THE MERCER / SOHO NYC
THE HOOD > IT'S IN THE HEART OF SoHo
THE ROOM > THE LOFT-LIKE ROOMS ARE FLOODED WITH LIGHT
CONFIDENTIAL > THE MERCER KITCHEN, A JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN RESTO, HAS GREAT AMERICAN CUISINE + SEXY LIGHTNING
BATH PRODUCTS > BY FACE STOCKHOLM
ADDRESS > THE MERCER / 147 MERCER ST. SoHo / T. +1 212-966 6060
WHO 2 KNOW > ANDRE [BALAZS]
SOHO IS THE HEART OF NYC. THE MERCER IS THE H.Q. OF THE MILLENNIAL TRIBE
New York is having a hotel moment. Uptown and downtown, there are swished-up grand dames, facelifted classics and new kids on the block. Elle Conde-March checks in
André Balazs’s original down- town sortie. The over-hyped, column-filling, impossible- to-get-a-room-in Mercer has mellowed in the light of all these glaring new openings. A loyal band of followers still swear by it, declaring loft-
ily that ‘there’s nowhere like the Mercer’. They clamber to book into the white-on-white suites with their sky-high ceilings, hardwood floors and marble bathtubs big enough for at least two. And here’s a clever trick – the rooms are quiet as a mouse, though SoHo thunders below like an elephant. Pick the Courtyard suite with its vast bamboo terrace, which is glorious in summer. At night the lobby is still humming and the Mercer Kitchen has queues down the street, but subMercer is the place to go – only the clever- est cats slip into this semi- secret bar in the underbelly of the hotel. Sneak into the service elevator, tramp past storage lockers and kitchen equipment and then slip through the wine cellar to a perfect late-night speakeasy: raw brick, low archways, hot crowd. There’s even a glossy red stripper pole in a quiet corner, if the evening takes a turn.
André Balazs does not have a high opinion of travel and design journalism. “Right now the visual and written vocabulary used to describe
places is very corrupted,” the hotelier asserts. “A young writer can make a Ritz- Carlton hotel sound just like a fabulous little boutique and vice-versa.”
Yikes, was that a warning? Even if it was delivered over rosé and the sunset- stained rooftops of SoHo?
The man behind hotel hotspots from New York to Los Angeles has graciously opened his own apartment to scrutiny, and, apparently, would like to see preci- sion in the resulting description.
To start off, then, the Ritz it is not. Nor is it a slick Manhattan bachelor pad. The space, a three-bedroom, 5,000 sq ft loft, is in fact closest in feel to a boutique hotel — namely The Mercer, which Balazs created and owns, across the street.
Of course that may say more about the hotel than it does about the flat because, says Balazs, The Mercer was modelled after a big house. “You stumble in and you’re in someone’s living room. Then there’s the café, which is more private. It’s sequenced that way. The front porch is the most public part and then the par- lour, and then more intimate spaces.”
Stumble out of the elevator into Bala- zs’s own home, and you find yourself face-to-face with a 4ft x 4ft Francis Ba- con. Turn left and you’re on the brink of an open-plan living/dining room, where you teeter briefly before succumbing to the pull of three walls of windows that frame the city outside.
The furniture and layout feel almost incidental to the spectacular view. That’s not such an unusual sensation in a high- end Manhattan loft, but the accoutre- ments here are even more understated than one might expect. Much of the seat- ing has the feel of benches in museum galleries. You slump down for a long look at the sky over the Hudson River in the same way you might stagger back and sit a while before a Monet or Sargent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Well, actually, it’s less like the Met than, say, P.S. 1 (a trendy gallery for contemporary art) thanks to a platform occupying one corner of the room, on which chartreuse, Chiclet-shaped couch- es provide soft, low-slung viewing decks for sunsets. (Sunsets, by the way, are Balazs’s fetish. His bedroom window also faces west.)
