July 05 2019

Shawn Hausman's London Utopia

London
Shawn Hausman first made his name by co-launching Area, the most experimental nightclub of 80s New York City. Since the early 90s, he's brought a uniquely experiential and idiosyncratic approach to the interiors of The Standard hotels in the US as well as, now, The Standard, London.

Shawn Hausman first made his name by co-launching and overseeing the creative direction of Area, the most experimental, outlandish, art-plus-fashion, uptown-meets-downtown nightclub of 80s New York City. Since the early 90s, his eponymous design company has brought a uniquely experiential and idiosyncratic approach to the interiors of The Standard hotels in the US, as well as a wide range of other high-profile hotels, restaurants and bars throughout the States. His latest project is the interior design of The Standard, London, located on the corner of Argyle Street and Euston Road, in the throbbing heart of King’s Cross. 

Back in the 80s and 90s, this once-notorious district was the Capital’s epicenter of drugs, vice, sleaze and crime–utilized during the 80s as a gritty backdrop in British films such as Mona Lisa, for example, or poignantly crooned about in the pop ballad King’s Cross by the Pet Shop Boys. One of Alexander McQueen’s earliest, edgiest catwalk shows took place in a clapped-out warehouse building nearby, in the mid 90s, before the late designer became world famous.

21st Century King’s Cross, however, offers a very different proposition; an array of fashionable boutiques, restaurants, bars, The British Library, a cinema, galleries and the globally respected Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, have all moved into the neighborhood in recent years. And all of them are to be found within a stone’s throw of the site of The Standard, London.       

Our new hotel is housed in an iconic Brutalist building which was formerly the headquarters of Camden Council and a public library. Ever since it was erected in the early 70s, its uncompromising appearance had been adored by some, deemed an eyesore by others. By the time of its municipal usefulness coming to an end–the council staff relocated to shiny new offices behind King’s Cross station a few years ago—decades of traffic pollution had left its once-gleaming concrete exterior dulled and dusty, its interior was creaky and leaky due to a lack of ongoing maintenance. Many speculated this crumbling concrete structure was destined to be demolished. 

For Hausman, however, the building itself and its incredible Zone 1 location, presented a mind-boggling mix of creative opportunities, as well as challenges (not least its ‘Listed’ status, which prohibits certain structural alterations ever being made). Here, Hausman discusses his initial perceptions about the project. He also reveals various inspirations and references, which led to design decisions intended to maximize human interaction and enjoyment of The Standard, London. 

The Standard

How familiar were you with King’s Cross prior to working on The Standard, London?

About ten years ago, we did a British-inspired restaurant in Philadelphia—focusing on pubs throughout London for inspiration—but I hadn’t really ventured to this specific area previously, so that was new for me. When I first went there, that first visual you get is very striking and exciting. St Pancras and King’s Cross stations—a hub of all these trains and transport to escape out of London, this gateway to Europe. That was was an important thing to me, and it is all literally across the street from The Standard. 

What were your first perceptions of the neighborhood?

We had this tour of the King’s Cross development, which was inspiring in itself—to see what they have been doing there and how large it was. And then, there’s this other element of Kings Cross—this seedy past, all the one-hour stay hotels—which was cool in its own way, you know? And I felt this naughtiness is something that The Standard might kind of embrace, more so than turning your back on it, which other brands would. And in a sense, if we’re trying to connect to the area we would almost need to connect to its past, more than necessarily the new developments that are going on. The Standard is located across from those developments and its quite different on our side of the block, but Euston Road intersects both things—the old King’s Cross with the developments and all of that newness. 

Are you a fan of Brutalist architecture?

