Architecture decor

How the Design Firm Roman and Williams Is Making New York Feel Old Again:

Roman and Williams has been instrumental in popularizing the aesthetic that’s given us a proliferation of exposed-brick walls, “repurposed” wood, and Edison bulbs.

Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch met on a movie set in Los Angeles in
the early nineteen-nineties. She was a production designer from the
Upper West Side, an avid reader of The World of Interiors who had studied
art history at CUNY, apprenticed with Robert Mapplethorpe, and got her
start in the film business sourcing paintings for a Martin Scorsese set.
He was an art director who grew up in the Hollywood Hills and worked for
architecture firms until he realized that his skill for drawing
structures and interiors could be useful in movie production. They fell
in love, and became partners professionally, too, collaborating on the
sets for “The Pallbearer,” “Addicted to Love,” “Practical Magic,” and
“Zoolander.” In 2001, while shooting Danny Devito’s “Duplex,” a film
about a couple who buys an exquisite nineteenth-century Brooklyn
brownstone with a problematic tenant, the actor Ben Stiller was so taken
with the furnishings that Standefer and Alesch had commissioned for the
set, inspired by a recent trip they’d taken to India—elaborate moldings
and lustrous parquet floors, intricate stained glass and peacock-adorned
tiles, mint-condition mid-century furniture and antique light
fixtures—that he and his real-life wife asked them to design their
real-life home, in Los Angeles. Thrilled at the possibility of applying
their obsessiveness to something that wouldn’t get broken down at the
end of a shoot, Standefer and Alesch doubled Stiller’s small
nineteen-twenties Spanish Colonial in size before outfitting it like the
sanctuary of a well-travelled, free-spirited grande dame, full of
built-in bookshelves and blue velvet couches, carefully sourced oriental
rugs and leather dining chairs with nailhead trim, and an old glass
apothecary case to hold towels in the floor-to-ceiling white-tiled

The couple went on to design homes for Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow,
among others, and, in 2002, they opened an interior-design and
architecture firm called Roman and Williams, after their grandfathers.
In 2005, they got married. By 2009, they had moved to New York and
become a go-to for big-name hotels and restaurants, including the Ace
Hotel in Manhattan’s Garment District (men’s-boarding-house chic) and
its April Bloomfield restaurant, the Breslin (sexed-up hunting lodge),
and the Standard Highline (nineteen-seventies dystopian dream world) and
its iconic penthouse night club, the Boom Boom Room (Old Hollywood
glitz). If you’ve ever been tempted to excavate the reason that it came
to be that so many of the places where you go out to eat or for drinks
make you feel like you’ve walked into a period film, even if you can’t
quite place what period, Roman and Williams is a good place to start. As
Rodman Primack, the director of Design Miami, put it, “They’ve been
responsible for helping usher in this much warmer vision of urban life.
It’s always about warm metals, like brass and copper, this kind of
yellow cast of light, which is different than what was happening before,
which was a much cooler sensibility.” It would not be far-fetched to say
that Standefer and Alesch have been instrumental in popularizing, if not
conceiving, the aesthetic that’s given us, since the mid-aughts, an
unrelenting proliferation of exposed-brick walls, communal tables built
from “repurposed” wood (and lined with classroom chairs from the
nineteen-fifties), and industrial-looking, Art Deco sconces lit with
Edison bulbs.

In 2012, on the occasion of Roman and Williams’s tenth anniversary—by
which point the firm had graduated to corporate headquarters, designing
a cafeteria for Facebook, in Menlo Park, and offices for HuffPost Live
and WeWork, in New York—a New York Times profile described them as
trading in “rugged Americana lifted from a make-believe past” and
creating “a world in which the newer the space, the older it looks.”
Standefer and Alesch, both now in their fifties, bristle at the idea
that what they do is anti-modern or inauthentic. While they acknowledge
that they may have helped to launch a vague and romantic monoculture,
their own work is deeply researched and hyper-specific. They don’t
imitate beautiful historical objects and techniques but rather
incorporate them into modern contexts, finding a place for an antique
Banque de France desk in a weekend home, or commissioning custom-carved
wooden screens directly from an artisan in Morocco, or hiring a family
of Irish masons to hand-lay the brick façade of a condominium building
in Manhattan.

