THE INSPIRATION OF HOSPITALITY. André Balazs and his father co-founded a biotechnology company called Biomatrix in 1988. André started to invest in properties a few years before their successful sale of Biomatrix in 2000, and he now owns and manages a string of high-end hotels. Most are located in historic buildings that he has renovated, including the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, The Mercer in New York and the Chiltern Firehouse in London.
Why did you change your career from running a biotechnology company in America to property?
I ran Biomatrix with my father, who died aged 96 two years ago. He first did medical work in Budapest, then the family moved to Sweden and then to Boston. My father’s life work was the intercellular matrix of the human body. He advanced the so-called ‘magic molecule’, using which we developed ‘Night Repair’ for Estée Lauder, and a sinovial fluid replacement for racehorses and athletes called ‘Synvisc’. The molecule can be applied to all sorts of skincare and used for burns, and for breast implantation. When it is used in eye surgery, tissues can heal without adhering to each other, so the surgery is much safer and more effective. I had already started in property before we sold Biomatrix in 2000 and I knew that I didn’t want my office to be far from my home and I wanted my clients to be my friends.
In the beginning did you want to become a doctor like your father?
No, in fact my father was dismissive of doctors. He used to say to young people who wanted to become doctors, “Everybody says they want to help people as a doctor. If you want to help people, as the best heart or neuro surgeon, how many can you treat? Maybe 10,000? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go into politics and help millions?”
What did you think that you would become?
I was interested in art. My prep school was at the Harvard campus, but at that time you did not do art there so I had no interest in staying. I went to Cornell, because it is so big and there is a lot of research going on. I got into the College Scholar program, which allowed me to make my own curriculum and study with any professor in any school of the university. Then I did a Business and Journalism joint Masters’ degree at Columbia, and thought I would go into publishing.
“I am not constitutionally capable of doing the same thing twice.”
The Chiltern Firehouse restaurant and hotel is located in London’s Marylebone and was built in 1889
Instead you went into property. What led you to run hotels?
One discovers only by looking back in life. I love spaces. I love sculpture. I was a journalist. It took me five years to work something new out before leaving biotechnology, during which time I invested with Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs his partner. Suddenly I was a partner with Aby and Michael in a hugely successful New York nightclub called M.K. – so called because we obtained the licence on Martin Luther King Day. Aby, Michael, Eric Goode and I wanted to open a West Coast version of M.K. on Sunset Boulevard in LA, but the club was unable to obtain a liquor licence. I went out to LA to try and salvage our collective investment by running a political campaign for the club to be allowed a licence, but it didn’t work out and we closed it. I started staying at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, which was then a total dump, because it was very close to the club and it was cheap.
What led you to buy The Chateau Marmont Hotel in 1990?
When I was staying at the Chateau Marmont I realised it had an indescribable soulfulness. That’s very important. I could feel that. They were going to tear it down and make a condominium building, so I bought it and we have been renovating it ever since. This is the thirtieth year that I have owned it, almost half its lifetime, and everything that most people know today grew in those thirty years. Nothing is the way it was except the bathrooms, and now we are changing those.
Had you not also bought The Mercer building in New York a year before you bought the Chateau Marmont Hotel, even though you didn’t you open The Mercer Hotel until 1997?
It is true that I purchased the vacant building of The Mercer before I bought the Chateau Marmont, but I started working on it with a Japanese bank that then disappeared, so the project was put on hold. The Mercer building had been the Astor family’s business office in Soho; the Astors made their fortune in beaver furs and a mercer is someone who cleans furs. I bought it because Soho is an interesting area of Manhattan because there are no buildings taller than six stories and the streets are very short. There is a quality of light and air which makes it so attractive.
Why did you renovate the Chiltern Firehouse in London’s Marylebone and open it as a hotel in 2013?
I always loved London, it’s a wonderful, exciting place. After New York, and perhaps more, it’s a crossroads of the world. The Firehouse was an empty building, like The Mercer. It was one of the first fire stations in London, built at the height of Victorian splendour. The façade is as sophisticated as a cathedral, but it had been shuttered when I bought it.