I have always appreciated it and grown to be a true fan of it! I didn’t know too much about it, so I’ve embraced it and got more of an education since we’ve been doing this project. During these past five years, Brutalism seems to have had an awakening and is getting more recognition—there’s been a lot of books that have come out about it, and there’s all those great pictures and stuff on that great Fuck Yeah Brutalism website that we follow. It’s funny, maybe 20-or-so years ago when André [ie, André Balazs, founder of Standard Hotels] was first looking to do a Standard in London, we went over and looked at different buildings—one of them was at the end of the King’s Road—that were in similar cast-concrete style, but at the time it didn’t work out. With the King’s Cross project, he first sent me a picture of the building and said, ‘Do you want to come to London…?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’, as soon as I saw that picture. It was exciting to have a building that automatically felt part of what the brand is about.

"Apparently, when our building first went up for sale, other people who were interested in it mainly wanted to tear it down and build something else. Only The Standard saw the potential in it…"

It has always been a divisive building that provokes strong reactions from people. Do you think it’s beautiful?

I definitely admired it and I loved how the whole thing kind of floats off the ground floor… and the shapes of the building itself and the windows. It’s interesting how you experience the interior from the exterior through those windows that are like giant airplane windows. We kind of drew on those, the softness of the shapes, and the hardness of the concrete outside. It’s funny—it seems Camden’s pride and joy is St Pancras, yet all the people who are staying at the hotel there are looking out onto our building! And the views from our building, on that side of the road, are looking onto St Pancras! Apparently, when our building first went up for sale, other people who were interested in it mainly wanted to tear it down and build something else. Only The Standard saw the potential in it…

Did any of your ideas for the interior reference its municipal origins?

This was previously a government building, so we approached it as though what we were doing was, like, a takeover of this government building! There’s some interesting moments of anarchy in Camden's history. Anyway, we toured the inside of the building initially to see if there was anything to salvage and there wasn’t, really. The ground floor was where the library used to be, so we inherited this library that was not very attractive. We worked to recreate the library that we wished we would have discovered, instead. We created this narrative of, ‘Here’s this library and we’ve got to take it over and put in our own furniture and plants.’ We were quite strict about it really feeling like a true public library, where the books are categorized by subject—like books on Anatomy—with detailed little stickers on the back, for indexing, and things like that. There is even a part time librarian, so you can take books out. So, it’s not like in many hotels that, you know, just have some curated coffee table books in the lobby.

Tell me about the garden at the rear of the hotel?

There’s this great garden on the ground floor that connects directly to the ground floor restaurant and bar, so that was a nice opportunity as well. In the area that is really visually connected to the restaurant and bar we developed a lot of concrete planters that relate to the building. Inside there’s a raised dining area, and we made that so you go directly to the outside, with a fireplace outside, and you have these overhangs to the building that protect you from rain. We wanted to connect the inside to the outside in a Californian way and that’s with plants and also a lot of planting in the lobby.

 

How did you work around the fact that the bedrooms in the middle of the building would have no windows?                                                   

I came up with the idea of doing these core rooms. And the era of the building and the optimism of that time was very inspirational to these core rooms. I really did a lot of research into this idea of post-apocalyptic underground housing and hydroponics and all this sort of stuff which was part of that late-60s and early-70s period. I was thinking about the 70s sci-fi movies, A Boy and His Dog, and Silent Running, and the work of the architect Paolo Soleri, who had all these interesting theoretical ideas about alternative living. So that was one of my favorite challenges—to try and exceed expectations of what a room with no windows would be like. We worked with lighting to create a daylight feature, so you have this feeling of daylight coming through wooden blinds when you come in the room. Even if it’s a grey day in London, you get this room with ‘sunshine’ in it. And you take a shower on a wooden "deck" in the room, with plants.

You commissioned the London-based ceramic artist, Lubna Chowdhary, to create the backdrop for the reception area. She is already associated with this borough, having undertaken a residency at the Camden Arts Centre a few years ago. How did you first discover her work? 

We wanted to collaborate with British artists, because it’s the first Standard hotel outside of America, so it was like, ‘How American is it? How British is it?’ I first discovered Lubna’s work through Imogen, who was working with us. She is very savvy about art and design and brought Lubna’s work to our attention. We collaborated with Lubna quite a bit on this project—we went through her work with her and kind of suggested this sort of thing, or that sort of thing, different colors and shapes—and she was very open to that.

