November 1, 2010

Driver, Take Me to the James: New York’s James Hotel

SoHo ceded its status as the epicenter of New York’s art scene years ago—right around the time, in fact, that boutique hotels began to colonize the neighborhood.

Things have a funny way of coming full circle, however. When the James New York opened, it became not only another hip place to stay but also the area’s most unconventional art space. Neophyte curator Matthew Jensen, himself a photographer, selected the work of 14 other emerging artists to grace the guest corridors, one artist per floor.

His selections range from photographs to works on paper, mixed-media pieces, and video stills, all on a common theme. “You see a landscape of some sort. Or a horizon line,” he says. That’s just one of the hotel’s many ways of bringing the natural world inside- something that was crucial to the Denihan Hospitality Group, considering the formidable exterior of the 18-story tower, looming large above a comparatively small footprint, as well as the über-urban location, overlooking an intersection that funnels traffic into the Holland Tunnel. “The natural materials and the finesse of details inside contrast with the busy streets,” Eran Chen says.

Chen started on the James back when he was still a principal at Perkins Eastman Architects, which designed the building. When he left in 2007 to found the Office for Design & Architecture, he continued as design architect for the project, the 114-room outpost of a chainlet already in Chicago and headed soon for Miami Beach. He and another fledgling firm, Amanda Sullivan, Studio Architect, shared responsibility for interiors in New York. Rather fittingly, Amanda Sullivan was one of the designers at Studio Sofield who worked on the Soho Grand, which kicked off the area’s boutique-hotel trend in the late ’90’s.

Sullivan handled the entry sequence at the James, and this is where its organic aesthetic takes shape. A sycamore sculpture in the vestibule is meant to change with the seasons, holding plants, books, or nothing at all. Also sycamore is the hand-carved bench opposite the concierge desk. The design gallery Cristina Grajales introduced Sullivan to the Colombian textile atelier that made the desk’s surfacing, grass interwoven with softly gleaming tin, in addition to the wall hanging behind. It’s a massive sideways T woven from reeds and three colors of copper wire.

The hanging’s copper tones are juxtaposed with the supporting wall’s huge white and pale gray onyx squares, stretching upward 15 feet-the hotel is blessed with high ceilings. However, the end wall is completely covered in thousands of old typewriter and keyboard keys, a site-specific art installation called QWERTY 5. Hugging this wall, a staircase entices guests up to the hotel’s restaurant.

The next level up is the sky lobby, where guests can check in, lounge for a bit, and get a taste of the expansive views through 17-foot-high glass that undulates above the traffic. Sullivan, working again with Cristina Grajales, chose light columns by Ayala Serfaty to stand along the window wall and chandeliers by Lindsey Adelman to bring the ceiling a bit closer to earth, their brass arms branching delicately.

As a result of the curved floor plate on this level and the “strong architectural presence” of the building overall, Sullivan says, furnishings “needed a more human scale.” So she designed most of them herself, including the rug hand-knotted in a honeycomb pattern of sand and sea colors and the copper-plated side tables in the shape of oak, palm, and ginkgo leaves.

On guest floors, as in the sky lobby, the palette is muted, but the feeling is warm. To complement the artwork in the corridors, a painter-designer provided room numbers with art nouveau flourishes. Natural materials in the rooms include the leather and wool felt upholstering the headboards, the linen and cotton bedding, and the nettle fibers in the rugs. Floorboards are oak, ebonized and waxed to protect against scuffing and scraping by guests.

Chen, who oversaw the layouts of the standard guest rooms, paid attention to the orientation of the bathrooms and beds in relationship to particular views. “Every room has a totally different experience of the city,” he says. And the bathrooms’ glass walls allow guests to never take their eyes off the skyline. Privacy comes courtesy of a motorized shade printed with the images of trees. Some are rendered in computer code, yet another instance of the hotel’s man-nature theme.

Sullivan, meanwhile, handled the four one-bedroom suites. (The penthouse, not completed at press time, is by Piet Boon.) Bathrooms in her suites have screens built from oak panels that break up the view in. For furnishings, she mixed off-the-shelf items with production pieces made by her own studio and custom designs. Notable among the latter, each bedroom’s armoire-wrapped in linen and equipped with leather drawer pulls-has the feel of the steamer trunks that accompanied hotel guests of a very different era.

Photography by Eric Laignel.

Christian Bailey; Ryoko Okada; Dongyoung Kim: Office for Design & Architecture. Rebecca Cole Design: Landscaping Consultant. Grey Group: Graphics Consultant. SKS Design: Audiovisual Consultant. Desimone: Structural Engineer. MG Engineering: MEP. New York Custom Interior Woodcraft: Woodwork. Brack Capital: General Contractor.

Recent Projects