“It is people I love, first and foremost.”
Do you enjoy restoring old buildings and running hotels?
I love design. I compare creating a building to creating a movie, but hotel operations are more like being in charge of a play than a movie because it changes every day. I like hotels – you have to think about every chair in every location every day and the changes make it very interesting.
Is it difficult to operate hotels?
All good hotels, I believe, are operated by their owners. That is the main reason all chain-operated hotels, whether they be luxury or not, offer an inferior experience to the guest. We only operate our own hotels, and then we operate every aspect of them—from restaurants to nightclubs. The unique difference has to do with the importance of the host who, by definition, can only be the owner. That is what hospitality is all about!
How good of a host are you?
I think it fair to say that our hotels are more like homes, both for the guests and the staff. Clearly, everything about a hotel involves a collaborative effort that requires a team, a family of staff. I am a serial entrepreneur, and am not constitutionally capable of doing the same thing twice. That is the reason why I sold The Standard group of hotels when I did—after having built and lead the design of six Standard hotels, the first of which was in Hollywood and the last of which will open in London later this year (none of which are the same, of course, despite their shared name). As that group became too formulaic for me and the ability to exert the role of a proper host more difficult, there was less challenge, and I found less inspiration. It is certainly a challenge to operate hotels, to be a host, but it is not that difficult if one is inspired.
What is your job?
My first job is to understand the history of the place, the city, the culture and the neighbourhood where we renovate an existing building. In the creation of these places I am fascinated by space and its emotional impact on people, the volumes that make it authentic. Lower Manhattan doesn’t feel like anywhere else. Marylebone is not Mayfair. Then there is a second job of creating two human cultures: the staff and the guests.
Are yours 5 star boutique hotels?
Rather than boutique I call them 5 star Bohemian. A different clientele stays at Chateau Marmont hotel than at the Beverly Hills Hotel. For example, a film producer would stay at the Beverly Hills, an Oscar or Golden Globe winner for writing would stay at the Chateau Marmont. The facilities are not the same, and people who can afford to stay in bigger places prefer to live with us. We have interesting clients because that is who I am interested in, but we don’t talk about their names and we respect the sanctity of the guest. People come because they want to run into someone in the lobby. We want to be a family, we want to encourage that. To me the greatest thing is repeat guests, and when they know each other.
An exterior view of the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California
Exterior of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, Manhattan, New York
The Lobby and Library of the Mercer Hotel, New York.
The interior of the M.K. nightclub which opened in New York in 1988
The Top of the Standard, The Standard, High Line, 848 Washington St, New York
The acclaimed restaurant at the Chiltern Firehouse where Michelin-starred Nuno Mendes is executive chef
“Everything I do is a deliberate creation.”
The celebrated Nuno Mendes is your chef at the Chiltern Firehouse. Are restaurants very important in your hotels?
Numerically there are always more staff in food and beverage than in rooms, so all hotels are restaurants. The quality of hospitality is best expressed through the restaurant guests. Restaurants are local businesses, but we live in rapidly changing times. When you invite a friend to dinner now your first question is: “Where are you on Wednesday?” Not: “Are you free?” A whole culture of sophisticated people move around the globe. This used to be called “the jet set”, but today a junior fashion editor for Condé Nast logs more miles than a film star did in 1950.
Are you planning to locate your next hotel in Paris?
Yes, Paris is a completely different world and one that has become very interesting in my analysis. I like to be where I think things are happening. Paris has the beauty, the culture, and the history, and unlike Manhattan, where you can’t afford to live, Paris still has the socialised living controls that New York was once famous for and which brought it so much social vibrancy.
Where and when will you open your hotel in Paris?
It is three buildings cobbled together on the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue des Saints-Pères, opposite the Sonia Rykiel shop, and will be ready in 24 months.
Are you pleased with all the changes that you have made in your life?
Yes. Everything I do is a deliberate creation. Looking back I can see the pattern of interests, and no repetitions. If I add up all those things I understand exactly where I am, and it is exactly where I want to be. It is people I love, first and foremost.
27th January 2019