“We get accused of being nostalgists, but it’s actually the reverse,”
Alesch said over steak tartare at Le Coucou, the celebrated Parisian
chef Daniel Rose’s French restaurant in SoHo, which the couple
transformed from a bland Holiday Inn into a lush bistro that manages to
feel at once Old World formal and modernly cozy, with taper candles and
green velvet chairs from 1925 drawing contrast to the rustic wooden
floors and whitewashed brick columns. “We don’t put history on a
pedestal, we don’t have it behind a velvet rope. We feel it’s not even
history!” “It’s on the continuum,” Standefer said. The couple themselves
seem plucked from some indefinite era. Alesch is a barrel-chested sandy
blond, with the kind of moustache and goatee rarely seen outside
seventeenth-century portraiture, and almost always dressed in shades of
indigo. Standefer is sharp and small with a rapid-clip, old-school New
York accent; a thick, dark curtain of flower-child hair; and a penchant
for black. Alesch told me about a conversation they’d had while working
on a hotel: “We had some bricks on the table, and the architect held up
a brick and said, ‘Really? You want to use this fake brick?’ And we were
like, ‘It’s a brick!’ They used the words ‘Disney effect,’ and I don’t
want to be mad about it, but to me it was really a low point in
understanding. To call a brick fake was really bizarre.”

In 2016, the firm’s proposal to redesign the Metropolitan Museum of
Art’s British galleries was accepted over big-name competitors and
museum veterans including Diller Scofidio + Renfro (MOMA, the Broad) and
Herzog & de Meuron (the de Young, in San Francisco). What they wanted to
figure out, Standefer explained, is “how do you express the narrative
without doing a very staid and corny vignette? Let’s do a tea
service—how do you tell the story of that ritual without making it so
prescribed and typical?” One of the galleries’ old exhibits displayed a
couple of dozen teapots, Alesch said, which were laid out
chronologically. “But, in the storeroom, there are hundreds,” he said.
“Probably a thousand,” Standefer added: soft-paste porcelain ones
painted with floral designs or pastoral scenes; hobbit-y earthenware
ones with knobby spouts; a silver-plated “Bachelor” model from 1815; a
black-and-white one from the seventeen-sixties with a surprisingly
modern pattern.

“They really responded to the objects,” Luke Syson, the curator of the
Met’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts collection, told me. “And
we’re talking about things that aren’t necessarily all super fashionable
at the moment. But they really saw the point of each one, in terms of
design and materials, and their embrace of that was terribly indicative
of their whole approach to the project and an understanding of what
their priorities were.” Alesch and Standefer had a “moment of
togetherness” with Syson and Ellenor Alcorn, the curator directly
overseeing the renovation, when discussing how the Met is “not a museum
of history” but “a museum of art,” Alesch recalled. This revelation led
them to wonder whether the teapots couldn’t be arranged, Standefer said,
“maybe not in chronological order but by color, or shape,” using a
method they call “massing.” As a result, one of the new galleries will
feature an enormous semicircular glass case in the center of the room,
filled with dozens of teapots and walls painted ombré blue, as a subtle
reference to the ocean and the shipping trade that first brought tea to

“What they’ve done already in restaurants and hotels is so much about
creating places that people want to be in,” Syson said. “They’re social
spaces, they’re spaces which are playful and serious and unusual. Above
all, they understand how to balance the grand and the intimate, the high
and the low, and really make places interesting and familiar and unusual
all at the same time, which is quite an art.” Structurally, they were
more limited: no exposed brick, for example, because of dust issues, and
because it’s “too Brooklyn, too of the moment,” Alesch said. But they
did manage to “reveal some muscular arches and some of the bones” of the
museum, he said. “Just enough to show a little leg, you know?”

