robin: That’s taboo for us. We also have an amazing staff and they help us with that. We have 25 people and we could be at 50, but we’re focused on staying at a reasonable size so that we can have conversations and stay involved, so it’s not just this massive machine….
The best are our drives to Montauk [where they have a second home]. It’s 3 hours there and 3 hours back on Friday and Monday nights. We work there on Mondays and that’s critical to us. We started the company in our living room, and so if we don’t have time to be creative and talk through projects together, it doesn’t work as well.
Stephen: We work out a lot of stuff on our drives. It’s interesting because it’s a shoulder-to-shoulder conversation, like a park bench conversation: Just two people talking, looking at the birds. You’re hearing each other but your mind gets to wander because your sightline is broad. It’s an effective way of coming up with ideas together.
Robin: Face to face conversations can be so reactive, because you’re looking at each other and adjusting what you’re saying based on the reactions. But when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder, you’re just talking and listening.