Even if you're unfamiliar with interior design powerhouse Roman and Williams, there's a good chance you know their work. The Standard Hotel, The Breslin, The Ace Hotel, The Standard Grill, Stumptown Coffee, The Dutch, The Boom Boom Room—countless iconic NYC locales bear the mark of Roman and Williams' protean design aesthetic. Those unfamiliar with these spaces will at least recognize their work from the elaborate and wildly comic sets built for Zoolander and other Hollywood films, where the partnership between husband-and-wife team Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch first formed.
The experience on-set helps to explain why Roman and Williams' look is so hard to pin down. "'Duplex' was the last film we did, which Ben Stiller was in," relates Standefer. "And he was like, 'Why doesn't my house look like that?' The first line of the script called for architectural pornography. And we said, 'We can do that.'"
Stiller writes the prologue for the new book "Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors: Things We Made," and Standefer goes so far as to credit him with providing the thrust that got the company on its feet. After making their last film, the duo turned their backs on temporary spaces, hoping instead to make interiors that would remain standing past wrap day.
Now, a decade into their prolific career as Roman and Williams—a monicker drawn from the first names of their respective grandfathers—Standefer and Alesch have taken the time to look back and document their work. When we arrived at the Roman and Williams office to interview them and preview the book, the pair had just received their first copy from Rizzoli. Sitting down with us, they shared with us their initial reaction to seeing the sum of their work to date.
"It's quite comprehensive, just not utterly comprehensive," Standefer admits, noting that not all of their projects made it into the final 320-page tome. Photographs of the finished interiors are just the start. Alesch's sketches, from initial concepts to detail drawings, complement the glossy images throughout the book. Even as we flipped through the untouched pages of the book, Alesch had a pen in hand, constantly adding, amending and eradicating elements to suit his revisionary style.
"I love the drawings, I'm so happy to see the drawings in here," beams Standefer. "I love them. We met based on the drawings. Stephen came to me to work on a film as an illustrator and I fell in love with him and the drawings and here we are and that's a long time ago. That's probably my favorite thing. They're beautiful. They're where the job starts. There's humor in them. There are hidden messages in them. They are very sentimental for me, and I'm not a very sentimental person."
Tasked with defining the Roman and Williams style, one realizes quickly that few adjectives really stick. Changeable, maybe, and imperfect. "It's all about making sure that things aren't too curated, too perfect," explains Standefer. "Even though I think our stuff has a lot of detail and thought to it, we always like to... fuck it up." So is the fuck-up intended or accidental? "I think we stumble on it at some point in the projects," Alesch interjects. "It's not too premeditated; it's toward the end. Stumble on the fuck-up is a nice way to put it."
"It's totally right," adds Standefer.
The narrative portion of the book explains the philosophical outlook of the designers, which is notably more humanistic than theoretical. Speaking about the effect of visiting intellectually designed architectural spaces, Alesch laments, "It can be alienating to be in a genius environment. You're supposed to be in awe every moment, but then you realize, 'I'm not in awe.'" In all of the projects, there are elements that are clearly ramshackle and purely creative—things that simply wouldn't be found in headier spaces.
"We're a little anti-experts," Alesch adds. "The world of architecture, design, printing, publishing—everyone's an expert. And the more you get caught up in those experts and the more you abide by everything they say, the more soulless the work becomes. Stephen and I are definitely rebellious with the experts." Nowhere is this attitude more apparent than in the recently re-designed Facebook campuses.
Standefer laughs while describing the pale lavender of the campus, which Facebook had purchased from Sun Microsystems. "Nothing against lavender, but it was pretty bad, especially for big buildings. So we fucked it up." With 6,000 young, mostly male employees working 24 hours per day in a central commissary, the space needed to be livable and tactile. The reaction from employees was understandably ecstatic.
Floors were stripped down to concrete and left bare, and directionals were hand-painted over the top as decoration. Books and bookcases were also designed into the space in order to give the digital team an analog escape. Roman and Williams erected several functional, red fire hydrants, and fire escapes were likewise added to the buildings—going above and beyond safety codes and giving the campus an urban feel. Hijacking the corporate environment was, in Standefer's mind, "an anarchist victory."
Even as the book rolls out to press, recent projects are still finishing up and others being started. The Facebook project has never been seen before, and we were unable to secure the rights to run those images before the book dropped. A massive project with Waterworks is currently in its final stages, and Standefer makes reference to The Freehand, a rather uncharacteristic and colorful hostel in Miami.
After making our way through to the last page, it's still impossible to say what the Roman and Williams style is. Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, for their part, don't help much in that respect.
"Stephen and I like to play in different sandboxes—that's our thing," says Standefer. "It's more an ethos than a style."
Images by Josh Rubin