An Interview: Alex Calderwood

PSFK Talks To Alex Calderwood Of Ace Hotel PSFK recently sat down with Alex Calderwood, founder of the Ace Hotel chain to talk about collaboration, inspiration and intuition.

Piers Fawkes: Alex, I wonder if you can talk to about the collaborations you do. It seems like there’s a kind of fantastic leverage which seems to be very on the pulse of what’s going on in terms of the culture and everything else. Why do you do these collaborations? What’s in it for you?

Alex: It’s a good question. I think in general that the company’s very much rooted in a very collaborative spirit in just the way we work. So in terms of how we create the properties, we try to involve amazing artisans or craftsman or design professionals as much as possible in their respective sort of expertise or art. And so it’s kind of in the DNA at the plan in a sense.

Piers: Why is that?

Alex: I think I’ve always been drawn to the sense of community that develops around the project. So, for example, if you come to a new city. We started in Seattle and then we went to Portland and a couple of other cities, New York and Palm Springs.

But you’re coming to a new city and so you want to create a sense of kind of emotional involvement and creative involvement from different people who are in the community. For example, like we went to New York, we felt it was very important for us to collaborate with a New York firm or New York entity that would help us develop the hotel or design the hotel for a couple of different reasons.

One, that the scale of it, it was a large scale. We just needed to have that, without us having to recreate a whole staff in New York and create a whole design office here. We felt it was more beneficial to collaborate with a firm here as well as just from a timing and logistic standpoint it made more sense just to not recreate the wheel ourselves.

And so we teamed up with this firm, Roman and Williams, and it was a very, very synergistic and very satisfying working relationship with those guys. And we felt like they really were rooted in New York and really represented what our take would be on this particular building we were working with and in this particular context.

And in the same way, when we went out to California, we chose some friends of ours and some people in Los Angeles who we felt really represented that sort of California experience.

And so anyway, to get back to your original question, for me I think that it really engenders this sense of community and kind of, again, emotional investment or emotional involvement in the project. I think that’s kind of where it starts.

And then I think that also a lot of good ideas come from various places. We’re very much a company based on the value that good ideas can come from really anybody.

Piers: Could you tell me a little more about the generation of good ideas in your company? How do you know that the relationship with Stumptown or Opening Ceremony or an artist is a good idea? What gives you that sort of sense?

Alex: Oh, sure. That. Well I think two things. For us, A) it comes down to a little bit of instinct. We’re big believers if something feels right, you at least pursue the conversation and see if it fits. And a lot of times in these things when something feels right the kind of pieces to the puzzle will start to fall into place.

Like for example, Opening Ceremony or Project No. eight or Stumptown. First of all we have a space. We reach out to them. They know what we’re doing. We know what they’re doing. You can start a dialogue. You can kind of get a sense in the beginning of the dialogue if a lot of the positive buttons are starting to kind of be pushed or starting to respond.

So part of it is interesting. But I think the more important part of it is it really comes down to people. So, really getting a sense of all of those examples, as I just mentioned, it really was the kind of direct action between our crew and them and getting the sense that the people felt right. You get a sense of where someone’s intention is coming from.

For us, if it feels like there’s a very genuine intention behind what they’re doing, and a genuine intention for us to work together, then usually kind of all the right answers will show up to have a sense, does the puzzle fall into place.

Piers: I do want to get a sense of where did you focus before that conversation happens? How do you even get the sense of who the right people are to talk to?

Alex: Right. That actually comes through a variety of different channels. Sometimes people reach out to us, and they’ll just say like, “Hey, we heard you’re doing a project, and we’re interested to be involved.”

I think, for example, with Stumptown, when we started the hotel project in Portland, kind of word got out on the street. And I can’t remember if Duane called us first — Duane’s the owner of Stumptown — or whether we called him. But basically, Stumptown is very much kind of hometown favorite in Portland, and we knew we had space, and we liked the idea of a coffee shop. So I believe in that particular instance, he had kind of contacted us first.

Sometimes it comes through other channels. For example, with Project No. eight and Opening Ceremony, there is a gentleman who’s involved in our company, named Michael Bisordi, and he also happens to own a retail brokerage firm.

So he and his staff did a really, really good job of kind of scouring through a lot of different possibilities in Manhattan that could be candidates for the various retail spaces that we had, and distilled it down to kind of like the ones that we thought were the most aligned and sort of the best fit, and really shepherded those conversations through to open up a dialog. So I, in those particular two cases, have to really try to even do a great, great job.

It’s not an easy challenge. So he and his staff did a great job of kind of going through and just really sort of handpicking various different candidates that would be good possibilities.

Piers: I imagine, you don’t suddenly then go into a round of market research to make sure it’s the right sort of company. You use some of that intuition…

Alex: Yeah, for us… I mean, let’s see here. I don’t know if we do, necessarily, a lot of deep analysis or market research, per se. We certainly do a certain level of research. But again, it is so nuanced and comes back to having your ear to the ground, and having a sense of kind of the ebb and flow of what’s going on out there, at least in terms of retail or restaurants or coffee, or whatever the particular area is. So it’s kind of a combination of, like I said, having your ear to the ground, instinct, and a certain level of research.

So it’s not like we went to a traditional retail-marketing firm and said like, “This is our demographic, and please come up with a list of [laughs] candidates that fit that.” It’s really so much more of a psychographic. It’s more nuanced than that.