An interview with Ace Hotel co-founder Alex Calderwood at their new Shoreditch property.
Well into bookings and a spot-on event schedule just a month after opening, The Ace Hotel's latest offering takes its characteristic simplicity and buzz to east London's Shoreditch neighborhood. The brand has already become known as a haven for the hip from Portland and Palm Springs to NYC and (as of next month) downtown LA; but London is the hotel group's first international foray. It's a place that is comfortable, well located and really taps into the area and the people living there. (Our favorite room is 533—the suite—which will soon have an accessible balcony.)
The boutique chain seems to specialize in repurposing properties in near-dead corners of historic neighborhoods. With London it's no different; having taken on the task of revitalizing the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and offering 264 generously sized rooms at the crossroads of Old Street and the buzzing Hackney neighborhood. The site selection was no coincidence, as the Crowne Plaza was Ace co-founder and Cultural Engineer Alex Calderwood's hotel of choice whenever he was in town. Through many stays he came to know the neighborhood and its residents well.
The Ace London's restaurant is by the duo behind Bethnal Green's Bistrotheque, which is cleverly entered through a new outpost for Hattie Fox's That Flower Shop. Calderwood used to get flowers from the nearby shop and studio, and wanted to bring her unique style to the hotel. Each room gets one of her clever, small arrangements, adding to the truly local touch the brand seeks to provide.
Furniture has either been sourced from vintage markets or designed solely for the hotel by Universal Design Studio (UDS). Additionally, British design companies Benchmark and Ercol fit neatly beside works by famed lighting designers and artists. Calderwood is, indeed, a cultural engineer.
As those familiar with the brand know well, the difference between the Ace and other boutique hotel groups lies in the subtle grace notes and smart cultural references. Bedrooms come with work from local designers and turntables, and some also with guitars. Rooms have unique artworks and guide books, and magazines and carefully selected coffee sit on the tables. There's a muted peace to the rooms color palate, but London's Ace also has plenty of space to play. In true Ace fashion, the storefronts that accompany the hotel's ground level are a collection of the best London has to offer. A large public space—equal parts lobby and social scene—abuts both a Square Mile coffee cafe, a Lovage juice bar and a gallery space that will see all types of flexible programming.
On a recent stay at the hotel we sat down with Calderwood. Known for his impeccable design eye and strong connection with visitors who want detailed, thoughtful spaces to swing between parties and relaxation, he gave us insights on the latest in his portfolio and what it means to develop a brand new property.
What are the things you fight for during the design process?
It's another of my sort of mantras: When 99 things are right nobody notices or comments, it's that one thing that's wrong that people notice. It's on a very subconscious level and people feel when something is off. I think we do pride ourselves and there's a satisfaction on delivering on time and on budget. Doing that, you actually have to fight for a lot. So sometimes we end up being the ones going, "No, it's fine, we can live with that or we can do it this way," but to fight for that and to do that there has to be an understanding—you have to trust how we're going to do it, how we're going to get to that end result. You kind of have to really defend your process and way of doing it because you know that's going to have to work.
As we grow and things we're doing are more complex, there's a group of people who are like, "Process, process, process." And process is important, but we also have to go with the flow—the process has to be flexible to allow us to achieve what we want to achieve. It's a balance. You have to allow whims to be able to do what we do and continue to expand and grow.
For example, when we did turntables in the rooms. I remember all the usual questions like, "What if the needle gets broken or people steal the records? How's it gonna work?" and so on. And my thought at the time was, "OK, let's just try it." It's not a major investment and let's just try it because if you don't, I don't want to look back and then regret that we didn't try it. And we'll solve each thing. And we figured out a solution for each thing.
The building is pretty new and was built as a hotel, unlike a lot of the properties you've developed.
Yeah, that's another reason why it was like no question us doing this as the developer, even though we're from outside of London. It's not an easy execution, but it was not a huge construction scope. But it is funny, looking back—this literally takes way more skill and, in a sense, a surgical intervention.
Exactly. Perfect analogy.
Tell us about the tapestry work.
We commissioned a huge fiber woven piece of art from a company called Dovecot. They're one of the oldest tapestry-makers in the UK. This was their 100th anniversary. We asked them to look in the archives and see if there's something that expressed their master weavers. I have to go up there in a few weeks. Apparently it's tradition when someone commissions a fiber piece, they're not allowed to cut the first threads, so the person is supposed to come and cut the first threads. So I'm excited to go and check that out.
Who's doing the design?
This is Universal Design and Atelier, a collaboration between our team and their team. Wood floor, different types of furniture, fiber art. We commissioned this other guy, Eden, on these panels, doing a collage made out of paper, tape and twine, tissue paper—kind of an artist sketchpad in a sense—all these materials. Another was a piece we commissioned from Max Lamb, an artist here. Last summer he was renovating a small building that he's going to move into to live and work, and was working with the roofer guys—a father and son—and he got excited about watching them work with the zinc panels, so the bar is sort of inspired by that; it's all zinc. It was made by those roofers. He brought them in and said, "Do you want to make the bar with me?'
The door handles are great. Are they bronze?
These are cast handles and were done by a local foundry in the neighborhood. We have a friend, Richard—who works at UDS—he put a sample together of the leather and then they made a mold from that and cast it. Originally I was like, "Let's just do the leather," but then we were talking about it like, "We'll be replacing it all the time," so UDS said, "Why don't we cast it? Try it, let's see." And now I'm super happy how it turned out.
Looks like you are installing cork on the ceiling?
We knew we had to go with a drywall ceiling or a drop system, which we've never done. But we arrived at this—UDS suggested this—cork ceiling. We knew this was the highest we could get the ceiling for different technical reasons. So we're some of the first people in Europe to do a cork ceiling. It took a lot of technical back and forth with the company installing it, but it's working.
Tell me about Benchmark.
Benchmark is a company started by Terence Conran about 30-35 years ago. The factory is on his estate in Kingston. Their workmanship is perfection.
It's really nice that you have to walk through the flower shop to enter the restaurant.
Around the corner is this really amazing woman, Hattie Fox—she's the owner. She's very eccentric. She has very specific opinions about life; what should be done in what season, what flowers to use. She's totally UK-focused. She's really, really wonderful.
How does this hotel compare with your others?
I couldn't really compare this to any of the other ones. Someone said it's more like our Palm Springs property. I guess in a loose way it is a bit more like that. I think it's its own thing. It really is derived and driven by East London. All these players know each other, which we didn't even know. Like Max is good friends with the Bistro guys. The Bistro guys know Hattie. We found all these individually, but it turns out they're all part of the same tribe.
The Ace Hotel London | 100 Shoreditch High Street | London E1 6JQ
Article by Evan Orensten. England Image of Hoi Polloi image courtesy of Ed Reeve, others by Evan Orensten.