And similarly vibrant ceramic tiles continue in the bathrooms in the bedrooms…

There are two color schemes in the bathrooms—the blue and the pink, and dark red and pink—the pink being consistent. I think it was this masculine-feminine thing and quite consistent with the colors in the rooms—deep, rich blues and reds—so the pink is offsetting that. We also have wardrobes that are this solid red and then inside is pink, and inside the mini bar is pink, too, so it’s a connecting color.

"I work on those designs from a lot of pictures—we had like a thousand pictures on the walls."

Do you usually compile a mood-board of references and inspirations and colors and so on, when you’re working on a big project like this? Or do you keep all of that visual information swirling about in your head?

I develop those designs from a lot of picture research—we had like a thousand pictures on the walls. We also put together a book, early on in the process, basically a concept book, for the general mood of the whole place. I remember there were a lot of utopian kind of images. A few that come to mind now include an image of these kids stomping on all this foam, and we had an image from Ant Farm of this car crashing through all these TV’s. And some images of the architect Paul Rudolph’s buildings with bright colors contrasting the concrete. And there were images of John Portman elevators, from the late-70s early-80s. He did all these crazy glass elevators, on the exteriors of buildings or the insides of the buildings.  

The red elevator on the exterior of The Standard, London looks great…

In one sense it’s like this lipstick, moving up the front of the building. The red is an acknowledgement of London buses and also a contrast to the concrete building. It was intended to not be a subtle thing!

You initially made your name with Area, New York City’s most memorable nightclub of the 80s. Might we find some of that kooky Area spirit here?

Area was definitely a learning ground and a great creative outlet that was always changing. Though it feels like a lifetime ago! In the first Standard hotel I did in Hollywood, there was a definite homage to Area—but I was getting too involved in the curating of performances in it, and all of that stuff. Then I realized, you know, you really have to let go—because you’re not actually running the place yourself, you are designing it. But, I would say there’s one element of The Standard, London that would relate to Area—it’s the townhouse that’s going to be inside there. That’ll probably be the last thing to be opened within the hotel. You can rent it, the same as you would rent a room, but it can also be used as a space for functions and events. The way that it’s been designed and conceived is so that it’s like a two-bedroom, two level, split residence—with two bathrooms and a kitchen and everything like that. And you can enter it through the wardrobe—almost like a secret entrance. And the intent of that, from my point of view, is that it really feels like you’re in somebody’s house at a party—my idea was literally to even have clothes in the closet—and there will be this very exclusive, limited amount of people in there, and it has a terrace. I think that will definitely be the closest relationship to Area, in the way that we’re creating an interactive set for people.

Your design philosophy is very much about enabling human interaction, right?

That’s why you design public spaces. Restaurants, hotels and bars are designed for people to be in them. They are not just meant to be a visual thing, except a background. It’s the people that actually make the place. A mix of people. It’s an organic thing, you don’t quite know how people are going to interact or respond. You can direct them up to a point. I always find it interesting to see how they do respond. Just like with a hotel room—for me, it’s more about function than aesthetics. I’ve often said, I almost start to design a hotel as though it’s for a blind person, in a sense. How does the hotel work? Everything else is, like, added on to that…

So, a mix of function and fun is important?

Yeah. Like, on the eight floor we have these outside terraces, with outdoor bath tubs, which are meant to be used a little like a hot tub. They’re not full all the time, you fill them like you would fill a soaking tub. And I thought that was kind of nuts… in London, who’s going to want to sit outside in a bathtub?! But, in California, it’s nice to take hot tubs in the rain. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to that and how they use it because it’s not, like, entirely private, even though there is a curtain. But that’s also part of The Standard brand; to be a little bit exhibitionist in a sense. Not to an extreme, but just to be playful and not be so shy! 

Writer
James Anderson