Rethinking the Walls of Human Experience

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Ian Schrager's name is synonymous with groundbreaking design. Chairman-CEO of the Ian Schrager Co., his career dates to the 1970s, when he founded New York nightclubs Studio 54 and Palladium with business partner Steve Rubell. In the 1980s, he introduced the boutique-hotel concept. Now he's transforming New York's Gramercy Park Hotel, and his most ambitious initiative to date is 40 Bond, a residential-living project in downtown Manhattan that will showcase the talents of Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and, in his words, "change the way people view living in the city."

How would you define your design philosophy as it relates to marketing and business?

They are absolutely inseparable, and [design is] an essential part as consumers get more sophisticated. It is the best way to distinguish a product. In terms of my own design philosophy, I never accept the status quo, and I'm relentless in that I keep trying to stretch the envelope, because I think that excites people, and it's just good business.

Big business is just finally realizing that good design sells.

At its best, what power does design offer to sell products and services?

It is the visceral thing that makes us buy something. It helps make that emotional connection with the product. You don't have anything if you don't have that connection.

It's why people wait on line to buy Nike sneakers that are four to five times more expensive than other sneakers. If it's something that has great design and has emotional impact, you may not know you need it, but you'll still want to buy it.

Do you think all products and services-even the most mundane-can benefit from good design?

[Author] Paolo Antonelli just put out a book ["Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design" that looks at the design of zippers, Post-it Notes, thumbtacks, etc.]. There's a whole book on it. Just because it may have no frills and be [somewhat mundane, it doesn't mean it can't benefit from good design]. Someone came up for a good design for T-shirts; we take it for granted, but someone designed those. And at one time it was considered innovative design.

To what extent, in what ways and at what stage do you factor in the needs and desires of the consumer, your guests and buyers, when designing your projects?

When I work with a good designer or a good architect, we aren't talking about colors or fabrics, we are trying to tap into the consumer consciousness. We're really more social scientists than designers. It starts with that-what the people want, what they need and what they respond to. Sometimes people don't know what they need, and you have to lead them to it. The whole important part of the design is figuring out what people will respond to.

You've effectively broken with industry convention with each new endeavor. How have you been able to develop pioneering innovations that attract, and not alienate, the projects' target market?

Even with the originality, it's a balancing act. If it's too before-its-time, people won't respond to it. But it's the danger of that, the danger of toppling over, that enriches the product and makes the product really something great. You've got to challenge people, but not too much. It's a balancing act that you can't resolve in focus groups, in marketing meetings; you really have to rely on intuition and instinct.

Tell me about 40 Bond. What are your goals for it and in what ways will it break with industry convention-and how will it differ from your past projects?

It's the most ambitious project I'm working on now. I think we work with really great architects. The whole idea was predicated on doing something "downtown New York" and capturing the edginess of it.

It was conceived with having sophisticated layouts, rethinking the way people live and coming up with a new way to reflect the way modern people live, and the vehicle for doing it was design. And when I say design, I don't mean only the color. I mean conceptualizing the way a place moves and breathes.

What lesson about design from your early Studio 54 days have you carried with you and apply to your projects today?

Starting out in the nightclub business gave me a leg up because that's more about the design than anything-because you have no product. In the end you have nothing but the atmosphere you're creating, the magic you're trying to create, and the only tool you have to do that is the design of the space.

What one truth must marketers understand about design? How can it help their business?

You have to market something with integrity. The design has to be done with integrity. The focus has to be on quality, not on making money first, because that's a perversion of the process. If you market with integrity that's commensurate with the integrity of the product, all of the other economic motivations fall into place and take care of themselves.
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