The bedrooms of Balazs’s two teenage daughters, who split their time between this apartment and their mother’s place four blocks away, have a similarly con- temporary yet playful aesthetic. One daughter’s room showcases a bright red rug by Kristian Gavoille with a built-in stool near its centre, creating the im- pression that a rotund bobcat has curled up under the thing. The apartment also has a playroom, half of which is filled by a massive, 12-ft-long bean-bag-style mound. “The Turd” as the girls call it, partly obscures a carpet that doubles as a four-player Twister board — or rather, “Hipster”, an iteration of the original game invented by the Balazs family.
Above Hipster and The Turd hang old- fashioned gymnasium rings scavenged from Balazs’s Standard Miami hotel, which was a renovation of the Lido Spa, built in 1953. In the front room, Balazs has fashioned a bench out of a princess- and-the-pea pile of 5-inch-thick, cara- mel-brown leather exercise mats taken from the older hotel’s gym. You can un- stack them, too, and drag a little piece of mid-century Miami over to the open fireplace, perhaps, to pad a patch of floor on a cool night.
Does it sound like the entire Balazs household is designed for a lot of lying around on the ground? Several pieces by Sérgio Rodrigues, the Brazilian designer, elevate the experience: a white leather couch, the frame of which is held togeth- er by wooden pegs, and a dining room set similar to the clean-lined pieces that Balazs’s Hungarian parents bought dur- ing a stint in Sweden before settling and raising a family in Boston.
If the Rodrigues pieces are an example of European sensibilities with a new- world twist, so too is Balazs’s business enterprise. Through careful planning and clever exectuion, his boutique hotels (which include Hollywood’s famed Cha- teau Marmont) returned intimacy, indi- viduality and concerted hospitality to an industry that had been mostly focused on replicating safe, sterile lodging, with little variety from location to location.
“[We] go back to the old days of what a hotel was,” Balazs says. “It used to be just a few rooms above the local pub, and you checked in, and you checked into the lifestyle of the proprietor... We’re creating an environment that peo- ple check into, which means they can check out of where they’ve been...It’s a tremendously liberating thing. It lets you reinvent yourself and become who you want to be.”
Talking about the relationship between where you sleep and who you are gets Balazs more excited than enumerating.
‘An environment that people check into...means they can check out of where they’ve been’
the designer furnishings he owns. Even as a graduate student at Columbia Uni- versity’s journalism school, more than 20 years ago, he circled the subject in his thesis about the flophouses and mis- sions that dominated New York’s Bowery street from the turn of the century until recently, he quotes a minister as saying: “When you talk about skid row, you have to understand that street men are here for a reason...They’re here because in no such place else can they live the life they choose to live and get away with it.”
“Homes should and do reflect where you are at a particular time,” Balazs says today. He calls his SoHo loft “transition- al” and “reactionary” since he moved here after the break-up of his marriage two years ago. And although there are personal touches to add warmth — a Pi- casso-esque sculpture he made in school, bookshelves full of work written by friends, a bust of his father — the space does feel somewhat transitory.
“Basically, everything here is like a hotel,” Balazs says, explaining that staff from The Mercer bring food to his apart- ment, take care of his dry cleaning and deliver his magazines. It sounds like an attractive lifestyle, and indeed it’s one he has started to replicate in residential property developments. Amenities at 40 Mercer, a 40-unit building down the street from the hotel to be completed in Fall 2006, include breakfast room service, a concierge, in-house parking, a gym and a spa modelled after Russian bath houses.
Since Balazs’s own building is like most buildings in New York, with no public spaces — a “paradigm” he says he’d like to change — he finds community in the neighbourhood. He walks to work at the Puck building on nearby Lafayette Street and dines almost every Sunday with his family at a local Japanese restaurant. When Fanelli’s, a 150-year-old bar and café with a red awning visible from the bar at The Mercer, found itself in finan- cial trouble, Balazs helped.
The hotelier’s latest project, near Wall Street, is designed to further blur the line between hotel and home, drawing residents from private spaces upstairs down into common areas.
Writers, you see, may lazily describe the complex as they would any old high- rise in neighbouring Battery Park. Pho- tographers might make it look like every featured interior in Wallpaper magazine. But if the development manages to feel like rooms above a pub — or a loft above a real community — it will take more than a little journalistic imprecision to mar the triumph.