With the Met galleries, which are scheduled to open in 2019, Standefer
and Alesch see themselves as having entered a “democratic” phase of
their career, bringing their sensibility to the masses. (“We’re
constantly looking for new categories,” Standefer said, going on to
fantasize about whether they could put their own spin on an
airport—perhaps by adding bicycles and little hop-on trains, “like at a
berry farm,” Alesch said.) Their first retail store, Roman and Williams
Guild, which opens later this week, is also, according to Standefer,
“democratic,” in the sense that “a customer will walk in thinking,
‘O.K., I’m gonna understand how to make my place look like this without
really hiring a decorator or designer.’ ” Unusually knowledgeable sales
associates will guide customers through densely layered “vignettes,”
composed of one-of-a-kind “found” objects (Standefer thinks the word
“vintage” has become meaningless) of the sort that they might acquire
for private clients—American Colonial salt-glazed pots, French sculpture
from the nineteen-twenties, nineteenth-century Indian textiles—as well
as contemporary items, some produced exclusively for the Guild by
carefully vetted artisans, such as a line of red lacquer dinnerware made
in Japan. The Guild will also début Roman and Williams’s first official
collection of furniture, which they describe as “primitive modern,” and
which includes a forty-two-thousand-dollar, fourteen-foot, “Nakashima meets
Brancusi,” live-edge wooden “ceremonial” bed, whose exceptionally wide,
low platform is designed for resting glasses, candles, and books on.
Dressed in fur pillows and sheepskin, it looks like part of a bedroom
set from a high-concept live-action film about the Flintstones.

Roman and Williams Guild is housed in the former Arnold Constable Dry Goods Emporium, casually known as Marble House.

The idea behind the Guild is to activate the buyer’s senses. Touching is
encouraged, as is “getting on the floor, literally,” Standefer said, to
shuffle through fabric samples. To even get to the furnishings, you have
to make your way through a luxurious French café—called La Mercerie, and
run by Marie-Aude Rose, who is married to Daniel Rose—serving coffee,
freshly baked pastries, and light meals from an inviting open kitchen.
Most of the café’s furniture and accoutrements—Danish ceramics, Swedish
linens, French forks—will be for sale, and customers will be welcome to
roam freely throughout the store with their cappuccino and canelés or
glass of wine. Arrangements by the florist Emily Thompson, which have a
meandering, unbridled look to them, will be placed throughout the space,
and Thompson, whose clients include Björk and the Frick, will also have
a small shop inside.

The seven-thousand-square-foot space, on the corner of Mercer and
Howard, in SoHo, not far from Le Coucou, last housed a Citibank, but the
building was erected in 1857, as Manhattan’s first department store,
Arnold Constable Dry Goods Emporium, which was known casually as Marble
House and specialized in textiles. On a warm, sunny November day, it was
still a construction site, bustling with workers revealing its very good
bones: soaring ceilings, huge windows, vast expanses of creamy white
marble. Standefer and Alesch’s contractor, whom they’d recently hired to
build a pop-up shop they designed for Gwyneth Paltrow’s company, Goop,
looked relaxed in a suit and loafers with no socks, leaning against a
motorcycle out front. After a tour of the site, including a room on the
lower level that will be devoted entirely to bowls, Standefer and Alesch
stood outside, too, discussing the exterior paint color: a deep, dark,
historical blue that they had to clear with the city’s Landmarks
Preservation Commission.

The couple contemplated how often New York’s mom-and-pops have been
supplanted by banks and Duane Reades; here they were supplanting a
Citibank in what had once been a neighborhood of struggling artists with
a mom-and-pop of sorts. The fact that only a Citibank exec or a movie
star could afford to shop there seemed not to occur to them. “It is a
taking back,” Alesch said. “I’m a pretty optimistic person, maybe to a
fault, but I just really believe in rejuvenation, and the human spirit.
All the kind of dark thoughts about how retail is dead, or cities are
dead—sure, they take these dips, but things always come back.
Everything’s in cycles.”

“There are still creative people peppered all through these
neighborhoods, and there always will be,” he went on, gesturing at a
nearby building. “There’s somebody painting a watercolor up there right
now. Within seventy-five feet of us, there are probably twelve people
doing some odd creative thing for the future.” I tried to picture it,
gazing up at a sun-dappled window, but could only imagine their friend
Paltrow, whose Roman and Williams-designed loft was somewhere nearby,
and who was doing an interview in a high-end lighting boutique across
the street. Standefer had already left to say hello.

Hannah Goldfield is a writer and editor in New York.

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